Category Archives: Religion

Spinoza, the God-Intoxicated Man

He is known as Spinoza, although he might just as well have been known as Espinoza or Espinosa. The de Espinosa family of Sephardic Jews originated in Spain before emigrating to Portugal and then Amsterdam to escape religious persecution. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam as Benedito de Espinosa, referred to himself as Benedict de Spinoza in his Latin writings, and is now often called Baruch Spinoza. He lived in the 17th century and was a truly great philosopher.

What follows is from “Why Spinoza Still Matters”, written by Prof. Stephen Nadler for Aeon:

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance…. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests.

Nadler then gives an excellent summary of Spinoza’s basic position: 

Spinoza’s philosophy is founded upon a rejection of the God that informs the Abrahamic religions. His God lacks all the psychological and moral characteristics of a transcendent, providential deity. The Deus of Spinoza’s philosophical masterpiece, the Ethics (1677), is not a kind of person. It has no beliefs, hopes, desires or emotions. Nor is Spinoza’s God a good, wise and just lawgiver who will reward those who obey its commands and punish those who go astray. For Spinoza, God is Nature, and all there is is Nature (his phrase is Deus sive Natura, ‘God or Nature’). Whatever is exists in Nature, and happens with a necessity imposed by the laws of Nature. There is nothing beyond Nature and there are no departures from Nature’s order – miracles and the supernatural are an impossibility.

There are no values in Nature. Nothing is intrinsically good or bad, nor does Nature or anything in Nature exist for the sake of some purpose. Whatever is, just is. Early in the Ethics, Spinoza says that ‘all the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end; for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God’.

Spinoza is often labelled a ‘pantheist’, but ‘atheist’ is a more appropriate term. Spinoza does not divinise Nature. Nature is not the object of worshipful awe or religious reverence. ‘The wise man,’ he says, ‘seeks to understand Nature, not gape at it like a fool’. The only appropriate attitude to take toward God or Nature is a desire to know it through the intellect.

The elimination of a providential God helps to cast doubt on what Spinoza regards as one of the most pernicious doctrines promoted by organised religions: the immortality of the soul and the divine judgment it will undergo in some world-to-come. If a person believes that God will reward the virtuous and punish the vicious, one’s life will be governed by the emotions of hope and fear: hope that one is among the elect, fear that one is destined for eternal damnation. A life dominated by such irrational passions is, in Spinoza’s terms, a life of ‘bondage’ rather than a life of rational freedom.

People who are led by passion rather than reason are easily manipulated by ecclesiastics. This is what so worried Spinoza in the late 1660s, as the more repressive and intolerant elements in the Reformed Church gained influence in Holland. It remains no less a threat to enlightened, secular democracy today, as religious sectarians exercise a dangerous influence on public life.

In order to undermine such religious meddling in civic affairs and personal morality, Spinoza attacked the belief in the afterlife of an immortal soul. For Spinoza, when you’re dead, you’re dead. There might be a part of the human mind that is ‘eternal’. The truths of metaphysics, mathematics, etc, that one acquires during this lifetime and that might now belong to one’s mind will certainly remain once one has passed away – they are, after all, eternal truths – but there is nothing personal about them….

The more one knows about Nature, and especially about oneself as a human being, the more one is able to avoid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to navigate the obstacles to happiness and well-being that a person living in Nature necessarily faces. The result of such wisdom is peace of mind: one is less subject to the emotional extremes that ordinarily accompany the gains and losses that life inevitably brings, and one no longer dwells anxiously on what is to come after death. As Spinoza eloquently puts it, ‘the free man thinks of death least of all things, and his wisdom is a meditation on life, not on death’.

Spinoza’s ideas concerning organized religion and the Bible were remarkable for the 17th century. Nadler continues:

Clergy seeking to control the lives of citizens have another weapon in their arsenal. They proclaim that there is one and only one book that will reveal the word of God and the path toward salvation and that they alone are its authorised interpreters. In fact, Spinoza claims, ‘they ascribe to the Holy Spirit whatever their wild fancies have invented’.

One of Spinoza’s more famous, influential and incendiary doctrines concerns the origin and status of Scripture. The Bible, Spinoza argues in the Theological-Political Treatise, was not literally authored by God. God or Nature is metaphysically incapable of proclaiming or dictating, much less writing, anything. Scripture is not ‘a message for mankind sent down by God from heaven’. Rather, it is a very mundane document. Texts from a number of authors of various … backgrounds, writing at different points over a long stretch of time and in differing historical and political circumstances, were passed down through generations in copies after copies after copies.

Finally, a selection of these writings was put together (with some arbitrariness, Spinoza insists) in the Second Temple period, most likely under the editorship of Ezra, who was only partially able to synthesise his sources and create a single work from them. This imperfectly composed collection was itself subject to the changes that creep into a text during a transmission process of many centuries. The Bible as we have it is simply a work of human literature, and a rather ‘faulty, mutilated, adulterated, and inconsistent’ one at that. It is a mixed-breed by its birth and corrupted by its descent and preservation, a jumble of texts by different hands, from different periods and for different audiences.

Spinoza supplements his theory of the human origins of Scripture with an equally deflationary account of its authors. The prophets were not especially learned individuals. They did not enjoy a high level of education or intellectual sophistication. They certainly were not philosophers or physicists or astronomers. There are no truths about nature or the cosmos to be found in their writings…. Neither are they a source of metaphysical or even theological truths. The prophets often had naïve, even philosophically false beliefs about God.

Spinoza held that “there are no values in Nature” and “nothing is intrinsically good or bad”, but, according to Nadler, that didn’t stop him from believing that the Bible conveyed a crucial message:

[The Bible’s authors] were … morally superior individuals with vivid imaginations, and so there is a truth to be gleaned from all of Scripture, one that comes through loud and clear and in a non-mutilated form. The ultimate teaching of Scripture, whether the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Gospels, is in fact a rather simple one: practice justice and loving-kindness to your fellow human beings.

That basic moral message is the upshot of all the commandments and the lesson of all the stories of Scripture, surviving whole and unadulterated through all the differences of language and all the copies, alterations, corruptions and scribal errors that have crept into the text over the centuries.

Such were the views that got Spinoza labeled as a “renegade Jew … from Hell” and, more recently, as a “God-intoxicated man”.

A Few Choice Paragraphs

From “God and the Don” (CNN):

Two days before his presidential inauguration, Donald Trump greeted a pair of visitors at his office in Trump Tower.

As a swarm of reporters waited in the gilded lobby, the Rev. Patrick O’Connor, the senior pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Queens, and the Rev. Scott Black Johnston, the senior pastor of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, arrived to pray with the next president….

It was clear that Trump was still preoccupied with his November victory, and pleased with his performance with one constituency in particular.

“I did very, very well with evangelicals in the polls,” Trump interjected in the middle of the conversation… 

They gently reminded Trump that neither of them was an evangelical.

“Well, what are you then?” Trump asked.

They explained they were mainline Protestants, the same Christian tradition in which Trump, a self-described Presbyterian, was raised and claims membership. Like many mainline pastors, they told the President-elect, they lead diverse congregations.

Trump nodded along, then posed another question to the two men: “But you’re all Christians?”

“Yes, we’re all Christians.”

From “Why Are Republicans Getting So Little Done? Because Their Agenda Is Deeply Unpopular” (The Washington Post):

Is there anything — anything — on the agenda of the Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress that enjoys the support of the majority of the public?

… The latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll finds that an incredible 84 percent of Americans say that it’s important that any replacement of the Affordable Care Act maintains the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid. Even 71 percent of Republicans said so. Which is a problem for the GOP, because rolling back the Medicaid expansion is the centerpiece of the Republican repeal plan….so that they can fund a large tax cut that mostly goes to the wealthy.

The Senate is right now tying itself in knots trying to figure out how to pass something that satisfies the GOP’s conservative principles but that the public won’t despise, and it may be slowly realizing that this is impossible. “I don’t see a comprehensive health-care plan this year,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said yesterday, and he’s probably right.

Let’s move on to taxes. At yesterday’s speech announcing his pullout from the Paris climate agreement, President Trump made this little digression:

“Our tax bill is moving along in Congress, and I believe it’s doing very well. I think a lot of people will be very pleasantly surprised. The Republicans are working very, very hard. We’d love to have support from the Democrats, but we may have to go it alone. But it’s going very well.”

It was certainly interesting to hear that the tax bill is moving along in Congress, because there is no tax bill, neither moving along, standing still or spinning in circles. The administration has produced nothing more than a one-page list of bullet points on taxes, and congressional Republicans haven’t written a bill, either. There have been no hearings, no committee votes, nothing. This is one of those moments when it’s hard to figure out if Trump is lying or genuinely doesn’t realize what’s going on; earlier this week he tweeted:

Yet nothing has been submitted, nothing is moving along and nothing is ahead of schedule.

[Republicans] know that whatever bill they come up with is going to be hammered by Democrats for being an enormous giveaway to the wealthy. They could solve that problem by not making it an enormous giveaway to the wealthy, but then what would be the point?…

Are there other Republican initiatives that the public is behind? If there are, they’re awfully hard to find…. 

The deep unpopularity of this agenda goes a long way toward explaining why Congress has gotten almost nothing done this year… All Republicans feel nervous these days … That’s enough to make a lawmaker skittish about doing anything that might make the voters even more disgusted. So the legislative process gets dragged out for longer and longer.

Congressional Republicans complain that all the drama and scandals in the White House suck the air out of Washington… But the real problem is that the public just doesn’t want to buy what they’re selling.

From “I Can’t Stop Laughing at the Trump Administration. That’s Not a Good Thing” (The Washington Post):

Rex Tillerson has given zero indication that he knows how to run the State Department. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross made clueless comments about Saudi Arabia that left the impression of him as a doddering fool. As secretary of homeland security, John F. Kelly keeps saying things designed to scare the hell out of people rather than make them feel more secure. He seems to have fallen victim to the worst pathologies of the Bush administration….. National security adviser H.R. McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn seem to be focused far more on pleasing the president than offering cogent advice…. Jared Kushner? Please.

The rest of the White House staff is busy trying to be more absurd propagandists than Kim Jong Un’s flacks. So far, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley are the only foreign policy hands who have managed to retain their dignity, and that’s mostly because what they say contradicts Trump….

Then there’s the president himself. Just a glance at the decision-making process he used on withdrawing from the Paris climate change accord makes it clear how manifestly unfit he is to do his job….he’s getting played left and right….It’s hard to overstate just how badly Trump has navigated the global stage. The Chinese and Saudis have figured out how to buy him off with a couple billion dollars and some flattery. There is zero evidence of any appreciable policy gains. U.S. leadership is being constantly questioned…. Outside of the Persian Gulf, Trump’s approach has done nothing but alienate allies and bolster potential rivals….

Heck, I could be on Twitter all day and only pay partial attention to briefings and still do a better job than the current clown show.

Finally, from “Trump’s Pathological Obsession with Being Laughed At” (The Week):

If you’ve been paying any attention at all over the last couple of years, you know this is a topic he returns to again and again. Search Trump’s Twitter feed and you’ll find that who’s laughing at whom is an obsession for him, with the United States usually the target of the laughter. “The world is laughing at us.” China is “laughing at USA!” Iran is “laughing at Kerry & Obama!” “ISIS & all others laughing!” “Mexican leadership has been laughing at us for many years.” “Everybody is laughing at Jeb Bush.” “Putin is laughing at Obama.” “OPEC is laughing at how stupid we are.” “Dopey, nobody is laughing at me!” I could go on (and on, and on), but I’ll spare you.

This is nothing new for Trump; he’s been talking about us being laughed at for his entire career in public life. In his first major foray into politics in 1987, he spent nearly $100,000 to buy full-page ads … lamenting the fact that America helped defend countries like Japan without getting enough in return (sound familiar?). The last line of the ad was, “Let’s not let our great country be laughed at anymore.” 

It is Trump’s gift to future biographers that he makes so little attempt to hide his psychological issues, but the desire to avoid being laughed at truly stands out. Perhaps there was some childhood trauma that led to this obsession, a schoolyard incident in which a bully pulled down Donny’s short pants to the guffaws of the other tots (particularly the girls!). It would be only fitting if Trump, the world’s foremost avatar of anxious masculinity, lived in terror of women’s laughter, but he seems concerned with everyone’s laughter, whether it comes from people or governments. As much as he cares about winning and getting the better of someone, defeat is marked by the ultimate humiliation of being laughed at.

Yet ironically, no president in history has ever been laughed at as much as Trump….

In America, Christianity Ain’t What It Used To Be

If you want to understand how America got this way, reading Chris Lehmann’s book The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity and the Unmaking of the American Dream might help. This is from a review by Barrett Swanson at Dissent:

Though few contemporary Christians would likely admit it, many of the American colonies were built upon the idea of redistribution. Those dour Puritans who first populated the territories of New England were not lured by the promise of windfall profits. Nor had they endured months of seasickness and disease for the chance to start a small business. Instead, they were hopeless utopians, runaway apostates of the established church who yearned to embrace a higher manner of being, one founded upon a system of communitarian ethics.

John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, sketched the tenets of this new society in a sermon called “A Model of Christian Charity,” which he delivered in 1630 while on board a British ship headed across the Atlantic. A gusty ode to American exceptionalism, the homily christened the new continent “The City Upon a Hill,” a metaphor that Ronald Reagan would make a watchword for Republicans some three-hundred-and-fifty years later. But in Winthrop’s eyes what gave the New World its luster were the egalitarian principles of the Protestant gospel, central among them the commitment to redistributing wealth on the basis of individual need. “We must be willing,” Winthrop said, “to abridge ourselves of our superfluities for the sakes of others’ necessities . . . we must bear one another’s burdens.”

It is stupefying to consider how, over the course of four centuries, American Christianity would forsake these humble sentiments for the telegenic hucksterism of preachers like Joel Osteen. This Pentecostal quack with a garish smile doesn’t tout the spiritual benefits of communal interdependence. Nor does he acknowledge the ethical requirements of the Christian social contract. Instead, like so many stewards of the “prosperity gospel,” Osteen thinks individual wealth is a hallmark of Christian virtue and urges his followers to reach inside themselves to unlock their hidden potential…. “It doesn’t please God for us to drag through life feeling like miserable failures,” Osteen warns. “God wants you to succeed; He created you to live abundantly.”

How we got from Winthrop to Osteen is the subject of Chris Lehmann’s new book, The Money Cult. Lehmann is interested in how the communitarian spirit of mainline Protestantism was eventually tarnished by the logic of private enterprise. But in the end what he discovers is that, far from being pious victims of a rapacious economic system, mainline churches were very much complicit in “the gradual sanctification of the market.” In fact, throughout the history of the United States, Christian theology was routinely contorted to fit within the narrow priorities of capitalism.

One of the reasons Christianity caught on in the Roman world was that it functioned as a mutual aid society. Helping one’s fellow Christians made a difference in people’s lives, because Rome wasn’t big on universal healthcare or unemployment insurance. But neither was 17th century England. So it makes sense that redistribution (something along the lines of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”) was a guiding principle for the Christians who founded Plymouth Colony.

Today, of course, our fellow citizens who call the U.S. a “Christian” nation think that “redistribution” is a dirty word. A headline in The Washington Post earlier this month noted that “the debate over the Affordable Care Act is really a debate over wealth redistribution”. From Karen Tumulty’s article:

Redistribution of wealth — one of the most radioactive subjects in American politics — has moved from being a subtext in the national debate over health care to being the core of it….

[There is] a bedrock philosophical and ideological question that has always been in the background of any argument about the government’s role in health care: What is the minimum that society should provide for its poorest, most vulnerable citizens, and how much should be taken from the rich and powerful to do it?

…There [are] many ways that Obamacare [redistributes] the burden of medical costs — from the sick to the healthy, with provisions such as the one denying insurers the ability to refuse coverage to people with preexisting conditions; from the old to the young, with a mandate that everyone have coverage or pay a penalty; from the rich to the poor, with an array of new taxes.

It’s almost as if right-wing opponents of the ACA don’t understand what insurance, including health insurance, is. Tumulty quotes economic historian Bruce Bartlett:

“Republicans argue that redistribution is inherently immoral without acknowledging that the very nature of insurance is redistributive. You’re taking money from people whose houses don’t burn down to give it to the people whose houses do burn down.”

As far as I know, Jesus never talked about health insurance and neither did the Puritans. But Christianity in its pure form is clearly pro-redistribution. Any preacher or politician who says otherwise shouldn’t claim to follow Jesus.

If you’re interested in reading more about Christianity as it’s frequently practiced today, I recommend a long article from 2014 by the journalist Kurt Eichenwald. It’s called “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin”: 

…With politicians, social leaders and even some clergy invoking a book they seem to have never read and whose phrases they don’t understand, America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy.

The Bible is not the book many American fundamentalists and political opportunists think it is, or more precisely, what they want it to be. Their lack of knowledge about the Bible is well-established. A Pew Research poll in 2010 found that evangelicals ranked only a smidgen higher than atheists in familiarity with the New Testament and Jesus’s teachings. “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it,’’ wrote … pollsters and researchers whose work focused on religion in the United States. The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, found in 2012 that evangelicals accepted the attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees—religious leaders depicted throughout the New Testament as opposing Christ and his message—more than they accepted the teachings of Jesus.

No doubt, Paul Ryan would beg to differ. But who sounds more like Jesus? Was it Ryan when he said the healthy shouldn’t be taxed to help the sick, or John Winthrop when he said “we must bear one another’s burdens”? Here’s a hint from the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10:  

“One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

Religion and I (Continued Again)

Did a powerful being create the universe? If so, does that being know absolutely everything about its creation? And could that being change the way its creation works with no difficulty at all? Damned if I know.

Of course, many of us claim to know. I never have. When I was little, I was impressed by the miracle stories. Later on, I learned that stories about miracles are much more common than miracles themselves. 

Eventually, I concluded that I was an agnostic. It seemed like the only reasonable position to hold. Take the proposition that God exists. The possible responses are: 

  1. I know that God exists;
  2. I don’t know if God exist;
  3. I know that God doesn’t exist.

Choosing (2) means you’re an agnostic. (You could also say (4) “I don’t know what ‘God exists’ means”, but let’s put that aside as overly argumentative.)

But consider a proposition like “The Easter Bunny exists”. If we replace “God” with “the Easter Bunny” in those three sentences, it feels easier to choose (3): “I know that the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist”. Why? Well, because I know there’s no Easter Bunny.

Seriously, only little children believe in the Easter Bunny; there is no worldwide religion devoted to believing in the Easter Bunny; no philosophers or theologians have argued for the existence of the Easter Bunny (well, some have in a way, but not many). Under pressure, I might agree that it’s not completely impossible that the Easter Bunny exists, but I’m much closer to believing (3) “it doesn’t” than (2) “I don’t know”.

As I was thinking about writing these posts, I came across something called the Dawkins Scale. It’s from a book by the biologist Richard Dawkins. It’s also known as the Spectrum of Theistic Probability. In theory, each of us belongs somewhere on this scale:

dawkins_scale

Although I usually think of myself as an agnostic, Dawkins would say I’m an atheist, i.e. (6) “De-Facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable”. Not everyone agrees with the way Dawkins defines the word “atheist”; some of his critics think that to be an atheist, you have to be completely sure that God doesn’t exist.

I’d forgotten, however, that ten years ago, when I stood in front of the congregation at the Unitarian Church, reading my “theology” or “credo”, this is what I said:

This leaves me as either an atheist or an agnostic, depending on how those words are defined. Using language from the biologist Richard Dawkins, my position is that I cannot know for certain, but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that God is not there.

Hence, ten years later, still number 6 on the Dawkins Scale.

Even so, I recently began watching a Public Broadcasting program called “From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians”. Most of the program was familiar from books I read years ago, and it was a little annoying how often they stopped the narrative for ethereal singing and beautiful video of the sun and clouds. But listening to how the New Testament was written and cobbled together decades after Jesus lived, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to read the “books” of the New Testament in chronological order.

I don’t mean “chronological” in the sense of “as the events supposedly occurred or will occur”. That would mean starting with the birth of Jesus and continuing on to the Apocalypse. I mean reading the parts of the New Testament in the order in which they were written. (There is at least one version of the New Testament, called Evolution of the Word, arranged that way. The book’s description says it “reveals how spiritually and politically radical the early Jesus movement began and how it slowly became domesticated”.)  

Scholars believe the first book of the New Testament was written by Paul the Apostle roughly 20 years after Jesus died. That’s 1 Thessalonians, written around the year 50. That was followed by six or seven other letters written by Paul. The first gospel, Mark, wasn’t written until the year 70 or so. The first gospel that appears in the New Testament, Matthew, was written around 20 years after that (60 years after Jesus died).

Maybe reading the New Testament in the order it was written will show something important about how Christianity began. So far, I’ve read three of Paul’s letters. He comes across as a true proselytizer, someone saying whatever he can to turn his audience into followers of Jesus. I’m not sure I’d have trusted him, since he seems like such a self-promoter, although it would have been a relief to hear him say it wasn’t necessary to follow the Jewish dietary laws or be circumcised in order to become a Christian.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul blames his fellow Jews for killing Jesus. I assumed that was an accusation from later times created in order to foster anti-Semitism. In Galatians, he calls the world “evil”. Paul emphasizes that faith in Jesus is the one true path to salvation. When Jesus returns, the faithful will be lifted up into the clouds, after which they’ll live with the Lord forever.  

I don’t know if I’ll keep reading, or if I’ll share what I read. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that I won’t be moving higher or lower on the Dawkins Scale.   

Religion and I (Continued)

Somewhere along the way, I got interested in the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, the great rationalist thinker of the 17th century. Spinoza argued that “God” and “Nature” are two names for the same thing. That one thing is the universe as a whole. It’s the only thing that truly exists. Everything else (atoms, thoughts, you, me) is a mode or modification of that one infinite substance, God or Nature (Deus sive Natura).

Reading Spinoza made me try to think about the universe (the whole of nature) in a religious sense, as a sacred thing, a worthy object of worship. Obviously, there have been nature religions since prehistoric times. But the idea didn’t work for me. The universe is totally amazing and the Earth is our treasured home, but I never got close to thinking of nature in religious terms.

Neither of us being drawn to any of the standard religions, my wife and I began attending a local chapter of what’s often called the Ethical Culture Society. That was in the 1980s. The organization’s actual name is the American Ethical Union. It was founded in New York City in 1877 by a former rabbinical student named Felix Adler. Here’s an explanatory paragraph from their site:

Ethical Humanism, also called Ethical Culture, is an evolving body of ideas that inspires Ethical Societies. Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity (Humanist Manifesto III). For Ethical Humanists, the ultimate religious questions are not about the existence of gods or an afterlife, but rather, “How can we create meaningfulness in this life?” and “How should we treat each other?”

We didn’t stay in the neighborhood long enough to become serious followers of Ethical Culture, but some years later, in the 1990s, we began attending our local Unitarian Church. We both felt at home there. The minister was a scholarly man and an excellent speaker. He also doubted that Jesus was a real person, let alone the son of any god. Like the American Ethical Union, the Unitarian Universalist Association welcomes those who believe in God and those who don’t, because its principal focus is on ethical behavior. From the UUA site and the organization’s bylaws:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

  1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person; 
  2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; 
  3. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  5. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  6. The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
  7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

… Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

The high point of my time as a church-attending Unitarian was ten years ago. The church offered a class called “Building Your Own Theology” (the perfect title for Unitarian adult education). The culmination of the class was supposed to be a personal statement from each of us regarding our fundamental beliefs, which we could then present to the congregation as part of a regular service. I think only two of us chose to address the congregation. The minister helped me with some editing, I put my blue suit on and one Sunday morning I gave it a go. It made me happy that it was well-received.

Here’s some of the conclusion (rearranged a little – consider it a theology that’s still being built):

Is there anything sacred, anything I might revere instead of God? The answer is yes: personal ideals like rationality, curiosity and courage; ethical ideals like generosity, honesty and kindness; and political ideals like justice and democracy. Our ideals and actions, insofar as they exemplify our ideals, can be sacred.

My view is that, if a god existed, it would be a middle-man between us and what is truly sacred, the ideals we hold dear.

I fell away from the church as the years passed. I didn’t feel like I was getting much out of it anymore, especially after my favorite minister retired. But I still love some of the jokes:

Q: How many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: We choose not to make a statement either in favor of or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey, you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is wonderful. You are invited to write a poem or compose a modern dance about your personal relationship with your light bulb. Present it next month at our annual Light Bulb Sunday Service, in which we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, 3-way, long-life, and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths to luminescence.

Q: Why can’t UUs sing very well in choirs?
A: Because they’re always reading ahead to see if they agree with the next verse.

The children in a UU church school class were drawing pictures. The teacher asked one, “What are you drawing a picture of?”
“I’m drawing a picture of God,” was the reply.
“But nobody knows what God looks like,” objected the teacher.
“They will,” said the child, “in a minute.”

And, finally, from the comedian Lenny Bruce: “I know my humor is outrageous when it makes the Unitarians so mad they burn a question mark on my front lawn.”

Again, almost certainly next time: I found a label for what I believe, and have begun reading the New Testament in a way I never thought of before.

Religion and I

My parents were Protestants, but rarely attended church. I never went to Sunday School, but always said a prayer before going to bed. When I was young, it was always the well-known (but morbid) prayer from the 18th century:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

Amen.

At some point, I graduated to the Lord’s Prayer. As best I can remember, it was the long Protestant one with “debts” and “debtors”, instead of “trespass” and “trespasses”, and the extra praise at the end:

Our Father who art in Heaven,
Hallowed be thy name;
Thy kingdom come;
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts
As we forgive our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom
And the power
And the glory,
Forever.

Amen.

By the way, did you know that “amen” is roughly translated as “so be it” and that it came from Hebrew, or maybe Aramaic, through Greek and Latin and then to us? In other words, just like the rest of the Bible.

Then one night when I was 13 or so, in the grip of burgeoning skepticism or adolescent rebelliousness, I decided not to recite my nightly prayer. It felt like a major step. I’d never felt religious, except maybe around Christmas. But I wondered whether going straight to sleep would mean I’d end up in Hell. (Obviously, the jury is still out.) I think I’d concluded that God probably doesn’t exist. For roughly ten years, I’d simply been talking to myself, rather like Peter O’Toole in The Ruling Class:

Lady Claire Gurney: “How do you know you’re God?”

Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, 14th Earl of Gurney: “Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.”

Within a few years, I was studying philosophy and my skepticism increased. Philosophers are trained to question assumptions and offer evidence. Citing tradition or faith as justification for one’s views isn’t enough. Plus, the philosophical arguments for the existence of God are uniformly weak. As a rule, therefore, philosophy is hard on religion. So much for religion, for the next twenty years.

Then, however, I began thinking about religion again – not because I wanted to become religious, but because I wanted to understand its popularity. Where did religion come from? Why do so many people take it so seriously? Why, for example, have religious authorities been so concerned about sex?

I began reading about the history of Christianity in particular. I read William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, and about the “historical” Jesus, and the Council of Nicea, and several books by the historian of religion, Elaine Pagels. I read about the idea of Satan, and the Gnostics, and Paul’s conflict with Jesus’s brother James.

The conclusion I reached is that the history of Christianity is much more complex than most people realize. What got into the Bible and what is promulgated in church could have turned out very differently if other people had translated or copied the texts or won the arguments about church doctrine. People will say it’s all been decided and documented according to God’s hidden plan. I think it’s much more likely to have been a messy, contingent, unpredictable process, like all other major human endeavors, and there’s nothing supernatural about it.

Probably next time: I found a label for what I believe, and have begun reading the New Testament in a way I never thought of before.

Trump, the Christian

Peter Wehner had various jobs in the last three Republican administrations. Now he works at a conservative think tank called the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t pay much attention to what he has to say about anything, but his thoughts on “The Theology of Donald Trump” are worth reading. 

After Mr. Trump met with hundreds of evangelical Christians a couple of weeks ago, James Dobson, who is among the most influential leaders in the evangelical world and serves on Mr. Trump’s evangelical executive advisory board, declared that “Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit,” by which Dr. Dobson meant the Holy Spirit.

Of all the descriptions of Mr. Trump we’ve heard this election season, this may be the most farcical. As described by St. Paul, the “fruit of the Spirit” includes forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, hardly qualities one associates with Mr. Trump. It shows you the lengths Mr. Trump’s supporters will go to in order to rationalize their enthusiastic support of him….

The calling of Christians is to be “salt and light” to the world, to model a philosophy that defends human dignity, and to welcome the stranger in our midst. It is to stand for justice, dispense grace and be agents of reconciliation in a broken world. And it is to take seriously the words of the prophet Micah, “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?”

Evangelical Christians who are enthusiastically supporting Donald Trump are signaling, even if unintentionally, that this calling has no place in politics and that Christians bring nothing distinctive to it — that their past moral proclamations were all for show and that power is the name of the game.

Trump’s success demonstrates beyond any doubt that millions of Republicans are morally bankrupt, despite their claims to cherish rock-solid moral values. The support Trump is receiving from “Christian” leaders demonstrates that they are morally bankrupt too, no matter how much they claim to foster Christian values.