Maimonides came to my attention through a review, written by Jay Harris, that appeared in Foreign Affairs.  A 2009 biography of Maimonides, by Moshe Halbertal, has recently been translated into English, and released by Princeton University Press.

Some people see religion as a positive harm. It’s a block to progress, or a source of violence. In this view, humanity would be better off to discard God and religion, and to rely on reason.

Harris astutely points out that contemporary non-religious (i.e., secular) “political and moral discourse” has not “particularly distinguished itself when it comes to dealing with the world….” Instead of bypassing religion, Harris (following Maimonides) suggests that we need better theology. That is, human well-being will not be increased by trying to avoid, deny, or banish religion; human well-being will be increased by doing religion better.

And doing religion better means doing theology better– “theology” in this sense understood broadly as any reasoned speaking or reasoned conversation about God.

Here is Harris on Maimonides:

Maimonides insists that a proper understanding of God (knowing what God is not), together with the commandment to imitate God as he is manifest in the world, will lead people to a life devoted to righteousness and loving-kindness– the essence of God’s impact on the world. A mistaken understanding of God, on the other hand, can lead people to place a divine imprimatur on all manner of evil acts.




Can the Future Be Better Than the Past?

America the Young

The God of the older and newer Testaments does not stand on tradition, and has no use for nostalgia. Tradition and nostalgia have their place in human life– sometimes it’s nice to curl up with the photograph album– but as a cage to contain the Holy One, they are less than unhelpful: they are futile.

The God of the older and newer Testaments is a god of history, however– a god who is involved in unfolding time. The pattern of that divine involvement is the pattern of promise and fulfillment: “I brought you out of slavery, out of Egypt, and delivered you to the Promised Land.” The past contains this pattern, and the future will contain this pattern too. It’s not a mistake to expect God to fulfill God’s promises in the future; the mistake is to expect God to fulfill God’s promises in precisely the same way they were fulfilled in another time and place.

That is how nostalgia falls short: it expects “the way things were” to be the fulfillment of God’s promises for today.

The fundamental promise of the God of the Bible is to abide with us– not to leave us or forsake us, but to be present to us: “I am with you,” God says, over and over again. We are not given “how” or “under what circumstances” or “by what signs” that promise will be fulfilled. Part of our job is to wait, and look for God fulfilling God’s promise with eyes trained by trust. The other part of our job is to participate with God in redeeming the world, by loving kindness, doing justice, and walking humbly.

Regular readers will know that Religion in the Balance takes a dimmer view of human nature than does your average  Enlightenment-saturated, in-progress-we-trust, optimistic American. If a better future is up to a humanity that strays wildly from the God of Love so as to be effectively cut off from that Source, then the word here is: no, the future will not be better than the past.

On the other hand, if a better future is up to a humanity that can find a way to trust a God who wills more good for us than we can possibly imagine for ourselves, then the word here is: yes, we’ve got a chance. What is yet to come will be better than what we have known ’til now.

Home page of : The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s official History and Citizenship site.

Always on the Move

Theologian Douglas John Hall

Religion in the Balance is a fan of Christian theologian Douglas John Hall, whose perspective on religion is summed nicely in Karl Barth’s dictum that the “the message of the Bible is that God hates religion.” The falsehood that Barth’s dictum reveals, is the human propensity to mistake representations of mystery with the living reality of mystery itself; to mistake beliefs about God with the living  reality of God’s presence. Of all people, religious people ought to know better. God is not able to be captured in a system.

This is not to say that religion is useless. It is just to recognize the limits of religion, and to remember that the purpose of religion is to point us toward– and give us an encouraging nudge to move toward– living more fully into the deeper mysteries of life and death, and acting out of a love that includes and transcends family, clan, and nation.

Rev. Gary Schulte, leading the United Church of Christ in New Hampshire, reminds us that churches themselves derive their life from the Holy One: properly understood, churches  are not, to use Hall’s rhetoric, part of the “entire human project of possession.” Once we unclench from the mistaken belief that the future of churches is up to us, we are free to listen for a call from God, and to be disciples of Christ, re-configured for a new day. Here are Schulte’s words:

Perhaps we need to remember a text, attributed to Jesus, first spoken to Simon Peter back at the beginning:  “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”  (Matthew 16:18, NRSV).  It is not so much about Peter or his profession of faith, but about the promise of the One who does the building:  I will build my church!  I think it is time for a breath–the deep, life-giving breath of the Spirit–in a new day.  It is time for the return of joy, rather than seriousness and dire predictions of our demise.  It is time to confront our dragons and demons and be free of the heavy burdens we try to carry in the name of Christ.  It is time for listening for a call, for being disciples who can be surprised and inspired, for serving in the midst of God’s beautiful and broken world.

Is It a Prayer, or Isn’t It?

The Arizona State House

This little news item calls for brief theological reflection…

The AP reported last week on an incident in the Arizona House of Representatives. State representatives take turns offering a prayer of invocation; Rep. Juan Mendez– described in reports as an atheist– took his turn and “asked House members not to bow their heads but to instead look around at each other ‘sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state.'” (from Juan Cole’s Religion Clause)

The following day, Rep. Steve Smith– described in reports as a Christian– expressed his judgment that Mendez’s offering on the previous day did not count as a prayer. (The full report and link are below).

I take Mendez’s offering as authentic prayer for the following reasons. First, it is life-affirming: his words regarding the “extraordinary experience of being alive” evoke the gift and mystery that life itself is. Second, the gesture of looking at other humans can be reasonably interpreted as a gesture pointing us to the sacred (even if, from the atheistic point of view, it does not point us to the divine). Third, his words call people out of narrow self-regard, to consider the larger whole.

Smith is right that Mendez’s invocation was not Christian prayer; it is also obvious but worth mentioning that, at the end of the day, there are irreconcilable differences between an atheistic and a Christian way of experiencing and acting in the world.

One might also plausibly think, however, that the Christian way of engaging difference– especially in this diverse and pluralistic nation– would be to seek common ground when possible. Followers of Jesus have a special obligation, in this age of fear and in this culture of death, to ally when possible with all who affirm life, and who desire to care for all people– as expressed in Rep. Mendez’s prayer– even if they don’t believe in God. This does not mean softening the gospel, or selling out to syncretism.

On the contrary, such Christian engagement comes from a deep trust in the One whose ways of working towards the fulfillment of history are mysterious: a deep trust in the God whose ways are not our ways. It is faithful, Biblically-grounded Christian practice not to put limits on how, and where, the Holy One is working out the purpose of the world.

AP today reports on an unusual controversy in Arizona over the opening prayer offered by one member of the state House of Representatives. Members of the House rotate in offering the invocation. On Tuesday it was Rep. Juan Mendez’s turn. With members of the Secular Coalition for Arizona in the visitor’s gallery, Mendez, an atheist, asked House members not to bow their heads but to instead look around at each other “sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our state.”

The next day, Rep. Steve Smith complained that Mendez’s remarks did not qualify as a prayer. He asked other House members to join him in a second prayer in repentance for there not being one the prior day. Smith said that Mendez’s remarks were analogous to someone leading the Pledge of Allegiance by pledging “I love England.”

via Religion Clause.

via Member Page.

Jung and Jesus– Darkness in God

Light and Dark: Acceptance and Integration

The great psychologist Carl Jung said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” We don’t become any brighter by focusing exclusively on the light; we become more fully alive by integrating dark and light, by embracing that which has been rejected. Jung also thought that this is the task of the second half of life: we are to recover and re-integrate the shadow side of ourselves, to become more whole as we age. “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” To live today, in the season of Easter, is to live first through the agony of Good Friday and the anxiety of Easter Saturday. Not to deny them or to ignore them, but to live them in their dark truth: as authentic parts of the human journey.

This is the brilliance of the Christian understanding of who God is: that while any authentic spiritual path acknowledges the darkness that’s in us, we worship a God who has darkness in Him, and who in Jesus was willing to go into that darkness, and by going there to make good come from it. It was only by involving Himself in the darkness– in the suffering, in the pain, in the shame, in the death– only by involving Himself in it, that it could be transformed to serve the end, the goal, the purpose of life. “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” That’s true for God, too: God realizes the fullness of God’s divine being, by fully entering the darkness He contains. As Bonhoeffer said: “Only a suffering God can help.”

Photobucket | candle in darkness Pictures, candle in darkness Images, candle in darkness Photos – Page 2.

A Theologian Who Knows What Time It Is

Rev. Douglas John Hall is a United Church minister and a professor emeritus of Christian theology at McGill University in Montreal

I am reading Douglas John Hall’s The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. While a re-contextualized theology of the cross may not be sufficient to return Christianity to relevance in the 21st century, it is certainly a necessary part of such a return. Hall’s thinking is a gift for those of us who find most expressions of today’s Christianity to be either limp or reactionary– and therefore unhelpful and irrelevant.

A heading in an early chapter of the book defines discipleship as “the church’s journey toward the world.” The object of discipleship, according to Hall, is “solidarity”: a “greater and ever greater solidarity with the creation that God loves and, in Jesus Christ, seeks to redeem from within.” In a world that rejects daily– out of a largely unconscious fear– any intimations of its own vulnerability and death, suffering comes to all who love the world not despite, but in all its brokenness and pain. Hall’s theology of the cross is about a God who plumbs the depths of self-giving love– a love that the world, in its delusions of mastery and control, rejects.

In a post-Christian age, in which the Christian religion has been either sidelined by a largely indifferent consumer materialistic/imperial militaristic culture– or serves as the legitimizing cult of that culture– Hall helps us rethink the cross. In such rethinking is the possibility of a renewed Christianity, in which a renewed Church– no longer triumphant, and therefore able to be its faithful, counter-cultural self– re-visions God as primarily the God of Love (rather than primarily the God of Power). Then, as disciples, we can journey with Christ (never an easy or unambiguous journey) to “greater and ever greater solidarity” with the creation that God loves, and seeks to redeem.

Owning God: More Assassination in Pakistan

Christians Are Pakistan's Second Largest Religious Minority

We wrote about the assassination of Salman Taseer last January: about his call to reform Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law; and about the assassin (Taseer’s own bodyguard) who believed he was carrying out God’s will in killing Taseer. I characterized such misguided fundamentalism as “owning” God. When God is yours, you can justify doing anything– including murdering others.

This sad story continues with another assassination, earlier this month, of Pakistan’s only Christian cabinet minister, Shahbaz Bhatti. The BBC reports that Mr. Bhatti was killed in an ambush by Taliban gunmen as he drove away from his mother’s home on March 2nd. Mr. Bhatti, like Salman Taseer, had spoken out against Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law.

Bad theology– of any religious brand– will lead to bad consequences. While I write about events in Pakistan, the truth is that bad theology leading to bad consequences can– and does– happen anywhere. Destructive, life-denying ideas about who God is, and what God wants, can take root in people’s hearts. Assassination in God’s name is a dramatic enactment of bad theology; chronic guilt or debilitating shame in a person, that comes from a theology built on an imprinted Disapproving Parent, is a less dramatic– but still life-robbing– enactment of bad theology.

The answer to bad theology is good theology. Here’s some good theology articulated by Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Coutts. This good theology was spoken at Shahbaz Bhatti’s funeral:

Our grievance is against the wrong use of this [blasphemy] law. If murderers go to heaven, then what good is the heaven. Pardon me, but we cannot worship a god who rewards murderers.

Nobody is ready to listen to our argument, or accept our innocence. Shahbaz Bhatti’s message is, rid Pakistan of prejudice and hatred so that a culture of mutual respect and tolerance takes root.

And let the people say: it’s not just Pakistan. Amen.