Thursday, December 31, 2009

Eliphaz Relates His Vision in the Night

Eliphaz the Temanite said, “Will it grieve you to talk with us? I feel moved to speak. Look, you have been a leader. You have strengthened the weak. Now trouble has come to you. Yet, think: Who ever died for being innocent? Whenever is the righteous left out in the cold? Those who plow iniquity—and those who sow wickedness—reap the same. God blasts them. The roaring of the lion and the teeth of the young lions are broken. The old lion dies for lack of prey, and the stout lion's whelps are scattered.

“I know this little secret;
It came to me as a vision in the night
And fear and trembling shook my bones.

“A sprit passed and my hair stood on end.
It stopped but had no shape.
Yet it was an image in the silence and it asked me,
‘Will mortals be more just than God?
Will mortals be more pure than their maker?
God cannot trust his servants
Even his angels are fools.’

“So, as for we who dwell in houses of clay,
For us whose foundation is in the dust,
We die like moths.
We are destroyed from morning to evening
We perish continuously, no one ever noticing.

“And as for the good in us—
Where does that go?

“We die without wisdom. . .

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Chapter Three: A Curse and a Lament

The first word to come out of Job’s mouth was a curse.

Then he said,

“I wish I had never been born!
Or that I had died at birth.
Then I would be quiet;
I would sleep with the kings
And the counselors of the earth,
With the powerful who build
Desolate places for themselves
And with princes who had gold,
Who filled their houses with silver.

“In death the wicked cease their troubling
And the weary can rest.
In death the prisoners relax, never
Hearing the voice of the oppressor.
In death the small and great gather,
And the servant is free of the master.

“Why is it that light comes in misery?
Why does the bitter soul go on breathing?
Why do those who long for death have to wait,
Digging for it as if it were a hidden treasure?
When they find the grave, they rejoice.

“Why is it that light comes to those
Whose paths are hidden
And whom God has fenced in?
I sigh before I eat;
I pour out my screams like water.

“What I feared most has come to me;
What terrified me is here.
I never felt secure;
I never rested;
Never was I complacent;
Yet trouble came to me.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter Two: Job's Further Afflictions

Now it so happened, on another day, the sons of God met with YAHWEH. Satan was at the meeting.

YAHWEH said to Satan, “Where are you coming from?”

Satan answered, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”

YAHWEH said to Satan, “Have you taken a look at my servant Job? There is no one else like him on the earth. He is perfect and righteous; he worships God and eschews evil. He holds to his integrity, even though you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.”

Satan answered YAHWEH, “Skin for skin, I do declare: all that a man has he will give for his own life. But I suspect that if you put forth your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, he will curse you to your face.”

YAHWEH said, “Look, he is in your power. All I ask is that you leave him alive.”

So Satan left the meeting with YAHWEH. And he afflicted Job with sore boils from the soles of his feet to the top of his head.

Job took a piece of a broken pot and scraped himself with it. He sat down among the ashes.

Job’s wife said to him: “You are still keeping your integrity? Curse God and die.”

Job said to his wife, “What a foolish thing to say. Are we supposed to take the good from the hand of God but not the evil?”

Despite his misfortunes, Job would not speak blasphemy.

Now, Job had three friends, and when they heard of all the evil that had come upon Job, they agreed that they should go comfort him. His three friends were Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite.

While they were still far off, the three friends thought they saw Job, then realized how much he had changed. They wept for him, tore their clothing, and poured dust over their heads.

When they came into Job’s presence, they sat down on the ground near him, but they did not speak for seven days and seven nights, knowing Job was in grief.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Retelling of the Story of Job


Once there lived a man in Uz whose name was Job; he was perfect and righteous; he worshiped God and eschewed evil.

Job had seven sons and three daughters; he also had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, one thousand oxen, five hundred she-donkeys, and a huge household. Job was the greatest of all the men of the east.

Job’s sons had a custom of feasting in their houses, every one taking a turn, and they would call for their three sisters to come to eat and drink with them.

And every time his children had a feast, Job sent them a blessing, and then got up bright and early the next morning to offer a burnt sacrifice, just in case, as Job said, they had sinned in any way or somehow cursed God in their hearts. Job did this every time.

Now it so happened one day that the Sons of God met with YAHWEH. Satan was at the meeting.

YAHWEH said to Satan, “Where are you coming from?”

Satan answered, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”

YAHWEH said to Satan, “Have you ever taken a look at my servant Job? There is no one else like him on the earth. He is perfect and righteous; he worships God and eschews evil.

Satan answered YAHWEH, “Ah! Not for nothing does Job worship God! You have built a hedge around him and around his house and around everything he has. You have blessed everything he does and he gets richer and richer by the day. But were you to put forth your hand and take away what he has, I suspect he would curse you to your face.”

YAHWEH said, “Look, everything that he has is now in your power. All I ask is that you do not hurt his body.”

So Satan left the meeting with YAHWEH. Meanwhile, Job’s sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the oldest brother’s house.

A messenger came to Job, and said, “The oxen were plowing, and the donkeys feeding beside them. Some nomads attacked them and stole them. They killed the servants and I am the only one who survived to come tell you.”

While that messenger was speaking, another ran in. This one said, “The fire of God has fallen from heaven, and it burned the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I am the only one who survived to come tell you.”

While that messenger was speaking, another ran in. This one said, “The Chaldeans attacked in three bands, and they stole the camels. They killed your servants, and I am the only one who survived to come tell you.”

While that messenger was speaking, another ran in. This one said, “Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother's house. Suddenly, there came a great wind from the wilderness, crashing into the four corners of the house, and the house fell upon the young people, and they are dead; and I am the only one who survived to come tell you.”

Job stood up, tore his clothing, shaved his head, fell down upon the ground, and worshipped God. Job said, “Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked will I return thither; YAHWEH gave, and YAHWEH has taken away; blessed be the name of YAHWEH.”

Despite his misfortune, Job did not commit a sin, nor did he speak to God foolishly.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Theology is Creative Writing

Religion has two faces: a public and a private.

Private experiences are just that: experienced. A person knows he or she has had the experience, no debate. We can certainly debate the interpretation of the experience: Was it really an angel; was it really Jesus; was it really an alien abduction. Mystics, however, have long claimed that their experiences are not expressible in words. That is the private face of religious experience.

It may be irritating for theologians to dwell upon, but the zaniest self-help book, based as it is in recommending doing something that feels some way, is downright scientific compared to theology.

The public face of religion is all about words, or, if you prefer, all about symbols, of which words are one subset, and pictures, statues, and incense others. The hidebound tomes that heap up around religions are also symbol sets. Word sets. And they are creative writing.

Where, after all, is their basis? Other books. Mentors. The tradition.

But wait! Isn’t tradition based in experience? Somewhat. Just as novels do not spring full-blown from abstraction. But that’s my point: a book of theology is very much like a novel.

I have written novels. And I have tried my hand at theology. What I have come to believe is that theology may best be written as poems are written—much closer to experience.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Logic of the Materials

Think about kids toys for a moment. Not just any kids toys, but the ones you can build stuff with. Think of the different sorts of construction sets there are: LEGO, Erector sets, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys. . .and on and on.

Now, consider these sets each as a specific religion. Many religions teach that only their set is valid for constructing a theology. For example, if you’re born a Southern Baptist, you must construct your theology out of, say, Lincoln Logs. Tinker Toys won’t do. Don’t even look over there at the people building with Tinker Toys. Or LEGO bricks. That won’t do. Only Lincoln Logs contain the correct—the one true way—of building.

Now imagine the Roman Catholic Church claiming the same thing about LEGO. Don’t look over there at the Erector Set.

You get the point.

(Yes, I know that analogies are dangerous, but bear with me.)

Just think about Lincoln Logs. You can build cabins and forts. You can even build, if you’re so inclined, shopping malls and airplanes and space ships. But, come down to it, no matter what you build, it’s always made of Lincoln Logs. Even the space ships you build will have a vague resemblance to log cabins.

Or take Tinker Toys. You can make great Ferris Wheels with Tinker Toys. And dogs and cats. Even shopping malls and space ships. But, at end of the day. . .everything has a certain . . .roundness to it.

Or take LEGO bricks. You can build pirate ships of LEGO. Space ships. Perhaps you’ve seen online that someone has told the story of the Bible in LEGO. Perhaps, were you persistent, you could even build a heart out of LEGO bricks. But, at the end of the day, it would still be a heart made of. . .LEGO bricks. There would be a certain. . .blockish quality to the heart.

LEGO has LEGO logic. Lincoln Logs have Lincoln Logs logic. That’s the way it works. (I do hope you’ll forgive my ignorance of contemporary toys: I was born with Eisenhower was president and my kids are grown.)

I’m not working with this metaphor to be silly. I think perhaps there’s some truth to be got at here. Yes, in a very real sense, all analogies are false analogies, since if things were truly similar, they would be the same, wouldn’t they? This analogy problem is especially tricky in the matter of the spiritual realm—analogies being often mistaken for reality. Yet I do think there is some truth to be got at here. Bear with me. . .

If we say that Roman Catholics can only play with LEGO in their theology; that Southern Baptists can only play with Lincoln Logs; that Pentecostals can only play with Erector Sets, what we’re saying is that there is an internal logic to the theologies built into the play sets. We’re saying that Roman Catholicism will always—whatever the new idea—come up with a creation, a new toy, based on its preexisting logic.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Becoming the Path

Poet Keith Waldrop wrote, “This much seems obvious, that as we move along the path, slowly but certainly the path replaces us.” I’m not sure just how obvious that is, but it is perhaps true. We become what we do. And, as the old saying goes, our deeds live after us. I suppose at one level, this could be interpreted as a threat: “Oh, no! I’d better be careful what I do!” In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, however, the idea functions more as opportunity than threat. When I am gone, it is what I have done that matters. And, today, I am what I do. The path I am moving along is replacing me. It isn’t what I’m thinking but what I am doing that is slowly adding up to what I will have been. For me, anyway, that thought helps when things get murky.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Way of Poetry

Philosophically speaking, I am a nominalist. That is, as John Stuart Mill said, "there is nothing general except names", hence the prefix "nom". What that means, and I have to quickly add that I’m in no way a philosopher, merely a weekend-warrior when it comes to philosophy, is that I don’t believe abstractions exist except in the human mind.

I don’t believe there’s a quantity called “justice,” only individual happenings that we can say are just or unjust based on past experience, cultural norms, theory based on human experience, and a certain inner core of value developed through evolution.

I don’t believe there is an entity called Death, black robe and scythe or not. All we have is a long history of individual cases. And the prediction that there will be more.

There was a first death, a first murder, a first injustice. And those have kept coming, always individual, specific. The ability to abstract those individual cases into theory is what makes us human. The ability to think abstractly about individual instances is a wonderful gift; it is also inherently deceptive.

The ability to institutionalize murder and injustice is also human.

As an example of what can happen when we take wisdom too literally as an abstract entity, here is a passage from the book of Job:

Where then does wisdom come from?
And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living,
and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abaddon and Death say,
“We have heard a rumour of it with our ears.”
God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.

Now, this is good poetry but dangerous philosophy, I think. Though the poet of Job goes on to give concrete instances of YHWH expertly making the earth, the poet concludes,
Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding

But wait: hocus pocus has occurred: we have gone from the beautiful poetry of YHWH making the earth to a command to follow the rules of a particular religious practice. “Fear of the Lord is wisdom.” The act of performing a particular abstraction leads to another abstraction.

And then what is “evil,” and what is departing from it? Is sticking to a path constructed by this particular religious practice REALLY the way to the abstraction called “understanding”?
Or is this a particular way merely a particular way to a particular understanding?
Ah, I think that’s it.

I am a poet myself. I understand the beauty of images and the beauty of abstraction (I’m a big fan of Wallace Stevens). I understand the human need to suss abstraction out of image. I also know it’s an inherently dangerous practice.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


I have a basic thesis, and it is this: Whatever “powers that be” in the universe that may or may not exist, a basic requirement of being human is being adult in our religious and spiritual thinking. That which infantilizes us; that which shifts the burden of moral responsibility away from our own actions to some vague other, is wrong-headed.

Abrogation of responsibility is not an adult act.

After all, doesn’t our spirituality deserve our utmost attention, not because we need to escape some unearthly punishment but because each moment of our lives is precious? Furthermore, isn’t each moment fraught with difficulty and alive with possibility?

The Buddha said, “Be ye lamps unto yourselves.” This anti-authority sentiment did not sit well with the Brahmins of Buddha’s time, just as Luther’s sola scripture,” nothing but scripture,” argument sat badly with church authorities of his time. There’s lots of hay to be made with religion, after all, and authorities of any time are authorities because they know a bit about the levers of power.

Despite the time, the place, the style, fashion, and mode of government, the question is always this: Do I know myself?

This is one of those eternal questions.

After we ask the question of ourselves, we must begin the work of theology, the work of religion, the work of spirituality, which is aligning ourselves the transcendental ground of our existence. We must begin the work of weaving our lives around our ultimate concerns

The work of theology has many facets—tradition, authority, speculation, personal experience, mystery. . .

Some of us have experienced a good deal of grace, having felt that nature or reality or deity has been on our side. Others of us have felt cursed by whatever powers may be. And it is well to remember that it may not be truth we are after, but peace of mind.

“Meta-narrative” is a sometimes overused term that describes the idea that there are grand schemes working in history. The “march of progress” is a meta-narrative. The old Christian teaching that humankind’s fall in Genesis set up “original sin” only washed away by the death of Christ is a meta-narrative. Nations tend to have meta-narratives concerning their formation, governance, and destiny. The lives of famous people are often turned into meta-narratives that indicate an inevitability to the shape and success of their lives.

The human mind creates narrative, even when it isn’t there. Many of us have had religious meta-narratives imposed upon us in childhood. This overarching explanation of being is of course a map, not a territory, and, like a map, meta-narrative ignores minutia to indicate a larger pattern. But as mathematician and originator of Process Theology Alfred North Whitehead pointed out, “We think in generalities, but we live in detail.”

And thus do meta-narratives fail us. Fail us not only in their lack of detail—in their map for how to get through the minutes of our lives—but also in the stories they tell us.

Meta-narratives lie by omission. Meta-narratives shift the burden of responsibility away from our selves. We are born in the place and the time in which we are born. We are born as we are. Meta-narratives function to remove our own reality. Meta-narratives infantilize us.

As Jesus demonstrated, theological thought and discourse works best in story and in conversation. The spiritual exists only in the moment. The now. That is the stage on which we all decide, all act.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

What the Questions Are

Theology, in the Western tradition, encompasses questions such as where revelation of the sacred comes from; how the universe came to be; and the role of divinity in the upkeep and maintenance of the universe and its living things, an activity often known as providence.
On these foundational questions theologians then build structures that posit answers to questions such as anthropology, or what it means to be human.
The interaction of deity and the universe, with our understandable preoccupation with human beings, leads to the question of theodicy, that is, an explanation for why evil and misfortune exists in the world despite or because of the sort of deity posited. A corollary question tends to be, “how can I be delivered from the evils and misfortunes of the world?” This question is answered in a consideration known in Greek as soteriology, from the word “soterion,” meaning deliverance.
Other questions include pneumatology, or the question of the existence of a spirit world and how it interacts—or not—with the material world, and ecclesiology, or the question of how best to worship and/or appease the sort of deity proposed. This includes the question of various sacramental actions and how to lead a moral life.
Then of course there is the question of how, in the religion one chooses, to live with those who have chosen other religions.
Lastly there is the question of eschatology, or last things; that is, what does death mean; what happens after death, and what will eventually become of the universe.

Complicating these matters, when the religion has aged a bit, are traditions. Traditions with great meaning in one time and place don’t make sense in other times and other places.
Further complications are added by the existence of texts considered sacred. How tradition and text get interpreted leads to questions of epistemology—or how meaning is made—and hermeneutics, or how we go about doing interpretation.
All human religions grapple with these issues, though the Western frame does not always comfortably fit pre-Christian First People traditions or non-Western traditions.
Unitarian Universalist minister Alice Blair Wesley attempts to further synthesize theological questions by asking three:
What realities are most worthy of our devoted love?
How is our participation in these realities conditioned?
And how do they interact with other realties?

This nicely sums up what the questions are.

Friday, February 6, 2009

What the Questions Are

I have a basic thesis, and it is this: Whatever “powers that be” in the universe that may or may not exist, a basic requirement of being human is being adult in our religious and spiritual thinking. That which infantilizes us; that which shifts the burden of moral responsibility away from our own actions to some vague other, is wrong-headed.


Abrogation of responsibility is not an adult act.


Mainline Christianity is slowly awakening to the idea that people need a daily spiritual discipline. In this, Christianity is much like the Detroit automakers on the early-1960s or today. Then, GM’s response to the need for smaller cars then was the Corvair, a car that proved to be unsafe at any speed. Detroit’s answer now is to ask for emergency loans. I wouldn’t say that Centering Prayer, which reaches back to Roman Catholic monastic practice for its grounding, is exactly like a Corvair, but I would say that it is probably too little. . .very late.


Yes, there has long been a tradition in Christianity of daily Bible reading and prayer. But reading—even in its “spiritual” form, lectio divina—is not an activity focused on spiritual discipline. Nor is intercessory prayer. Thus, the Western ideal has involved imprinting the mind with external knowledge through reading and directing thoughts outside the self through prayer.

            Since the Second World War, Buddhist practices, particularly Zen, have spread to the Western world to fill this hollowness at the core of Christian thinking. The “emergent” church movement has also developed as a counter-balance, in some ways a fifth column, to the spiritual and rational holes in mainline Christianity.  The rediscovery of early Christian Gnosticism has further changed the Western spiritual landscape. Meditative introspection is back. But again, it looks a bit like a Corvair.


Unitarian Universalists have been among the “early adopters” of Buddhism and have shown a fascination with the emergent church movement and the reexamination of Christianity through Gnosticism. These new ways of seeing have led to a new understanding of the power in organized, daily, and dare we say conscious, spiritual practice.