Category Archives: Religion

I’m a Christian (or the more or less United Methodist variety), and not ashamed of it. Though I am frequently ashamed of what other Christians do in the name of Christianity.

[A-Z] E is for Episcopalian

Shield_of_the_US_Episcopal_ChurchSome of my earliest memories are of going to church at St. Jude’s Episcopal Church in Cupertino, California. It was a small church, as I recall, and I was a typical kid in a typical church: active, nerdy, investigatory. My mom let me bring toys, of course, and there were coloring activities in the church bulletin and Sunday school classes, all designed to keep little kids like me from being too active and disruptive of the service. I don’t remember my baptism, of course, but I do remember being confirmed at that church by Bishop C. Shannon Mallory in 1982. I have a copy of the 1977 Book of Common Prayer that I received as a gift for that event.

As I grew older, of course, I grew away from the Episcopal Church. I went to a Catholic high school, but while there was a first Friday Mass every month, we weren’t all required to pray every morning and that sort of thing. There were elements of the Catholic Church and its theology that appealed to me, and elements that did not.

When I went to UC Davis, I sought out the nearest Episcopal Church, which was St. Martin’s, not too far away from the dorm I lived in. But then I found myself drawn into Intervarsity College Fellowship, and hung out with a more conservative crowd of Christians than I was used to. I went to a Baptist church for awhile, until I heard from the youth pastor there that all my gay and lesbian friends were going to Hell, at which point I decided I’d had enough.

For awhile I went to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Davis, which I liked for its social progressivism, but which didn’t quite sit right with me for its theology — or, rather, lack thereof.

So I wandered around for a bit. For awhile, I practiced Wicca. Then I explored the Bahá’í Faith for awhile, enchanted by its embrace of other theologies and mythic systems, as well as its socially progressive attitudes. But eventually I came to dislike some it its elements. At least one of my Bahá’í friends turned out to be rather homophobic, and while I don’t know if this represents the faith as a whole, it was hard not to make the connection.

When Jennifer and I met, I ended up going to a Methodist church for awhile. It was easy; after all, it was the church that her parents went to and it was located in our home town, and it was the church we got married in. I like the Methodist Church very much, but I confess it just didn’t feel like home to me.

So when we moved to Sacramento, I decided to start attending Trinity Episcopal Cathedral downtown. It definitely feels more home-like than any of the other churches and faiths I’d explored throughout my life, but there is still something missing. I’m not sure exactly what. The theology is there, the progressive social ideals are there. Maybe it’s just that I didn’t grow up there.

I know that one’s faith has a lot to do with how they’ve grown up. My experience with Christianity and with the Episcopal Church was, on the whole, very good, so I still identify as Christian (even though I’m more likely to say “Happy Zombie Jesus Day” rather than “Happy Easter”). But there are many toxic versions of the faith out there, some of them with far too much political power, and many people who have been deeply wounded by them and by practitioners, and this is a shame.


Hallelujah! It’s the A-Z Blogging Challenge!

Advent Thoughts ‘n’ Things

First of all, here, have some music:

This is “This Endris Night”, as performed by Vox Musica, the women’s voice choir to which Jennifer belongs. They always sound great.

One of the atheist billboards in Sacramento
One of the atheist billboards in Sacramento

Meanwhile, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has put up some billboards around the Sacramento area. I approve. Not because I am personally an atheist or agnostic, but because there are a lot of people out there who are, and they each deserve to know that they’re not the only ones out there, and that they have a right to dignity and respect as well. I have read that some people believe that these billboards are somehow discriminatory against Christians, but I find that idea ludicrous; Christians are NOT a persecuted minority in the United States of America, and anyone who tries to tell you that they are has bought into the Fox News victim mentality.

The shield of the Episcopal Church
The shield of the Episcopal Church

Me, I’m happy to call myself an Episcopalian — though, I suppose, to some people, the Episcopal Church barely counts as a Christian denomination. I believe in God, in the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the Resurrection. I was baptized in the Episcopal Church, and confirmed there as well. All the basic stuff. I believe that God’s commandments to human beings boil down to what Jesus called the two great commandments: Love God, and love each other. The rest, I think, is more or less fluff, and the more you get bogged down in the theology and strict Bible-ism, the more likely you are to let your own prejudices and hatreds interfere with the two great commandments.

Most importantly, I feel these two great commandments are essentially identical, if at least not very much alike. As Christ himself put it:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” ((Matthew 22:37-40, NIV))

There you have it. In my mind, if you serve others you’re essentially serving God, no matter what your religious inclinations are. In further verses (particularly in the Sermon on the Mount), Christ teaches that our neighbors are not just the people who live next to us, but all humankind, as well, even our enemies.

So. Christmas. It’s upon us this very Wednesday. Right now we’re still in the season of Advent, the time of expectation and waiting for Christmas itself. I wish I had some Deep Meaningful Insights to share with you about the season, but I don’t. Just… as we finish running out the season, allow yourself to relax, be meditative, and so on. It’s hard to break out of the rushing and materialism that marks Christmas in our culture these days, but it’s important to do so.

Other than that, I got nothing.

In other news, I’ve revamped my blog. I’m not yet happy with the layout, navigation, appearance, or so on, but after using the same home-grown theme for years and years, I thought it was time for a change. Plus, the new layout is responsive, and looks good even on my cell phone. The wonders of living in the future!

‘Tis the season for (random) Holidailies

Guns, God, and beer

Here are some thoughts I’ve been having recently. They’re not necessarily coherent. They’ve just been on my mind.

Guns. In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, a lot of people have been considering their position on gun control (though Gawker reports that gun sales have reached unprecedented numbers, especially assault rifles, since the shooting, which makes no sense to me). While the gun control discussion will probably lead nowhere, one of the predictable cries is “GUN CONTROL! NO OMG THAT MEANS THEY’RE GOING TO TAKE OUR GUNS AWAY!” which is, of course, just BS. Gun control does not equate with taking away guns; it means massacre prevention.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the Second Amendment. I think it’s archaic and has long passed its usefulness (the ratio of innocents killed by guns to tyrants overthrown in the US is pretty high). When the Founders passed it, guns were unreliable, took ninety seconds to reload (if you were practiced at it), and were just as likely to blow up in your face as they were to fire accurately. The Founders did not anticipate the existence of assault weapons, nor that such weapons would be used to murder two dozen children. Then there’s that whole “well-regulated militia” thing; a lone gunman in a school or a shopping mall do not a well-regulated militia make, and neither does the NRA. Of course, the Second Amendment will never be repealed and the NRA will always be a potent political force, so the whole question is moot; but, in summary, I believe that gun ownership ought to be considered an earned privilege, like driving, rather than an inalienable right.

However, the biggest issue related to the Sandy Hook massacre is, of course, access to mental health care. It’s hard for poor people to get access to affordable mental health care in our country, of course. It just seems that it’s easier to get guns. I disapprove.

God. On Sunday I attended the Christmas Cantata performance at the Dixon United Methodist Church. The Cantata was entitled “A Night of Rejoicing”, and the title was appropriate. The music was joyful, full of good cheer, and really brought home the message that Christmas is a time of jubilation, and not materialistic commercialism. And this made me think: Christianity really ought to be a religion (and not a “philosophy”, as Bill O’Reilly put it; and in spite of my background in philosophy, I feel this statement really sucks the spirit out of the faith) of rejoicing and cheer, gladness in the presence of a God who came down to Earth to become one of us, just for awhile, and who weeps with us when tragedy strikes.

Unfortunately, it seems that Christianity, as it is most loudly practiced in the United States these days, is a game of “Us Vs. Them.” When faith goes from being an expression of one’s spirituality to a weapon to be used against people who disagree with you or live in ways or do things that you disapprove of, you end up diminishing your relationship with God, not enhancing it. As they say, God loves everyone, even those you don’t like. Remember Jonah, and how his story ended*; Jonah desperately wanted to see the people of Ninevah smited, but God ended up not doing so, much to Jonah’s irritation. I suspect that sort of thing goes on all the time.

One of the most odious things that came out of the Sandy Hook massacre was Mike Huckabee’s statement that it happened because we have kicked God out of the public schools. It’s certainly true that public schools are government institutions and therefore cannot favor one religious faith over another (to do so would be a violation of the First Amendment, which I am a big fan of); but individual students are perfectly free to pray or express their own faith in ways that don’t infringe on the rights of other students to do so. As others have said, as long as there are final exams, there will always be prayer in public schools.

I don’t know for sure what God’s up to, but if the Gospels are any hint, then a lot of people are going to be surprised — and possibly even disappointed or outraged — when they get to Heaven and see who else managed to make it.

I have a lot of thoughts about religion and faith, but this seems like enough for now. But given these thoughts, is it any wonder that I’m an Episcopalian?

Beer. Not much to say here. I brewed up my first batch in fifteen years on my anniversary, and it came out pretty good. I’m going to brew another batch, possibly a vanilla stout, on Christmas Day. And that’s it.

Conclusion. As the great ones said, “Be excellent to each other.” That’s all I have to say.


* Note: I’ve been pondering for some time writing a novel that would be a retelling of the Book of Jonah. I don’t know. I just think he’s the funniest of all the prophets.

Armchair Theology No. 1

While driving to Davis for a meeting earlier this week, I happened to hear part of a show on NPR about altruism. The show began with a quote from noted geneticist and atheist Richard Dawkins, which illuminated the brutal nature of the natural world.The quote reads, in part:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

This quote is from The River of Eden, and you can find the entire quote here. And, given what I know of evolution by natural selection, this seems true to me. In essence, a population will expand until it outstrips the resources available to it, at which point starvation and conflict for resources will set in.

We human beings are subject to natural selection, of course, so we are subject to the same issue: population expanding until we run out of resources. On a social scale, of course, this means poverty, homelessness, suffering, all that.

As a Christian, I can’t help but think about this. I don’t intend to use this platform to prove that God exists; either you believe already or you don’t. And I also don’t intend to convert you to Christianity; either you are a Christian already or you aren’t. This is just me, pondering how this explanation of natural selection and suffering ties in with my own faith.

Any approach to the problem of suffering from a Christian perspective includes at least a nod to the Book of Genesis, where suffering is said to have its origin in mankind’s willful disobedience to God. I’ve never been one to think of Genesis as a literal document; I don’t believe that the Garden of Eden literally existed, and I’m not certain we can think of the Fall as an actual historical event. Rather, I like to think that the scribes of Genesis used mythological imagery — perhaps even imagery that they borrowed from neighboring peoples — to explain to themselves some fundamental facts about the universe: that we exist, that God exists, and that there is a fundamental disconnect between us and God.

So, given: There’s a lot of poverty, suffering, homelessness, and so on in the world. I’m not trying to develop an answer to the question of why God allows this suffering; I’m just taking it as given, and accepting that natural selection suggests it must be so.

And here’s where I think the ancient scribes of Genesis were really on to something. As human beings, we seem unique in our ability to actually recognize suffering, and to respond in a positive way to it. To be sure, naturalists have observed altruism in other species, but I think humanity is still the record holder in our ability to respond to suffering of others, not just in our own local gene pool but outside of it as well.

Now, in the Gospels, Jesus taught us that the primary commandments are to love God, and to love one another. We are commanded to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, help the poor, and so on; love is shown through sacrifice of our resources, our time, and ourselves. God’s love for us was great enough that he was willing to sacrifice His son, after all. I conclude, then, that to love to the point of sacrifice is what brings us closer to the divine image of God.

So, whenever we give of ourselves to the poor, the weak, the homeless, and so on, we are turning toward God. And whenever we refuse to do so, or when we tear down the institutions that do, we are doing exactly the opposite.

 

Litany of Humility

I’ve never made a secret of my faith as a Christian. I found this prayer today at Street Prophets, and it addresses some issues I’ve been having of late.

Feel free to ignore; it’s just important for me to keep it in mind, which is why it’s here.

Continue reading Litany of Humility

Why I am (apparently) not a Christian

In 2004, I had the following conversation in the parking lot of a Safeway supermarket.

WOMAN: Jesus loves you, you know.

ME: That’s great. I love Jesus too.

WOMAN (pointing to my car’s bumper sticker): Then how could you be voting for John Kerry?

At the time, I wanted to reply with something like, “Because Jesus isn’t on the ballot,” but I’d already seen this type of person — the kind who equates voting Democratic with being anti-Christian — in the wild, and I knew that engaging would have been a mistake.

That wasn’t the first time that I have found my faith being called into question by people with similar inclinations. It’s come in various forms over the years:

“You have gay friends? But you’re a Christian!”

“You believe in evolution? But you’re a Christian!”

“You’re voting for John Kerry? But you’re a Christian!”

“You’re taking a philosophy class? But you’re a Christian!”

“You’re reading a Harry Potter book? But you’re a Christian!”

“You play role-playing games? But you’re a Christian!”

And, of course, my favorite of all time (from my college days):

“You go to an Episcopalian church? But you’re a Christian!”

Sigh.

Normally I don’t feel the need to rant on about this topic. In 2004, I found that conversation with the woman in the Safeway parking lot a source of amusement and pointed to it as an example of everything that I thought was wrong with politics in the 21st century. It was annoying, but also kind of funny.

What really brought my annoyance to a boiling point though was a sign I saw outside of Dixon, California last night. It read, “Prop 8 = Religious Freedom”. This has demonstrated, to me, the very sad marriage of “Christ-speak” and Orwellian linguistics that passes for popular religious discourse in America these days. “Removing the right of gays to marry is a victory for religious freedom” doesn’t make sense, unless you accept a really unusual definition of religious freedom which doesn’t apply to people who, for religious reasons, believe that gay marriage can be sanctioned by god. I really want to track down the people who made this sign and hung it up and ask them what in the world they really mean by it, and perhaps even demonstrate to them that they’ve hung up a sign which is essentially linguistic nonsense.

It wouldn’t do any good, though. If, to them, religious freedom means removing rights from others, then they’ve already bought into a slew of accompanying myths. The myth of the persecuted Christian, for example, or the myth of America as a country founded upon Christian principles, or the myth of the literal interpretation of the Bible (a myth I particularly love, especially when you start getting into the various literal interpretations of the Bible which all contradict one another). It’s a very complicated structure of mythology which rests, ultimately, on a foundation which is essentially a need to control in order to remove fear.

As a Christian who believes that same sex marriage should be legal and doesn’t pose any sort of threat whatsoever to traditional marriage (however you choose to interpret that loaded phrase), I find this sort of thing reprehensible. I’ve already made my political reasons for voting No on 8 plain (because in a democracy, you don’t get to vote on who gets what rights), but my spiritual and religious beliefs also tell me that voting no on 8 is a bad idea. Even if I believed that homosexuality was a sin, a lifestyle choice rather than a biological attunement set before birth, it wouldn’t be upon my shoulders to judge the people who are gay. I’m not qualified to make that judgement. Neither is anyone else. The Bible tells me that I am not God, much as I want to be, and that trying to be God or even to try to be like God is a sin, and that my call as a Christian is to accept and love others as they are (I have much more to say about this, a topic I’ve given a lot of thought to, but I won’t go into it here).

The point is, I don’t buy into the overarching myth of the persecuted Christian, or the myth of America as a Christian nation. I don’t buy into any of it. God can take care of Himself. What we are called to do as Christians is to demonstrate God’s love for us in our love to our neighbors, which usually means service to others. But not buying into these myths allows me to free up my mind, to vote for Barack Obama or vote no on Proposition 8, or accept that God has chosen a process (evolution through natural selection) that looks random to our human intellect to grow our universe.

I’d go on, but sadly I fear I’m falling into incoherence. Suffice to say that despite my refusal to buy into any interpretation of Christianity which calls me to act based on irrational fears of the unknown or a fear of losing control over anything, I may simply not be a Christian at all.

An Irreverent Easter

Yesterday I found, via Chaos Theory, I found an article in Salon where Jesus was referred to as a "Drama Queen".  Being a good American in Bush’s America, I thought it prudent to be outraged at the characterization before I went ahead and, you know, actually read the article.*  So I thought to myself, "Jesus? A drama queen?  How outrageous!  The irreverence!  Oh my, I may just fall over faint with moral outrage!  My poor sensitivities!"

Then I remembered that Easter is when I wish my friends and family, "Happy Zombie Jesus Day!"  It’s hard for me to say outraged by the irreverence when I do that.


* The article in question is about a woman searching for a way to define her faith in the midst of doubt and depression.  It’s actually very good, and I highly recommend it.

More Joy

Via the Panda’s Thumb, I found this video of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, "edited for rednecks".  It’s lifted straight from last night’s episode of Family Guy, which I’m afraid I missed.

Occasionally people ask me how I can be a Christian and still believe in things like evolution, the big bang, and so on.  Putting aside for a moment the fact that the majority of Christians in the world actually have no problem reconciling their faith with these concepts (the official position of most mainstream Christian denominations in America, such as the Methodists, the Catholics, and Episcopalians, and so on) is that the theory of evolution poses no threat at all to the faith), I usually try to explain that these scientific theories actually help me understand my own faith.  The idea of sin, for example, is easier for me to understand as a set of selfish and self-driven behaviors that are left over as baggage from our evolutionary heritage and that we hang on to because they’re easier than following the Christian ethic (of course, the Christian ethic is twisted far too often to justify these behaviors — people like to hate, and they’ll use any excuse, including religion, to do so).

In writing news, I’m falling behind in NaNoEdMo with Solitude of the Tentacled Space Monster.  Hopefully I can catch up tonight.

Snips and Dribbles

Brin on Optimism
Science fiction author and noted astrophysicist (and general pundit/curmudgeon) David Brin has a fascinating entry up at his blog right now entitled, “The Ritual of the Streetcorner“. In it, he quotes a little phrase which I’ve seen elsewhere and which I’ve found is disturbingly accurate for myself: “A cynic is an optimist who has snapped out of it and realized how awful people are”. Brin is essentially an optimist when it comes to the forward progress of humanity; you only have to read his novels to figure that out.

I found this paragraph to be particularly compelling, though:

…[W]hich is more amazing? That the Enlightenment is under threat from a collusive cabal of conniving aristocrats, imperialists and extremist nutjobs? Or the fact that this routine and utterly predictable alliance, which ruled every other urban culture for 4,000 years has been staved off repeatedly, till now, by a republic — and a civilization — that has kept combining redesign and renewal and revolution with an almost infinite capacity for resilience in the face of repetitious human nature? (emphasis in the original)

It’s reassuring, in a way; he seems to be reinforcing that old saw, “In times like these, it helps to remember that there have always been times like these.” So in spite of the fact that our nation seems to be in the grip of authoritarian, backwards-looking autocrats intent on consolidating power into an entity which was never meant to have it (see Jack Whelan’s blog post, “Drift to Authoritarianism“, for some thoughts on this), there may be some cause for hope. Even though people seem, as a group, overwhelmingly stupid, you can go to any complex streetcorner and watch as people negotiate the traffic laws and rules and just seem to make things work. Brin says,

Yes, they [our neighbors] look stupid. I am sure yours do, too. Perhaps, as individuals, they are. But when they are taken together, combined, made free to interact under rules that encourage decent cooperation and competition, something happens. We all get smarter than we ever deserved to be. (emphasis in the original)

Brin’s basic point seems to be that things aren’t as bad as all that. Maybe we will wake up one morning and find that the people in our nation have given up all the liberties and freedoms our predecessors fought and died for simply to forward a manufactured and non-existent “war on terror”, but human beings, on the whole, do have the potential to create progressive societies. Brin calls himself a “flaming optimist”, because cynicism isn’t helpful. Maybe it’s a good attitude to have.

Supraluminal Follow-Up

According to the This Week In Science podcast of January 16th, some of the basic ideas behind the so-called Hyperdrive that I talked about a couple of weeks ago have actually been around since 1950, when the original physicist — whose name, sadly, escapes me, but who was German — in trying to reconcile quantum physics with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, proposed a two-dimensional “subspace” as part of his solution. In 1970-something, another German physicist took these ideas and expanded them to build a better solution to the quantum/Einstein conundrum, postulating an 8-dimensional space as a better model (incidentally, I discovered that this work formed the scientific basis for Buckaroo Banzai’s Oscillation Overthruster — hence, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension instead of the Fifth or Sixth Dimension). Starting in the late 1990’s, this theoretical work proved remarkably effective at predicting certain results in particle and quantum physics (I won’t even pretend to understand the science behind it). The trouble is, as I understand it, almost all of the theoretical work has been done in German because the original scientist refused to learn English.

So, if this work — which involves, as I mentioned, eight dimensions of space as well as hypothetical particles called “gravitophotons” — holds up, then one of the implications is the possibility of an actual FTL hyperdrive. Now, according to the scientists who have been working on that aspect, what would be required would be a huge ring surrounding a superconductor of some sort, which would be capable of producing 25 Teslas of energy (this is apparently a huge amount of energy), which would then be capable of attracting or producing the gravitophotons, which would make transit between the dimensions possible, and, thus, the hyperdrive — which is dependent, somehow, on the ability of the gravitophotons to repel gravity. It turns out there is already a working machine in Sweden that can produce the energy necessary, so it is technologically feasible. Since any ships built with this drive would have to be built in space, though, it may be economically prohibitive. For now at least.

Physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, though, writes in his new book that this sort of work involving extra dimensions isn’t necessarily at all useful in physics. I don’t know if this has any bearing on the issue or not. Nor do I know if this new theory of gravity, which dispenses with the notion of “Dark Matter” and introduces theoretical particles called “gravitons”, has any import.
Krauss, by the way, in an interview on the Skepticality podcast, made the astonishing suggestion that the universe may, ultimately, not be understandable; we may, in other words, never be able to form a complete predictive theory which explains the entire universe. This may be disconcerting to scientists of all stripes, but it’s pretty interesting fodder for writers. I’ve already got a story idea based on this. I just hope it doesn’t provide fuel for the anti-science pseudo-Christians who are trying to force Intelligent Design into our schools.

On the Religion Front

Theologian Bart Campolo once summarized Christianity thusly: “Love God. Love people. Nothing else matters.” (source)

I love this. What a great summation of the Two Great Commandments that Jesus gave. Sure, it’s cute and pithy (which is always dangerous), but it pretty much captures, for me, how I understand Christianity. Those two commandments are pretty much all that matters; everything else is (occasionally dangerous) fluff.  Of course it would never fly in the sickening parody, based on hatred and self-worship rather than faith and worship of God, that passes for Christianity in much of our culture today.  Or is that just my cynicism leaking again?
Rib Update

Ribs still hurt, mostly in my left side. Every now and then I worry that it might be indicative of something horrific in my digestive system — a tumor in my large intestine, perhaps, or liver/pancreas/spleen/muscle/etc. cancer; however, the lack of any other symptoms at all sort of reassures me on this point. My health insurance provider won’t pay for the bone scan, so I need to go back to the doctor and discuss other options. I’m just wary of doing that, since I’ve been to the doctor so many times already.

That’s all I got today. See ya later.

The Problem of Pain

The Problem of PainThe Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis

Though my study of philosophy included a few courses in the philosophy of religion, I don’t feel qualified to really discuss the theology that C. S. Lewis presented with any competence. I can offer a few observations, though. So here they are.

Continue reading The Problem of Pain