Religion is Evil?

religionsIt has become popular to lay all of the suffering of the world at the feet of religion claiming, “It’s all you fault!” Check in with any of the various neo-atheist or “spiritual but not religious” voices you may hear and you are likely to hear this criticism laced with various degrees of vitriol. After all, it is said, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and colonial conquest were all carried out under the banner of religion. Religious fundamentalism as expressed by Branch Davidians, Jonestown, and radical jihadists have created violence and suffering in the name of God. The Church has done significant harm to individuals and whole groups of people because they were deemed inferior or unfaithful. All this is true. It is shameful.

Lillian Daniel, in her book Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To, says this line of argument seems a little like saying that all roads are bad (and should be banned) because of the helpless creatures that fall victim to traffic. “…don’t point out roadkill and then tell me that `the road’ has it in for bunnies, deer and armadillos.” (p. 17).  Yes indeed, people have used the name of God to justify all sorts of suffering and evil. But then, people have found ways to slaughter millions in the name of not believing in God, too.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes: “In the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries three substitutes for religion emerged as the basis for new identities. One was the nation-state. A second was the ideological system. The third was race. The first led to two world wars, the second to Stalin’s Russia, the Gulag and the KGB, and the third to the Holocaust. The cost of these three substitutes for religion was in excess of a hundred million lives.” 

The source of evil in the world is not religion, government, or any other human institution in and of themselves. It is the human element that corrupts. Our innate desire to have power over others and to justify ourselves at the expense of someone else, what the church calls “original sin,” is what corrupts. While the Crusades were taking place, St. Francis of Assisi was helping birth a reform of the church. The punishing fundamentalism of the Inquisition finally gave way to the Reformation. The struggle between good and evil does take place on the world stage. Through fundamentalism and manipulation, many co-opt the traditions of the faithful (which is religion), for evil purposes. The war, however, is rooted in every human heart. All of us are capable of great evil in the name of something. Religion is neither ultimate evil or ultimate good. The variable is that, as Luther taught, humans are simultaneously saints and sinners, good and evil, all rolled into one. So, human institutions will be the same.

To think that evil and suffering would abate if religion disappeared is to believe that something other than human will drives a great deal of the suffering of the world. I think this is naive. The appeal to science and technology as the “salvation” of humanity is to ignore that every great advance and progress humanity claims has also been co-opted to kill and destroy. Industrialization was manifest in the trenches, tanks, chemical weapons and machine guns of the First World War. Nuclear fission paved the way to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the second

Finding our human identity as beings rooted in the source of being; releasing ourselves from the tyranny of constant comparison, self-justification and self-hate is the only way to address the evil and suffering around us. For more time than we have measured, that undertaking has been a healthy religious undertaking.

Peace to you.

 

copyright © 2019, Timothy V. Olson

 

 

 

I Don’t Believe in (G)od

I recognize that for a pastor’s blog, the title of this article might seem like click-bait. I cannot claim total innocence on that front. I can, however, say more precisely that I do not have faith in the (G)od discussed in current debates about whether God is real or not.

I have friends who are self-described atheists. They ask me to prove that God exists as an objective reality. Some measurable, mathematical, physical accounting must be made in order for God to be tangible; to be real. I understand the request. I also have friends, colleagues, and people of faith who want me to make a “case for God” because they are absolutely certain that objective arguments exist and can be made. They want me to help. I understand the desire.

Writ larger than my own world, there is the neo-atheist movement of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens et. al. who assert that with no objective proof of God, religion is a childish means of manipulation or an ignorant means of explaining big questions. On the other side, there is the Creation Museum in Kentucky which takes on the challenge and builds an objective argument for the existence of God, offering explanations and theories that point to a creator who is an objective player in the grand scheme of the universe.tillich

My problem is that, if I am to talk about God in the most general terms (which is not really my wheel house – I’m a preacher and speak of God in particularities, mostly), I don’t believe in the God creationists and fundamentalists are sure exists. Nor do I believe in the objectively provable God that atheists demand.

Paul, preaching to the Greeks in Athens, points to the gods they seek and worship saying,  “(God) is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.” (Acts 17:27-28) The very fact that we are points relentlessly to a ground for that being. Paul’s roots in Hebrew scripture, which posits the name of God as the mysterious, I Am (Exodus 3:14) lead him to a God larger than objective reality.

St. Augustine said, “If you understood him, it would not be God.” Existence itself rests beyond our finite limits. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol.” Objectifying God makes a lower case god, who is, in fact, largely about manipulation and denial as the atheists insist and as the fundamentalists forget.

In the fact of our existence and the consciousness that our existence is beyond us, Paul Tillich points to God as being: “The fact that man never is satisfied with any stage of his finite development, the fact that nothing finite can hold him, although finitude is his destiny, indicates the indissoluble relation of everything finite to being-itself.”

The reawakened contemplative tradition is reconnecting with this understanding of God through the teaching of people like Father Richard Rohr, who says, “This utterly grounds our deeper notion of God as Being itself, rather than God as a Being, alone and apart.”

David Bentley Hart is a professor of the Philosophy of Religion, and an astute (if not sometimes a little arrogant) voice for this classic understanding of God. He asks this question of those who demand – on both sides of the question – an objective proof of God. How, after all, could the existence or nonexistence of some particular finite being among other beings provide an ultimate answer to the mystery of existence as such?” ― David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

As to what this has to do with Jesus Christ, well, that is a word for another day. I will say that this deeper, non-objective understanding of God leads to an encounter with Jesus Christ that is far beyond what the materialism and objective world can offer. That Christ is the incarnation not of some objective force within creation, but of the ground of being itself — well, that is ultimate good news.

Let me leave you with a quotation from Hart which summarizes what I’m getting at much better than I can manage: “God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being.”
― David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss

Pax Christi, Tim Olson

 

copyright © 2019 Timothy V. Olson

 

 

The Heron

“Just walk down to the end of the parking lot and you’ll see the path toward the lake. Follow the grass path around the lake. They keep it closely mowed… mostly. You’ll be fine.” These were my directions to find a place to walk while at the abbey for a couple of days. So, I followed my nose to the end of the parking lot. There was the well mown path that headed to the water. I was on my way, on a beautiful morning.

As I rounded the first curve of the lake, I was absorbed in my own thoughts on a solitary exercise. When I looked up, I found I was not alone. There, maybe fifty yards ahead, was a heron standing at the water’s edge (Great Blue Heron, perhaps – but I’m no ornithologist). The majestic, graceful creature stood looking in my direction, then began to walk up toward the path. As I got closer, the heron took flight – effortless, powerful. As the long neck and head stretched forward and the long legs trailed, I could, for just a second, see the prehistoric ancestors of this bird – pterodactyl and such. The great creature landed on the path farther down the line. As I approached again, it winged its way onto a stout tree nearby. Then again, to the water’s edge at a place where the path was less visible – and I was unsure where it turned. The heron, my companion, flew off into the trees ahead. I followed. There I found the  neatly mowed path once again.

“Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being.”

Lots of folks might see God in this encounter. Many would conclude that the Heron had been sent to guide me – its presence would be all about me. I don’t buy that for a minute.  More likely, it was fleeing my presence. I had probably interrupted its breakfast. Too often we think that creature and creation are all here for us. We’re terrible narcissists in that way. We don’t see that the Heron exists all on its own, with its own communion with God. It would have been there had I explored the path or not. We need to be careful seeing every butterfly and bird; every tree and sunrise as a message from God just for us. In the same way, we need to see that the resources of creation are more than consumable resources out here for me and you to use.

The gift this beggar received from this beautiful creature was in the transformation of my solitary, self-absorbed walk into a journey with something; dare I say, with someone? The One who created us both? From the moment that bird flew off, I was unable to be alone. The little white and purple flowers were all around. A hawk crossed the path ahead of me. A big green bug in the path and dozens of other creatures were all around. These creatures, made and beloved of God, are not pests, weeds, interlopers or guests in my world. We are, as St. Francis would say, brothers and sisters. Maybe, if we humans would see this more clearly, we would stop, or at least slow, our drive to be the most invasive, viral species to bring death to the planet.

Perhaps this is what theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson is getting at when she says, “Woven into our lives is the very fire from the stars and genes from the sea creatures, and everyone, utterly everyone, is kin in the radiant tapestry of being.”(1) We are called to love God with our whole being and called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Who is our neighbor? Certainly, as the Good Samaritan story tells us, it is anyone in need. Perhaps any-thing in need. On that day, my neighbor was a heron – and hundreds of God’s creations too numerous to count. It is so every day, if we will look, listen and be aware of the neighborhood of life. That is this Beggar’s Take.

© 2018 – Timothy V. Olson. All rights reserved
(1) Johnson, Elizabeth A., Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (Bloomsbury Continuum) Kindle Edition

Malcontents for Jesus

The news this morning heralded a new high in lows. A lone gunman had broken the U.S. record for a single killing spree: 58 dead, more than 500 wounded. As if I am watching some distorted, despicable, dystopian game, I wonder how long it will be before the record is broken again. There is something deeply wrong with the world.

We are more divided than ever along lines drawn by race, gender, sexuality, political party. Hate and vitriol control even the most mundane conversations. Social media, which was to bring people together, instead tears us apart. There is something deeply wrong with the world.

processional cross

The normal response to something being broken is to “fix it.” So, most discussions about the problems of the world jump to fixing this or that problem, then it will all be well. A little more data, some innovative thinking and we’ll be good to go. Like a car with a bad starter, it just needs a new part. Unfortunately, we are one part of the whole system known as “the world.” We are so enmeshed with what is causing the suffering we can’t just “fix it,” because fixing “it” means fixing us, and we can’t even see the problem clearly.

There is an old Hasidic saying that says, “To a worm in a jar of horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.” The worm doesn’t know anything but horseradish, so what is to change? Our world is shaped by violence, hate, judgment, competition, a sense of scarcity, greed and a hundred other things that are not just around us, but in us. The cross of Christ is the ultimate unveiling of the world’s foolishness. The ways of the world murdered God! God gave love, and the world (we) hung love on a tree to die.

Eugene Peterson, in his book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, says that the first step in becoming a disciple who follows Jesus Christ is to wake up and realize that “the world” that shapes us and causes us so much pain is broken. We have broken it and we are clueless as to how to fix it. He says:

“The first step toward God is a step away from the lies of the world. It is a renunciation of the lies we have been told about ourselves and our neighbors and our universe.”

Discipleship begins when we turn away from the lies of the world and toward the life-giving promises of God in Christ. This is the classic definition of repentance – to turn away from the wrong way to the right way. We need to be malcontents in this world – unsatisfied with the way things are and committed to what can be in Christ. We renounce the world to embrace Christ.

This turning can hurt, at first. It means we leave behind what we know – like the rich man to whom Jesus said “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) The man couldn’t do it. His wealth was too important to him. But, it was that piece of the world that kept him from God’s reign.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this:

“Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

The thing is, once we make the turn, we come to see that all it really cost us is our captivity to the violent, death-dealing lies of the world. What it grants is life in Christ, the reign of God, the peaceable kingdom. As the cross reveals the deathly nature of the world, the resurrection of Jesus reveals that the way of Christ is the only way to life, in this moment and in all future moments. How do you know this for sure? God has raised only Christ from the dead. Caesar, Washington, Lincoln, Rockefeller and everyone else is still dead. So, who are you going to follow? Me? I’m a malcontent for Jesus.

 

copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2017

What Then Shall I Say?

So, I was thinking that in this season of Lent, it is always good to pause for a little self-reflection; some confession; some opportunity to grow and assess our lives.It is kind of like a song blues musician Jonny Lang sings called “Red Light” (follow the link to hear the song)

A chance to breathe 
while sitting at a red light.
You look around 
reflecting on your life.

A chance to think
“Am I drinking too much?
Should I keep going, 
lose the life that I love?
A second glance
when coming to a red light.

So, I was thinking that some reflection on this blog might be in order. First, I have to admit that the idea that anyone – and I mean anyone – would ever think what I say or write would be of any value is a very foreign notion – especially to my Scandinavian side which is steeped in modesty bordering on self-doubt and bears at least a dash of false humility. My Irish side is far less humble, loquacious to a fault but also cynical.  So, I was thinking that I should ask – Do you find these far less than regular ponderings helpful?  Or do you find them just more “blah-blah-blah” calling for your attention from the virtual mailbox?  Do you find what I’m thinking about and sharing relevant to your life? Your faith journey?  If you do… Why?  If you don’t… what would help?

You see, I feel like this particular work of spiritual monologue is still searching for a voice.  I struggle with what to talk about, what is needed, what you might be pondering.  So, maybe you could help and share with me what keeps you awake about God, or this broken world, or believing.  What would you like to hear your pastor, any pastor, or just a guy with his own neuroses, struggles and way too much grad school write about that would help you and your journey with matters of faith and religion?

You can post a comment here or email me at tim@holytrinityankeny.org  Thanks for joining in my Lenten reflection.

Pax Christi,  Tim Olson

The Church is Dead. Long Live the Church

So, I was thinking that the Church is dead. If not totally dead, it is as Miracle Max from The Princess Bride would say at least “mostly dead” or in very critical condition.  I know you probably don’t read a pastor’s blog expecting to hear this kind of thing.  You were perhaps hoping for something a little more uplifting. Sorry. The vital signs are, it seems weak.

When it comes to belonging to a church, the fastest growing group of people in our culture simply don’t.  5% of the population said they were “unaffiliated” in 1972.  Today it is 16%.  People are not choosing other churches, mega churches, new churches or old churches; they are not picking more conservative or more liberal churches, when they leave one church, they are not going to something “better” – they are choosing to do away with church completely. They are often called “nones” because they check “none” on surveys about religious affiliation   This is happening to every single segment of the Christian Church – Protestant, Evangelical, Roman Catholic — it across the board.

More facts: 70% of mainline Protestant households have no children; 91% of those same congregations are white (unlike our society).  The median age of people in church is steadily and quickly rising (averaging over 62 years).  Congregations are getting smaller and smaller on the whole. Only 27% of “members” actually worship each week.  Only 7% of Christians have actually read the whole Bible.

The truth is that things have changed in every aspect of our world – economic, political, cultural and yes, religious.  The Church that we all remember from our youth is dead, mostly. Think back to the way things used to be:

¨The Way Things Were
  • You were born into the faith and stayed in your tradition
  • Faith was a way of believing, so you learned beliefs first – memorized, understood.
  • Christian faith was expected of most everyone
  • Institutions played an important part in our lives
  • Authority was given to those who had studied – experts
  • Keeping the faith = Keeping the traditions
Look at how things have changed:
¨The Way Things Are
  • People seek spiritual connections and religious life on their own.
  • Faith is a way of living – doctrines and “truth” are understood to be negotiable or dialogic.  So, spirituality is about living daily
  • Christian faith is no longer a cultural norm
  • Institutions/Denominations have lost their power and are fading
  • Seminary training and official teachers are suspect
  • Keeping the faith = living with integrity
The Church, as we remember it, even as we long for it, is dead, mostly.  But that is not “bad news.”  God is faithful and the Spirit is always moving.  We have the challenge and blessing to be living in an age when the Spirit is rewriting, re-imaging what it means to be the Church.  To be part of that means we will need to wander in the wilderness (sounds familiar) we’ll have to change our attitudes (not the first time), We will have to live our faith in a way we have not for some time (likely a refreshing change).  We will have to adapt the way we engage in mission to the reality of our world.
The great news is that God gives life to the Church in every age.  The Church may suffer many deaths, but God is in the resurrection business.  So what do you think about the death, and the life of the Church today… and tomorrow?
Pax Christi,
Pastor Tim

Life in the Blender: Changing the Church in a Changing World

So, I was thinking that one of the biggest causes of anxiety and fear today (at least for me – but I don’t think I’m alone) is the pace and depth of change. Change to every aspect of life happens at a dizzying pace.  The changes are not minor adjustments, they are huge shifts in the way we think, work, eat, spend, and yes – worship & believe.  It is as if somebody stuffed the world as we know it in a blender and pressed the highest speed — and left it there!

Think about just a few things: In 1900 there were less than 10,000 cars in the US.  We send 247 billion emails every single day. 20 years ago most of us didn’t know what email was. The youngest among us believe that email is a dinosaur and use it less and less. I got my first cellphone in 1996. In 2000 there were 93 million cell phones. Ten years later it was 293 million. I typed my first term papers in college on a portable typewriter.  Then I moved to a “PC” – which is now obsolete, replaced by my smartphone and tablet.  In 1970, nearly 90% of the American population was “white.”  In 2008, less than 75% were “white.”  By 2050 it will be closer to 50%.  College educations and home ownership, two foundations of middle-class stability, are in serious decline.

Welcome to life in the blender. Change is the agenda for every day in the world around us. It is an exhausting way of life.  It is then very natural and expected that we will come to church hoping to avoid the whirling blades of change. After all, as the Bible declares, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8) The world can change, but leave the church alone, we might declare.  Unfortunately, Jesus also says: “See, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5) 

So, the reality is that church has to go in the blender too. There is no way to insulate ourselves from the change, or somehow just wish it would go away. Consider just a few facts: The fastest growing group in the religious landscape are “nones” – those who claim or desire no religious affiliation. The growth in the ranks of “nones” comes from previous church members. We often think that when someone leaves our congregation they go somewhere else.  The fact is that up to 90% just leave and go nowhere. In 1980, most of your neighbors went to church on Sunday morning. You are a serious minority when you pull out of the drive and head to church today. 25-40% of Christian congregations will not exist in the next decade or two.  Of the 4-5 generations that could inhabit the church today, we are losing (or have lost) 3.5. Studies show that when young people disappear after confirmation or high school graduation, they do not often return when they start raising families.  Welcome to the church in the blender.

I know by now you are saying “Thanks for completely ruining my day.” That is not my intent.  The fact is that the church, and the world, have been through the blender before and God has always made some tasty dish out of the mixture. Change is not evil, nor is it the enemy, it just is what it is.  How we respond is the challenge is the crucial issue.  Sadly, while everything in the world has changed, the reaction of the church has been to make its mission to stay the same, which makes us irrelevant.

Over the next several weeks, we are moving into the 5th and final section of Foundations – the course on the Christian faith that meets every Wednesday evening.  In this module, called Our Calling, we will look at the changes that we face and examine how we answer God’s call to change both as a congregation and as individual disciples.  We will work to discern where we are going and what God is calling us to do.  If you have been curious, frustrated, angered, worried about the changes around us and in the church, come and join us.  If you would like to be part of the discussion about how we respond to the changes in this world as a congregation, come and join us.  We meet at 6 PM on Wednesday in the sanctuary.

Pax Christi, Pastor Tim