Saturday, March 7, 2015

In His Image

On the last day of creation, God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” 
(Genesis 1:26) 

This is an interesting thought that I've been pondering lately.  It seems one of those gray areas where almost everyone draws the line on a different beach.  Most of us would agree that God (the Father) doesn't have a belly-button, and probably not even a beard.  It's not a physical thing.  

The idea that our conscience (sense of right and wrong) makes us God-like is hard to reconcile with the inconvenient fact that God promoted genocide in the old-testament stories of the Israelites taking over the 'promised land.'  To me, that's harder to digest than the notorious 'problem of evil'  or the fact that He often seems to take a hands-off approach to a lot of human suffering today.  It's the idea of The creator of all mankind promoting rather than just allowing brutal atrocities that's hard not to perceive as cruel and unjust.  After all, which Canaanites had a choice in being born into their respective families?  

Then again, Man makes war too, and we definitely play favorites with allies and enemies . . . in His image?  The most common justification of God's favoritism that I've heard is simply the fact that He's God (AKA, 'His ways are higher than ours.')  Whatever He does is right.  We just don't understand.  It's just and good (or sinful and bad) for the simple reason that He willed it to happen (or forbids it) and can do no wrong.  Fundamentalists must play dumb (the 'His ways are higher' card) or simply accept a double-standard.

It seems to me that if anything God does is good simply because He is who He is, then God Himself wouldn't have any use for a compassionate conscience, at least not in the same sense or context that most non-psychopathic humans do. The justification of God's alleged old-testament directives doesn't seem to correlate well with the guilt-ridden human conscience or the grace of the Gospel.  Many believe that the human conscience is the 'voice' of the Holy Spirit prompting us, but unless it operates completely independently of the God of the Old Testament,  who has supposedly been the same 'yesterday, today, and forever,' that's hard to reconcile.

When I, with my limited capacities, try to imagine what it would be like to be God-  omnipresent, sovereign, and omnipotent, I think I would be downright suicidal.  From a human standpoint it's impossible for me to imagine a fulfilling existence if I already knew everything, experienced everywhere, and had nothing to strive for, compete with, learn, conquer, or achieve.

For a while, I couldn't think of a reason why being God wouldn't be synonymous with condemnation-  nothing competes with the notion of a hell containing literal flames (where you'd have physical nerve-endings that don't actually burn up and stop working) like the thought of perpetual boredom 'to infinity and beyond.'  God's most fulfilling years seemingly would have been his brief stint as Jesus, where within the mortal perimeters of flesh and space-time He could love tangibly, strive for change, and experience the spectrum of pain from hunger to loneliness that make the inverse so gratifying!

After grinding my gears for a while, I was able to come up with two traits that I believe that we finite creatures might share with an infinite deity:


It's hard to imagine a more effective mean of fulfillment for an omnipotent and omnipresent being than the creative process.  Our precise knowledge of the universe (what we've photographed and documented with the likes of the Hubble space telescope) beyond our solar system and galaxy is ridiculously minute in relation to its theoretical extent.  Not to mention a potential multiverse.   

No one knows the limits of creation, but most of us can relate to the joy of creating.  This, I see as one definitive commonality between a creator and the created.  With as much simple joy as I experience brewing beer, roasting coffee, cooking, doodling during meetings, and writing poetry that only my mother appreciates, this seems undeniable.

(Note: discovery is right up there with creativity for mortals, but this wouldn't apply to an omnipotent/omnipresent God who has nothing left to learn.  Our limited capacities might be more of a blessing than a burden!)

The need for affirmation

It's hard to imagine a God as humble as Jesus being narcissistic enough to create human beings, angels, and the multi-winged/multi-eyed beasts described in Revelation for the sole purpose of padding his ego with perpetual glory, honor, and praise.  Why doesn't He get with the program and sign up for a Facebook page?  I don't think that a single human being could honestly say that they could live a meaningful life without the perceived acceptance, love, and affirmation of others.  This is one attribute that I am sure we share with God.  If no one believes in us, we are nothing. . . or might as well be.  At times even the idea of a relational God who loves us unconditionally and listens to our prayers is an adequate substitute for the support of other people, and much more dependable.  At points in life, it's all some people have to avert despair.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


Desire is not the unsatisfied craving of it's own absence, but for experiencing the process of killing itself.  When fully dead, it is instantaneously replaced by another desire, or despair.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Little Universalist Library

I had a large backpack slung over my shoulder, wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt, reading "Property of Vulcraft Texas" (my employer 5 years back.)  It was likely that reference to a Bible Belt state that roused her suspicion.   

I'd stopped in front of a "little free library" . . . one of those tastefully done over-sized birdhouses stuffed with second-hand books for anyone who's interested to take from and deposit to.  This one happened to be stationed in front of a Unitarian Universalist Church. The lady who popped out of a side door and hurried up the sloping sidewalk toward me, quickly introduced herself as the minister and welcomed me to the library.  
After exchanging pleasantries, she seemed satisfied that I was not the notorious neighborhood evangelist, and proceeded to explain that she has been keeping an eye on the library from inside the building because someone has been trying to "Christianize" the book supply.  She made sure I understood that, as Universalists, they draw from "the wisdom of all religions."
"Christianity would have a place, then . . . right?"  I asked.  
"well. . . yes," she stammered, "but nobody is leaving any Buddhist books." 
"I see.  You're lookin' for more diversity."  
She quickly changed the subject, telling me about how a member of her church, who happens to be a Boeing engineer, designed that particularly snazzy unit.  It is pretty impressive.  We parted ways.  

After reading up on the minister here, I get the sense that she wouldn't mind Rob Bell so much, but that John Piper might get her frothing at the mouth.  Damn evangelicals, dogmatizing the book supply!


It would be fascinating to hear a Universalist leader explain their method of picking and choosing from a plethora of religions, most of which are collectives sourcing intrinsic value from a strong sense of exclusivity.  I suppose that believing in a cocktail mixer of principles and commonly held benign moral themes gleaned from multiple faiths, while maintaining that strict adherents of those faiths aren't bright enough to realize the overarching truth, would provide a very similar individualistic sense of relevance, or at least one of moral and intellectual supremacy.

If I ever feel like picking her brain further, I guess I could get my hands on an old-school Strong's Concordance, a few marked down titles by Mark Driscoll, and some Vaseline, and see if I can't get it all into the little "free" library censored by a universalist minister.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ferguson: The Open Wound

I have seen a lot of inflammatory interbuzz on both sides of the Ferguson story today.  There are Americans using the violent reaction to the grand jury’s decision to further bolster their racism.  There are Americans who do not want to lose the sense of self-righteousness that comes with blindly siding with minorities despite inconvenient details, and refuse to view Wilson, or any police officer, as a human being.  There are Americans who are using the verdict to justify violence, and there are Americans capitalizing on the violence—from media outlets, to looters, to manufacturers of tear gas and rubber bullets, not to mention the lead kind. 

Some believe that Wilson made some stupid decisions and got ‘too involved.’  Some believe that it is even more stupid to assault public servants, especially the ones issued pistols and authorized to use them in self-defense.  The grand jury believes Wilson did not commit a crime.  Based on the testimonies of key witnesses, physical evidence, and the laws and policies currently in place, they made the right call.  Judging by the tension filled run-up to the press release, America was expecting no less.

If Brown had been a homeless white man, this would have hardly ruffled feathers.  If Wilson were a black police officer or gang member, it would have been no less tragic, but would have gotten relatively little attention.  Skin color alone has been the catalyst to the drama.  Tragedy gave birth to disaster, as it reopened the wound caused by our country’s dark history of oppression. 

As a nation, the process of healing from something as inhumane and oppressive as slavery is a long, slow, painful process.  The oppressed admittedly bearing most of that pain, the oppressors (or their great-grandchildren) only the inconvenience of status-quo evolution.  It might not be fair to label pundits with the most power to enact change today as oppressors, but by the nature of their wealth and status they typically have the least incentive to change things.  You might call it 'passive-oppressiveness.'  That is why justice and equality are an uphill battle.  But the systems, policies, and practices that stand in our way are what we should be fighting.  They make up the machine that we can't escape, but in which we can choose to be indifferent cogs or conscientious ghosts, poking a (peaceful) stick into questionable spokes.

One life taken, another turned upside-down, now hundreds are dealing with property damage at the very least.  Where are Ghandi and MLK when we need them?  Rage-filled riots are doing nothing for progress, but maybe there is some benefit in the conversations that they spur across our nation today.  What if Wilson only had only been armed with a Taser or a can of pepper-spray?  What if there were affirmative-action type programs to promote diversity within the police force?  What if Michael Brown’s next door neighbors had been white?  Is segregation really dead?  Are public school funds fairly distributed?  The root of the unrest is much deeper and more complicated than the incident sparking the riots.  Maybe the most productive thing we can do in the now, is turn off our televisions and pray for Ferguson, their police force, the city officials, for justice, equality, and victory over our own prejudices. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Polishing

When life begins to lose it's sparkle, sometimes what we need most is a deep think, a meditative tuning-in to the chord of joy. It takes intentionality to reclaim the attitude of gratitude and mindfulness required to appreciate what we've been blessed with, where we are, and who we're becoming. It's like polishing a diamond smudged with the fingerprints of routine and familiarity that dull our senses.

can be overdone, though. No diamond sparkles beneath the Sham-Wow of constant introspection, despite the perpetual polishing. We can spend so much time trying to forge a perfect internalized identity that no one we come in contact with gets a chance to connect with who we are in the now . . . because we're too busy trying to figure that our ourselves.

The ability to consciously sharpen the mind as necessary, yet live outwardly and generously as joyful, yet imperfect, all-too-humans is a priceless art that takes a lifetime to master.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Mary and The Witch

Medieval Princess Mary-Ann was strolling piously along the beach one humid, fish-scented day when she heard a small, somewhat cracked voice peeping just above the shush of the tides.

“Excuse me, Miss! . . . Madame!”

Mary-Ann gently scanned the beach with her royal retinas.  At long last she spotted a tiny witch with a characteristically crooked nose, orange skin, and a pointy navy-blue hat standing on the drawbridge of a respectable sand-castle just beyond reach of the high tide. She had no broom at hand, only God knows why.  There were several tiny goat-heads bearing long droopy tongues awkwardly perched on stakes rising from the moat, but that doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t pertain to the story, and Mary-Ann was very tolerant, not to mention fictional, like Harry Potter.

The tiny witch standing on the tiny drawbridge above the tiny moat adorned with tiny goat heads on tiny stakes was in a major pickle.  She was covered from fashionable flats to furrowed forehead in a densely sticky purple slime.

“Me Lady!  Verily, verily, I have been brutally, brutally, mauled by a bi-polar jellyfish and cannot move!”

Struck with compassion, Mary-Ann replied, “Art thou not freezing, dear witch-with-the-skin-of-a-tangerine?  Let me escort you to my ample water-basin in the royal outhouse for a proper cleansing of that abominable jellyfish’s violent violet marmalade excretion!”

“Oh thank you, me lady!”  croaked the witch as she burst into joyful forest-green tears of relief.

Medieval Mary-Ann carefully plucked the witch from the drawbridge like a mouse from a glue-trap and trotted elegantly down the shoreline as fast as dignity and Elizabethan whale-bone corsets would allow.  As they neared the royal outhouse--built of hewn boulders and stained glass with ample girth, beautiful lighting, and offensive ventilation--Sir Honeybucket, on guard duty, stood at arms adjacent to said marvel of medieval relief architecture.  He simultaneously hoisted his eyebrows at the site of the witch and acknowledged the presence of royalty with a solemn bow from the hips.

All of a sudden Mary-Ann and her purple-plastered passenger were overtaken by a flurry of thundering hoofs, horsehair, and armor--knocking and crashing like a barrel full of cymbals chasing a cheese wheel down Mount Sinai!  Mary Swooned.  The witch shrieked.  Sir Binjalot, the modest yellow knight! Temporarily blinded by Dutch courage and floating molars, he nearly trampled the princess, so desperate to train Thomas on the terracotta!

Sir Honeybucket would have nothing of this brash disrespect of the nearing nobility and her feeble friend!  Drawing his sword, the protector of the potty placed it smartly between the sanctuary door and the charging Sir Binjalot!  Pointing toward Mary-Ann with his free hand, he shouted at the top of his lungs,  “Pee not!  But her and jell-y sand witch!”

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Thoughts on Doubt

"Colorni believed that doubt was creative because it allowed for alternative ways to see the world, and seeing alternatives could steer people out of intractable circles and self-feeding despondency. Doubt, in fact, could motivate: freedom from ideological constraints opened up political strategies, and accepting the limits of what one could know liberated agents from their dependence on the belief that one had to know everything before acting, that conviction was a precondition for action."
    -From The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman” (Princeton), by the Princeton historian Jeremy Adelman

Eugenio Colorni was the brother-in-law of influential economist Albert Hirschman and a big influence in his life.  I'd never heard of Hirschman until reading this article by Malcolm Gladwell.  I can relate to his fascination with so many different topics, eagerness to experiment, and geographically transient tendencies.  His warm acceptance of risk and doubt seem rooted in a humility that allowed him to comfortably accept the fact that he could be wrong or unsuccessful. When his curiosity birthed intelligent questions, this attitude allowed him to fearlessly explore possibilities.  He accepted the fact that there were limits to what he could know and understand, and that allowed him to test those limits.

As a Christian, Colorni's take on doubt got me thinking.  I used to view doubt, and certainly the admission of it, as weakness- something I wouldn't dare admit to others or even subtly reveal through questions asked in Sunday School.  Over time, however, I've come to view doubt as more virtuous than delusion.  Pastors who are secure enough in their faith to say "I'm not sure, but here's what I think and why. . ." instead of pretending they know, or avoiding hard questions altogether for the sake of unity (as if doubt is a communicable and spiritually terminal illness) stand out among many shepherds more motivated by fear of "wolves" and pride in numbers.  Even issues for which we won't come to a definite conclusion before the end of the world as we know it make great conversation!  Just don't pretend that your take on Revelation is golden, because it's not.

Every believer's soul is a custom collage of personal experiences, traditions, stigmas, superstitions, self-righteous hangups, unfounded convictions, goose-bumping 7-11 songs, denominational by-laws, cultural Christianese, Christian self-help lit, and an assortment of scriptural interpretations and misinterpretations in and out of cultural and literal context.  Even with that in mind, there's hardly anything more humbling, frightening, or liberating than to accept the fact that one's personal abstract composition of dogma/theology/spirituality is not God's Comprehensive Manifesto of Objective Truth.  Conversely, little is as cozily insulating, arrogant, divisive, or socially paralyzing as pretending that it is.

Does it take more faith for a Christian to attend church services three times a week, or to read and seriously weigh the thoughts and studies of Nietzsche, Ehrman, Dawkins,or Hitchens?  The former would indicate loyalty or devotion to a body of believers- good and healthy things, but I believe the latter would require more faith.  If one refuses to expose themselves to opposing viewpoints out of fear that their foundational beliefs could be uprooted (that is, the fear of doubt itself), are they really beliefs at all?  Maybe religion is just their security blanket woven from principles cherry-picked to live by that could go up in flames at the first spark of contradictory reasoning.  It's near impossible to truly believe in anything that one can't earnestly defend.  There's something to be said for familiarizing ourselves with differing viewpoints from the horses mouths (or pens) rather than haughtily focusing only on the smoldering straw-men propped and flopped in literature written by, written for, and marketed to believers.

Have the courage to consider things that a country-club church wouldn't dare sell in its bookstore.  When you get theologically frisky, do it prayerfully.  Approach it all as a respectful, doubtful skeptic.  It's very possible to find concepts that can't be proven, or that you don't agree with, intriguing and worthy of discussion without being utterly corrupted by them.  Actually believing (or disbelieving) something just because one likes (or hates) the way it sounds is just as stupid as believing something because a Christian rock-star sang it at a youth conference.  

The spectrum of Christian perspectives isn't as confined or well-manicured as you might think.  For a revolutionary take on what a church planted by the Apostle Paul might look like as opposed to the often heavily commercialized institutions,  consider Frank Viola's Pagan Christianity.  If you doubt that one person can sport a backbone, a heart, and an unapologetic stance with regard to the Bible, be inspired (or offended) by Douglas Wilson.  Explore the frontiers of faith (cautiously!) with some wild perspectives on emergent theology with the Homebrewed Christianity podcast, or be dazzled by a more mainstream and systematic approach to hard questions with Ravi Zacharias.  You might think Rob Bell has grown horns and a tail by the way he's been smeared by mainstream evangelicals over the past few years, but read his work and decide for yourself.  Ignorance never saved anyone.

Letting newly discovered ideas inflate the ego and make one feel superior to the seemingly less-enlightened can be a trip hazard to avoid.  There's something in all of us that wants to belong to a movement bigger than ourselves, and at the same time remain distinctly set apart in some way.  Adopting a provocative stance just to ruffle the feathers of others within your circle can be a sub-consciously tempting means of achieving such a position.  I believe that the realization of so many different takes on the same scriptures and the countless lines in the sands of grace between perceived legalism and lawlessness should have quite the opposite effect.  Opening one's eyes to see a personal black-and-white theology fade to gray in a sea of credible interpretations based on the same texts doesn't typically puff up.   

Accepting that the truth as we understand it will never fully come to terms with Truth as it stands should be humbling.  The overwhelming realization of our limited capacity for understanding can ultimately anchor hearts adrift in a sea of religious and philosophical ideas to the cross of Jesus Christ.  Grace is our only hope, love is the final answer, the rest is just fascinating.

The core of my faith can be simple and unwavering, while the rest evolves with discipleship, maturity, revelation, etc.  There are countless "truths" that I consciously and subconsciously believe,   but I'm more comfortable than ever before with the fact that believing isn't knowing.  If there's anything I'm sure of, thankfully, it's that if God's grace is enough to forgive my misdeeds,  it will certainly cover my misunderstandings.