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Sunday Sermonette: Encore


I like to sing. In particular, I enjoy choral singing. That’s why this is my favorite time of year. All of the hymns are massive and bombastic and glorious. He is risen, we sing as loudly as we can, as if sheer volume would make it so. And he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! It’s Easter, the great festival day of the Christian calendar. 

You see, once upon a time there was an itinerant and penniless Jewish preacher in who lived in a squabbling and contentious region that was usually controlled by other nations who could agree on things. First it was the Assyrians and Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally after a brief unsuccessful period of self-rule, the Romans.  Romans were better than most at agreeing on things, and chief thing they agreed on was that they didn’t like troublemakers. This young Jewish rabble-rouser looked like trouble, so they killed him, publicly and brutally, as an example to others. The end.  

Except it wasn’t. The man’s followers repeated stories about him, and some claimed that he was a god. Like other gods known at the time - Ba’al, Melqart, Tammuz, Osiris, Adonis - he didn’t really die, he rose from the dead. 

This particular story gained traction in some quarters, notably among the penniless and itinerant. But the rising of a god raised more questions than it answered. Wasn’t this man a good Jew? Jews have only one god. They were notorious for not offering sacrifice to other gods, like those of the Empire.

Slowly, over the years, a theology came together. Humanity was evil and wicked and disobedient to their God, and if you weren’t, then you were probably deceiving yourself. Pride is a sin, you know. Besides, your ancestors were probably evil and wicked and disobeyed their God, so you inherit that guilt. And that’s why you have to die, because offending God means death. God is so righteous he can’t possibly let you off the hook. Somebody’s gotta die, and since all men are wicked, it can’t be a man. The victim has to be a god.  Now, God can’t die, so he sent his son, because children are just property and can be disposed of as a parent wishes. The son was sacrificed, so all debts are paid and God doesn’t have to hate you anymore.  Hallelujah.

The questions continued. Is the son of God human or divine? If human, how could the required blood sacrifice be sufficient? If divine, how could the god be an appropriate substitution, and how do you square that with monotheism? Is the God of the Jews truly an all-powerful creator of all that is, or is he just a god because people say he is, a glorified man like the Divine Augustus? If he has somehow begotten a child of a human mother, isn’t the resulting offspring merely a demi-god?

And what about this penalty? If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, how can mere humanity possibly offend against him? Can an ant flip me the finger? If God is the Eternal Judge, has he no latitude? Can’t he show mercy? Or must he obey some law greater than he?  Finally, if only the death of a god fulfill the required punishment, doesn’t the victim have to stay dead?  

Look at it this way. If someone came to you and said, “Your death will save all mankind,” would you choose to die? You very well might. Hundreds of thousands have offered up their lives for far less - to save a ship, to save a family, to save buddies in the battlefield, to save a drowning man, to save a child. In my hometown, we just lost two firefighters in the line of duty. Firefighters and police go running toward trouble while everyone else is running away, and there is sometimes a very high price to be paid for that heroism. Our highest honors are reserved for such brave people.

But say someone came to you and said, “To save all humanity, you’re going to have a really bad day, you’ll be dead by 3:00, but then two days later you’ll rise again as a god,” you really don’t have to be much of a hero to take that deal.

Jesus had a really bad weekend for your sins. 

About 300 years after the event, the Roman Emperor convened a council to settle all of these troublesome questions once and for all, and to settle the hash of those who disagreed. There is only one God, who impregnated a virgin by a second god, and she gave birth to a third god, but they’re all one God. This third God lived a short life before being ritually sacrificed in payment for the sins of humanity, then rose from the dead in some kind of corporeal but different form (note that the Scriptures say he was generally not recognized), ascended bodily into heaven, and now rules at the right hand of the One God. And he’ll be back Real Soon Now. 

This was the press release of the official religion of the Roman Empire, and everyone had better agree. The Romans had ways of dealing with disagreeable troublemakers.

So today I’m singing the Hallelujah Chorus with a choir and orchestra. The Romans are all but gone, replaced by a kindly old man who calls himself Francis. The closest most people get to kings of kings and lords of lords is Game of Thrones.  Still, Handel wrote some really good choral music, and it’s great to have the opportunity to sing it. Happy Easter!

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Sunday Sermonette: Death Cult


Today in the Western Christian Church is Palm Sunday.  On this day, Christians remember Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding an ass, or a colt, or both a colt and an ass like a circus performer, depending on which Gospel you read.  Today kicks off Passiontide, the holiest week of the year.  The anguished sufferings and gruesome bloody death of Jesus will be retold and re-enacted, sometimes in excruciating reality.  Jesus will be portrayed as the latter-day Passover lamb, ritually slaughtered to appease a wrathful God.  The violence and brutality of his final hours will be the subject of meditations, sermons, and hymns.  Were you there when they crucified my Lord?  

Death and destruction are common tropes in many religions, but Christianity is the only religion whose symbol is a ghastly instrument of bloody, barbaric death by torture. Some denominations like to show the battered and mutilated corpse still nailed to it. Catholics revere a forgery of his death shroud as well as bogus bits of the wood on which he hung, all of which they believe are miraculous relics. 

Catholics take the ghoulish fixation on death one step further by making an act of ritual cannibalism the central point of their worship. While not normally known as Biblical inerrantists, they take the position that if Jesus said it, he meant it, and the bread and wine consumed are really his flesh and blood.  Bible-believing Protestants who’ll tell you that the universe was created a mere six thousand years ago insist that this particular saying of Jesus is only a metaphor. 

In fairness, most Christians will tell you that it isn’t the death that’s really important, it’s the resurrection. Jesus defeated death, and believing in him means you will, too. If you don’t mind dying first, and being resurrected at some unspecified date in the future, that is. You’ll have to take it on faith, because no one has ever returned and talked about it.

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading in most churches was the story of Lazarus, a stinking four-days-dead corpse whom Jesus was said to resurrect. Strangely, that’s where the story ends. If Lazarus speaks a word, it is not recorded. If Lazarus says, “Jesus, you still owe me five shekels” and then drops dead again, no one wrote it down. Death remains a great mystery and the object of religious obsession.

Early Christians believed the End Times were upon them, and that the world would end in a matter of weeks if not days. Some of them decided to rush things by refusing to pay taxes to the divine Emperor and making a big deal about not being subject to any mere man. Their end times came rather more quickly. Stories were told about how joyfully these saints went to their imaginative and macabre deaths. Saint Lawrence was grilled to death on a griddle. Saint Lucy had her breasts chopped off and her eyes plucked out. Saint Catherine was broken on the wheel. Simon the Zealot managed to be crucified in Persia and also crucified in Britain. Martyrologies are a regular Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors. Virtually all are pious if somewhat lurid and erotic fictions, with one common element:  the deaths described were worthy of imitation by true believers.

In modern times, some Christians have decided they’d really rather not die at all, they’d much rather watch the rest of us go up in flames.  In 1830, John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren sect began teaching about a pre-millennial Rapture. Believing Christians will be snatched up bodily into heaven, then the world will be plunged into a period of unprecedented destruction, misery and violent death. The saved will have box seats to this spectacle. This dubious doctrine now predominates among Evangelicals, and I’ve even heard Episcopalians who believe in it. They look forward to this day, putting bumper stickers on their cars, buying poorly-written books like Tim LeHaye’s Left Behind series and watching for signs that the End is Nigh.  

Blood, gore, torture, human sacrifice, ghouls, cannibalism, vampirism, sado-masochism, destruction, desolation, and annihilation.  In fairness, I do not believe these are what most Christians go to church for.  But they lurk beneath the surface of even the sunniest, happiest, clappiest congregation.  How could they not?  The central tenet of the faith is that God himself sent himself in the form of his Son to suffer and die as a grisly blood sacrifice to himself to save his creation from himself and his own murderous rage.  Why?  Because God loves you.

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Sunday Sermonette: Thomas the Tank Engine


My apologies. It’s been a busy weekend and my hoped-for Sermonette just isn’t gelling. Here’s a Golden Oldie.


Sooner or later, any conversation about religion comes down to faith.   Faith is a virtue.  Without faith, it is impossible to be saved.   Church leaders and saints are praised for their great and unshakeable faith.  The apostle who required proof is disparaged as “Doubting Thomas.”  Jesus told him, “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”  (John 20:24-29)

I was a believer for decades.  I had faith in God.  I prayed to him, joined my fellow believers in worshipping him, taught about him, and gave money to support his church.  Doubt?  Sure, I had doubts just like everyone else, but I was taught to believe from birth, and taught the mental control to derail any train of thought bound for Infidel Station.  Besides, there were all these other believers around to lend me their strength.  The Nicene Creed begins with “WE believe in one God”.  Faith is sustained in community.



What exactly is meant by “faith”?  Do non-believers have faith in science?  Is faith the same as trust?  Do you believe in love?  (Cue autotuned Cher.)

This is where we get into equivocation, playing games with the meanings of words.  Science is not a static thing, it is a method by which knowledge is organized in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the natural world.  It requires no faith in gravity to see that every time I drop something, it falls to the ground.  One testable step at a time, scientists have built on that observable fact to explain and predict the movement of galaxies.  The practice of science is the very antithesis of taking things on faith. 

Faith is not trust, because trust is usually justified by experience.  If you received an email from a person claiming to be the widow of the late Nigerian Finance Minister, asking your help to commit international bank fraud, would you trust it?  Of course not.  People who do are pitied as incompetent to manage their own affairs.  Trust without experience is seldom given for anything important.  “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel first,” goes the old Arab saying. 

I have faith that my wife loves me.  Again, this is not the same sort of faith.  I see it in her face, and experience it in her acts.  If you want to be clinical, love can be detected in our internal neurochemistry.  

What exactly is meant by “faith”?   Simply this:  Faith is believing in something without proof.  Mark Twain may have said it best.  “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” 

Is there any other area of life in which belief without proof is considered a good, sensible, or praiseworthy thing?  Any at all?  “I believe the water in this quarry is deep, therefore I will perform an amazing high dive,” says the future paraplegic.  “I believe this warm egg salad that’s been sitting in the sun all day is perfectly wholesome,” says the person who’ll be spending the next couple days in the bathroom.   “I believe the smiling guy who promises a 50 percent annual return, so I’m investing my life savings,” says the incipient pauper.

We have words for people who believe things without proof.  Sucker.  Dupe.  Gullible fool.   Except when the faithful start talking about God.  But only their God.  Zeus does not exist, he was a myth.  Ba’al does not exist, he was a legend.  Thor does not exist, except in comic books and summer blockbuster movies.  But my God is an awesome God who reigns forever. 

Why?  Because we believe, that’s why.  That’s enough. 

It’s not enough, and believers know it better than anyone.  Asserting that a proposition must be accepted without reason is simply intellectual bankruptcy.   So believers don’t think about it.  We tell ourselves that it’s not wrong to doubt - after all, Thomas doubted, and he was an apostle - but it’s a sin to dwell upon it to the point of unbelief.  We sing louder, pray more fervently, and join the rest of the congregation in Not Rocking the Boat.  

No one reading this is going to say, “Ah, now I understand.  I have been wrong to accept things without proof.  Maybe there is no God.”   There is no blinding light on the road to Damascus for atheists.  Reasoned argument and scientific facts can be - and are - presented every day, and yet most people still claim faith in a God.  But every now and then, a question gets through.  A train of thought begins.  It might not make it all the way to Atheism Junction, but it gets further than before, clearing the tracks for another question, and another.  

So here’s  a question:  If someone you trusted told you that a soldier killed in Afghanistan and buried in Arlington National Cemetery rose from the dead, would you have faith?  Or would you, like Thomas, demand proof?  Was Thomas wrong to insist on evidence?  Why or why not?

All aboard!

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Sunday Sermonette: God Hates You


Fred Waldron Phelps, the mean-spirited, contentious preacher who with his family formed the Westboro Baptist Church, died on March 19th. Phelps thrived on anger, both his own and what he could stir up in others. He was probably the most hated man in America, and his family church was certainly the most despised for their practice of picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers with Day-glo signs reading “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God is America’s Terrorist” - stuff that went straight past the higher brain functions and sucker-punched the limbic system. He and his family stood there demanding police protection for their hateful message, as though he was entitled to upset people.

What we all hate to acknowledge is that he was right.

Before he was disbarred, Phelps was a firebrand civil rights lawyer. His right to say inflammatory things was successfully defended all the way to the Supreme Court.  

We love the idea of Freedom of Speech in this country, but all acknowledge it has limits. Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is the classic example, but there’s also a debate going on in the courts and legislatures about whether Hate Speech is protected. If I went up to you at your wife’s funeral and said, “It’s a good thing that nigger whore is dead,” I rather doubt any police officer would arrest you for breaking my nose, or any judge would convict you. I said something deliberately intended to provoke violent emotion, and a grieving person is usually considered to have somewhat diminished capacity. 

But toss the word “God” in there, and it’s perfectly all right. Religious speech is the ultimate protected speech. Phelps knew it, and profited from it. Punching out a Phelpsian guaranteed a lawsuit.

What many Christians hate to acknowledge is that what he was preaching - a wrathful God who hated sinful, perverse humanity - is both Biblically and traditionally correct. Phelps was a Calvinist, and the first of the Five Points of Calvinism is “Total Depravity.” Humans are utterly wicked and unable to save themselves and incapable of following God. God chooses who he will save, and those elect are powerless to resist. The remainder of sin-soaked rebellious humanity is justifiably condemned.  In other words, God loves those whom he selects, and hates the rest. It is only by the hand of God that you’re writhing in Hell already. To quote the eighteenth century Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.  (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God)

There is ample warrant for this in Scripture.  A current blockbuster movie tells one of the oldest stories in the Old Testament: God despairs of his creation and is determined to destroy all life, save a single family and at least a pair of each animal (depending on whether they were “clean” or “unclean.” Biblical literalists like Phelps read it as history. Modern liberal Christians claim it’s allegory, but an allegory for what, exactly? That you’d better obey God or he’ll destroy you and everything around you?

We see an echoes of this story throughout Scripture: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the conquest and genocide of other tribes that the Hebrews encountered, the scattering of the Hebrew race into slavery, the Babylonian diaspora, and so on. God seems to be angry at his people most of the time, and wreaks terrible vengeance upon them.

Yes, you say, but we’re modern liberal Christians. What about the New Testament and Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild?  

You’re not paying attention. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures would kill you, and your family, and condemn your children unto the seventh generation. But once you were dead, that was it. Death was the final release. The New Testament introduced eternal damnation - a God who would torture you forever and ever and ever. ("But God doesn’t torture, that’s the devil,” I hear you say. You can’t have that cop-out. Either God is all-powerful or he’s not.) It didn’t matter that whatever “crimes” you may have committed against God were finite, God’s righteous wrath is infinite, as will be your punishment. Your denomination may not be Biblical literalists, but unless you’re a Unitarian, it believes in Original Sin - you are detestable and condemned simply by being born human. God hates you. 

For non-Five-Point Calvinist faith traditions, you can get back into God’s good graces by hating yourself.  Contrition, repentance, confession, amendment of life, repenting your backsliding, confession, amendment of life, repenting again, confession, amendment of life, …  and hope that you die in a state of grace.   Can’t think of anything about yourself to hate? Just open your Bible or talk to a clergyperson, you’ll find something.

What, you attend a church that doesn’t emphasize how powerless you are to please God on your own and how lost you are without his constant attention? If there’s one thing God really hates, it’s churches like that.  (Revelations 3:16) You’ll have plenty of time while burning in hell to reflect on your foolish pride.

Unless, of course, you don’t believe in imaginary scary monsters and bogey men.

Sunday Sermonette: God Hates You


Fred Waldron Phelps, the mean-spirited, contentious preacher who with his family formed the Westboro Baptist Church, died on March 19th. Phelps thrived on anger, both his own and what he could stir up in others. He was probably the most hated man in America, and his family church was certainly the most despised for their practice of picketing the funerals of fallen soldiers with Day-glo signs reading “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God is America’s Terrorist” - stuff that went straight past the higher brain functions and sucker-punched the limbic system. He and his family stood there demanding police protection for their hateful message, as though he was entitled to upset people.

What we all hate to acknowledge is that he was right.

Before he was disbarred, Phelps was a firebrand civil rights lawyer. His right to say inflammatory things was successfully defended all the way to the Supreme Court.  

We love the idea of Freedom of Speech in this country, but all acknowledge it has limits. Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is the classic example, but there’s also a debate going on in the courts and legislatures about whether Hate Speech is protected. If I went up to you at your wife’s funeral and said, “It’s a good thing that nigger whore is dead,” I rather doubt any police officer would arrest you for breaking my nose, or any judge would convict you. I said something deliberately intended to provoke violent emotion, and a grieving person is usually considered to have somewhat diminished capacity. 

But toss the word “God” in there, and it’s perfectly all right. Religious speech is the ultimate protected speech. Phelps knew it, and profited from it. Punching out a Phelpsian guaranteed a lawsuit.

What many Christians hate to acknowledge is that what he was preaching - a wrathful God who hated sinful, perverse humanity - is both Biblically and traditionally correct. Phelps was a Calvinist, and the first of the Five Points of Calvinism is “Total Depravity.” Humans are utterly wicked and unable to save themselves and incapable of following God. God chooses who he will save, and those elect are powerless to resist. The remainder of sin-soaked rebellious humanity is justifiably condemned.  In other words, God loves those whom he selects, and hates the rest. It is only by the hand of God that you’re writhing in Hell already. To quote the eighteenth century Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.  (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God)

There is ample warrant for this in Scripture.  A current blockbuster movie tells one of the oldest stories in the Old Testament: God despairs of his creation and is determined to destroy all life, save a single family and at least a pair of each animal (depending on whether they were “clean” or “unclean.” Biblical literalists like Phelps read it as history. Modern liberal Christians claim it’s allegory, but an allegory for what, exactly? That you’d better obey God or he’ll destroy you and everything around you?

We see an echoes of this story throughout Scripture: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the conquest and genocide of other tribes that the Hebrews encountered, the scattering of the Hebrew race into slavery, the Babylonian diaspora, and so on. God seems to be angry at his people most of the time, and wreaks terrible vengeance upon them.

Yes, you say, but we’re modern liberal Christians. What about the New Testament and Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild?  

You’re not paying attention. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures would kill you, and your family, and condemn your children unto the seventh generation. But once you were dead, that was it. Death was the final release. The New Testament introduced eternal damnation - a God who would torture you forever and ever and ever. ("But God doesn’t torture, that’s the devil,” I hear you say. You can’t have that cop-out. Either God is all-powerful or he’s not.) It didn’t matter that whatever “crimes” you may have committed against God were finite, God’s righteous wrath is infinite, as will be your punishment. Your denomination may not be Biblical literalists, but unless you’re a Unitarian, it believes in Original Sin - you are detestable and condemned simply by being born human. God hates you. 

For non-Five-Point Calvinist faith traditions, you can get back into God’s good graces by hating yourself.  Contrition, repentance, confession, amendment of life, repenting your backsliding, confession, amendment of life, repenting again, confession, amendment of life, …  and hope that you die in a state of grace.   Can’t think of anything about yourself to hate? Just open your Bible or talk to a clergyperson, you’ll find something.

What, you attend a church that doesn’t emphasize how powerless you are to please God on your own and how lost you are without his constant attention? If there’s one thing God really hates, it’s churches like that.  (Revelations 3:16) You’ll have plenty of time while burning in hell to reflect on your foolish pride.

Unless, of course, you don’t believe in imaginary scary monsters and bogey men.

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I was raised Roman Catholic, but converted to the Church of England back in 1976.  The writings of C.S. Lewis and late night bull sessions with my Episcopal roommate had something to do with it, but if I’m totally honest, I fell in love with the language and liturgy of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.  It wasn’t apologetics, it was aesthetics that won me over. It was the theater - the Shakespearean words and the smells and bells, capes and drapes, chants and chimes of the High Church.

In the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic church decided to use the vernacular in worship.  Dull, commonplace English replaced the mysterious Latin.  I still remember serving as an altar boy under an aged and terrifying Monsignor who still used the Latin interspersed with impatient hoarse reminders he must have thought were delivered sotto voce.  

     ...Per eumdem Christum Dominum nostrum.  Amen.  BRING THE WINE, BOY!

     ...Hoc est enim Corpus meum.   RING THE BELLS, BOY!

The younger priests all embraced the English language, and turned the altar to face the congregation, and invited a couple of nuns with guitars to provide musical accompaniment.  It wasn’t supposed to be mystical, it wasn’t supposed to be awe-inspiring, it was supposed to be relevant. It wasn't that either. It was, in fact, a little embarrassing, like your parents trying to be cool by uncomfortably using teenage slang.

In the 39 Articles of Religion, one of the historical foundation documents of the Church of England that nobody but a convert reads anymore, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer wrote:

It is a thing plainly repugnant to the word of God and the custom of the primitive Church, to have public prayer in the Church, or to minister the sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.  (Article XXIV)  

Clearly 17th century English is no longer really a “tongue understanded of the people,” but the C of E was still using the 1662 Prayer Book when I was there.  Even though the theology reflected in the ancient words was utterly outmoded, the product of times and customs long past, the language was stirring. I thought it was the sort of formal and elegiac parlance appropriate for the presence of God. The British have always been good at pomp and circumstance.

When I returned to the States, I became a member of a Boston church associated with an Anglican monastic order. I joined the choir, which wasn’t called anything so dull: it was the Schola Cantorum. While the language of the liturgy was English (from the 1979 revision of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer), anthems and psalms were often Latin and always glorious.  High Church on Beacon Hill.

I loved it all. (Pretentious?  Moi?)  I once sang in the chancel of a great old church, facing a mirror choir on the other side, both sides thundering out a towering Te Deum as two thurifers swung their belching incense pots to the limits of their chains, filling the building with fragrant and choking holy smoke.  I’ve stood in a small monastic chapel singing a capella a penitential piece called The Reproaches as the faithful, fighting back tears, walked slowly forward to kiss the feet of a nearly life-sized crucifix. I’ve carried the Pascal Candle in procession, the only light in the darkened church, up to the altar, chanting the ancient poem called the Exsultet. 

I told myself that the emotions I felt in my soul were the stirrings of the Holy Spirit. I liked those feelings. I sought them out. They were living proof that God existed and that he loved me. 

And then I started studying for the ministry.

There was a TV show a while back where a masked magician showed how some of the more spectacular magic tricks are really done.  Invariably, reality was much less fun. Of COURSE she’s hiding behind the box. Of COURSE the card deck is rigged. But as long as we don’t actually see her hiding there, as long as the deck of cards we're shown is according to Hoyle, even grownups who know better feel a sense of wonder.  When you see the mechanics, it’s all so tawdry and mundane. 

Liturgy is theater.  Done right, it’s good theater, and quite effective. Theater used to be dedicated to the gods, after all. There’s a reason those megachurches look like concert venues: they are. Any halfway competent performer, be he liturgist, preacher, or musician, knows how to use music and oratory and performance to stir an emotional response from the audience. That most church services are boring says more about the performers’ lack of skill than the church itself.

The trouble is, once you see behind the curtain, once you know how the trick is done, it’s no longer magic or miracle, it’s stagecraft. Those emotions I was feeling?  It wasn’t the touch of God. It was just me, my emotional response to melody, memory, metaphor, and mystery.

Theater people say that the audience must willingly suspend disbelief, and it’s true. But when the curtain comes down, we don’t continue to believe that the paint and canvas sets were real and the zaftig soprano was a tiny teenaged Japanese girl. That would be crazy.

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Sunday Sermonette: This I Believe


A friend responded to a recent Sermonette. "If not in God, or gods, what do you have to belief in?”

Quite a lot, in fact.  The idea that atheists don’t believe in anything is an annoying stereotype, right up there with “Because they don’t believe a God who will punish misdeeds in the next life, because they don’t believe that a God passed down moral absolutes, they are corrupt and immoral and not to be trusted.” 

I believe in humanity. I believe that most humans are good and decent, and I find the religious doctrine of depravity to be perverse and offensive.  When I was sick, it was humans who raced to my aid. In the course of the questions asked in the emergency room, a nurse asked if I had religious beliefs, and I told her I was an atheist. I received excellent care from a team of people using the latest human-designed technologies, and was soon back home and well on my way back to normal health. 

I believe in the beauty and grandeur of the natural world, from this morning’s stunning sunrise seen through the great black oak behind my home to the rolling ocean currents that worked over thousands of years on the moraine left by the last glaciers to form the distinctive shape of my state’s coastline.

I believe in life, from the scrub pines to the black-capped chickadees swooping in to grab a seed from my deck to the mighty right whales I’m hoping to spot feeding at high tide today. 

I believe in the joy of discovery and the pleasure of learning. I believe the scientific method is the best way humans have developed to distinguish fact from fiction and build on those facts to create new knowledge and understanding.

I believe in love, which I’m fortunate enough to experience every day in the warm embrace of the Unindicted Co-Conspirator.

But I have a feeling none of these answers my friend’s question. We all believe in motherhood and apple pie and purple’d mountain majesties and scientific research. What is really being asked is, “If not God, what do I believe in as a god substitute? In other words, what gives ultimate purpose and meaning to my life?”

The answer is, indeed must be, nothing but myself. That sounds arrogant, but it isn’t meant to. There is no externally-imposed ultimate purpose to life save what each of us give it. There is no meaning save what we create. 

Any other answer is self-deception. You were probably taught it before you were old enough to question it, you’ve internalized it and now tell yourself. But it's wrong. You are ultimately responsible for your own life's meaning and purpose.

According to most Christian catechisms, the ultimate purpose of human life is to love and serve God in this life and be happy with Him in an eternal afterlife. It’s amazing how often the best way to love and serve God in this life involves supporting ourselves and our families in a job, going to church on the occasional Sunday or high holy day, and just generally feeling like we’re fundamentally good people.  It astonishes me that people who are bored on a rainy Saturday afternoon can blithely look forward to the prospect of (a purely imaginary and unsupported by any shred of evidence) eternal life.  

And this is why I believe so strongly in the basic goodness and decency of humans. Despite the fact that the majority claim to believe in a God described in sacred scriptures as a bloodthirsty inhuman psychopathic monster, despite the assertion that these inimical and contradictory writings are God’s own words, the vast majority of humans don’t put those words into practice. Our values owe far more to the 18th-century Enlightenment than ancient revelation. We don’t kill adulterers and apostates - in most of the world, such things are not even crimes. We don’t keep slaves, we don’t sell our daughters, we don’t drive out lepers or believe that mentally ill people are possessed by demons and chain them up. We’re more moral than God.

Yes, you can still find such behavior on Earth, but it is remarkable and almost universally condemned. Our secular progress continues to accelerate. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen the end of segregation and legalization of miscegenation to the point where no one even looks twice at a mixed-race couple. Just a few decades ago, gay bars were illegal and those gathering in them were arrested. In two months, we’ll celebrate the tenth anniversary of the legalization of gay marriage in my home state of Massachusetts. 

Like the old cigarette jingle said, "You’ve come a long way, baby."  We’ve come a very long way. (For one thing, smoking is no longer universal.) I can hardly wait to see where we’ll be tomorrow.

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Sunday Sermonette: Non Credo


We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all there is, seen and unseen…

I stood and said the affirmation of faith, the press release from the Council of Nicea from the year 325, nearly every Sunday of my life, until the day I just couldn’t say it anymore. I no longer believed a word of it.

Christian literature has been full of “Blinded by the Light” conversion stories from the beginning. In the original, Saul was struck down by a bright light and a voice from the sky, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” He quickly changed his name to Paul and ran off to start the Christian religion. 

It usually doesn’t happen in reverse, if indeed it ever really happens at all.  It’s usually a long, slow, and rather painful process of cognitive dissonance.

For me, it began with the call to Holy Orders. My priest invited me to consider whether God was calling me to that ministry. I went through a long process of discernment with the local parish committee, the bishop’s committee, and my own soul. Yes, it seemed very likely that I had a calling. God works this way, you know - little coincidences and still, small voices and the congregation of the faithful. I saw it as an opportunity to learn more and become closer to God by serving his people.

I studied with eminent theologians, historians, scholars, and preachers, but soon found I could not shake the feeling that they were making it up as they went along just as much as I was. Take the simple and universal matter of death. Surely by now those whose job was to minister to the bereaved would have Answers to questions like, “Why did this happen? Why did God take my wife? How can you tell me to love such a son-of-a-bitch?” 

At one point, I was asked to write a funeral service for an abused woman who’d been killed by her partner. It was long on beautiful words and devoid of anything approaching an explanation for “Why?” It was praised, but I felt empty, because I knew it held neither answers nor comfort, it was just empty words.

I found theology to be equally full of hot air. The more questions, the more abstruse the answers. God is ineffable, too great to be expressed in words, beyond mere human thought. So how does the Church claim to know his will for humanity?

Long story short - as my doubts grew, so did my discomfort with the idea of taking vows and dedicating myself to ministry. The deeper I got, the more difficult it was to extricate myself. I finally left midway through the process. I said that I felt my calling was to my parish and not the diocesan level.

The last straw came when a bishop asked me to participate in an adult education class on Theodicy. I’d taught adult Christian education before, but never about the question of how we can reconcile a good and just God with the evil and injustice in his creation. The more I thought about it, the more I was forced to consider that perhaps God was good but mysterious, or perhaps God was never good but only powerful, or perhaps, just perhaps… there is no God.  

The theodicy class did not go over well with the faithful and ended practically before it started. The very idea that God might not be good was more than they wanted to hear. Of course God is good. He’s God! But I continued thinking and studying.  I ran across David Hume’s paraphrase of Epicurus’ famous saying:

If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able 
Then He is not omnipotent.

If He is able, but not willing
Then He is malevolent.

If He is both able and willing
Then whence cometh evil?

If He is neither able nor willing
Then why call Him God?

God may not be all-powerful. This would explain quite a lot, and is indeed pretty much what Rabbi Kushner says in his book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

God may not be all-good. God himself says so in Isaiah 45: I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.  

Pick one or the other or neither, but you can't have both.

What would a world without God look like? What would a universe without God look like? What would a man without God look like?  Wouldn’t they look a lot like this world, this universe, this man looking back at me in the shaving mirror? The more I thought about it, the clearer it became.  I did my best to continue to believe. I went to church every Sunday and said the words. When spring rolled around, I determined to give up doubt for Lent. It didn’t work. 

To the Christian, whose very salvation and promised eternity in heaven depend upon believing, discarding one’s faith is a perverse act of self will run riot. The worst sin in the world is to say that there is no God. There is no forgiveness unless the sinner repents and returns to the fold. If your studies have taught you that lie, you are reading the wrong books. If your reason persuades you, you are thinking the wrong thoughts. 

Perhaps. But I think you’re making it all up, just like I did, and until you can give some compelling evidence for your extraordinary claims, I don’t believe in God.

Next week, This I Believe.

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Sunday Sermonette: Why I Believed


I am an atheist.  I have found no compelling evidence for the existence of God, gods, or any other supernatural entities. I’m always willing to re-examine my position based on new or unexplored evidence, but so far no one has produced anything but the same arguments that were tired, worn out and discredited years or even centuries ago. 

I was not always an atheist. I spent most of my life as a Christian.  I was the Senior Warden of the parish, the lay leader of the church.  I led adult Bible study, sang in the choir, served on the altar, carried the Sacrament to the sick, preached occasionally, even filled in for the priest when he was away.  I loved God and His church. I was even studying towards ordination as a deacon. I believed, and I liked believing. Why?

1. My parents, those in authority over me, and those whose intelligence and judgement I trusted all said so. This is the single most compelling reason most people believe in the supernatural.  We evolved to trust our parents and elders.  Children who did not heed their elders’ warnings to keep away from the river tended to be eaten by crocodiles before they could pass on their genes. With very few exceptions, we are indoctrinated before we can even speak, let alone question.  Had I been born to Muslim parents in Riyadh, I’d be worshipping Allah and praising his prophet.  Had I been born to Hindu parents in New Delhi, I’d be making small offerings to a statue of Ganesha.

2. Our society holds religion as a special category of knowledge and accord it singular respect and deference.  Stephen Jay Gould called it a Non-Overlapping Magisteria: science is about How questions and religion about Why questions and neither should trespass on the other’s turf.  What this means is that you are completely justified to touch the bench marked “Wet Paint” just to be sure it’s really wet, but the claim that “God answers prayers” is not to be questioned.  “Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test.”   This means that there are certain thoughts that are simply never entertained.  Just as most honest people do not walk into a bank and immediately start taking mental notes of the location of cameras, alarms, and security guards that would need to be neutralized to pull off a successful heist, the believer does not get on board trains of thought on tracks bound for Infidel Station. 

3. Community. We’re a gregarious species. Even those of us who are introverts need other people around. Church is a ready-made community with a low barrier to entry. All you have to do is believe, or at least pretend as though you do. That’s it, and you’ll be invited to spaghetti suppers, movie nights, and bingo games. You’ll hear about it when your neighbor is ill and have a chance to make a casserole for her family while she’s laid up. If a family member dies, you’ll have loving people around to console you (and still more casseroles). Churches do community very well, which is why atheists are starting up Sunday Meeting groups. 

Some churches have higher barriers than others. Entry isn’t the problem, it’s the exit door that’s hard to open. I met a man yesterday who left the Mormon church a year ago and now has almost no friends.  I have a friend who was a minister in a very fundamentalist Pentecostal congregation who still suffers from PTSD years after he left the faith.

The thing with community, though, is that for any “In” group, there is always an “Out” group, an Us versus Them. WE are the saved, the beloved of God, the Children of the Light. THEY are the unbelieving dogs, the sinners, the people who walk in darkness. This is, unfortunately, a universal characteristic of human communities. I recently heard a lesbian Unitarian minister jokingly complain, “We are so loving and tolerant. What’s wrong with Them?”

4. Religion gives the believer a privileged status as the pinnacle of creation, especially beloved of God.  It gives the illusion of control that even if your prayers are not answered as desired, the Almighty is still watching over and protecting you.  For the Christian, there’s an even deeper connection.  You worship a God who actually took on human form and suffered, just like you.  He rose again, and so will you.  For some people this is like “having a friend in the business”, but it’s more than that.  It’s also having someone to thank, a person to whom you can express the awe you feel when you look up at the night sky.  “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?  and the son of man, that thou visitest him?  For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels…”

5. Last and certainly not least, there’s guilt.  “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”  There are so many, many things we were taught to feel guilty about.  “Impurity” - that’s a favorite.   If it’s not your favorite, never fear: there are plenty of sins to go around.  “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us...”  Feel like a miserable offender yet?  But all is not lost: the church offers not just plenteous forgiveness, but grace to amend your life.  It’s the original Second Chance club. Just return, repent, and repeat as needed.

Next week: How To Make An Atheist.

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Gary Gutting, a philosophy professor at Notre Dame, recently interviewed one of his illustrious predecessors, Alvin Plantinga. The interview was published in one of the New York Times blogs under the attention grabbing headline, “Is Atheism Irrational?”  I read it eagerly, hoping that my uneducated mind would be able to follow the weighty philosophical arguments with which these giants would doubtless engage the question. (I did get an A in Phil 101, but that was a long time ago.)

Plantinga starts out by redefining terms. "I take atheism to be the belief that there is no such person as the God of the theistic religions.” Under that definition, lack of evidence is insufficient grounds for atheism, the only conclusion would be agnosticism.  

This is equivocation. Theism and atheism describe what you believe. Gnosticism and agnosticism describe what you know. Without evidence, I cannot know if God exists, and therefore cannot believe - I am an agnostic atheist. I’m sure that somewhere you can find someone who claims to know there are no gods, a gnostic atheist that would fit Plantinga’s definition, but I’ve never met any of these. The whole semantic argument is a boring distraction. The results are the same. There is insufficient evidence to justify belief in gods. Call it squibs and crackers if it makes you feel better.

After batting about Bertrand Russell’s teapot (currently orbiting Mars based on the same evidence used to support belief in God), Plantinga asserts that absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence. Then he claims that the problem of evil is the strongest and perhaps the only argument against theism.

Nonsense. The problem of evil is not an argument against the existence of God, only against the existence of a particular kind of God. The classic description of the problem of evil comes to us from Epicurus, a philosopher who lived from 341 to 270 B.C.  As paraphrased by David Hume, it goes:

If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able 
Then He is not omnipotent.

If He is able, but not willing
Then He is malevolent.

If He is both able and willing
Then whence cometh evil?

If He is neither able nor willing
Then why call Him God?

God could be an utter bloodthirsty bastard.  In the play “God on Trial,” the conclusion of the Jews in the concentration camp was, “God is not good. God was never good. He was only on our side.”  Or, the creator of the universe and spinner of galaxies could be absolutely inhuman and not care at all about the primitive life forms that infest a tiny grain of sand on a vast beach.

Then Plantinga unleashes his ultimate argument, or lack of argument.  “I don’t think arguments are needed for rational belief in God,” he said.  “Belief in God is grounded in experience, or in the sensus divinitatis…”

There’s the weighty philosophical concept I was hoping for. It must be weighty - it’s in Latin.  

Except anyone who’s read Harry Potter can figure it out. All that sensus divinitatis means is “sense of the divinity.” It was a term first used by John Calvin to describe the hypothetical sense that supposedly gives humans knowledge of God. That this sense exists is “proven” in the Bible, Romans 1:20. Everybody knows there’s a God. God says so.

This might have worked in Calvin’s day, but it certainly doesn’t fly in our connected age.  We know something about people outside of our own parish now. If we all have knowledge of God, why do so few of us agree? There are over 40,000 Christian denominations, to say nothing of the myriad other religions. If there’s a Sense of Divinity, it’s pretty unreliable. There’s also the distinct lack of virtue among Christians that argues against it. For people who sense the one true God, they don’t act like it. Morally, they’re no better than any other population group. Why should they be?  Their Bible is a mishmosh of some lovely lapidary proverbs and a whole lot of very ugly acts performed by this supposedly morally superior God. (He killed David’s infant son because David took another man’s wife - though the fact David raped her is perfectly OK, just to name one.)

Plantinga modifies Calvin, saying that the sensus divinitatis does indeed dwell in all, but is damaged in some due to sin. 

So if it’s so unreliable, how can Alvin Plantinga know that his own sensus divinitatis is working properly?  The demographics of world religions suggest otherwise, even in his own classroom. If one of his students were to come to him with a similar argument about the invisible dragon in his front yard, which he knows is there due to his sensus draconis, would he not be laughed out of class? This may be one reason why nearly three-quarters of philosophers do not believe in gods.

Humanity has been creating gods since the git-go. Yesterday was Ragnarok, according to some Norse religion fans. Fenrir the wolf killed Odin the All-Father, and the heavens and earth were destroyed. It’s OK, a new heaven and earth were created today, Odin’s son killed Fenrir, and the last two humans are now busily repopulating the world. My point is that no one took this seriously. And someday, no one will take the myth of Jesus seriously, either. The good bits will remain part of our culture, the rest will join Odin and Thor in the twilight of the gods.

P.S. An anonymous commenter left this delightful ditty in response to Plantiga:

Theism is rational? Poo!
God exists, then God's God exists, too.
This troublesome item
Goes on ad finitum,
An infinite number, if true.

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