The Fallacy of Atheism

One thing I’ve noticed about many who reject Faith without thoroughly exploring the subject to begin with (“It just doesn’t make sense to me.”) – is that they envision faith as being focused on The Creation and The Afterlife – on narratives of The Beginning and of The End.  They see these narratives – which most or all faiths have – as factually and fatally flawed, if not downright foolish; and so not worthy of serious consideration.  Therefore, in their eyes, the faith as a whole must be flawed.

Now, there are many people who have adopted the label “Atheist” because they see the evil and pain in this world and cannot believe that a loving God would allow such things. (And perhaps even blame faith as responsible for much of the world’s pain – which, sadly, is true).  Therefore, they say, there is no God.  But, that’s an entirely different topic that I have referred-to in some of my past posts here on this site.)

When talking about the Creation or the End Times, the problem – at least in my view – is that focusing on a factual interpretation of a Faith’s narratives of The Beginning and The End completely misses the point.  (Biblical interpretation Literalists, please take note.)

Continue reading “The Fallacy of Atheism”

They Started It!

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

– The “Second Great Commandment” – Matthew 22:39

In a recent interview with Sean Hannity on Fox, Eric Trump said that those who oppose his dad “are not even people” and then proceeded to criticize those who are calling his father names, and making all sorts of vile accusations against him.

I’ll have to admit, it’s really hard for many to take such ire seriously.  After all, no one has ever accused our current president of being a high-minded politician.  And, all of us (even his most ardent supporters) can easily recite quite a long list of derogatory phrases he has used to label those he sees as enemies.  He’s a master at the craft of name-calling and the memorable insult, we all know it.

But, does that justify our own insults of him in return?  And, does our own insulting of him justify his supporters (and him) re-insulting us back?  And, does their re-insulting of us in response to our insulting of them after they insulted us justify our re-insulting them back again?  And, does our re-insulting of them for re-insulting us after we insulted them for their insulting us justify their re-re-insulting us again?  And…

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Why #MerryChristmasStarbucks is Everything Wrong with American Christianity

Mr. Lake is absolutely right. Even if the point being made had any validity (which it doesn’t), the “Merry Christmas Starbucks” furor is far more a statement of our inability to be welcoming and loving of all of our neighbors than it is a “defense” of our Faith.

And frankly, our God is a pretty big god. I’m certain that our infinite and omnipresent Creator is more than capable of handling any and all insults without our help. In fact, volunteering to defend our faith due to such perceived slights says far more about our own insecurities and our misunderstanding of the teachings of Matthew 22:37-40 than it does about the strength or quality of our faith.

Being Holy

Being Holy is not a goal, but a process, founded upon the unconditional and undying love we share with each other and with God. Being Holy is a gift freely given to all of us, together. It is not a prize for good behavior presented only to a select few.

Labyrinth at Amiens Cathedral
The Labyrinth Floor of Amiens Cathedral

Sermon: “Being Holy”

Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA
13th Sunday after Pentecost: September 7, 2014.

Scripture readings:

Leviticus 19:2-18 (NRSV)
Romans 12:1-2,9-18,21 (NRSV)
Matthew 22:36-40 (NRSV)

Podcast:

Please join me in prayer…

Lord, let it be your voice that speaks through my mouth, and let our hearts be open and receptive to the Word you have for us here, today. Amen.

One afternoon, a few years ago, a good friend of mine was crossing the street on a marked crosswalk at a stoplight, when a well-dressed man in his brand new white Cadillac SUV zoomed through the red light without stopping as he made a right hand turn.  He hit my friend, knocking him to the ground and leaving him dazed.  The driver stopped, rolled down his window, cussed my friend out for getting in the way, and roared off, never to be seen again.

We could use this incident to launch into a discussion about social justice, highlighting how those with power and position are often arrogant and believe their position entitles them to special privileges and consideration. We could then contrast this with my friend’s situation: a man of great talent and a good heart, but who, through no fault of his own, has long lived in the margins of our economy. Then asking whether he is any less deserving of consideration or respect than the driver?

But Jesus teaches us to be more concerned with our own hearts than with the hearts of others, even the hearts of those who seem to be self centered, wealthy and reeking of a sense of entitlement. So let’s look instead at how this situation is illuminated by this morning’s readings.

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Unconditional Love

The “Good Samaritan” by Chinese Artist He Qi

We often hear that God loves us unconditionally, and that we are called to love everyone we meet in the same way.  Matthew 22:37 & 39 give us the two Great Commandments, which are founded upon this principle: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ and  ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  St. Paul dwells on this topic in the well known “Love Chapter” of First Corinthians (1 Cor 13).

Unconditional Love is central to the Christian Gospel.

But, what is “Unconditional Love”?

Recently, I’ve been reading “Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason” by Alfie Kohn, an interesting and informative book that seeks to apply science and reason to the raising of children.  The book is fascinating, and not just because it uses convincing science and logic to throw many cherished myths about raising children right out the window. 

What struck me in reading Kohn’s work is his thoughts on what “Unconditional Love” means, and it’s importance in becoming the well rounded, stable and (spiritually) healthy individuals we are meant to be. 

For one, he points out that if we demonstrate our love for another only when we meet their expectations, then our love is conditional.  Unconditional love “doesn’t hinge on how they act, whether they’re successful or well behaved or anything else.”

He also states that if we love children just as they are, then they learn to “accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they screw up or fall short.”  This in turn helps them to be freer to accept other people just as they are, and helps them to flourish, instead of being lost in a sea of judgment and rigidity.

Kohn also says that “Conditional parenting is based on the deeply cynical belief that accepting kids for who they are just frees them to be bad because, well, that’s who they are.”  This is true of conditional love of any sort.  Paul says it best, in Romans 7:22-24: For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

In other words, we are inherently good (or, at least we yearn to be “good”) says Paul – and Kohn – and Jesus.  But, if we do not learn to love unconditionally, if we choose to see the flaws in others before we see what God sees in them, then we are allowing the sin that is in our flesh (as Paul describes it) to obscure the goodness within us, and within others.  We then fail to love others unconditionally, as we are called to do, because we  have not learned to see beyond what a person does to embrace who they are – a beloved child of God, just like everybody else, including us.

Ultimately, “…The choice between conditional and unconditional parenting is a choice between two radically different views of human nature.”  Are we essentially economic robots – our behavior is purely the learning that love is earned in return for correct behavior?  

If we are primarily automatons that require incentives to behave well, then how can we be authentic people – authentic in terms of understanding who we are, and authentic in our dealings with others?  Our love is conditional if we accept others only when their behavior is acceptable.  This also means that we can only accept ourselves if the person we seem to be meets whatever standard we’ve set for ourselves.  We will be distancing ourselves from God’s unconditional acceptance of that inner person we try so hard to hide from everyone else, including ourselves.

Why do we need to create a false “self” that others will find acceptable?  When we do so, we can never be the person we are meant to be – we will always be a façade, a mask behind which we hide (and often lose) our true selves in the name of finding acceptance.

Kohn goes on to say that “Unconditional parenting insists that the family ought to be a haven, a refuge … [that love] does not have to be paid for in any sense.  It is simply and purely a gift …. to which all … are entitled.”

This is echoed throughout the Bible, and especially the New Testament.  God is seen as “our Father.”  We are called children of God, and members of the “Family of God.”  Paul says it in a different way at times, describing us as members of the “Body of Christ.”  God’s love is a gift, one that will never be taken away, one that is always there, not given as a result of anything we’ve done.

All of these biblical metaphors reflect an understanding of the importance of accepting and loving others unconditionally; and understanding that they reflect how God loves us.  “The other” is part of who we are, and so we must learn to love others unconditionally if we are to learn how to love ourselves in the same way, and learn how to accept the unconditional love of God which is already there, waiting for us.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” is not just about learning to love your neighbor, but also about learning to love yourself.

Love!

– Allen

Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or gaining) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Who Owns Christmas?

Recently I saw a news article on a local TV channel about a family here in a Boston suburb that has been celebrating Christmas for decades with an extravagant display of lights.  This year, for the first time, an anonymous “neighbor” sent them a letter claiming to be insulted by the display.

Now it is true that there are many who react  negatively to such celebrations of Christmas.  Comments I’ve heard and read include people saying they feel insulted, offended, disgusted, oppressed and/or marginalized because of this Holiday, and this letter writer certainly sees the display as a statement of exclusion – Christians celebrating their cultural dominance in an insensitive way.  And, they’re not alone, many have written similar anonymous letters (some with threats) in the past.

OK, Let’s accept that: many do feel this way, including our anonymous letter writer, just as the owners of that home, and many others, are feeling hurt and insulted by what the anonymous letter writer had to say.  Such feelings are a reality and cannot be denied.  But I wonder, was this letter a healthy way of expressing one’s feelings about the display of lights?   (In this case, given what they said, I’d say not!)  But, it does raise the issue: is such a display of Christmas lights as insensitive and insulting as this person claims it to be, and how should we react when such concerns are raised?

Continue reading “Who Owns Christmas?”

The Myth of Legislated Morality

Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In my ten or so years as a Project Manager and Software Developer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, I was frequently involved in discussions with physicians about what limits to incorporate into system designs.

Software development, and any sort of engineering or design for that matter, focuses to a large extent on limits.  We often needed to address questions like:

  • How large a number does this data field need to be able to store?
  • How wide should this column be on this report?
  • How flexible does this screen’s functionality need to be?

At Mayo, the underlying attitude was always “Limit our options and flexibility as little as possible.”  This was because physicians are dealing with people’s lives.  They absolutely do not want anything getting in the way of their ability to provide the best possible care for their patients. Is our “Great Physician,” Jesus, any different?

People constantly come to Doctors with all sorts of symptoms and issues that were well outside of what is expected, and so the tools they use in caring for those patients cannot limit their ability to provide the care that is needed.  Since we cannot accurately predict what situations the future will hold, we must provide tools that “flex” well in unexpected situations, and that do not needlessly place restraints on what can be done.

This same logic applies when talking about moral issues in everyday life, things like abortion, or gay marriage, or adoption across cultural or ethnic boundaries.  In all of these situations, people are involved.  Therefore, each such situation has its own unique circumstances.  Each one involves difficult, sometimes painful choices and adjustments.  Like a physician’s care of a patient, all of these situations involve decisions that these people will have to live with for the rest of their lives.  They are not choices that are made lightly.  Further, they are not choices made in isolation: the choice that is made impacts not only the person making it, but others as well, whether that is an unborn infant, or a same-sex partner, or a child who needs a family.  Their choices also impact and involve the “community” of which they are a part – family, friends, co-workers, and so on.

Continue reading “The Myth of Legislated Morality”

Thoughts on Ecclesiastes, the Second Great Commandment, and Homosexuality

I lived in the mid 1980’s with a man who – unknown to me at the time – was gay.  “John” was a broken, hurting, hiding individual – filled with conflict and deeply buried anger over who he was vs. who his church and his family and society as a whole expected him to be.  His own sense of self and self-worth was so deeply hidden under layers of self-deception, self-loathing and fear that it never surfaced in the time I knew him.  Compulsive and self-destructive behaviors filled his life: a vicious circle of turmoil and pain that he could not escape.

Conservative Christians focus on the Old Testament’s condemnations of homosexuality, especially verses like Leviticus 18:22  – “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable (NIV).”  Yet, Leviticus also condemns the eating of shellfish as “detestable” (Lev 11:10).  So, should we stone to death everyone coming out of “Red Lobster”?

Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures condemn homosexuality to some extent.  Many argue this was because the ancient Jews lived in a world that had no room to care for (or even tolerate) people that we would have labelled as “unproductive members of society”, though the ancient Jews did not think in those terms (nor am I suggesting homosexuality falls into that category).  In that ancient time, homosexuality may have been seen as a behavior that was unproductive in terms of the critical need to sustain the culture through procreation.  It might also have been seen as an activity that threatened the status quo /or and gender roles within the culture.  Who knows?  Whatever the reasoning, it was seen as a threat to the community’s ability to survive in a world where the margin of survival was very thin.  Such threats therefore had to be dealt with firmly, if not harshly – since that same slim margin made less harsh punishments – such as prisons – impractical, if not impossible.

Homosexuality in the early Christian era was apparently not condemned of itself.  But, it is clear that it was often an expression of power and dominance or lust, not of love.  The New Testament has much to say in its condemnation of the misuse of power and wealth in many different dimensions and venues of life at that time.  So, is homosexuality itself being condemned by Paul and others, or its use as to express dominance?

Progressive Christians therefore question whether laws against homosexuality have a place in the modern world, a world where the challenge is not that of making sure enough children are born to carry on the culture, but is one of having too many: leading to the destruction of resources critical to our survival as a species.  Yet, in throwing out some Biblical teachings as outmoded or irrelevant, we need to be very careful: it would be too easy to throw out everything we don’t like if we pursue such a path.

A friend of mine once encapsulated the issue by asking me this question: “If someone close to you said they were planning to marry someone of the same gender, what would you do?”  My natural inclination and Jesus’ “Second Great Commandment” (in Matthew 22:36, where he quotes Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”) both tell me I should take the approach of love: accept them for who they are and wish them and their partner happiness in their life together.

Although homosexuality was only one of the factors contributing to his problems, if “John” had seen such love in his life, perhaps he would have had the inner peace he needed to build a meaningful and productive life for himself.  His inner torment and outward pain are evidence that we (as a society, as well as individually) failed to treat him as the Bible teaches us.

Another challenge is the teaching of “hate the sin but love the sinner” that many have adopted as their attitude towards homosexuality.  To me, this is hypocritical: if we criticize someone’s lifestyle or sexual orientation as a “sin,” how can we say that we “love” them unless we’re saying we accept them with a hidden agenda: that we want to change them into something they’re not?

We need to remember the conclusion to book of Ecclesiastes’ in the Hebrew Scriptures: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”  This verse has two messages relevant to this discussion:

First, we all have a duty to keep the commandments as best we can, realizing – as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes did – that we can never fully succeed.  Also, Jesus taught us to not judge one another, and it was for this very reason: we all do the best we can, and have no right, nor sufficient wisdom or knowledge, to judge others in God’s place.  Since I know that I am not perfect, and will never be so (in this life, anyway), this plus Jesus’ Second Great Commandment teaches me I need to accept my neighbor for who they are, someone just as imperfect as myself: both of us trying to make sense of the world in which we live, and our place in it.

Second, hidden sin is no different than visible sin: a hidden agenda is hurtful, as it requires you to be false to another – requiring the relationship to be built on a false foundation.  I am certain God will judge such behavior more harshly than homosexuality, which, in the modern context of being a behavior shared by two consenting adults, hurts no one.  (Some will question this statement, noting that the Christian Scripture’s Book of Romans makes clear that God judges all “sin” equally.  But, what I’m saying is that homosexuality is not necessarily a sin at all.)

In fact, since Jesus constantly taught about how we are called to love one another across gaps that others claim cannot be bridged, why would homosexuality be any different? If anything, it would seem that being brave and caring enough to love another in the face of the judgment of the world around you is right up Jesus’ alley.  Some will say “Jesus was not talking about sex!”  Hmmm, maybe.  But, do not forget that sex is but one component of the many facets of the deep and healthy and loving relationship that can exist between two people.  Why are we trying to separate one aspect of that type of relationship out as “wrong” when approving of all the others?  Especially since Jesus never spoke against homosexuality himself?

Therefore, I know that I am being consistent with the teachings and spirit of the Bible when I conclude that I am to be concerned only about whether someone is living a productive and balanced life; and what I should (or can) do to support them in that regard.  A person’s sexual orientation is an issue only if they are not at peace with it themselves, or if it harms others.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).