07 November 1996

Office Worker's Safety Kit

From Your Safety Bureaucracy

Hardhat For those surprise directives from on high.
Paper Towels For remediation and cleanup after a suprise directive.
Kneepads To prevent repetitive motion injury while trying to obtain funding for your project.
Rope Won't secure you while out on a limb, but if you push on it instead of pulling, you'll be a "team player."
Safety Shoes To prevent repetitive motion injury while giving performance reviews.
Padded Shorts To prevent repetitive motion injury while receiving performance reviews.
Lip Balm To prevent repetitive motion injury while trying to get a better performance review next year.
Russian Novel To remind you how many times you'll meet the same people in your career — be polite and prosper!

Parish Bylaws

There are 613 Commandments (Mitzvot) in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), of which a normal person keeps less than the first Ten.
Most folks even fall short of the spirit of the Law as summarized by Jesus and Rabbi Hillel:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

So a few more rules are unlikely to do any good, but they probably won't do any harm either. Forthwith, in addition to the Biblical Commandments, we adopt the following Bylaws:
  1. Hold your beliefs firmly, but gently. You are not your beliefs. Ultimately, it is you that God loves and judges, rather than merely your beliefs. Beliefs are only a way of verbalizing about religion, not its content. The experience of God's presence is the content.

  2. Be gentle with the beliefs of others. Otherwise you may miss an opportunity to gain a new perspective on your own faith which, if your faith is genuine, will only broaden and deepen it. Moreover, you will drive away people who may need to partake of the spritual gifts you have to offer, if you insist on only your own terms.

  3. Every once in a while, when you assert, "I believe ..." ask yourself just exactly who is believing. After all, if you don't even know who you are, you should be very cautious in making assertions about who God is. This exercise may help you refrain from projecting your inner demons onto God when you are witnessing to others.

06 November 1996

Salva Me

Gracious Lord,

Save me from what I want
Let me not be a slave to my own desires

Save me from what I know
Let me not worship my store of facts, ideas and opinions

Save me from what I do
Let me not be captive to the work of my mind or hands

Save me from fear and despair
They have ever been devices of the Enemy

Lead me to do with joy and thanksgiving that of your Will which is my part to do.


01 November 1996

Speak of the Devil

My friend's wife suspects me of being a carnal Christian, one given to rationalizing the Gospel to approve the pleasures of the flesh. Far from it. I am an intellectual Christian, one given to rationalizing, period. Since I consider my mind a gift to be used in the service of the One who gave it to me, I give it her litmus test of my faith.

"Do you believe in the Devil?" she asked.

The one about whom there are neither harmless questions, nor harmless answers. You have been warned.

If ever I have encountered the Devil, it was in church. I spoke briefly in favor of relaxing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's position with regard to gay church members at a convention of its Sierra-Pacific synod. As I spoke, and for a long time after, I could feel hate coming from the more conservative delegates. Hate willing me to stop speaking, to stop being. Maybe I was being paranoid. Maybe it was body language and group dynamics. Or maybe it was a transpersonal malevolence originating in the Father of Lies. (A conservative reader will doubtless nominate the Wrath of God, but that feels like anger, not hate.)
As a scientist, I prefer the second of the above alternatives. We are a social species, and communicate in so many ways that Jung's idea of the collective unconscious makes sense. We can act and even feel together, with or without the mediation of many words. That is to say, we don't need the Devil in order to engage in individual or collective evil. We do it quite thoroughly on our own.
Popular Christianity, however, does need the Devil, and weaves a fabulous story about him. Satan together with his rebel angels wages war against God, who throws them out of heaven. Then, as summarized by Milton in the argument to Book III of Paradise Lost.
God sitting on his Throne sees Satan flying toward this world ... foretells the success of Satan in perverting mankind; clears his own Justice and Wisdom from all imputation, having created Man free and able enough to have withstood his Tempter; yet declares his purpose of grace toward him, in regard he fell not of his own malice, as did Satan, but by him seduc't. The Son of God renders praises to his father for the manifestation of his gracious purpose toward Man; but God again declares that Grace cannot be extended toward Man without the satisfaction of divine Justice; Man hath offended the majesty of God by aspiring to Godhead, and therefore with all his Progeny devoted to death must die, unless someone can be found sufficient to answer for his offence, and undergo his Punishment. The Son of God freely offers himself a Ransom for Man...
One thing is obvious in this spiritual cosmology: without corruption, there would be no need for redemption, and hence no Redeemer. Without Satan, there would be no Christ.
Now making Satan, the source of all evil, necessary for Christ to be our Saviour is equivalent to making Satan co-equal with Christ — perhaps his meaner, weaker, younger brother, but in any case, of the same order of being. Since in Christian theology Christ is "of one being" with God, this makes Satan of the same order of being as God. The name for this theory is dualism, the idea that the universe is ruled by two gods, one good, one evil.
This point was not lost on the African genius, St. Augustine of Hippo, who has dominated Christian thought since the the Goths sacked Rome. He considered the Devil to be an angel, created originally good by God. The Devil then chose to love himself more than God, which was a turning away from God to a necessarily lesser good. This turning was itself evil, and diminished not God, but the Devil. Thus for Augustine, there is only one God, but God permits the emergence of evil as an absence of good, rather than as an independent quality in itself.
Augustine then argues in The City of God (XI, 18) that the existence of good is made more brilliant by the opposition of its contrary (or lack), and that therefore the existence of evil is itself ultimately good. Thus, the goodness of God cannot be impugned. In other words, Augustine reconciles the concepts of monotheistic benevolence and Satanic malevolence by sleight of rhetoric.
Less obvious than the dualism of Milton's godhead is the stupendous leap of imagination that Milton's story represents from anything found in the Bible. While it is true that Genesis, the first book of the Bible, tells of a talking serpent beguiling the original couple to disobey the only prohibition God had placed upon them, the War in Heaven does not appear until Revelations, the last book of the Bible, and could be read as a vision of humanity's future as easily as of its past. It occupies all of three verses (Rev. 12:7-9) of the Bible. There is also a phrase in Isaiah (14:12), "How art thou fallen, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" It is part of a taunt (Is 14:4-23) against the then king of Babylon, who had fallen on hard times. Finally, Jesus congratulates his disciples by referring to this phrase in Luke (10:18), "I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven," upon hearing of the success of his disciples in casting out demons. And that is it. If there is a written antecedent of Milton's story of the War in Heaven, it is outside the written Judeo-Christian canon.
It may be that the Jewish and Christian writers and editors of the Bible omitted this tale because it is absurd, as noted by the American revolutionary patriot Thomas Paine in the Age of Reason,
Having thus made an insurrection and a battle in Heaven, in which none of the combatants could be either killed or wounded - put Satan into the pit - let him out again - giving him triumph over the whole creation - damned all mankind by the eating of an apple, these Christian Mythologists bring the two ends of their fable together. They represent this virtuous and amiable man, Jesus Christ, to be at once both God and Man, and also the Son of God, celestially begotten, on purpose to be sacrificed, because they say that Eve in her longing had eaten an apple.
Small wonder that, as Christopher Ricks says in his introduction to Paradise Lost, "you could just about date the decline of the story itself, as a vehicle for moral and religious truth, from Milton's great telling of it." Yet this story still simmers beneath the surface of Christianity, for Paine referred to it more than a century after it was written as if it defined Christianity, and my friend identified it as defining Satan more than two centuries after Paine.
On the other hand, if we reject the War in Heaven as too poorly founded in scripture to define either Christianity or the Devil, we are left with the question, "Just who or what is this Devil, anyway?"
To begin with, the Devil so called is entirely absent from the Old Testament, and not just because the word devil comes from Greek rather than Hebrew. The wrathful, jealous God of the OT is a God of power, rather than goodness. He has sufficient character to encompass both good and evil, as we humans understand such things, and he denies our right to judge him. "Will you condemn Me that you may be justified?" he says to rebuke Job (Job 40:8).
Now it is true that in the book of Job God has an employee called an Adversary or Accuser, or in Hebrew a Satan, but this is not the Devil we know from the New Testament. The Satan asks, "Does Job fear God for nothing?" (Job 1:9) which precipitates God's test of Job's faith. This Satan is skeptical, and therefore dangerous, but not necessarily evil.
In fact, the Satan is not very important in the Old Testament. Other than in the book of Job, the Satan gets one mention in Chronicles, one in the Psalms, and two in Zechariah. Moreover, the Satan does not appear in Old Testament writings dating earlier than the time a large number of Israelites were exiled to Babylon. Presumably the Israelites there picked up some Zoroastrian influence regarding the conflict between Ahura Mazda, the God of Light, and Ahriman, the equally powerful God of Darkness. That is to say, the concept of the Devil that we have inherited from the early Christians seems to have come from a religion in which there are two gods, rather than one. (I am indebted to Homer W. Smith's Man and His Gods for this hypothesis.)
Nevertheless, this idea of the Devil had become current in various Jewish sects before the coming of Christ. It was written down, for example in the pre-Christian Book of Enoch (which is quoted in the epistle of Jude, and is available to modern readers in The Apocryphal Old Testament, H. F. D. Sparks, ed, Oxford University Press). Jesus apparently believed he was struggling against this sort of Devil, especially as personified in the actions of his enemies. Since then Christians have followed his lead, further refining their ideas of who the Devil was as they accused their oppressors or opponents of doing the Devil's work, even to the present day. (See Elaine Pagels' The Origin of Satan and Andrew DelBanco's The Death of Satan for a detailed history.)
That is to say, ever since its earliest days, the Christian Church has found the concept of the Devil to be useful. It is also powerful, considering the evil that has been done in fighting the Devil. One has only to mention the Inquisition, in which suspected heretics were tortured and killed in Europe, and the trials in Salem, Massachussetts, in which harmless old women were executed for practicing witchcraft.
And of course, the power of the concept comes from its source, from us. Speaking psychologically, the Devil represents everything we don't want to be, and for many of us, he represents those parts of our souls we don't want to acknowledge. Which, considering the mention of carnality at the beginning of this piece, brings us, for example, to one of humanity's favorite obsessions, sex.
Sexual promiscuity has never been a victimless crime. It is a crime against the whole society in that it threatens to undermine the prosperity of society by creating large numbers of poorly socialized, ill-fed (and thus sickly) people, who then commit crimes of property and spread disease and disorder. Even if promiscuity could be rendered harmless in terms of creating illegitimacy, it would still undermine society by creating an ecological niche for enterprising microorganisms (such as AIDS) to exploit. On the other hand, such rational, economic and public health arguments against sexual promiscuity have never motivated most people to repress their sexual urges.
Society has found it much more effective to threaten promiscuity with Divine Wrath, and to get its citizens to disavow their sexual urges by associating them with an external, terrifying, numinous agent — the Devil. That is to say, it is much easier to fight against an internal drive if you can divorce yourself from it, if you can get yourself to believe it doesn't come from you. And you will be much more motivated to perform this internal divorce if you are taught that this urge is really bad, so that you have to wall it off from the rest of yourself in order to be good. One consequence of which is that, since a psychic barrier within the self must always be in danger of breaking down, the person who erects one will often feel him or herself to be under threat from the Devil.
Now a person who disowns his or her sexuality is probably impaired in his or her ability to sustain genuinely intimate relationships, because the implicit sexuality in all human encounters (we are each male or female after all) may be threatening to such a person. To the extent that this occurs, a disowned sexuality that imputes desire to temptation by the Devil is itself demonic in that it impairs a person's ability to love.
In short, much of what is imputed to the Devil is really just ourselves not wanting to acknowledge who we are, to confess our Sin as it were. Instead, we disown parts of ourselves, and seek to injure, diminish, dismiss, or avoid people who call those parts of ourselves to mind. I wonder, for another example, if the revulsion some straight people have against gays is their way of guarding themselves against their own violently repressed (though normally slight) homosexual feelings.
And so, for the most part, I think we engage in human evil without the Devil. The story of the Fall is an allegory rather than a history. Regardless of exactly how it all began, we all choose after the fact to live in a world largely without reference or deference to God, even those of us who profess faith. And that is a rebellion against our dependence on God, a Fall without a Tempter. (Which is the same order of rebellion as ascribed to the Tempter — which may explain why we want a Tempter — we think we can be redeemed only because we are not as bad as That! See the Milton quote above.)
Still, there is the creepy dread I felt at that synod convention. My words seemed to stick in my throat. Afterward I meditated and read the Bible for hours before I felt I could do anything else. As Scott Peck describes in People of the Lie, there is something out there, a sort of opportunistic spiritual infection, about which the less I know, the happier I am. Charles Addams was on to something when he said in an old New Yorker cartoon, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Bogeyman."

04 July 1996

VCBC Opens Its Bitstream

Our Inaugural Sermon

4 July 1996

Old Testament Message

The wise among the people shall give understanding to many; for some days however, they shall receive a little help, and many shall join them insincerely. Some of the wise shall fall, so that they may be refined, purified, and cleansed, until the time of the end, for there is still an interval until the time appointed. — Daniel 11:33-35

New Testament Message

It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumsised -- only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumsised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumsised so that you may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumsiscion is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule -- peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. — Galatians 6:11-16

Gospel Message

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying "Lord, save us! We are perishing!" And he said to them, "Why are you afraid, you of little faith?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. — Matthew 8:23-27

Long ago, in an America of big cars and divisive wars, there lived a band called Chicago, who asked, Does anybody really know what time it is?

Then, as now, it was and is sometime in the interval until the time appointed, the eyeblink of Eternity between the Resurrection and the Apocalypse. But since that eyeblink has already outlasted many lives, we need more than eschatology to make it through our daily lives — we need a practical, working faith.

Faith is a state of being, a way of living with a God who leaves us in a state of absolute freedom from God, our actions constrained only by physical reality. A working faith thus comes from taking seriously the facts of everyday life, the secular domain, so to speak. Only then can we have a faith that is relevant to the real world, or even to ourselves. Only then can we begin to see that the secular is a convenient fiction — that everything is sacred to its Creator.

And so, at VCBC we view the physical Universe and everything in it as a sacred text, which we must consult in order prevent our understanding of the Scriptures from being clouded by our own self-will, wishful thinking, cowardice, or mental laziness. Since reality includes the personal and historical experiences of all peoples, we also use the sacred and secular writings of other cultures to broaden our awareness, to help us look at our old Bible with new eyes. It is revealing, for example, to acknowledge that, in the form of fossils, the stones cry out that the superficial interpretation of the Biblical Creation story as history is a smokescreen that we have invented to cover up what Genesis really says about us. It is surprising, for another example, to see how the Hindus' Bhagavad Gita shows up the smallness of the popular Western concept of God.

And so, while we rely on the Bible as a light unto our path, we make the effort to view that light with an understanding shaped by the conditions of life in which we are set, rather than by our own self-will.

We count this as a paltry kind of wisdom, on a low level of morality similar to the golfer's rule to "play the ball where it lies." We think of it as a beginning that few other churches make, and hope that we can give a little "understanding to many."

Part of the understanding we want to give is that while religion implies morality (a'la Pope John Paul II's "absolute morality based upon absolute Truth"), morality is not religion. That is to say, morality is a good and necessary start, but being good is not good enough. You can obey all the commandments, and still be estranged from your own innermost self, from everyone around you, from the natural world, and from God. These four basic estrangements are what we take to be the downside of the Human Condition, i.e., Original Sin.

To become that "new creation" as St. Paul puts it, you're going to have to get cozy with God, which means that you're going to have to get to know yourself, because it is your own preconceptions and desires that stand in the way. This getting to know oneself is confession, which St. Paul appears to think is more important than a slavish obedience to rules. This is because obedience to the rules can be used as smokescreen to avoid knowing ourselves — we can measure our imagined goodness by counting up our acts of submission to the Law, without ever having to look into our own souls. In other words, in order to be good one has first to be honest.

And so, with awe and honesty, which necessarily implies a sense of humor about ourselves, we set out here to stumble along the path lighted for us by the God who is alluded to by the fact of existence itself, who is immanent in all aspects of existence, and yet who transcends existence as we now know it. We seek to understand something of what it all means in light of the God who can rebuke the wind and the sea, and who came to us as one of us, because God wants us to come with God.

Canned Theology

Junk Food for the Soul

Conservative Flavors

God is just waiting to get you the minute you screw up.
This is taken by many practicioners of the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — as the basis for moral behavior. Since externally imposed order is repugnant even to those who believe in it, they occasionally rebel against such order, either openly, or by willfully misinterpreting the commandments, as in "Thou shalt not kill, except for that heretic over there."
Christ died for your sins, so now you really better not screw up.
This is the distinctively Christian form of the item above. God in the form of the God-Man, Jesus, allows himself to be murdered by bad people so he can come back from dead and say, "See, I died for you. Now you really owe me bigtime, so you better shape up!" In Games People Play, Eric Berne called this game, "Now I've Got You, You Son-of-a-Bitch!"
You must build the Kingdom of God on earth by making it impossible for anyone else to screw up.
When people are full of this one, they try to control the behavior of people whose beliefs differ from theirs. Used in repressive legislation. Also a prime ingredient in recipes for religious and ethnic conflict. Used as a condiment in some liberal environmental agendas.
You must purify God's Kingdom on earth by killing those who screw up anyway.
Consumed by those who have no taste for mercy. Typically, when they partake of this one, they screw up bigtime.

Liberal Flavors

God's justice cannot be fulfilled until the world's wealth is equally distributed.
A saccharine version of the belief of the earliest Christians, who embraced poverty as a virtue, which they achieved by holding all their goods in common. Mostly consumed by those who live in gated communities.
Meaning well is more important than achieving results.
Used to simulate barnyard odor. Hitler wanted to purify his people so that they could become like gods. He thought he meant well, but millions of people couldn't live with the results.
No one can really pass judgment on another. Each must judge for him- or herself.
A watered-down decoction of "Judge not, that ye be not judged," used by the guilt-ridden to deny God's judgment, because they also deny his forgiveness.
Tolerance is the highest good.
Often regurgitated by people who will hate you for disagreeing with them.
Thanks to Andy Busch.
Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.
A "lite" sweetener and feel-good remedy if you want to "love kindness" without having "to do justice, and to walk humbly with your God." Often consumed by those who "practice charity when it is sufficiently convenient."
Thanks to Mike Szilagyi

Wacko Flavors

We must of our own accord shed our mortal form to progress to a higher plane of existence.
Practically inhaled by those who don't realize they were put here by God to "Get a life!" Although they occasionally give up what they never got, at least they respect the rest of us, and let us continue on our journeys. May they get a better pilot for their higher plane than whomever they've hired so far.
God tells us to tell you to do whatever we say.
This cult version of "Father Knows Best" satisfies power cravings without guilt, because partakers consume it with submission to a higher cause. A tasteless version for speakers of superficially polite psycho-babble is being test-marketed as "I'm OK - You're OK, but some of us are more OK than others."
Thanks to Charles Perry
There really are no such things as "right" and "wrong."
A non-nutritive flavor-reducer used by college professors to get students to swallow anything. Also, an anti-clumping agent used to unglue civil societies. Toxic to children.
You must stockpile weapons because you are the the People of God, and everyone else is out to get you.
Very spicy, especially the Branch Davidian variety. Savored by those who like it hot.
You must create the earthly Kingdom of God by killing or controlling everyone who isn't like you.
Drunk by those who like to slam it down fast (like the Aum Shinrikyo and various racial supremacist and terrorist groups), instead of waiting for the apocalypse.