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.