Splashing around in theology.

My Photo
Location: Ottawa, Canada

I read lots. I have a cat. I drink coffee. Therefore, I am.

Sunday, April 30, 2006


I am writing this from a Chapters store, while sipping a Starbucks coffee.
[Big surprise!]
While browsing the shelves I happened to notice this book, shown here to the left. Finding Financial Freedom: A Biblical Guide To Your Independence.
It’s by Grant R. Jeffrey.
I set my coffee down and flipped through the thing, landing upon chapter 3, entitled: The Importance of Tithing and Charitable Giving: The Key To Financial Success.
I guess, one of my first thoughts is… the “financial success” of whom?

Tithe, the word itself, means “tenth.” The tenth part of something is a tithe.
In Christian circles the word is known to represent the tenth part of one’s income, or more specifically, one’s “increase.” Christians committed to active church life are not only encouraged, but often commanded to surrender one-tenth of all their financial increase to the church, for the furtherance of its work.
As a minumum! As a commandment found in scripture.

Do Christians do it?
Well, lots of them do, yes.
Jeffrey’s chapter 3 begins with these words:
“A recent study of giving habits found that only 4 percent of all church members tithe. Not only does this lack of generosity rob Christians of the joy of giving; it also prevents them from experiencing God’s promise of financial blessing.”
I must admit, I myself have quite a different take on this conclusion.
The way I see it, what this opening statement shows me is that a clear 96 percent of church members are a bit smarter than the other 4 percent!

I mean, come on!

To me, it is clear that Christian advocates of “tithing” are basing their admonitions on Old Testament laws and principles which are no longer applicable to modern-day people.
And Mr. Jeffrey knows this also. He says, “While we are no longer constrained by the Old Testament Law, God’s principle of blessing our obedient giving remains as His unchangeable law.” [p.39].
But whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold thy oxen!
I contend that this is a claim that goes quite beyond our mutually understood convictions. By that I mean, it is an interpretive statement, and as such, subject to investigation!
Just prior to making that statement, Jeffrey cites Leviticus 27:30 as a reference point. The passage says, “And all the tithe of thy land, whether of the seed of the land, or of the fruit of the tree, is the Lord’s: it is holy unto the Lord.”
How lovely.

But I have just re-read the entirety of ch.27 of Leviticus, and I can assure you that there is not even one other verse in that chapter that modern mankind would claim as some sort of culturally normative practise!
So why single out this one thing about tithing?
In fact, this whole portion of Leviticus is rife with laws that deal specifically with the Hebrew people of an ancient era in time. Are we to follow all of these scriptural passages with the literal exactitude that Jeffrey is suggesting?
What then should we make of this one, found a few pages earlier, in Leviticus 19:19? “Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.”
Holy Moses! Should I check the tag on my T-shirt now? Run home and rend my poly-garments? Should I call my mom and tell her she needs to decide whether she wants carrots or cabbage this year…. because scripturally, she can’t have both?

A favorite passage that people like to cite [regarding tithing] is the one about Abraham and Melchizedek. From Genesis 14:18-20.
But the thing is, Melchizedek is reported to have made this gesture prior to Moses revealing the Law at Mount Sinai. [To be fair, Jeffrey acknowledges this]. But my point would be, if we are going to use this passage at all, why not use it to emphasize the difference between tithing [according to Law, which I contend is defunct], and donating, [according to the heart, which I contend is valid].
Certainly we should donate, certainly we should give of our increase and income to causes that are worthy of our concern and charity, but we should not do so based upon some alleged God-given law. Nor should we do it based upon some returned blessing we are expecting to receive as a result of our obedience!

Jeffrey teaches [in this chapter] that, “God promised that we would reap his blessings in direct proportion to the amount we sow.” [p.40].
Then, when he is asked in his seminars HOW MUCH people ought to be giving, he answers: “do you want God to bless you in proportion to your net income or your gross?” [p.40]
How ridiculous is that?
Like God is this Accountant in the Sky, balancing a ledger on a cloud.

But of course Mr. Jeffrey is going to say this.

It is his current VOCATION to say this.
Afterwards he shakes hands with all of the conference organizers backstage, and receives a check for saying it! And he was asked to speak this very message by a committee of people who not only totally agree with that answer, but who want him to say it because they are going to [in turn] financially gain from it.
Pastors are forever inviting guest speakers like Mr. Jeffrey to their congregations in an attempt to motivate the saints to become Old Testament tithers. All pastors dream of ways in which they can educate that other 96 percent!
Another common dream involves convincing people that the local church is the equivalent of the “storehouse” of Malachi 3:10!
[I’ll save that exegetical discussion for another day].

Why is the word “increase” preferred over the word “income”?

Well because this covers an entire other swath of stuff that the faithful are supposed to hand over to the church!
For instance [p.40]… if you sell your house for $300,000 but you only had paid $200,000 when you purchased it, you now owe your local church $10,000.
One tenth of the “increase.”
You know, if we are going to be entirely consistent here, the ancient Hebrews usually BURNED their offerings! Would any church ever advocate such a thing? Set up a large barbeque in front of the pulpit, and have everyone fling their cash onto the grille?

You know what I find extremely interesting? At the front of Jeffrey’s book is a list of his previous publications. There are twelve books listed.
However, this one, shown below and entitled The Millennium Meltdown is conspicuously absent.

Do you know why it is not there?
Because it was whacky!
It was all about the Y2K computer crisis. It adamantly held that on midnight of New Year's Eve, 1999, millions of computers worldwide would crash. Power grids would fail. It would result in the most devastating and costly problem in history. It would probably even set the stage for the coming world government that was biblically prophesied to arrive in the last days.
Well, as you and I both know, this greatest of all technological disasters to ever hit the surface of the earth proved to be about as menacing as a fuse with no firecracker at the end of it!
That’s all I will say.
I just feel that this author likes to deal in hyperbole.

[Fast-forward six years…]
Chapter 3 of Jeffrey’s LATEST book ends with this:

A story is told about a man who died and went to heaven. He was met at the Pearly Gates by Saint Peter, who led the man down the golden streets. They walked past mansion after beautiful mansion until they finally reached the end of the street, where they stopped in front of a modest wooden shack. The man asked Saint Peter why he got a shack when others were enjoying so many gold mansions. Saint Peter replied, “We did the best we could with the money you gave us.”

He obviously hasn’t learned much from the Y2K storytime-session… because this one, above, is equally bogus and unwarranted.
Besides not even being very humorous, the little vignette makes me angry, and I will tell you why it does.
It makes me angry because too many people hearing it, believe it.
And the person telling it, knows this. He knows that many will believe it. That’s why he tells it.
He knows that for many hearers [not all, but many] it will be much more than a little story. And I think it is unfair to wave metaphors like this around in front of [certain] people who do not know what metaphor is.
It amounts to what I would call, spiritual abuse.
When he tells this little anecdote to faithful parishioners, so many of them will get their checkbooks out and start calculating, and writing… and dreaming of their mansion.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Wise Words

Nature does not, in the long run, favour life. If nature is all that exists -- in other words, if there is no God and no life of some quite different sort somewhere outside Nature -- then all stories will end in the same way: in a universe from which all life is banished without possibility of return. It will have been an accidental flicker, and there will be no one even to remember it.
-- C.S. Lewis --

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Hand of God

“If you make the Most High your dwelling – even the Lord, who is my refuge – then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways, they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”
-- Psalm 91:9-12 --

Often I begin these blogs with a sort of disclaimer statement and I am going to do so again, here. It’s just that I think it is important, as regards TONE!
Whoever reads what ends up appearing here on godpuddle should know right up front that I have not the slightest desire to poke fun at anyone’s personal beliefs, or belittle their statements made in faith.
At the same time though, my motivation is to merely point out what a rational perspective may look like, when placed alongside such statements, and beliefs. To apply a bit of logical reasoning, congruence, or [yes] outright opposition at times, to some things that are commonly held to be truisms about God or theology.
So here is my current disclaimer.
Nothing that I am about to say in this article is said with malicious intent, nor is it said to belittle or otherwise poke fun at anyone.

Having said that, let me tell you about a phone call I recently received. It was from a friend, telling me of an accident that occurred.
An out of control car overshot the roadway, and smashed into the very office building where someone very dear to them was working away, at their desk. The vehicle came through the building and very nearly ran right over the person, working there. The impact sent her hurtling from her desk and she suffered considerable trauma and injury, requiring hospitalization.
That is about enough detail. I think it provides an adequate picture of the sudden seriousness of such an event.
My friend then proceeded to say, “It is so obvious to me, to our whole family, in fact, that ______ was spared by the hand of God.” [Name withheld].

That is the firmly-held conclusion of my caller friend.
At the time, I just said…. “Mmm-hmm!”
Now comes the part where I want to repeat that it is not my desire whatsoever to make light of the situation we are discussing here. Truly, someone could have been killed.
But what I want to point out is the inherent logistic absurdities of my friend’s conclusion. [Strictly speaking, the statement itself is what I want to critically investigate, not the person who said it.]
I maintain that to interpret the event in this fashion, is to also assume that God CAUSED the accident!
Well, simply because of the absurdity of the only other possible option, which is that God was SURPRISED by it!
In other words, God was not at all aware of the accident’s possibility until it began happening, and then [at that moment] God sprang into action, slowing the out of control vehicle down, so that the person behind the desk would not be killed, but merely injured.
When all of the events came to light, it was found that the driver of the vehicle made the mistake of hitting the accelerator rather than the brake pedal!
Hence, my own conclusion [were I asked] would be more along the lines of:
Extremely poor driving skills were the cause of the accident, and rapid decrease in momentum the cause of any vehicle stoppage whatsoever.
My question therefore becomes the following: If God is as directly involved in this story as my friend assumes, would it not have been much more easier for God to have directed the placement of the foot of the driver? I mean, rather than doing nothing, and then having the car smash into the building and causing all of that mayhem and destruction and injury?
I agree that God is intimately concerned with the welfare of the person working away behind their desk. If the God that my friend believes in exists at all, then of course that God does not want anyone to get run over by a car.
But, nonetheless, people are run over by cars all the time! Every day!
Even now as I have typed these few paragraphs, several people [and of this there can be very little doubt] have died in tragic motor vehicle accidents, the world over!
So again, I am not making light of the intense gratitude one might be expected to want to send off in some sort of a direction after being “spared” such a potential tragedy as is herein being described, but at the same time, to attribute this gratitude to the hand of God is absolutely absurd.

To me, it is far more logical to simply conclude that the reason the car stopped when it did is a combination of:
a) Its momentum being slowed from the impact of having to drive through the wall of the place.
b) The driver, in that moment, probably realizing which pedal was the the one for the brake.
c) The initial speed of the vehicle in the first place.

Some people might say, reading those three unemotional facts…. “Hah! Your reasoning powers are tempered by the fact that it was not close enough to home! It was not your own family or friends involved.”

But that is not true at all. Let me tell you another true story.

A number of years ago, my mother and father drove out to Vancouver Island to visit my sister and her family. One day, they all decided to go up-Island on a scenic tour.
Just as they were leaving the house, my brother-in-law said he would prefer to drive my father’s van. And so it is that all seven of them piled into the thing, and set off.
Not far into it, my brother-in-law noticed that an oncoming vehicle was swerving towards them in an erratic fashion. As anyone who has ever driven a vehicle at highway speed knows, there is not a lot of time to figure out what to do. Within one or two seconds he had to negotiate a near-roll-over swerve to avoid the car, and as he looked into his rear-view mirror the out of control vehicle slammed into the car behind them.
The result was a number of fatalities in this tragic accident that my own family had avoided by mere inches!
Almost assuredly, if my 70-year old father was driving the van, all seven of the passengers in it that day would have been killed in the head-on collision. He would never have achieved the reaction-time necessary.
But I cannot possibly come to the conclusion of God’s hand being upon them unless I am at the same time able to explain why God’s hand was so intent upon killing the other people….. the people in the rear-view mirror!
If God was so involved, and loves people without partiality [as I, in fact, believe God does]… would it not have been better, and even easier, for God to have nudged that sleeping driver into an awake state, so that no-one at all needed to be killed?
In the above scene, am I to conclude that God loves my own family more than he loves the families of the other people? The ones that were killed that day on the highway?
Am I to conclude that it was God who told my brother-in-law to drive the van, as they all left the house? If so… wouldn’t it have been even better for God to have told the sleepy driver of the other car to pull over to the side of the road and have a little bit of a napsie-wapsie?

Some people [speaking of partiality now] might even conclude that the other people [the ones who perished] may not have had God’s protection upon them, because they were not “believers” whereas my family [which is, in fact, the case] WERE!
But again, this explains absolutely nothing unless at the same time we can point to the immunity of all “believers” when it comes to tragic events that happen every single day of the year! And we simply cannot do this. Horrifically tragic things happen every single day to “believers” and “non-believers” alike!

So what am I saying?
Am I saying that God does not care about us?
Am I saying that there is no such thing as “God’s hand” protecting anyone, at any time?
I am not saying either of those things because I do not know either of them to be true or false.
What I am saying is that what we are meaning and believing when we employ the phrase “God’s hand” is most of the times….. utterly absurd.
There is absolutely no empirical or experiential cause and effect correlation between our belief in the protection of “the hand of God” and any actual real-life protection.

This will surely sound cold of me to point this out, but in my friend’s initial statement to me on the phone, what is essentially being said is that even if the car in question had been travelling at a speed of 350 miles an hour when it hit the building, it STILL would have stopped before running over the person behind the desk.

Hmmm… maybe in the pages of the Bible yes, but not anytime since!


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Wise Words

I do not want the peace which passeth understanding, I want the understanding which bringeth peace.
-- Helen Keller --

Monday, April 17, 2006

The Uncomfortable Christian

Tonight I attended a seminar entitled Modern Faith & The Historical Jesus.
The speaker was Tom Harpur, and as many readers of this blog will know, Harpur’s book The Pagan Christ was very influential in the process which I call my own spiritual renaissance. I have described the process in a previous blog.
The picture shown here is of Harpur. I’ve heard him speak before, but only tonight did I notice how tall he is.
The guy is like some kind of Philistine giant! [There was a sign, as you walked in... "Check Slingshots At Door"]!!
I was expecting Mr. Harpur to lecture upon the topic written across my ticket, but instead, the format of the evening was a brief reading from one chapter of his new book, followed by an interrogative interview by a moderator and then a roving microphone, fielding questions from the audience.
I would have liked to hear more outright lecturin’!
Thankfully though, the questions were pretty good, and the answers even better. Right from the get go, the moderator asked Tom to elaborate about the use of his phrase “uncomfortable Christian.”
Harpur replied that he describes himself as an “uncomfortable Christian” because he is grieved about “the large pond, or lake, or slough of literalism into which Christianity has fallen and cannot extricate itself from.”
He said that it embarasses him, and then cited several reasons for his chagrin if he were to go no farther for illustrative ammunition than the Easter service he attended just yesterday, in some un-named United church in rural Ontairo. He said that it was literally plagued with literalism, and clarified by saying that not one mention was made concerning “the first Bible ever written.” [I was all ears!]
By this term he meant, the heavens.
He explained how that Easter, the very timing of Easter, has everything to do with events in the heavens, as does Christmas, and that a full understanding of either of these religious festivals cannot possibly be understood without reference being made to the vernal equinox and winter solstice [respectively.]
In response to another question, Harpur again focussed on the topic of literalism, saying that if there is a planetary cataclysm [end of the world] we need to realize that it will not come about due to political upheaval or breakdown, but rather, it will come about because of “people taking a few words of ancient text and pushing those words to the limit.”
[This so confirms to me the idea behind the writings of Sam Harris, alluded to a while ago on godpuddle.]
Harpur was asked: “Is there a role for the churches today…. any relevance they can offer a true seeker of spiritual truth?”
His answer was that the “potential” is there, “but not along the path they are currently following.” By this he further explained that “symbols need to be revived, but revived subjectively.” He stated that “99.9% of sacred text is symbolic, allegorical, metaphorical, or meant as imagery.”
He followed this up with citing several examples; the 40-year long wandering of the Israelites, Jesus’s walking on the water, etc. These are metaphors, not references to historical events.
When asked why the churches are so fearful of allowing the metaphorical approach to biblical interpretation, Harpur said “It’s really a power thing. Fear!”
This [he went on to say] is why the Gnostics hid their texts, and these texts are only being found in recent history, by modern-day archaeologists. The Gnostics hid their texts because “they heard the tramp of Christian footsteps behind them”… Gnostic-thinking is not about heirarchy. They knew that true spirituality came from within, and this was a doctrine that flew in the face of Christian leaders of the day, who felt that their positions would be threatened if the common person got hold of such teachings.
Harpur had very little good to say about The Jesus Seminar, when asked. This may be the point at which I most differ from Harpur, in my current spiritual journey, his contention that there was no such person as the “historical Jesus.”
In the midst of one comment, Harpur paused to highly endorse the work of Harold Bloom, and specifically his latest book, entitled Jesus And Yahweh: The Names Divine.
In a lighter moment, towards the end of the evening, Harpur, a firm believer in an afterlife, was asked what Good Friday and Easter mean to him?
He said, “You’re as dead tonight as you’re ever going to be.” [Laughter.]
We, all of us, go through crucifixions and resurrections, he said. “I myself have gone through many of each.” There is no life that has not been through them. The current way that Easter is celebrated is an example of far too much emphasis being placed upon one ancient story of such a crucifixion and resurrection. [My paraphrase].

All in all it was an enjoyable evening.
Was it worth it?
It is always worth it, to think, and to listen to someone who has thought.


Sunday, April 16, 2006

My Easter Service

It is Easter afternoon….
About three minutes after I woke up this morning, my phone rang. I should have let it keep ringing, but I thought it might be my mom, so I answered it.
The person on the other end told me I was going to hell.
I am not exaggerating in the slightest.
To be more precise, they said, “Where did you go to church this morning?”
Me: “Ummm… I didn’t, actually.”
“You’ve told me you’ve been thinking a lot about death lately.”
“Yes, I have,” I replied, while filling my coffee-maker up with water….
“Well, you should be worried then.”
“What?” I said.
“Not going to church on Easter morning? How do you think God feels about that?”
Needless to say, this conversation was not exactly enlightening to me.
It got progressively worse than above described, and ended with me hanging up on the person.

Only afterward did I think of what I should have said. You know how that happens? Always too late?
I would have liked to ask the person. “Is this what they instructed you to do after your Easter service today? Go home and call the first hellbound friend you can think of? Is that what Easter means to you?”

I am over it now. But I must admit, it was unnerving. It really was.
I do not like to hang up on anyone.

Thinking of the scene makes me recall something from the Tillich book I am currently reading.
Paul Tillich was a German/American theologian (1886-1965) and some say he was the most influential theologian of the 20th Century.
Reading Tillich is like wading out into an ocean, honest to God. Very soon you realize your feet are not touching bottom anymore, but the very salinity and undercurrent are bearing you up. You are swept along.
For me, I will always remember Good Friday, 2006 as the day I finally began reading Tillich.
Anyway, concerning the events of my own Easter morning here, the first chapter of this Tillich anthology comes to mind, as I said.
It is called Invocation: The Lost Dimension, and was written in 1958, five years before I was born. As I read it, I had to marvel… “How has this been here all my life, without my knowing it?”
Tillich argues that the Church (Christianity) has lost what he calls “the dimension of depth.”
I cannot possibly capsulize all that he says, but honestly, it is just so fascinating, I must regurgitate a bit of it here, for you.

If the dimension of depth is lost, the symbols in which life in this dimension has expressed itself must also disappear. I am speaking of the great symbols of the historical religions in our Western world, of Judaism and Christianity. The reason that the religious symbols became lost is not primarily scientific criticism, but it is a complete misunderstanding of their meaning; and only because of this misunderstanding was scientific critique able, and even justified, in attacking them. The first step toward the nonreligion in the Western world was made by religion itself. When it defended its great symbols, not as symbols, but as literal stories, it had already lost the battle. In doing so the theologians (and today many religious laymen) helped to transfer the powerful expressions of the dimension of depth into objects or happenings on the horizontal plane. There the symbols lose their power and meaning and become an easy prey to physical, biological and historical attack.

I am way out in the surf here, in the depth.
Buoyed though, not drowning…. aware that I should keep reading.
And a couple pages later, he says:

Is there an answer? There is always an answer, but the answer may not be available to us. We may be too deeply steeped in the predicament out of which the question arises to be able to answer it. To acknowledge this is certainly a better way toward a real answer than to bar the way to it by deceptive answers. And it may be that in this attitude the real answer (within available limits) is given. The real answer to the question of how to regain the dimension of depth is not given by increased church membership or church attendance, nor by conversion or healing experiences. But it is given by the awareness that we have lost the decisive dimension of life, the dimension of depth, and that there is no easy way of getting it back. Such awareness is in itself a state of being grasped by that which is symbolized in the term, dimension of depth. He who realizes that he is separated from the ultimate source of meaning shows by this realization that he is not only separated but reunited. And this is just our situation. What we need above all – and partly have – is the radical realization of our predicament, without trying to cover it up by secular or religious ideologies. The revival of religious interest would be a creative power in our culture if it would develop into a movement of search for the lost dimension of depth.

Reading this the first time, and now re-reading it again, has been my church.
My Easter service.

The realization is all.
Separated but reunited.
I’m so glad my phonecaller friend knows so much about all of the details in between, and how these apply to someone else. And I assure you, I feel as much spiritual guilt about consuming my next cup of coffee here, as I do about letting the answering machine retrieve my next call.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Getting Extreme About Extremism...

A while ago, I mentioned that I had been reading a book called The End of Faith, by Sam Harris. I quoted, at that time, an excerpt from the book. [The blog itself is here, if you would like to refer back to it.]
When I posted that same excerpt on another blogsite, I got a response that was arguing for the fact that the excerpt itself was a tad bit whacky.
I do not think it is whacky at all.
And I have since found that someone else had written something along the same lines as Harris, opinion-wise.
The ever controversial Salman Rushdie had written a piece in the New York Times, on November 2, 2001. His article was entitled, “Yes, This Is About Islam.”
What he is referring to in the title is the fact that so much of the media had been saying [of the Sept.11th attacks on the World Trade Center] that “this isn’t about Islam.” And [admittedly] this rhetoric was for good reason: to keep innocent Muslims from being harassed and to keep the peace with other Muslim countries.
Rushdie said: “The trouble with this necessary disclaimer is that it isn’t true. Of course this is about Islam.”
But then he explained his comments by saying it was not so much about religion, as religion in politics. Again…
“The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal, its depoliticization, is the nettle that all Muslim societies must grasp in order to become modern. If terrorism is to be defeated, the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist principles on which the modern is based, and without which Muslim countries’ freedom will remain a distant dream.”

Can there even be a more significant statement than that last one, in light of the American [and coalitions] effort to inject or instill some kind of a sense of “freedom” in the areas where they are now so committed, and involved?
I agree with Sam Harris, and I agree with Salman Rushdie.
‘Taint gonna happen, this “freedom” that the West is trying to politically impose upon a problem that is inherently religious, at its root.
The WAR on terror?
The term itself [to me] is ridiculous.
Terror defeating terror?

The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal.
Not only when it comes to politics, or some kind of national concerns, or my neighbor across the ocean, but even when it comes to my neighbor next door or across the street.
Granted, what Muslim extremists want is for their religion to be imposed upon the West, or for that matter, the entire world. And that is wrong. It is just plain wrong. Yes, we can talk about political problems till we are blue in the face, but I agree with Harris and Rushdie, that when all is said and done, Sept.11th, 2001 was about RELIGION.
It was about FAITH!
And what was done, in the name of religion and faith, and God, was wrong.
But, it is equally wrong for the West [Christianity, if you will], to even begin to want its own brand of “rightness” imposed upon someone else, be it the nation or religious grouping that represents this specific event [Sept.11th] in particular, or any other one!
The current state of things between these two worldviews should not be viewed as being linear, which would imply something with an eventual endpoint. No, we are now currently thigh-deep in something that is cyclical. A vortex.
Contrary to popular [Western] belief, Christian extremism is no better than Muslim extremism. Both are currently proving that they will kill to achieve their “extreme” means.
The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal is the only hope for mankind.
I agree with Rushdie. The only point at which I differ is his use of the word "restoration." Historically speaking, when has religion ever been merely personal?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Peace. Be still.

I want to say a few things about peace.
But first, a disclaimer.
The things I am going to say about peace [inner peace] are not meant to be read as some kind of definitive and/or exhaustive canonical treatise on the subject.
They are merely the imperfect personal musings of an imperfect guy sitting in a nearly perfect coffeeshop. OK? Deal?

Be still, and know that I am God. (God, in Psalm 46:10)

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (Jesus, in John 14:27)

I think that these are two of the most beautiful scriptures in the entirety of the Bible. And now I am going to say something that may sound a bit crazy.
I think that I know this peace, described here.
By that I mean to say that I know when I have it [experience it] and I know when I don’t. And the difference between the two states is so tangibly felt within me that I jealously guard the maintenance of the former thing…. the peace.
Peace, [I find] is much better than non-peace.
When I am still, I know that God is God.
Stillness though, is not a hot commodity nowadays! But it does exist. Sometimes you’ve got to go find it. Other times, it sneaks up on you. More on this in a bit.
But of the second scripture, what could Jesus have possibly meant, by saying that his sort of peace was unlike that which “the world” might give?
I believe that what he was implying was that his peace was not dependent upon favorable circumstances!
It is a peace that runs deeper than things, deeper than accomplishments, status, attachments, even deeper than happiness. It is a peace that breaks through all of these things to declare itself as superior to them all.
We all want it, [inner peace] but sometimes we don’t know that we want it until it is really hard to get it. Most often the way it goes is we live our lives oblivious to the call to inner peace. We clutter ourselves with so many attachments, so many bills that cannot be paid unless we work seven days a week for the next 95 years, we rack up so much INNER DEBT that our adrenaline cannot keep pace. We get so many inner scars from looking for peace in all the wrong places!
Sooner or later, we are disappointed. Why?
Because we did all this stuff, and now the thing that is most important is missing.
There’s no inner peace.
This is the time when a lot of people run to religion.
If you do not believe me on this point, just go to an evangelical church on open-mike testimony night!
What a litany of horror stories you will hear!
And you know what? Religion works for a time. [In some cases, so would winning the lottery.]
But overall, it’s a diversion from the real issue, because basing one’s need for inner peace on religion is still placing too much emphasis on externals, on things that will disillusion you, and disappoint you.

The thing is, the type of peace Jesus was talking about has virtually nothing to do with religion.
In fact, religion is the very thing that is keeping virtual hordes of people from experiencing true inner peace. Instead, it is causing them inner turmoil. There are tons of people who would experience an immeasurable increase in their level of inner peace if they completely abandoned their religious practises. For some people, a relaxing morning walk along the river would do them more spiritual good than the next 100 church services rolled into one! Each of us have a responsibility [to ourselves] to recognize if we are that person, and then act accordingly.

Someone might say, “But what about salvation? What about being saved? Isn’t that the ultimate concern? The thing we should fret over? Isn’t that why we practise religion?”
Salvation is an issue I am not really going into here, this evening.
What I am focussing on is inner peace.
Salvation and inner peace are apples and oranges.
I am not saying that inner peace brings salvation. [For one thing, how many opinions are there, concerning what salvation is?]
But, conversely, neither does “salvation” necessarily involve lasting inner peace! Point being, that some of the most “saved-est” people have the least inner peace within them.

Well then, what am I suggesting one ought to do, to get inner peace?
I don’t know.
But the way that would come closest to the way I would perceive the beginning stages of some sort of answer would be this:
I don’t get it.
That is the one thing I cannot do.

It is something that must be deliberately cultivated.
Because the world, [or life itself, as Jesus inferred] will suck it right out of you in ONE DAY’S TIME if you are not serious about jealously guarding it.

Let me provide a fictitious scenario...

You are out at a work-related party, being held at a beautiful resort, outside city limits. The atmosphere is electric. You are even more witty tonight than you usually are. Your spouse is over yonder, mixing it up, and also having a great time. Soon, you drift over to the verandah, drink in hand. The cool night air tempts you thitherward, so you descend the few steps to the long, winding gravel driveway. And you walk.
It is just you and the crunching gravel underfoot, and soon you saunter far enough away that the noise of the party is just a faint hum on the breeze, with the odd laughter poking its way through. You are just noticing how clean and fresh the air is tonight, when peripherally, your eye catches some movement, off to the left, through a clearing in the trees. You stop and see that a deer is as startled to have seen you, as you are, to have seen it.
You gaze at it for a long long while, until it feels safe with you and continues to nibble at some leaves in the brush. The deer turns and leaves before you do.

Anyone who does not [even now, reading this] appreciate that sort of a moment for what it is [a veritable epiphany] does not at all understand what inner peace is, in any experiential sense.
When the person in this scenario stops and marvels at the beauty of this deer, he or she is being still and knowing that God is God.
What if I don’t really believe in God, though?
It doesn’t matter, for the purposes of what I am discussing here.
When the person in the scenario stops and considers how thankful they are for the undeserved beauty of that moment, they are praying.
What if I have never really prayed before in my life?
It doesn’t matter, for the purposes of what I am discussing here.

My point in even mentioning this scenario is to now provide a possible counterpart to it.
Let’s say that another person has walked down the same gravel driveway, on the same evening, everything just as described above… but all that floods their mind is how alienated and out of place they feel to be alone, walking down a gravel driveway while a party is going on. The only reason they stop is to turn around and go back, [and because their drink needs replenishing]… and nowhere along the way have they really dialogued with themself. They were not living in a state of awareness. No freshness of appreciation. They would not have been able to tell you if the fenceline was to the left or the right of the road, and when they happened to see the startled deer, only thought of how nice it would be to shoot and eat it.
Lingering is not their style.

Which of these two people would you describe as someone who has a greater level of inner peace?

The thing is, what I mean by shutting down and being still is that you do not wait for those moments described in the first scenario, to come to you.
You go out and get them. You purposely seek them out.
You do what you have to do to get them. They are EVERYWHERE!
All around us.
And they are not religious, yet profoundly spiritual.

Friday, April 07, 2006


To the left is an image of the beautiful stained glass window of the Methodist Church in Findlay, Illinois.
It depicts Jesus walking on the water, a New Testament story that can be found in Matt.14:22-33, Mk.6:45-51, and Jn.6:15-21.
Today I made the mistake of reading the paper.
You think the Bible is crazy sometimes? Try reading the paper. It’s more crazy. Anyway, there was this article, out of Miami (Reuters). And I quote:

The New Testament says that Jesus walked on water, but a Florida university professor believes there could be a less miraculous explanation – he walked on a floating piece of ice. Professor Doron Nof also theorized in the early 1990’s that Moses’s parting of the Red Sea had solid science behind it. Nof, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University said this week that his study found an unusual combination of water and atmospheric conditions on what is now northern Israel could have led to ice formation on the Sea of Galilee. Nof used records of the Mediterranean Sea’s surface temperatures and statistical models to examine the dynamics of the Sea of Galilee, which Israelis know now as Lake Kinneret. The study found that a period of cooler temperatures in the area between 1,500 and 2,600 years ago could have included the decades in which Jesus lived.

With all due respect, that entire premise involves a real lot of could haves!

Here is the problem I personally have with this kind of research.
First of all, it assumes that what is recorded in the Bible is an actual event that occurred in history.
Then, moving from there, it begins to try and discover possible ways in which what is described as a miraculous occurrence may have been the result of natural events. [Professor Nof is doing the same thing with the Red Sea study as he is with the walking on water episode].
So far, this is not so bad, it is not anything for which anyone should be summarily euthanized or whatever [even though I really think it is already quite bad]… but granted, even if God performed miracles through men in these instances, we can assume he [God] may have used a sort of acceleration of natural forces to accomplish what he [God] wanted to accomplish. After all, this may be the very definition of “miracle.” Something like, “a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.”
A temporary bending of the rules, yet something that USES the rules, nonetheless. For instance, uses a mighty wind to part the waters of the Red Sea. Winds occur elsewhere, in much less dramatic fashion, in other words.
But to assume [in this instance] that Jesus hopped aboard this extremely serendipitous Middle-Eastern iceberg [and there are so many of these, you know]… well, it misses the whole POINT!
Either the event described was a miracle in the sense of being clearly UNDERSTOOD as a miracle, or it was not!
In other words, what Nof’s research fails to address is the very intent of the writers of the biblical account[s].
Was this perhaps an exaggeration of an actual event? An exaggerated legend that developed between the time of the event described, and the writing about that event? [Which I happen to believe is the case regarding the story of the crossing of the Red Sea].
But my point is simply this… when we read of Jesus later healing the blind man, by smearing mud upon the eyes, and telling the person to go and wash it off in the pool of Siloam [Jn.9:6-7]… are we now going to have to wait for some special modern Siloamian Mud Research Team© to tell us how Jesus accomplished this?
When he cast demons from demoniacs, are we going to have to wait for someone to tell us how this person was actually an epileptic, having a seizure which simply ran its course at about the time Jesus prayed about the situation?
If you apply this sort of…. logic…. to the long list of miracles attributed to Jesus, you begin to realize that his greatest "miracle" is being in the right place at the right time, when all of these confluences of nature happen to be happening! He’s there, wanting to surprise his disciples by walking out to them on the water. JUST AT THE SAME time as the iceberg floats by.
It is ridiculously absurd.
It is National Enquirer stuff, and nothing else!
Miracles are meant to defy logic, not support it!

But here is how it goes, as I see it.
There are only so many possibilities, and we all have to make our decision, as to how we are going to perceive the many miracle stories of the Bible.


1) They happened just as described. I mean, in real time. Not only did the Israelites make it through the towering walls of water on either side of them [Charlton Heston made it look so easy] BUT the Egyptians got drowned, as it closed down around them, directly afterward.
Not only did Jesus walk out to the disciples, but Peter got out onto that iceberg too, for a while!
Not only did the mud heal the blind man, but no man since has been able to heal blindness by smearing mud just like Jesus did that day. And this, taking into account that he promised that his followers would do “even greater” things than he did [Jn.14:12].

2) The miracles happened, but they happened as a result of natural laws that went haywire for a moment, and these haywire events took place just at the time that certain people wanted them to take place. This is what many scientists, including Professor Nof today are trying to tell us. In other words, God was not the source of the miracles, several freaks of nature, were.
Or, God's role was to bring the freaks of nature near enough to be accessible to those who were privy to their presence.

3) The things themselves [the miracles] did not actually happen in real time, AS DESCRIBED. Things happened, yes, but not at the magnitude described. Much legend and hyperbole developed between events described, and events written, as is the case with all folklore and oral tradition.
The fish that was caught got bigger and bigger, until, when it was reeled in, it was found to have a coin in its mouth [Matt.17:27].

As you know by now, I am currently favoring this third sort of route, and if anyone can come come up with a fourth or fifth set of possibilities, please let me know. I will add it to the list.
But I have come to the conclusion that my choice of option #3 does not mean that I love God any less, nor appreciate his [her, its] goodness in my life any less than the person who is trying so desperately to walk across the swimming pool yonder….
You can’t do it, my friend.
And neither can I.
And [I believe]… neither has anyone.
Little "a" or capital "A".


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Wise Words

Faith is not something to grasp, it is a state to grow into.

Faith... Must be enforced by reason...When faith becomes blind it dies.

-- Mahatma Gandhi --

Sunday, April 02, 2006

God or Nothing

I ended my last blog [yesterday] by saying, “I want to talk a little bit about some interesting things surrounding the mention of the heavens in the Bible, and maybe say a bit about what I think of Balbus’s contention that the world must have been made for us since only we can appreciate it.”
The heavens fascinate me.
I love a starry night.
This is why I have a gigantic print of Van Gogh’s painting of the same name, on the main wall of my apartment.
What I want to mention today are a couple things almost in the realm of mere trivia. I am not postulating any grandiose theological conclusions or anything. Just pointing out a couple of things I notice in the Bible, as regards mention of the heavens.

The gist of where I am going with this is simply that if the Bible is the Word of God [and I am not arguing one way or the other on this]… but if it is the very Word of God and not tainted by human ignorance or mere human speculation, then when it mentions the heavens, we would expect it to be accurate about things only God would know.
Do you follow what I am saying here?
For instance, if the Bible said somewhere that the earth is in orbit around the moon, when in fact later scientific data reveals that the opposite is true, that the moon orbits the earth, then I think it would be fair to conclude that the original biblical writing [the autograph] was the result of the musing of ancient minds, rather than information passed from God to man, [ie, from God to writer of text].
The only other option for consideration is that God [the Transmitter of Things Only He Could Know], when inspiring the biblical writers, deliberately spoke down to them, in other words, spoke to mankind only at a level they could currently grasp. In other words, endorsed their current scientific ignorance.

Two scriptural examples come to my mind, as I muse upon these possiblities. [I know there are many many more examples that could be discussed. If you recall any, please let me know, in the comments section of this blog]. My examples argue for each possibility.
The first passage I mention seems to suggest that God in fact did reveal something beyond the writer’s own intelligence level.

Isaiah 40:21-22 says, “Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”

Isaiah here says that God is camped out in this area “above the circle of the earth” and I find this terminology interesting. Like I said at the start, I do not want to make some sort of theology out of this, I am just merely pointing out that it does seem that Isaiah is saying something that only God could know. At the time of writing, mankind certainly had no concept of the curvature of the earth, much less its actual spherical overall shape.

However, the second of my examples is quite different. It seems to suggest that the writer had been granted very little inside information about celestial things.
It is from Joshua 10:12-13. There was a great battle going on….
“On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the LORD in the presence of Israel:
‘O sun, stand still over Gibeon, O moon, over the valley of Aijalon.’
So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jasher.
The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.”

So the sun stood still. It stopped in the middle of the sky.
No it didn’t!
What I mean is that even if this story actually happened, this is not the way in which the actual events would have shaken down, simply because it is not the sun that moves around the earth, but the earth that moves around the sun. In other words, if anything, the earth would have stopped moving, to grant Joshua more time to brutally slaughter people.
My point being…. “Does God not know this?”
And if he does, then how can we believe that he inspired peope to write this?
All I am saying is that this is an obvious example of the human element drastically poking its way through what is so commonly perceived as the literal Word of God.

So, I present the above two examples, the best examples I can think of, to argue each position.

Now, what of Balbus’s claim that the world must have been created for us since only we can appreciate it?
Amazingly, here on April 2nd, 2006, I think that there is some merit to that statement. [I cite the current date, because my thoughts are in constant flux. That is to say, they change.]
In order to approach why I think it has any merit, I think I would have to go further back, to say a bit about WHO or WHAT God is to me.
[This question has been asked of me, rather frequently, as of late].
I have not come across a better sort of description of who or what God might be, than that of the theologian Paul Tillich, who calls God “The Ground of All Being.”
I like that.
To explain what Tillich is meaning by his use of the phrase would require the writing of books. That is why there are so many books on the topic.
But suffice it to say that the way I put it, is that God, to me, is EXISTENCE!
In this sense, God is what would be here, if we weren’t.
I do not believe in the premise [often argued] that we (mankind) have created God. However, I do believe that we have created things about God.
Yes, most definitely we have done this latter thing.

For now, let me just pose the following question to you.
What would exist, were we not here to ask the question, “What exists?”?

My own current answer to that question is “God.”
And the fact that we do exist, [as opposed to the possibility of not existing] makes me even more sure of that answer, not less.
Some would say, “What you are saying, Cipriano, still does not address the most relevant aspect of Balbus’s original statement, the part where it says ‘for us’”!
But I think it does address it.
If God is truly the Ground of All Being, then God is the source of all that is.
In other words, whatever is, exists because it has been deemed to exist.
“Deemed” by wh
o or what?
By Existen
Existence [read “God”] was fully aware that we would be the only sentient beings able to appreciate existence.

We must realize [I think] that there are only two possible answers to the question, posed above: What would exist, were we not here to ask the question, “What exists?”?
And those answers are either:
A) God. [The God who transcends our every human effort to describe. This includes the Christian effort. The God that every world religion has fallen short of knowing in fullness.]
B) Nothing.

To me, even the mere fact that you are reading this blog makes B) an impossiblity.

Later, alligators.


Saturday, April 01, 2006

De Natura Deorum

Cicero was murdered exactly 2006 years before I was born.
When I say exactly I mean that my birthday is December 4th, and that is the very day that Cicero got on the wrong side of Caesar Augustus, and was executed in Formiae, Italy.
The year was 43 B.C.
But two years prior to this, Cicero began writing a book called De Natura Deorum [The Nature of the Gods] and to look at this profound work of his is to lift back the pages of history and see that people back then asked the same sort of questions that I am asking now, two millennia later!
I am horrifically summarizing here for the sake of making this blog of a reasonable length, but suffice it to say that The Nature of the Gods is basically a fictional discussion [presented as non-fiction] of a meeting of Cotta [a Skeptic orator and priest], Velleius [an Epicurean], Balbus [a Stoic], and Cicero himself, sort of a neutral arbiter of the other three.
Cicero begins by saying that most philosophers have affirmed the existence of the gods and that this assertion is “plausible and one to which we are all mutually inclined.” But he moves quickly to a reminder of several thinkers who have questioned this affirmation. Then he explains that even among those who assert that gods exist, disagreements abound as to their form and character.
This sort of kicks off the discussion. In my imagination, the tankards of coffee are poured and these guys blab all night long, in their toga-like jammies.

Everything said, by all, is interesting.
But I want to focus on what this Balbus guy, this Stoic dude, says.
He cites four reasons to believe in God. The last one is the one he considers to be the most important. It is:
The regularity and motion of the heavenly bodies.

He says, “What could be more clear and obvious, when we look up to the sky and contemplate the heavens, than that there is some divinity of superior intelligence, by which they are controlled?”
Elsewhere: “Their constant and eternal motion, wonderful and mysterious in its regularity, declares the indwelling power of a divine intelligence. If any man cannot feel the power of God when he looks upon the stars then I doubt whether he is capable of any feeling at all.”
And: “If you see some great and beautiful building, would you infer, because the architect is not immediately visible, that it must have been built by mice and weasels?”
This “power” according to Balbus, “is not devoid of sense and reason.”
As we incline our eyes upward and acknowledge that it exists, we ought to, at the same time, acknowledge that this power is superior to us, as men/women upon the earth.
His argument goes on to posit that the world must have been made for us since only we can appreciate it.

Now I will say something that may surprise some readers who have read this blog on a consistent basis.
I agree with Balbus.
Definitely, at their little coffee-session tete-a-tete, the current “me” would have been in agreement with him. [More likely, I would have BEEN him!]
It is a matter of personal choice, maybe even one of faith. Well, actually, it must be “of faith” because my adherence to it cannot be based upon anything empirically proven.
What draws me is the focus of the belief.
It stays away from the tangled weeds that are twisted around the moral attributes of God and God’s actions. Stays away from the problems of theodicy.
It just says “LOOK! THINK!”
Admittedly, there are so many ways to look at Balbus’s stated conviction about the heavens.
One must remember that back then, [two millennia ago] the world was thought to be an unmoving object. Movement itself was intricately connected with whatever was perceived of as being a living intelligence. The earth was at the center of things, in a universal sense, with everything else moving around it.
Nowadays, we know better.
But has our scientific knowledge really diminished the wonder of pulling over to the side of a country road, turning the headlights off, getting out, and cranking your head upwards on a cloudless night?
I think not.
And if it has, then that can only be rather sad.
What would the next step consist of, in that line of progress? Preferring robot-friends over human-friends?
If so, I hope I do not live that long.

In the story, Cotta [the Skeptic] tells Balbus, “You are right to wonder at them [the heavens] but that they are amazing does not mean that they can’t be natural phenomena.”
Of course he has a good point there. But, rising to get yet another coffee, I would ask Cotta, “What are we meaning when we say that something is a ‘natural phenomena’?
For instance, much less the heavens at night, but I myself could say [and I, in fact, do say it] that our own human bodies are a wonder on an equal scale as the heavenly bodies themselves. By that I mean, the intricacy with which our [properly functioning] bodies are constructed boggles the mind.
I myself do not see any absolutely necessary incongruency between believing that they evolved to be this way [of their own accord, natural phenomena] while at the same time maintaining that a divine being which I call ‘God’ set that natural [evolutionary] process in motion.
Who is to say that God’s process of creation is so incongruent with science’s process of evolution? Aren’t both things “theories” when all is said and done?
To me, it is neither of these things, but certainty of either, which is in the balance. No?

At the end of it all Cicero concludes that we cannot know if the gods exist – that the scales are tipped in favor of lack of evidence, and a summary conclusion of “Not likely!”
Two millennia later, we are still discussing the same things as these four dudes were discussing. Admittedly, it is great coffee-drinking fodder.

I feel that I am not quite finished with this topic. I want to talk a little bit about some interesting things surrounding the mention of the heavens in the Bible, and maybe say a bit about what I think of Balbus’s contention that the world must have been made for us since only we can appreciate it.

Later, alligators.

Website Counter