February 18, 2006

God Explained

I wonder if Daniel C. Dennett knew all along that he was going to write the book that is 'Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon'. You see Dennett along with Hofstadter and several other authors of the collection that was 'The Mind's I' in 1982 captivated me and helped me to understand that Computer Science was more than just programming machines, it was programming people. If there is one thing that has been constant in my life from that long ago, it has been my understanding of the deep resonances and bonds between Religion, Computer Science, Philosophy and Law. It is no accident that these subjects continue to be compelling to me mired as I am in their descendents, morality, IT, ethics and politics. If you ever wondered why Cobb spends so much time in front of the screen typing into the abyss, the answers are in that mix. So it comes as no surprise that Dennett has come to explain Religion in terms of Science. What surprises me is that I've lived with the same notion for quite some time, and perhaps it was Dennett who put the idea in me.

Back in about 1986 or so, I was on the verge of breaking up with my buppie brotherhood. I just didn't know it yet. Just fresh from State and Computer Science undergrad, I was eager to understand the other. That is the cultural stochastic stuff I didn't bother with while pursuing the soul of the machine. And one of my first stops on the way was reading Ishmael Reed. First stop: 'Yellow Back Radio Broke Down'. By the time I had finished about four of his books, I had been convinced to be polytheistic. In my way of seeing it, Reed, finally and convincingly in 'Japanese By Spring' made it perfectly clear that a measure of extraordinary wisdom is only achievable through a disciplined comparison and contrasting of multiple cultures, languages and traditions. I probably took him a bit too literally and my patriotism may have suffered for it, but I was convinced finally that there was room for all religions in my worldview. And so you will have heard me say in those days in response to the question 'Do you believe in God'? Yes, I believe in all Gods. For what I came to understand was that everyone had a reason to believe in God, and make order of the unknown. It has always been man's way to overcome the fear of death, to put the unknown in a very understandable position.

But it was that very same recognition that gave me a new reason to distrust reason. And so as part and parcel of my acceptance of the philosphical underpinnings of animism, I found it rather unsettling to discover a phenomenon I call 'scientific animism'. This is what I think people are talking about (especially critics of Dennett's book) when they speak of 'scientism'. The gist of scientific animism goes a little something like this. A man hears from his doctor that his cholesterol is too high. So now he eats foods low in cholesterol. But if you gave the man a microscope, he wouldn't know cholesterol from a colony of ameobae. He thinks he is being rational but he is acting on faith - faith in the test of his doctor, and faith in the labelling of the food in the supermarket.

In the end I have been satisfied by the social implications of Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem. You cannot know everything there is to know. Religion cannot be disproven without science. Science cannot be disproven without Religion. Human logic is incapable of knowing all. There was also another out for me, which was that computers or some non-human intelligence might figure it out. The answer would be 42, or some such, which humans would reject.

So that basically left me at equilibrium which has tilted towards Religion for me in the past several years for two primary reasons.

1. I deeply admire the stability of the ancient and the ritual. In the same way that Danny Hillis finds the numinous in the Long Now, I find it in religious tradition. Pollution notwithstanding. I think there is as much bad religion as there is bad science.

2. I find, like Einstein, beauty in the finite quality of life. And I find technological attempts to prolong human life and human youth quite distasteful, and somewhat unethical. Science fails utterly to give meaning to death. Next time you're on a battlefield, let me know how many people mumble the name of Stephen Hawking as they charge the enemy.

But as readers of Cobb (aka Lucifer Jones) know, I am analytical and cannot simply accept a simple explanation of things, including the very religious traditions I uphold. So I am not put off at all, as a believer, in Dennett's provocation. Indeed, I hope with some fervor that I might be able to engage theologians at this very level. It is the direction in which I am turning my attentions.

I also want to throw in a dig at Christopher Hitchens, whose impeccable logic is rather annoyingly wrong when it comes to religion. He is fond of the axiom that we all learned in symbolic logic which is that if you assume a false premise to be true, you can prove anything. It has rather nice implications to undermine the authority of anyone whose religious premises are supernatural. I've always had a problem with this argument, and now I know how to express it. Religion is not supernatural, it is natural. In that regard, God is a theory which is just about as explainable as the Universe. QED.

I don't have time to read Dennett, and so I probably won't. The annoying fact of the matter is that I have three children to raise and not quite so much time to blog and read as I would like. There it is.

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January 05, 2006

The Holy Ghost vs The Holy Spirit

As an Episcopalian, we don't do faith healing, speaking in tongues or do anything having to do with the Holy Ghost as it's understood in various denominations of African American Christendom. I want to get deep into this question from a black cultural perspective starting with the following provocative statement.

The Holy Ghost is Voodoo.

I think that I am on pretty solid ground when I suggest that the tradition of speaking in tongues evolved from the early black Christian church as a way of communicating around slaveowners. I don't know exactly where I picked up that bit of knowledge, but I've heard it enough times to believe that it is credible. I am more certain, however, that the idea of spiritual possession, is definitely rooted in West African traditions.

When I was a kid, and after the birth of my youngest brother, my mother started shuffling us off to the 'born again' Christian Church - specifically the Pentacostal Evangelical Foursquare Church - I was fascinated and a bit repulsed by the practice of men and women in the congregation jumping up and down and falling down convulsing on the floor as filled with the Holy Ghost. I understood it, and on occasion when the music was just right and the minister hit his rhythm, I could feel it. But it never overwhelmed me so that I put my hand up like a spiritual antenna and got struck by the lightning of the Holy Ghost. Not that kids were permitted to do so.

As well, I witnessed my mother speaking in tongues and recognized which tongues she was speaking. I also understood, although could never confirm, that this was something that was agreed on in some way with the pastor. The ritual was basically at some part of the service, spontaneously to be sure, someone would start speaking in tongues and then somebody else would translate it into English.

We could get into all that, but the essential question has to do with the variability of practices. What is Christian, and how is that changing? I expect a religion to get dogmatic and ritualistic about such things as the definition of the Holy Spirit. I mean, it's at least as important as God and Jesus if we believe in the Trinity. So how can this be considered worship if on church allows people to go into conniptions if another's priest would go into conniptions if some congregant had a fit?

So what's up with that?

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January 04, 2006

On Godless Evolution

How does one believe in God and Science?

They seem to be divergent but they are not. For me they are reconciled. So I find it disturbing that some are following a line of reasoning that will take them into battle with the scientific community of which I am a part. Over at Palos Verdes Blog I found the following:

Among the intellectual elites in the National Academy of Sciences, 95% of biologists are materialists and therefore atheists. Those at the top of the profession have a profound influence on what is taught in the schools.

Is there any doubt that these “proponents of evolutionary biology go well beyond science to claim that evolution both manifests and requires a materialistic philosophy that leaves no room for God, the soul or the presence of divine grace in human life.” No wonder many parents are legitimately concerned about what their children are learning.

To many religious conservatives, Darwinists are “hell-bent on cramming atheistic materialism down the throats of impressionable children, in the guise of science, thereby robbing their children of the faith that has saved Western civilization from the fate of godless nations.”

To answer the second paragraph, I have doubts, and these doubts are born of (what I hope to be) a sophisticated understanding of human nature and the aims of religion and science. Nobody quite put it so simply as the Dalai Lama in his 'Ethics for the New Millenium', but he didn't put it so briefly that I'd like to retype it here. I'm simply say that I believe that people inherit attitudes about Science and Religion and then gradually learn some corner of their offerings.

For one thing, I don't believe that scientists can design away or argue away the soul. Whatever the soul is, it is inevitable. Simply because one might have an extra-relgious explanation doesn't change the materiality or nature of it. When people's souls are satisfied, that's the ticket. And people will continue to satisfy that hunger. There's another scientific explanation for not acknowledging or explaining away the soul, denial.

Secondly, I believe for scientific and religious reasons, that we are inherently moral. My understaning of one theory of evolutionary biology, as well as hearsay from my brother Doc, the cop, is that after you beat somebody unconscious it takes a very deliberate effort to move from aggrevated assault to murder. We are instinctually averse to killing. As I have said before, I believe that we are endowed by God (in his image) and as a consequence of the fall of Adam, the very same moral capacity as God - the ability to distinguish good from evil. This corresponds to God's own sense of good and evil exactly in the same way everybody sees red as red, otherwise free will makes no sense at all. It is because of this identical correspondance that we understand religion as good beyond the personal reclamation of the soul.

Think about it from another way. If all we were required to do is 'steal into heaven', that is to say do the very minimum that Jesus required, we all might as well be the theif on the second cross. But we understand that the Good News is useful in the affairs of mankind while we are here on Earth. That's why weighing in against atheists is considered a good thing in the first place.

Evolution is what it is. That Christians fight it is pure silliness.

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December 28, 2005

Peterson Disqualified

I hereby state unequivocably that Jesse Lee Peterson is a fraud and that his ministry, to the extent I can discern, is illogical and shallow. I do so based upon a letter published today which is the straw that has broken the camel's back - an attack on Fred Price. I say it is a deceptive attempt to slander Price and to tar him with the same brush that Price uses in his fight against institutional racism in Protestantism. Peterson has set himself to do this, but now I think he is in over his head.

Here's to hoping for a showdown. I'm in Price's corner.

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December 18, 2005

If You Serve Them, They Will Eat

On my way to becoming KFSC, I put on my red plaid and headed downtown Saturday. I can tell you right now that there are few things that compare to the feeling of giving somebody what they want. Forget all that teaching a man to fish for a moment. Sometimes just serving a big fat fish is as good as it gets. Although it wasn't fish that we were serving up but hotdogs, hamburgers, fries, potato salad, beans and gallons of red punch, it was great.

The event was fairly disorganized strictly from the perspective of a crabby left brainer such as myself, but all in all it went off without a hitch. My job, as I took it upon myself, was to take care of the men and those who had a hard time walking.

I'm having a hard time not breaking my arm patting myself on the back having done this. I mean it really wan't a whole lot of hard work. It was Santa Claus work. We had the goodies and I made myself subservient to the needs of the many and distrubted them from the pockets of the few. For a few short hours, I was the man in the mirror. I only wished that I could have gotten some more folks to be down with the program.

Well, it turns out that I will have all kinds of opportunities because the Adams Harbor is open every Saturday at noon. I was wondering how they got 1000 people to show up just like that, but it turns out that this is a regular thing. Next time we'll keep the digital cameras to a minimum. I still have a difficult time getting in people's faces with my camera, I really do think it's rather rude.

Nevertheless, I hung out for a short time with Rerun and Beverly and several other of the characters. One of the men who said he was a Vietnam Vet exposed to Agent Orange had pockets full of everything. He made me fetch him some Saran Wrap for his third burger, and when I couldn't find salt, he was coming out of his pockets with packets. He pulled me up short and said that when you're living on the street, you have to be prepared for everything.

I understand the attraction that reporters get when they get up close and personal. I don't know how to describe the internal feeling - the transformation you have to go through when you decide ahead of time that you are going to pay deep attention to the people you generally ignore. Since they're humans, they're always bound to surprise you, especially if you have no expectations whatsoever. But then if you know what to expect, when you get familiar, then you're just another person in the game. So the entanglement comes as no surprise. When you're a sheepdog like I am, all sheep are precious. Still, I was there to do a job. That job was waiter, and prefect. It's all about service.

I'm going to have some difficulty dealing with exactly where to put this sentiment. Part of it is humility to a task that ought to be done, maybe. Part of it is not having a real army to feed. The impulse to serve. Where does it come from and why is it pleasureable? How is it a force that is complicit in my (relative) oppression? How is it self-serving bourgie brownnosing? It would be easy for me to say it's just the Spirit of Christmas and leave it at that, but I can't. you know me, always over thinking. But I'll do more cogitating on that score as time goes by and I go back, hopefully with friends.

Meantime, the one thing that sticks out in my mind is that it's so easy to get people's attention. If you give it away for free, they will come. There's a Boyle's Law of humanity at work here. Free food gets eaten, free goods get taken. And the last thing I would ever do is deny any of those folks what they deserve - they deserve exactly what we were giving away - them that came, got. But that's part of the curious thing. Once you decide to do it, charity is too easy. It's way too easy. And that's why I'm feeling that it's not particularly virtuous. That's why the whole thing feels a little self-indulgent to me. I know there's a Conservative in the back of my head prodding me along this path, but having actually experienced this experience, I know that I'm learning something about human beings - about the back patting one gets when in service for the least of your brothers.

Until I get some resolution on this matter, I'm going to continue. This was just the first time. Let's see what happens next.

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December 17, 2005

Adams Harbor

Today I will be at St. John's Episcopal Church giving away food and toys to approximately 750 folks that show up. Local fire and cops will be towing Santa in and a great time will be had by all. If you have a minute, please come down and join the Christmas celebration in the spirit of being one for others. Ask for me or Larry Young, we can use some extra hands. I realize this was late, but I was in Arizona all day yesterday and couldn't get word out.

St. John's is located at 514 West Adams, 1/2 block east of Figueroa. and 1/2 block west of the 110 Freeway. Just take the Adams exit and you're right there. Everything starts at noon, but volunteers should get there at least a half an hour early. We'll be there all day pretty much.

I'll update everyone on what's going on. It's going to be a good thing.

Check out the pictures.

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October 26, 2005

Katrina Retrospective: God & Tragedy

It's interesting to hear an expatriot view of the American South. I mean there you have the full litany that comes with the turf. If you must speak of blacks you must speak of it in this way, right?

Where are the men? Well for a start, nearly a million of them are in jail. There are roughly as many African-American men in prison as there are in college. Numbers of federal prisoners have doubled in the past 10 years, most of it down to the "war on drugs" and three-strike automatic prison sentencing. In some notorious cases, prisoners have received life sentences for stealing food. The land of the free keeps more of its people in jail than any other. And, of course, the people jailed are disproportionately black. In fact, black men are locked up at seven times the rate of white men. In more than a dozen states, black men arrested on drugs charges are 57 times more likely to be sent to prison than white men on the same drug charges.

In short, many black men are sent to jail because they're black. During the early 1960s, my father was one of them. Of course, as with all racism, it's hard to prove conclusively that a white judge sentenced you because you were black. So my Dad fled the country and was exiled for 40 years. His crime? He joined nine white scholarship students at the LSE for a year, and asked the Georgia parole board (who considered draft-referral applications) to address him the same way they addressed his white peers - using the prefix "Mr". They jailed him instead.

It was a rule of Bible-belt bureaucracy that all blacks were addressed by their first name (like calling them "boy"), and all whites were addressed as "Mr". In asking for the same rights as whites, in a similar way to Rosa Parks on the buses, my Dad was challenging the whole edifice of white rule. So they punished him - hard. And yet after decades locked out of his home, the government told him he could never return unless he could prove the most obvious, yet least provable fact: that he was jailed because he was black.

I thought he would never go home, and that I would always be sent to Georgia, like I was as a child, to represent him at funerals and family gatherings. And then a miracle happened, a once-in-a-lifetime get-out-of-jail-free card. In fact, it was a letter from the 96-year-old white judge who sentenced him, addressed to President Clinton. It said, "I jailed him because he was black." And so my father got a presidential pardon, and Jim Crow's stranglehold on our family was finally broken at the beginning of the 21st century.

I don't see how I can talk about these politics without being political. Certainly I can't be there to tell the story the way I would, but what constantly annoys me is the totality with which such tales are wrought. Black is black and white is white without having changed an inch in generations.

Growing up in California and having family both from New Orleans and New England, it is difficult for me to associate the personal & family connection to the pain and suffering subtext of this tale of woe. I only have a vague sense of what it means to be inextricably tied to a deterministic past by the physical walls of a ghetto town chained to Jim Crow. For my family, the chains were broken and the place of imprisonment deserted.

Except for my New Orleans grandparents, the story is of flight to freedom, a narrative as old as slavery itself. And interestingly enough what brought my nana back was a crime. What I was told was that my mother's mother was a creature of habit and fierce discipline who took her life savings and her young daughters to California in the 40s. She was to start a business here but trusted the wrong man. What was thousands of dollars became nothing and she was forced to take any job to save enough to return to New Orleans. And there she stayed the rest of her life, never to travel again.

I know how a single injustice can defeat a life, but I wonder if it is fair that we capture the import of those lives in retrospect as the victims of injustice. It is not why they lived and loved and bore children - not to be subjects of a tragic morality play which launches us in political directions. The history of struggle is never so clear, unless we have determined to make it so for our own purposes.

Even in my own mind are soundbites of loss attending those setbacks encountered by friends and family this time. Who is supposed to be prepared for hurricanes? Are they no longer considered acts of God? It shows the change in the locus of our chains of recourse. Where we once looked upon other men as simply men answering to the divine within them, with stronger or weaker character based upon their ability to let goodness shine through them, we now look at them as conpiratorial arbiters of our fate, whose machinations bind us to better or worse destinies as determined by the color of our skin. And perhaps it is not skin but some other dimension on the axis of identity that we percieve to be the determining factor. But how is it that men become the reason and that men's behavior becomes the answer? It is a loss for the dialog between self and the divine - it is an absence of God.

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October 12, 2005

In His Image

One of the difficulties of being arrogant, as I am, is that it takes some measure of arbitrariness to decide whom is worth hearing out. Since I am on a constant quest for wisdom, I don't often hear out evangelists. I figure I already know what they are going to say. I am reminded of this today by an (arbitrary) collision of three interesting things.

The first is conversation / apology I had with Mickey which George alludes to on his blog. The second is this thread of memory from the Evangelical Outpost. The third is a referral that I got today on my old post about The Gospel of Thomas. Tangential to that is a search I am on for 'Mel'.

When I finish up here - and who knows when that will be. I intend to begin looking at America (the world is too big, I think) strictly from a moral and philosophical standpoint. As I do so, I anticipate a great number of conflicts to be initiated and hopefully resolved with Christians, Agnostics, Atheists and Buddhists of all stripes. But right now there is a powerful idea that I cannot resist, and that is the idea of God creating man in His own image, coupled with my interpretation of the Forbidden Fruit, the value of Earthly Works and Predestination.

It essentially boils down to this:

If human beings have free will, then God has endowed us with His own sense of Good and Evil.

The implications of this are as about as profound as I can imagine anything being. In the context of mathematics and philosophy, I am saying that man's sense of his morality is complete. Another way of thinking of it is that if salvation were a matter of picking out the colors of the rainbow, God has insured that human eyes all see blue as blue and green as green. Our sense of morality is innate and perfect. It is the same as God's own. Without it, we physically could not understand God's message, or our purpose.

Having a sense of something, even a perfect sense of something, is distinct from having an understanding of something. You may know something to be blue, but you may not understand its significance or what exactly to do about that percieved fact. But the underlying fact remains. All non-defective humans develop this moral compass just as surely as they develop eyesight. Morality is our seventh sense.

The first place to take this idea is to the heart of the Protestant Revolution. But I'll not do that today. What I'll do today is explain a little bit why certain things trouble me about church. They trouble me because I believe that any man is capable of gaining understanding of their moral and spiritual purpose without the assistance of formal theology or the community of Church. However I give a great deal of credence and respect to theology and spiritual community. The difficulty is found in the conflict between the three. They force a considerate person to make choices which can be rather upsetting.

It is the upsetting nature of these choices that have me at odds with various orthodoxies, notably the fundamentalist nature of Christian evangelicals in the American public, and the libertine progressivism of various sects regarding the matter of Holy Matrimony. I am between two rocks, neither of which are particularly comfortable. Above and beyond this is the practical nature of the original Gospel and the ways and means by which this information comes to us through various instruments of theology and tradition. Whatever happened to the Sacred Feminine? Was Jesus' decentralization of Judaism a device appropriate to the times or a model for all time?

These are all things I would imagine I could engage some friendly theologian over time, and perhaps one day I will have the luxury to invite such an individual over for a regular Sunday dinner. It's an Old School dream of mine - I should live so long. In the meantime, I have faith that I'll be doing enough good, so as not to pollute my chances with the vanity of knowing for certain. I'm not in a rush to figure it out.

But I sure wish I knew the answers.

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July 24, 2005

Loving God More than Loving Me

After Cobb, where? Well, to Lucifer Jones. But that may not be until I'm in my 50s at this rate. I'm going to have to be done with a great number of family/community/political work before I can get too deeply into those matters. Getting and spending requires focus, and I don't have all that right now. Nevertheless, I was asked if I love God more than myself or my family? Hmmm...

The priesthood has a very difficult task, which is to reconcile their interpretations of the divine with their understanding of human needs. How do you dumb down the Infinite and put human beings into the middle of it such that their core moral values are lined up with what any priest or Church says is God's Will? Very difficult indeed, especially when human knowledge ebbs and flows.

If you take it as a given that God is indeed Infinite, then you have embodied in the mind of God, all the laws of the Universe - the very order of everything, whether or not we humans are able to understand it. God is purpose. God is the purpose of the universe. God is the source of human capacity to understand the Universe, such as we can, such as it is. So loving God is a difficult proposition. Unless you anthropomorphize God, you cannot 'love' God in anyway like you would love a human being.

Of all the jobs the priesthood has, invoking God's name to call the people to worship seems like the easiest. What is entailed in worship... ah there's the rub. If one worships God by serving his purposes, there are certainly different abilities of humans to do so which other humans (and presumeably God) is aware. If God's purpose, as described by The New Covenant of Jesus, is transparent to humanity, then it is very unlikely that you could fool humans and decieve God at the same time. In other words, since we are commanded to love our neighbor, we could not love them falsely. Our neighbors would be able to correctly percieve our love with the same facility as God would judge our love of them. This is a very key thing. If love was embodied in the gift of a red rose, then it is important that God gave us all equal facilities to see that the rose was indeed red. Otherwise how could we spread the Gospel? My entire point here is that I am asserting that human beings must have the same facility for interpretation of love and good and evil as God would have. We couldn't arrive at different conclusions; this is utterly fundamental and the meaning of the Tree of Knowledge which kicks off Genesis. We do know.

But certainly the love we owe God is different than the love we owe each other. Certainly we should demonstrate it in different ways. Isn't much of human love in the form of mercantilist self-sacrifice? We give to others out of our pockets, out of our own expense. We take time from our own lives and give it to others as an expression of love. But surely God doesn't need anything from our pockets. God doesn't need our time. He owns time, he is time.

Here's where it gets ambiguous.

I am not an evangelist, but I clearly understand that it serves the Church to give glory and honor to God in your earthly works. By loving your neighbor, by doing the God-given red rose, you are showing the kind of universally understood love that God and humans understand. Is that showing the love of God if you don't say so? If you anonymously donate a million dollars to the victims of a tsunami, is it less worthy in the eyes of God if you don't send it in an envelope that says 'In the name of Jesus, only Son of the Father'?

Are we to be evangelists at all times? Are we press flacks for the God Corporation? Does God need marketing? Is prayer answered if silent?

I have concluded that we know implicitly when we are serving God and when we are not, whether or not there is a Church or a priest involved. It only takes a moment's reflection - it must be something very close to our biology, the very idea of God spontaneous within us. If indeed we all have souls, then our understanding of good and evil must be like our understanding of fear, hunger, laughter and music.

At this point in my life I have answered some questions about being selfish, in terms of knowing what I need to maintain my own integrity and spirit. The same things that keep my head up are about my existentials. Am I being the kind of person worthy of my powers and abilities? Do I have enough power and ability to achieve the kinds of goals I wish to pursue? Are those goals worthwhile? These are introspective questions against my own soul and the value of my life. I try to be conservative and pay attention to those things that I might change and I shape my ambition to get in position. I am moving towards doing greater things with and for my neighbors, to improve things. If I'm not, then all the writing I've done at Cobb is empty sophistry and matters not whether nobody reads it but God.

So I will make the selfish and perhaps self-serving statement that God does indeed understand and bless my purposes. I do so without the assistance of the priesthood, which in fact I'd rather have and will most assuredly seek later in life. My love for myself is conditional upon my ability to achieve those goals and discipline myself to their noble purposes, but I defend myself at the expense of a more communitarian altruism. I'm not handing out red roses to everyone I meet, but engineering a Rose Bowl, and to the extent that I am not loving my neighbor on a daily basis in my garrett, I hope to compensate for with the size of my ultimate gift - or die trying.

I am aware that this is the cop-out of every tyrant, God understands me. I'll have a better explanation when I actually do become Lucifer Jones.

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April 19, 2005

Avignon on Ratzinger

For the second time in a week, I have found a reason to read some cat named GK Chesterton. Good. The latest spy stories I've picked up are a bore, and I am really looking hard for a source of new ideas to perk me up. Recently I've grown tired of today's domestic affairs. Here we have a nation of dimwits incapable of arresting the retarded regression that is the gaping mediocrity of Tom DeLay, and yet within 17 days we have seen the transition of the Catholic Church from pope to pope. It is a miracle of limited democracy, even if the smoke isn't quite the right color (and I thought Italians were fairly good pyrotechnicians).

Be that as it may I have found the most succulent tidbits of Ratzinger's ideas written by a thoughtful Amazon reviewer by the name of Nathaniel Avignon. Suddenly my admiration for the new pontiff has moved into the realm of excitement. This only prods me further to communicate my meditations on Servitude & Mastery. And so I will underscore my premonitions about his conservative philosophy as exemplified in the following:

In an age when Truth has come under unceasing brutal assault, he has become a target of attack worldwide. He is routinely caricatured in the worldwide media as the new Grand Inquisitor, unthinking and dictatorial. This book will discomfit his enemies. It shows a deeply learned man moving carefully and deliberately across all the issues of the "Canon of Criticism," forthrightly defending the Church. It shows a man with a keen understanding of our present age and the ideologies that animate it.

The Roman Church is contemptible to so many precisely because it stands in unabashed reproof of so much of what passes as wisdom today, including the central "truth" of our post-modern era: that only truth is that there is no Truth. This reminds us that the Church is now, as always, a scandal. But it is necessary, Cardinal Ratzinger reminds, us to distinguish between the "primary" scandal and the "secondary" scandal. "The secondary scandal consists in our actual mistakes, defects and over-institutionalizations . . .." (124) The Church is made up of men who are subject to all the frailties to which flesh is heir. But the Church aspires for more. That she occasionally fails should not surprise us. That she aspires for more should inspire new generations of saints. Yet the very idea that man is not naturally good and should aspire for more through self-abnegation is a deep offense to the modern mindset that man is good and is always, inexorably, getting better. This makes the Church an object of contempt and, in time, hatred.

"[T]he primary scandal consists precisely in the fact that we stand in opposition to the decline into the banal and the bourgeois and into false promises. It consists in the fact that we don't simply leave man alone in his self-made ideologies." (124) Substitution of transitory political ethics for Christian ethics leads to despotism, the exaltation of a mere man as God: Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Min. "We can say with a certainty backed up by empirical evidence that if the ethical power represented by Christianity were suddenly torn out of humanity, mankind would lurch to and fro like a ship rammed against an iceberg, and then the survival of humanity would be in greatest jeopardy." (227) "For this reason . . . the Catholic Church is a scandal, insofar as she sets herself in opposition to what appears to be a nascent global ideology and defends primordial values of humanity that can't be fit into this ideology . . .." (124)

"[I]f we give up the principle that every man as man is under God's protection, that as a man he is beyond the reach of arbitrary will, we really do forsake the foundation of human rights." (204) The sacred tradition of the Church is arrayed in defense of the dignity of mankind. Contrary to fashionable caricature, the Church is not an ossified tree, subject to being felled by the latest gale. It changes, but slowly, deliberately, organically. "[T]here are various degrees of importance in the tradition [of the Church] . . . not everything has the same weight . . . [but] there are . . . essentials, for example, the great conciliar decisions or what is stated in the Creed. These things are the Way and as such are vital to the Church's existence; they belong to her inner identity." (207-208) As to its essentials, its First Principles, or everlasting verities, the Church is powerless to change even in face of popular demand.

Ratzinger was Avignon's choice at least 3 years ago, and I find him drawn to the same kind of rationale as I in centering the eternal verities of Christianity in human destiny. Importantly, he is an enemy of post-modern relativism. In this I daresay he has many allies.

Within the past two years, I have encountered two Orthodox Christians whose thinking has impressed me. If indeed this Benedict will make some adjustments and bring Catholicism closer to Orthodox Christianity, it will be something extraordinary in the history of the world.

Here is the great clincher and it represents to me the very essence of conservatism.

Bringing to mind Edmund Burke and G.K. Chesterton, Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us that "the Church lives not only synchronically but diachronically as well. This means that it is always all - even the dead - who live and are the whole Church, that it is always all who must be considered in any majority in the Church. . . . The Church lives her life precisely from the identity of all the generations, from their identity that overarches time, and her real majority is made up of the saints." (189) Our present age cannot cavalierly discard the wisdom of this great communion of the living and the dead, of one hundred human generations of the Church, confident that it has somehow achieved superceding wisdom. Instead, it must, as must all generations, submit to the essentials of the Church, to revelation and the Church's sacred tradition. "Every generation tries to join the ranks of the saints, and each makes its contribution. But it can do that only by accepting this great continuity and entering into it in a living way." (189) The Church does not need additional "reformers" of institutions. "What we really need are people who are inwardly seized by Christianity, who experience it as joy and hope, who have thus become lovers. And these we call saints." (269)

Love it.

Posted by mbowen at 03:30 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Benedict XVI

Joseph Ratzinger is no more. Mary is on our side.

When I first heard of Ratzinger, I figured he had a very good chance, and as I have been thinking, the idea of a conservative Catholic Church is a good one.

I am watching him live on CNN. And within just a few moments as he now reads in Latin from this large book, you can see him descend into ritual. In the moment before as the crowd yelled at the announcement, I was thinking that this pope is standing on the edge of the world's largest moshpit. And then he begins the traditional blessing, and all such ideas are banished - immediately it became Church.

Benedict XVI has been in the Vatican for 24 years. It will be fascinating to see how he comes out of that ivory tower to be Pope.

He is a humble man says Rev. David O'Connell, and considers himself an imperfect instrument working in the vineyards of Christ. This suggests to me that he is subdued to the doctrine. I like this.

I like this pope’s orientation. He certainly seems to be one who will handily answer his critics, but more importantly, I think he’ll give the faithful a rudder against the 70-foot rogue waves of reactionary criticism.

I think many Americans are taking his conservatism to be of the same variety of the politically activist Christian Right, but they are by and large mistaken. Benedict is, apparently, a theologian’s theologian and has no reason, given his prior and current influence over Church doctrine, to get into the kind of evangelical shouting matches we Yanks take to be discussion. I noticed that the tone of the discussion at CNN as the last of the cardinals left the balconies over St. Peters was a kind of astonishment that someone ‘conservative’ might also be humble and personable.

As I have noted, there is a lovely paper trail on Benedict which has been followed up nicely by a gent by the name of Nathaniel Avignon who has written some interesting reviews over at Amazon. It is much more interesting to find out what manner of thought comprises his conservatism and why such individuals such as Avignon and I would be attracted to him. It is not because of any such idea akin to fundamentalism. In fact, part of the appeal of Catholicism to me is its lack of frenzied evangelicalism. There are all kinds of sects of Christianity that appeal to relativism, and Americans of the ‘faith dome’ persuasion ought to know better than anyone. But it is is the contrast provided by the orthodoxy of the Roman Catholics that puts evangelical fundamentalism in bright relief. This is an old, old faith that understands itself very well, and Benedict will be one to set that tone - that there is indeed enduring Truth in the purposefully deliberate pace of the Catholic Church.

Here is a man of calm who in no way evinces the paranoiac fury of religious fundamentalists. I think as Americans come to understand, they will respect that aspect of his conservatism. I question the motives of those who feel that the pope’s only responsibility is to reform aspects of the Catholic Church that they feel is out of step with the liberties they have taken in their lives. It is not the job of the church to conform to the will of the people, and thus it is no surprise that those who call for it make a fetish of collective bargaining. This pope understands that is not the deal and there is no new deal to be had. He speaks for the enduring verities of Christianity, and I for one, welcome that.

Posted by mbowen at 09:51 AM | TrackBack

April 04, 2005

I AM The Resurrection

This past week I witnessed the birth of two new Christians, my oldest two children who are 11 and 10. Their decision to be baptized was rather sudden and came about within the past 60 days.

When my daughter first spoke about it, I didn't quite know what to think. In one way I was disturbed by the idea that she had decided to do so without much input from us. Today, I am nicely reconciled to the idea that my kids like different churches for different reasons than I. My wife is a midwesterner with Southern Baptist roots, but she mostly enjoys the African Methodist Episcopal liturgy. She goes to Faithful Central on occasion but mostly attends (the famous) First AME in LA.

Me, I like the traditions of the Catholic and Episcopal Church. If I can't recite the liturgy from memory, I get uncomfortable. For me, it's all about being part of a tradition that is hundreds of years old and universal. I like the rite. As for Christian life, I have a very Jesuit orientation about being Christlike.

So my wife and I have come to a standoff when it comes to our practices. Our kids go to Awana every week at the local Baptist church which is crawling with friends and schoolmates. They attend our churches on occasion, but it's actually rare that we all will go to the same service. There's an interesting story behind that which is none of your business.

Picking them up several weeks ago, I began to ask those questions of the kids. Which church do you like and why? I expect them to make some personal and responsible decisions about their own spiritual development and growth, and this is working. But even I was in for something of a revelation when I read their essays.

You see I had been putting off the whole matter of worrying about how to deal with the fact that my kids were not going to be die-hard Episcopalians like me. I was trying to not take it personally, yet still give some weight to their decisions. Are they grown-up decisions? Of course not. Well then how seriously should I take them? Who knows? Finally, it was about time for them to commit to the training program for the Baptism, so I basically sat everyone down for a little talk. I was generous. I am glad that you guys want to make this decision, and it's yours to make, but I need to understand a little bit more about what you are thinking. So I asked them to write a 100 word essay on why they wanted to be baptized.

The answers came back within five minutes, and I tell you it was rather astonishing. My daughter, felt a lot like me. She wanted to belong to the community of Christians and she felt that she needed to make the commitment and be a part of it all. My son came from a completely different angle. He is thankful for the peace that Jesus gives him and that peace enables him to cope with the stresses of life, plus he gets the happy happy joy joy. I was rather knocked over by the clarity of it all. (sob) My babies are growing up.

Easter Sunday was the big day and the baptisms were the first part of the liturgy. They rolled up the curtain in front of the alter to reveal the elevated tank which is recessed into the wall underneath the large colorful cross. Pastor Lee, dressed in white, came to the center and introduced brother and sister. They entered from the sides. My daughter was first and then the boy. What was special about hers was that today was her birthday. What was special about his was that he recited 4 verses.

After the clapping was done, Pastor Lee who isn't the most flamboyant guy did a fairly decent job on the lecturn. It is part of my upbringing to give a critical evaluation of the delivery of the Sermon, and today was no different. Yes, I'm a second-guesser. And I have to say, even though I appreciate what these guys are doing with the structure and contemporary intepretations of the Bible, there's something about Powerpoint sermons that just rubs me wrong. But in his message, I was struck by the soundness of his lesson about Christ that I have never quite heard that way before.

It was the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. And in the telling, Lee explained how Jesus sucker-punched his apostles. Mary and Martha, weeping and moaning, complained that Lazarus had died. Martha challenged Jesus telling him straight up that he should have been there. When I was a kid, the story was told in such a way as to make us all want to slap Martha and never be her, the audacity! But this time Lee focused on Jesus' manipulation of the situation. He sandbagged. He let the bases fill up in the bottom of the 9th just to face Death, the cleanup hitter.

Jesus says that Lazarus will arise, and Martha intellectualizes with a religious fact. Sure, at the last day we will all arise in the time of Resurrection. Martha answers in the passive voice, giving agency to the idea, to the doctrine. Then Jesus goes BOOM! I AM the Resurrection. I AM the Life. Right here, right now. He embodies the prophesy and takes agency away from ideas and doctrine and brings it down to the personal. It has got to be one of the most dramatic acts in the life of Jesus, and to think that it was Pastor Lee who made me see it that way. I tell you, whoever wrote those powerpoints knows where to put the italics.

And so it is with Life. We think we know something and suddenly here are two new little Christians embodying it in a way you never quite imagined. It's a reason to be glad, and so I am. Moreover it is a reason to think about the leadership of Jesus, which is something I began considering back when Mel Gibson attempted to hijack the Gospel with his gorey vision. It is also something embedded in the Gospel of Thomas which is, in my estimation, the missing puzzle piece of Christianity in the global world.

More later...

Posted by mbowen at 09:27 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 01, 2005

A Lesson Before Dying

In all seriousness and sincerity on this April first, we have begun the final period of dealing with the death of Pope John Paul II.

I heard the news not long ago, perhaps it was Wednesday, that he had recieved the Sacrament of the Sick. I can recall when this was called Extreme Unction. As kids in Catholic School, we always counted up the Sacraments that we would recieve, Extreme Unction always being the last. I had always liked the idea of Extreme Unction, as an opportunity to review your life and have a special blessing on your way out of the world. I think that it was my appreciation of this that has shaped the way I think about death in the days before I actually had to deal with it personally.

In my crusading days as a black cultural nationalist, I wondered, and to a certain extent still do, about the loss through assimilation of native African rituals. Around 1990 all of us had to consider, with some depth the premises of Afrocentricity. Having been a fan of Ishmael Reed and decidedly polytheist, it made sense to me to bring African loas and spirits into the pantheon. But even more fundamentally, what were the rites of passage in African American and American life and how seriously were we taking them? I have concluded that we do not take our traditions quite seriously enough, that on the whole we are secular in a unreflectively libertine way. It is part and parcel of our liberty and to be expected, but it is in matters of death (and recently marriage) that we tend to realize this and snap back.

I sense that in these post-multiculuralist days, Americans are trying to find out where traditional culture went, and how to recover it. There is some irony in reactionary responses in search of tradition, but this is what we are seeing in phrases like 'The Culture of Life'. It's meaningless on its face, but it is and expression of a genuine desire. I believe that the desire is to make sense of, and reconcile authentic American traditions with our ever-changing global awareness. Specifically, we need to find ways to simplify and give meaning to our own lives without sacrificing the advantages that come from where technology, global markets and geopolitics are taking us.

I think the solution lies in making more concrete investments in rites. This is indeed a religious argument as contrasted with a spiritual one. The interesting point is that there are a great number of spiritual delights within our grasp in this wealthy nation. We have a dazzling array of spiritual choices that are valid, meaningful and worthy of respect. And that's part of the problem. Many of these spiritual delights are fungible - you can buy them, you can start and stop them. Psychoanalysis. Backpacking. Scouting. Charity Work. All of these things are good for the soul, but none of them require a lifetime commitment.

So what I'm saying is that part of the mess we've gotten in over Schiavo has to do with the fact that too many Americans are expecting moral support from Government - which is a symptom of a deeper lack of commitment to their own ethnic or religious traditions.

The death and dying of a Pope or a Catholic can provide us a guide. There are well established rites which when carried out represent the essence of a sacrament, an outward sign of an inward commitment. These are what America needs, not political activism.

Posted by mbowen at 02:51 PM | TrackBack

March 02, 2005

The Ethics of Death, Strength and Weakness

Life is real! life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

-- Longfellow

I've been thinking about how often recently I've come to bump heads with LaShawn Barber, our populist conservative, and out of all things we collide on the one that has aggravated me the most has to do with her 'pro-life' stance on the matter of Terri Schindler-Schiavo. You see, I've been a big fan of Kervorkian for a long time.

I'd imagine that my sentiment first got the better of me when I went caroling at the old folks home in the 7th grade. It was my first experience with the gawdawful pathos of abandoned, weak and dying human beings. This was no shady acres. This was smelly joint right next to a hospital which has had at least three different owners. In the not so nice part of the 'hood. Specifically, on Western north of Adams Boulevard, one block from the freeway. The one image that remains with me to this day is that of a man of about 80 some years with no teeth whatsoever, soiled, drooling with his mouth agape sitting in a wheelchair in the hall. He was little more than a skeleton and his mouth seemed so large that we were all in danger of falling in. Like a dementor from Harry Potter's world, you could not look at him without feeling the suffering of the entire planet on your shoulders.

We were told in no uncertain terms that for many of the people there, we were the only visitors they ever got. They loved to touch us, these oldfolks. They smelled our hair and hugged us. It was clear to me that we were, for some, their only joy, indeed their only reason to hang onto life. Forgotten by families, abandoned by all but the periodic nurse, they waited to die.

Growing up in Catholic school, we were made very aware of the ethics of euthanasia. I was for it, and still am. And I paid a great deal of attention in those days to the development of hospices, although I had long lost my nerve to volunteer again. But all of these were fairly distant and vauge notions merely abetted by quotes like Einstein's, that it is a wonderful thing that at the end of one's life it can be appreciated as a work of art.

Then I read Robert Nozick's 'The Examined Life' and his chapter on Death, the very first chapter in the book, struck me with its clarity. In such a short space, it became apparent to me that nobody talks about death but the grieving and the violent. We often think of the President as one who gravely thinks about the consequences of his orders. Perhaps we think about firefighters, soldiers, cops and doctors as people who might think about death, but what about us? How do thoughtful people die, and what is the state of the average American's approach to death? I was left at the time with a big question mark, an empty space within which I could write my own ideas from scratch.


I amd not sure, however, whether we should be so attached to existing. Why do we want to be told that we continue in time, that death is somehow unreal, a pause rather than an ending? Do we really want to continue always to exist? Do we want to travel with our rickety identity forever? Do we want to continue in some sense as an "I," a (changed) center of consciousness, or to be merged into a wider already existing one in order not to miss any of the show? Yet how greedy are we? Is there no point when we will have had enough?

At some point later, I encountered the Akan. In the cosmology of the Akan, death is non-existence and is accepted simply. The Akan have two prime-movers, the Creator and the Demiurge. The Creator created life and death, being and nothingness, and then he created the Demiurge. Into the ear of the Demiurge he whipered the laws of the Universe and ordered him to create. When the Demiurge turned around there was nothing, and so built the universe. For the Akan it makes no sense to look for life after death, for the Creator created death in divine inspiration, and respected his own creation by dying.

Even as a fairly young person, at the age of 19, having been three years initiated by Confirmation into the Episcopal Church, the notion of eternal life was useless to me. A Christian must take the notion of salvation on faith, it is only by grace that we are saved. Then what of our earthly good works, should we do them only in order to procure Heaven? How is this different from the most vulgar of transactions? Why not make a deal with the Devil instead? Why not make a deal with God? What is the price of the ticket? No, it is the goodness of the acts themselves, and the selflessness through which they are given which are the currency of salvation. We can know this because we possess the vision of God, literally the divine sense of good vs evil without which we might as well be talking about morality as if it were ultraviolet light. We bit the apple, and it is the core (hah) principle that holds us accoutable to God. Without it there is only predestination.

Death become irrelevant except as a period at the end of our sentence on earth. After death we are no longer subjects, but objects. Our will is meaningless after death. We commend our spirits into the hands of God - out of our own hands.

But what are we to make of the death of those around us? In that I am prompted to this discussion also by a comment on the life of Hunter S. Thompson, I should speak specifically about suicide. Catholics see suicide as a mortal sin, one which like murder, invalidates salvation. How then should we consider Nozick who says:

After an ample life, a person who still possesses energy, acuity and decisiveness might choose to seriously risk his life or lay it down for another person or for some noble and decent cause. ...a person might direct his or her mind and energy toward helping others in a more dramatice and risky fashion than yonger, more prudent folk would venture...I have in mind the kinds of of peaceful activities and nonviolent resistance that Gandhi and Martin Luther King engaged in, not a vigilante pursuit of wrongdoers - or in aiding people in violence-ridden areas.

I am struck by the beauty of such a notion. In fact, I think we all are. Soon I will be re-watching the Eastwood classic 'Unforgiven' and I will be thinking of his character as one who not only knows he is beyond redemption but also as one who knows his death is imminent and living in the moment, he must do right by people. It is this heart-wrenching example we have of 'Shane' as well, riding off never to return.

But is it suicide when you run into the burning building to save the puppy? No. The difference between taking your life for the sake of someone else and out of self-pity is the entire moral difference. It is this moral distinction for the Christian, at least, that gives us the primary guideline which allows us the power over life and death. I cannot say at which point such a utilitarian equation begins to break down in the hands of groups or governments. But at the level of the one, it seems fairly clear that the proximate cause of ones personal choice to live or die outweighs the fact of the death itself. One can choose to die righteously for the sake of their neighbors or in the case of suicide, selfishly.

This is the context out of which I pass judgement on Terri Schindler-Schiavo. If she is so alive that she grasps the weight of the burden of her continuing existence, then she is guilty of greed. Is she or is she not a moral actor in this drama? If she is, then she is wrong for dragging her family through this anguish for over a decade. If she is not, other considerations take precedence. Legally, she is not responsible and so the decision falls to her family.

I think of strength and weakness in terms of the ability to accomplish moral tasks in this light. Gandhi was strong despite his physical frailty, he was hugely influential. In our society, people's agency is constrained by our social contract to be bound by law. In some ways, it seems heroism is only possible by outlaws; that is a measure how limited our liberty is. Perhaps this is why the Western film is our best vehicle for moral instruction, the panoptics hadn't yet been constructed, nowhere was on the grid. Consequently, in our contemporary society of laws generated from a mishmash of criss-crossing ethical systems there are fewer ways that the individual decision and action makes a difference. This is a theme that I will begin to harp on as an expression of libertarian activism. What I sense is perhaps well described as 'creeping socialism'.

In our civilization, we are overreaching in matters of social equity. I perceive that this is being done in disrespect of the African. I'll only touch on this for the moment. Put crudely, doing for the black man has been more an act of charity than an act of recognition and respect. And this wellspring of charity has overflown in all directions rather indiscriminantly. It is suggested that we do for fags, cripples and retards what we did for niggers, and I use those perjoratives consciously. I question the motiviation of the actions of mainstreaming. I think we do it because we have the capacity, but not necessarily because we have the will and determination, and certainly not because of a Douglassian concession of power. What we are manipulating is our perception and our sense of tolerance - we are creating an equality that is not truly equitable. We are creating an arena of perceived equality without regard to reality. It is delivering this sense of judgement in the proxy of laws and governments out of the hands of individual self-determination that gets under my skin. We are going from political correctness to legal correctness.

We have created a national building code of ramped sidewalks and blue parking spaces to mobilize the immobile. What we have failed to do is recognize or realize what the immobile might do with their immobility other than pretend and desire to be us. This is what gay marriage does. It disrespects and flattens reality and undermines the truth of difference. It makes us all less able to deal with finite limits. This comes from the same place as the denial of death, because it suggests that all vitality is the same.

So I take to task those who are 'pro-life' because I think they have it wrong and their fudging with the ways and means we make it legal to live and die in this country takes us further away from individual liberty and further into the panopticon. They want us to live in the same subset of life's possibilities. If we are all the same, then we should all be born the same way, then we should all live the same way, and consequently we should all die the same way. I don't think so.

UPDATE: Some others have come around to the discussion

  • Amy Sullivan

    Posted by mbowen at 12:03 PM | TrackBack
  • January 31, 2005

    Glimpsing Lucifer Jones

    Once I get to the point where money doesn't matter - when I resign myself to where more or less makes no difference in my self-esteem, I will work towards spritual completion. I fully expect that it will be a work of criticism, entangled as I am with the institutions of American influence and organization.

    I have already given a name to that worker within me, Lucifer Jones.

    I expect that his task will be that of reconciliation between a number of areas of my own sprirituality. And I see them arising from criticisms of a number of twists of faith that some see as srtaight lines. For one thing, I am profoundly resonant with the aspect of ritual. This is expressed for me in the love of the Catholic and Episcopal traditions. It's something that rather hit me like a brick when I traveled to il Duomo in Milan. The same service, the same symbols, half a world away. So I am critical of evangelicals because they are too much Jazz and not enough Standard. It gives the minister too much power, and I think this power devolved to the minister coming out of the Protestant revolution has been abused.

    I am also hip, somewhat, to Karen Armstrong's observations of fundamentalists in their overreach has made their Church into a Government. When I wrote this comic, I think it really encapsulated the entire point. Taxes or Tithes.

    I really rebel against the Puritanical tradition, the kind of minimalist anti-aesthetic which drives so much of this society. These people have taken all of the beauty out of religion. There are really few things as hideously unimaginative as these new ecumenical worship domes. I can't tell you how selfish it is to be a vessel of the Holy Spirit and simply jump up and down and holler, or wake people up knocking on their door. This whole, look how the Holy Spirit makes me beautiful / righteous / pure , is just wrong wrong wrong. Where is the music? Where is the architecture? It's dead, and there's the proof.

    Prayer is meditation is mental discipline. It is not supplication nor public acknowledgement of an anthropomorphized divine will. I have been so polite over the years that I have almost completely sublimated my disgust for the phrase 'Heavenly Father', and other aspects of 'glorification'. I don't worship, and I think it's really difficult for me to express that as a Christian. It's something that needs working out. But I think it's best to start out with the Gospel of Thomas - understanding the difference between he an Paul, at which point we get into the reason that the Bible contains so many of these epistles of warning.

    I have to believe, but for which reasons I am not sure, that religion ought to be that which fits in our lives in harmony with our other endeavors. That in fulfilling ourselves, we fulfill any notion of God's purpose for us. If I could make an analogy, that we are dogs and God wants us to fetch. And guess what, dogs like to fetch, and would fetch even if we were strays. I am particularly wary of the church that has us bear some of its burden, subtley misdirecting our boundless energies to know God. Interestingly, the consequence of this is understanding that God *is* on our side. And God is on their side too. God is on all sides, including the inside. We just need to clear up the contradictions in our lives to see that, and there is not one single way to do so.

    So as you might imagine, I've got a lot of ground to cover. Money is in the way primarily because I have decided to be a man for others. It is the instrument of this world. If I were to lock myself away and flog myself into Heaven, then sure, I'd pretensiously be quoting scripture - hell even memorizing. But I have to do, and doing requires great effort, right here right now.

    But as the monks and nuns told NPR, the great challenge is to deal with the overwhelming silence of God. The nothing that is there. The zero, the black hole in the center of the Galaxy. The irresistable gravity of God from which no answer ever escapes and yet tugs at us all ripping the very fabric of the Universe.

    Posted by mbowen at 12:06 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    January 25, 2005

    The Holy Spirit

    As I was browsing through Squashed Philosophers, I came upon the following, teeny tiny entry:

    GLOSSARY Jesus Christ: Jewish teacher of Nazareth
    Church: The entire world of Christ's followers
    Sin: A specific separation from God.
    Grace: Unmerited favour of God.
    Kingdom of God: Society following God's rule.
    Salvation: Utter freedom from sin.
    Holy Spirit/Paraclete/Holy Ghost: The invisible, active, spiritual energy of God.
    Trinity: The 3 ways God is evident: Creator/Father; Son/Jesus; Spiritual force/Holy Spirit.
    Saints: Those, holy in life, who now certainly dwell with God.
    Bishop: Regional church ruler, a direct ('apostolic') sucessor of Christ.
    Sacrament: Ritual sharing of Grace in Eucharist, Baptism etc.
    Paul: Formerly Saul of Tarsus (c9-c63 AD), Turkish Jew. Employed by Roman authorities to persecute Christians until himself converted after a mystical vision of Christ while on the road to Damascus.
    Baptism: Ritual bathing, sacrement of joining Christ's Church.

    It was Augustine, of course. But what struck me was this term 'Paraclete' which I've never heard. That in turn with this very simple explaination of the Trinity as expressions of God, twisted a peg deep inside. Mostly, it got me thinking about the nature of The Holy Spirit and what recognition of it does to Christianity.

    In the Old School, 'getting the Holy Spirit' means basically one thing. It's about jumping for joy in church, perhaps speaking in tongues, and then interpreting such speech. It's an extatic expression of the love of God in people, but not an expression of God.

    Back in the day at the Foursquare Church, when people got the Holy Spirit, it was acknowleged. But if that didn't happen, it was ignored. To consider that the Holy Spirit pervades the Earth, that it is unseen yet active, is something of an ignored dimension in the Christianity I've witnessed these 35 years (starting when I was 8). Certainly Catholics had no use for the Holy Spirit. 'Spiritus Sanctus' doesn't even sound like something that is a Gaia-like power, but it is the direction I take this quality.

    Again this goes back to a reconciliation of Bhuddism and Christianity that I find somewhere in the Gnostic Gospels. This becomes more and more interesting.

    As a fragmental aside, listening to the new De La Soul album, one of the rappers said something about catching up with his tithes after he paid his taxes. Hmmm. There's a comic in there somewhere.

    Posted by mbowen at 10:03 AM | TrackBack

    December 10, 2004

    The Power of Prayer

    A little story I found. Lovely.

    A voyaging ship was wrecked during a storm at sea and only
    two of the men on it were able to swim to a small, desert like

    The two survivors, not knowing what else to do, agreed that
    they had no other recourse but to pray to God.

    However, to find out whose prayer was more powerful, they
    agreed to divide the territory between them and stay on opposite
    sides of the island.

    The first thing they prayed for was food.

    The next morning, the first man saw a fruit-bearing tree on
    his side of the land, and he was able to eat its fruit. The other
    man's parcel of land remained barren.

    After a week, the first man was lonely and he decided to
    pray for a wife.

    The next day, another ship was wrecked, and the only
    survivor was a woman who swam to his side of the land. On the other
    side of the island, there was nothing.

    Soon the first man prayed for a house, clothes, more food.
    The next day, like magic, all of these were given to him. However,
    the second man still had nothing.

    Finally, the first man prayed for a ship, so that he and
    his wife could leave the island. In the morning, he found a ship
    docked at his side of the island. The first man boarded the ship
    with his wife and decided to leave the second man on the island. He
    considered the other man unworthy to
    receive God's blessings, since none of his prayers had been

    As the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a voice
    from heaven booming, "Why are you leaving your companion on the

    "My blessings are mine alone, since I was the one who
    prayed for them," the first man answered. "His prayers were all
    unanswered and so he does not deserve anything."

    "You are mistaken!" the voice rebuked him. "He had only one
    prayer, which I answered. If not for that, you would not have
    received any of my blessings."

    "Tell me," the first man asked the voice, "what did he pray
    for that I should owe him anything?"

    "He prayed that all your prayers be answered."

    For all we know, our blessings are not the fruits of our
    prayers alone, but those of another praying for us.

    This is too good not to share. With obedience come

    My prayer for you today is that all your prayers are
    answered. Be blessed.

    "What you do for others is more important than what you do
    for yourself"

    This was shared with me by a friend...hope you will share
    with yours too.

    Posted by mbowen at 08:44 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    December 03, 2004

    The Last Temptation of the Religious Right

    I don't believe that the Religious Right is the great power that many people think. Quite frankly, I think their influence is oversold and they take credit for a number of things that happen that have nothing to do with them. Like all moral graspers, like white liberals 'responsible' for black success, their greatness is more testament to their egos than their abilities.

    Be that as it may, the Religious Right in all of its manifestations, has something going for it, which is principle. It will be its strength and its weakness. The way I see it, only when the Religious Right is absolutely consistent will it have credibility. Its mistakes will be amplified just as wildly as its successes.

    The difference between the Religious Right and Fundamentalism has most everything to do with the supremacy of the Constitution. The difference is between those who are pursuing the 'temporal kingdom' and the 'spiritual kingdom'. A nice illustration could be found in the following analysis:

    At the outset of his ministry, after God acknowledged him when he was baptized, Satan tempted him. What temptation would be worthy of divinity? Certainly it was not the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, or the vainglory of life as we have interpreted so trivially. Satan set out to defeat his purpose to seek and to save the lost which would demand the cross. What appeals could Satan offer?

    First, he let Jesus feel human need. Lesser men have endured fasting longer even as did the Irish patriots who starved themselves in 1981. There would have been no sin in eating food or for the Creator to turn stones into food.

    In this temptation the devil seems to be saying, "Now you know how it feels to be hungry and suffer with humanity. Millions are hungry, sick, cold, homeless, and in various other miseries. You have the power to remedy this. Make bread and earthly supplies to relieve them. Hear their cry. You can make this earth into a paradise." But Jesus is responding, "Man cannot live by the bread of earthly relief alone. He must have spiritual healing which can only come through the cross. A renewed Eden on earth is not the answer."

    Then Jesus looked down from the height of the temple upon the people who would be crying out for his crucifixion within three years. He had the power to awe them into obedience by his miraculous demonstrations. In that state of submission, none would have cried out for his death; so, the cross would have been avoided, leaving man in his sin. It would have compromised sin instead of atoning for it.

    In the third facet of this one great temptation, after he is shown all the kingdoms of the world in panorama, Satan seems to be saying, "If you will join forces with me with all your infinite power and wisdom, you can easily rule over all mankind. If you resist me, there will be rebellion, suffering, and sorrow in continual alienation from God." Even though an earthly, materialistic kingdom would avoid the cross, it would be a perpetual reign over a world lost in sin.

    What I need to establish is some working definition that clarifies the activities of the Religious Right, its organizations and their constituents' activities. But again, I seek to do so because I believe that the association of the re-election of GWBush and the Republican majority in Congress with Evangelical Christianity is too facile. As anyone who thinks a moment could tell you, Jimmy Carter was an Evangelical Christian. Do we have a problem with evangelicals in government? It may not be a question of religious belief at all.

    Notice that Satan's temptation of Jesus focuses, in one sense, on the suffering of mankind. Satan offers Jesus what amounts to the position of Philosopher-King. That position is everything that Liberals want for government to accomplish. The elimination of rebellion, suffering, and sorrow. Is that so bad? No. But the point of Jesus life, death and resurrection was to bring people to God and salvation through the acknowledgement of Jesus own grace. It wasn't to convert earthly kingdoms to righteous kingdoms. Jesus' mission was not to reform governments, change laws, elect politicians or set policy, but to be the one and only spiritual redeemer.

    So what do Evangelical Christians believe that they are supposed to be doing in politics?

    I think we need immediately to distinguish between the top-down and the bottom-up. Because anybody who thinks that Karl Rove is doing Christian things for the sake of Christians needs a bit of public humiliation. There is an enormous difference between spinning the image of GWBush and Republicans in general to appeal to the 'values' of Christians and the bottom-up rhetoric of this being a Christian Nation. Rove doesn't care what kind of nation this is, so long as his man gets to run it. This is the wake-up call that evangelicals in politics need to heed. You may think you have the keys to the kingdom, but it's not the US government.

    So we need to try and understand where Dobson and company with their values-centered organizations are headed, or where they think they are headed given the credit they have been overgenerously been given for the re-election of the president. This moderate Republican is not about to stand by idly to give over my earthly kingdom to religious activists of any stripe, nor any other type of special interests who are out to convert the Republic. Anyone on the Religious Right needs to beware of their own ambition, and get right with God. Which way are you trying to go?

    Posted by mbowen at 11:29 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    August 09, 2004

    Jesus, Revolutionary

    I think Jesus was a populist. I think what was revolutionary about the nature of Jesus as a prophet as distinct from all other prophets was his populism. If Jesus was around today, I think he would be saying 'All Power to the People'. He was an enemy of the State.

    I say this with the Gospel of Thomas in mind. Thomas says that Jesus would say that he was the Son of Man and that God exists in all mankind. Consider the following uttered in the time of the Roman Empire:

    (03) Jesus says: (1) "If those who lead you say to you: Look, the kingdom is in the sky! then the birds of the sky will precede you. (2) If they say to you: It is in the sea, then the fishes will precede you. (3) Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and outside of you." (4) "When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will realize that you are the children of the living Father. (5) But if you do not come to know yourselves, then you exist in poverty, and you are poverty."

    This idea that the people are one with the Kingdom of God, that the Son of Man suggests where two or three gather together in prayer that they are in the presence of God flies in the face of hierarchical intervention.

    Jesus was a democratizer of the Jewish faith. He took the role of intercession away from the priesthood. His parable of the Good Samaritan undermined their authority. That's radical.

    I don't think there is a simple way to say whether Jesus was a 'liberal' or a 'conservative'. He was Jesus and that's all he had to be. We won't be the first or the last to claim him, but I think this essential nature of his politics cannot be ignored or denied. He defied the state and said he needn't be a king to do so. He opened the gates of ultimate redemption to the individual, independent of all the established churches, kingdoms and authorities of the day. In that, as Luther finally reminded us, was the whole point.

    I think Thomas' take slams the point home, and it doesn't surprise me that any church establishment would strike such notions from an official Bible. Thomas' interpretation of Jesus' message destroys authoritarianism. It locates divinity within and around us and demonstrates Jesus knows this and spreads the good news to everyone. Not from the top down, but from within the people outwards. Why else would Jesus work through ordinary men as his disciples? Why else would he wear the same kinds of clothes? Why would the 12 have no hierarchy?

    What these things mean to me transcend silly political labels. We all have something to learn. But then again what's the point of writing as an advocate if one doesn't advance a claim? Mine is simply this, something I think stands to reason. The message of Reformation by re-establishing the connection between the individual and the divine enabled democracy. The concept of the divine spark within us, that all legitimate authority arises from the cooperation of individuals sounds like Christianity to me. It also sounds like Bhuddism to me. From my perspective, Thomas is the link between the two and that Jesus and Bhudda were saying the same thing - both by wandering the countryside.

    As soon as I solve the problem of ascetism, I think I will have achieved a higher plane.

    Posted by mbowen at 09:58 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

    July 12, 2004

    Lucifer Jones & The Gospel of Thomas

    I have already come up with the name of my next social project. After I am satisfied with the Black Republican, African American political diversity, & class recognition project that is Cobb's mission, I'm going to take on Christianity. The agent of light in the matter: Lucifer Jones.

    Several years ago I met a very unique individual named Kevin Mutschler. Like me, he had an abiding interest in theology and computer science. Unlike me, however, he had gone the whole nine yards because, raised as an evangelical he needed to know that the Bible was truly correct in every way - that it was the blueprint for righteousness. The Jesuits ruined that for me when I was 13. They taught me that there were multiple authors of Genesis, they told me who King James was and the explained the politics at the Council of Nicea. Just fresh after the decisions of Vatican II, I learned at an early age that a great deal of faith is taken on faith. Since I took the life of Christ to be evidence that love actually does conquer all, I didn't worry. Kevin worried. So much in fact that he learned Hebrew and Greek in order to read original texts. I have met few people before or since who have been more sincere or dedicated to uncover the profoundest truths of the Holy Bible. When I last saw him around '99, he was a dedicated Kabbalist. Yesterday I heard a program that stopped me in my tracks and immediately reminded me of Kevin. More than that, I found enough there to urge me to get into this matter myself.

    The bringer of this extroardinary news is Elain Pagels.

    Her latest book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, is just out in paperback. It's about a religious text that is little known -- the secret Gospel of Thomas, rediscovered in Egypt in 1945. She will explain why it was suppressed by the church and kept out of the cannon. Pagels has been called one of the world's most important writers and thinkers on religion and history. She won the National Book Award for her book, The Gnostic Gospels. Pagels is a professor at Princeton University.

    It upsets me that I feel like a contrarian in this, but the Gospel of Thomas instantly reconciles my view of Christianity with my interpretation of Buddhism. It is John that makes Thomas heretical. It is the Gospel of John that makes Christianity authoritarian.

    There are several English translations of the Book of Thomas. Here are some pivotal verses from an arbitrary translation:

    (03) Jesus says: (1) "If those who lead you say to you: Look, the kingdom is in the sky! then the birds of the sky will precede you. (2) If they say to you: It is in the sea, then the fishes will precede you. (3) Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and outside of you." (4) "When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will realize that you are the children of the living Father. (5) But if you do not come to know yourselves, then you exist in poverty, and you are poverty."

    (44) Jesus says:
    (1) "Whoever blasphemes against the Father, it will be forgiven him.
    (2) And whoever blasphemes against the Son, it will be forgiven him.
    (3) But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, neither on earth nor in heaven."

    (48) Jesus says: "If two make peace with one another in one and the same house,
    (then) they will say to the mountain: Move away, and it will move away."


    Posted by mbowen at 10:06 PM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

    May 19, 2004


    My daughter just bought a crucifix for her best friend who is a Jehovah's Witness. My wife intercepted the gift and asked me to research first. I came across a tirade of 'facts' that may or may not be true. For what it's worth, it's an astounding compilation. Despite it's inflammatory nature, I think it's a safe bet that the crucifix is not a hot idea.

    Download file

    Posted by mbowen at 08:52 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    May 15, 2004

    Simon of Cyrene: Black African?

    I must confess that I've forgotten my Stations of the Cross. Of all the Masses in the Catholic calendar, the Stations of the Cross were the most painful. Surely there must have been some time when I was twiddling my thumbs in mass as we all sang..

    At the cross her station keeping,
    stood the mournful mother weeping,
    close to Jesus at the last,
    Through her soul, of joy bereavd,
    bowed with anguish, deeply grievd,
    now at length the sword hath passed.

    It has been so long since I've been at such a Mass that I am forgetting the melody. The one in my head doesn't quite match the meter of these lyrics and I wish I knew some dutiful Catholic so I could hum this song in my head and know the words which belong.

    On my mind have been thoughts relating to integration, 'separate but equal' and affirmative action. So in reflection of Gibson's 'Passion', I wondered what kind of reaction others might have given to seeing a white Simon. Most blackfolks I know who commented on the film found this to be the most(!) troubling aspect of it. I haven't really thought about this controversy much until this morning.

    We all know that American Christianity has been whitewashed, just like everything else. The recovery process for the correction of history is complete for the most part as regards what can be made politically significant vis a vis 'The Struggle'. But there are figures, like Simon, who are not so easily politicized. In many ways it doesn't matter if Simon of Cyrene could be considered visually black, unless of course it was true.

    It is a truth we are not likely to determine with any accuracy, but as a black Catholic (of sorts), it was a matter of pride and honor in the 70s to assert his black face. It has become something of a tradition in American contemporary culture to depict Simon as black, much the way McDonald's commercials make their appropriate obeisance to the presence and power of black America. It has the appeal of our principles of equality, and it's offensive not to. Despite this realistic although sometimes gratuitous and annoying convention, it's decorous and proper but it's not absolutely necessary. On the matter of Christian Saints, however, I'd say that it is necessary to get it right even if by some dogmatic fiat.

    To the extent that we know fact about Cyrene was where Libya is, there is clearly some ethnic heritage of the place which is likely berber, arab and other Northern African. No quick check of the web gives anything definitive. But I'll be checking the Bernal-Lefkowitz debate and see if I come up with something.

    Posted by mbowen at 10:13 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

    May 10, 2004

    Exercising the Physical Soul

    I was just writing about Teleology the other day in response to denBeste's argument about the three forces in geopolitical conflict today. This was extending an argument I had made against the anti-theism of Christopher Hitchens. In both, I assert the fact of the soul and the need for humanity to search for and understand the mind of god as a pre-requisite for the scale of civilization we wish to maintain.

    I look at religion as a way of knowing. It retains the potential for a kind of multidisciplinary education and the more ways it touches life, the more meaningful it becomes. As an Episcopalian, I'm afraid of Muslims because perhaps like Merton in the context of his criticism of Episcopalians as irreligious, I understand that Islam cannot be so easily compartmentalized. So what I find most appealing about the evolved religions is the richness of rituals and sacraments. You eat, you drink, you embrace, you stand, you kneel, you sing, you walk slowly, you sit in silence. If it were all about sermons and arguments about the nature of god, it could be compartmentalized, abstracted and lost in the crowded mediasphere.

    I say that people are looking for what 'reality tv' gives them, an opportunity (if only vicariously) to undergo an 'extreme makeover' to be taken out of the matrix and physically challenged in a kind of rituality. Our bourgie lives demand it.

    The church that only makes us sit and listen quietly will die. Our souls may transcend our bodies, but how does our inspiration move our bodies? The intersections are sparse in contemporary American life, and I think part of the stirrings we feel have to do with the disconnectedness of our physical activities with any philosophical purity. We bemoan the corruption of sport because in participating in sport we gain the experience of embuing a physical memory with the discipline of following strict rules. Knowing that Sport is owned and the rules of money overcome the sphere in which sportsmanship rules is very painful. For traditional sports in many ways it is a fait accompli, which is why I believe youth are drawn to the anti-corporatism of extreme sports, skateboarding and triathalon for example.

    The urge towards religion engages the spirit, the soul. So does sport at its purest. In many ways, a graver physical sort of sacrament, especially a rite of passage, could make a tremendous difference in how central religion could be in American life or any life. Into the void, the work of the body will become the work of the devil, thus Crusades are around the corner.

    Inspiration A: The recognition of the fundamental human need for religion.
    Inspiration B: The moral appeal of military discipline.

    Posted by mbowen at 11:18 AM | TrackBack

    April 03, 2004

    Presupposing God

    I think I almost understand what is being said here.

    As soon as I'm able to abstract it to general logical stuff, I think it will be a useful tool in my theologics. Not only that, I think it can work on matters of political philosophy. Explain adherance.

    Posted by mbowen at 05:05 PM | TrackBack

    March 22, 2004

    The Origins of Schism

    I was engaged in a rather provocative discussion this morning over the question of rights. Keith, the guy I was debating asserted that we are losing something because God is not acknowledged as the source of our freedoms and rights. We didn't talk long enough for me to understand the nut of our differences, but what got me started was what sounded to me like blurring the line beween church and state - he made it sound as if the Constitution was valuable not owing to Jefferson's intellectual effort but to his divine inspiration.

    I changed the subject, because I couldn't nail him on that and he brought something else up. This was the fact that he belonged to Price's church. Price is non-denominational. So in comparison to Cecil Murray of First AME, I asked him if he felt particularly impotent. You see, let's imagine you are against or for same sex marriage. If you get your congregation on your side of the issue in a sect of 3 churches, and you feel that the country is still out of whack with fundamental Christian values, you don't much choice but to take that classic cop out 'In It But Not Of It', 'it' meaning The World.

    No small number of African Americans have left the Christian faith and/or disparaged it because of the inability of black churches to be effectively influential on white churches within their denominations with regards to civil rights questions, and this goes all the way back to the question of slavery and its associated deprivations. But what is one to say about Bishop Porkchop on the Porkchop Christian Network broadcasting live from the Porkchop Dome? There is no recourse but schism, it seems.

    As an Episcopalian I feel a certain entitlement to get riled and find various interpretations of Christianity offensive. So it's as good a reason as any to question the propriety of the new mega churches that are sprouting up all over the south in particular. What indeed is a non-denominational Christian Church other than a big Bible study group? I find them lacking in sacred symbols and sacraments - and thus the enticements to community seem more spontaneous. Indeed charismatics substitute self for sacrament. Certain individuals may 'own' a congregation of several thousand and arrogate upon themselves the title of Bishop.

    This is disturbing to me, not in principle - these are the inheritors of protestantism. Who needs official intercession? But then what is the purpose of the congregation and how does the Christian Church get so distributed?

    The problem of Fundamentalism derives, in my estimation, from this rabble. Start with King James, and since my childhood there have been at least 3 new versions of the bible. Add to that all of the denominations which lose adherants and the new megachurches that gain them, and can there be any wonder that there are not agreed upon answers to questions like 'when does human life begin' from a theological perspective. As the American Church begins to function like a plural democracy one must ask the question - what is the point of dogma? It can't be established in such an environment. Thus I think we have an oversimplified core of Christianity from which all manner of loopy theories spring. So if you have 200 odd sects, is it any wonder that the only thing they can agree upon in response to films like Gibson's that 'Jews Killed Jesus'?

    You see where I'm headed? I am a strong believer that one of the great responsibilities of the Church is to stand in opposition to the cultural overproduction of markets. Markets are amoral. A people can go to crap (not to mention Hell) when they spend more money watching Janet Jackson's boobs than in the collection plate. This is not an argument about paying money but about paying attention. Our culture and economy are capable of getting us to believe most anything (And people are shocked about the conflicting signals they got from the CIA!), but there are certainly times when we need to be drawn together in our beliefs about a few things. The prophetic Church, as Cornel West describes it, summons us to flex our moral muscles. Markets simply follow our desires whatever they may be.

    So I am curious to know how and why schisms and heresies happen in Christianity and what the large number of randomly pointed Christian sects, denominations, etc. mean in the context of the work Christians feel compelled to do in the world. Furthermore, who punishes the bad churches?

    Posted by mbowen at 07:27 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    March 16, 2004

    Thirty Ketubah Texts

    I find it fascinating that there are so many interpretations and variations of the Jewish marriage contract, the Ketubah.

    From Orthodox:

    On the ___ day of the week, the ___ day of ___, in the year ___, corresponding to the ___ day of ___, in the year ___, ___, son of ___, and ___, daughter of ___, join each other in ___, before family and friends to make a mutual covenant as husband and wife, partners in marriage. The groom, ___, promises ___, the bride: "You are my wife according to the tradition of Moses and Israel. I shall cherish you and honor you as is customary among the sons of Israel who have cherished and honored their wives in faithfulness and in integrity." The bride, ___, promises ___, the groom: "You are my husband according to the tradition of Moses and Israel. I shall cherish you and honor you as is customary among the daughters of Israel who have cherished and honored their husbands in faithfulness and in integrity." "We, as beloveds and friends, promise each other to strive throughout our lives together to achieve an openness which will enable us to share our thoughts, our feelings, and our experiences. We promise to try always to bring out in ourselves and in each other qualities of forgiveness, compassion, and integrity. We, as beloveds and friends, will cherish each other's uniqueness; comfort and challenge each other through life's sorrow and joy; share our intuition and insight with one another; and above all do everything within our power to permit each of us to become the persons we are yet to be. All this we take upon ourselves to uphold to the best of our abilities." All is valid and binding.

    To 'Secular Humanistic'

    On the ___ day of the month of ___, in the year ___ at ___, ___ and ___ entered into this Covenant of Marriage. We pledge to each other our mutual trust and respect. We will offer support and encouragement for personal growth and the fulfillment of our shared dreams. We will be open, honest, loyal and devoted to one another. We promise to be faithful friends, companions and life partners and to comfort one another through lifes sorrows and joys. We shall honor each others individual needs, and shall cherish and love one another throughout our married life together. Let us weave our commitment to the Jewish people and culture into the fabric of our lives. Together, let us build a Jewish home filled with loving affection, laughter, wisdom and a dedication to peace and harmony for all humanity.

    Posted by mbowen at 05:44 PM | TrackBack

    March 09, 2004

    Aegis & Causality

    MK at Parablemania argues that gay marriage is indeed a cause of the decline and failure of marriage as we now know it. Citing the kind of bastardy stats usually hurled at our own Negro population attacks Andrew Sullivan's dismissal of causality of the decline of Nordic society.

    Marriage in Nordland is in severe decline. In 2002, an extraordinary 82.27 percent of first-born children in Nordland were born out-of-wedlock. A "mere" 67.29 percent of all children born in Nordland in 2002 were born out-of-wedlock. As I explained in "The End of Marriage in Scandinavia," many of these births are to unmarried, but cohabiting, couples. Yet cohabiting couples in Scandinavia break up at two to three times the rate of married couples. Since the Norwegian tendency to marry after the second child is gradually giving way, it is likely that the 67-percent figure for all out-of-wedlock births will someday catch up to the 82-percent figure for first-born out-of-wedlock births. At that point, marriage in Nordland will be effectively dead.
    Now consider the county of Nord-Troendelag, which is bordered by NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology). NTNU is where Kari Moxnes and Kari Melby teach � two radical pro-gay marriage social scientists. Nord-Troendelag is like Massachusetts � a socially liberal state influenced by left-leaning institutions of higher learning. In Nord-Troendelag in 2002, the out-of-wedlock birthrate for first-born children was 83.27 percent. The out-of-wedlock birthrate for all children was 66.85 percent. These rates are far higher than the rates for Norway as a whole.

    When we look at Nordland and Nord-Troendelag � the Vermont and Massachusetts of Norway � we are peering as far as we can into the future of marriage in a world where gay marriage is almost totally accepted. What we see is a place where marriage itself has almost totally disappeared.

    I've never quite taken this argument seriously, but now I am having a second look.

    I ask of MK what is the likelihood that the blessing of gay domestic partnerships by the Nordic Church results in a changing of the liturgy? That is to say, what is the effect on the sect of one liberal priest blessing a gay union in their own parish. His analysis seems to omit something that I am curious to know which is whether the nordic churches have re-written sacraments or if they are simply accepting a defacto 'marriage lite' in their laity just to be liberally trendy. Are these reformers or rebels?

    The dictionary may change, the law may change but is the Church changing? If the Church is the guardian of Holy Matrimony, that is fine. The Church is limited in its ability to police marriage - what say did they have in the enactment of no-fault divorce? The state may have arrogated the authority of blessing marriage, which ever direction that common-law form takes, but the very fact of the sacraments existence demonstrates people choose to observe it. People still do go to churches to get married, not just city hall.

    As my wife and I approach our 10th anniversary, we are considering a re-dedication ceremony. It seems to me that if this 'second marriage' could be seen as 'marriage plus' then the church has an opportunity to make clear its commitment to the values inherent in Holy Matrimony.

    If Holy Matrimony becomes something rare then I believe we have to accept that. That is because the Church is, despite however many thousand points of light there may be getting government funds, not capable of assuring the welfare of children in or out of wedlock. Their existence is not the Church's responsibility no matter how correct the moral logic in the principles and ideals of Matrimony. The aegis of the authority of the Church is limited in a secular society, as it should be. The law of the land is not Church law, indeed what the Chruch can do is limited by the law of the land.

    The upshot is that the state really has no business blessing but only regulating all 'unholy' unions. It cannot recognize Matrimony and therefore cannot take credit for it. Likewise Christians cannot take credit for the fidelity or infidelity of Jewish marriages. What can any Church do but stick to its guns? If that which the state recognizes as marriage is failing, the only recourse is for the Church to prove those unions it blesses are superior. There are ways to do so.

    I think it unwise to use children born in wedlock as the single benchmark for marriage vs matrimony especially if the rationale is merely to advocate against gay marriage. But it is still worth surveying couples' commitment and divorce rate of those of church weddings and those without. Despite the financial aspects of 'rights' activists for the gay cause are attempting to claim, many of them relate to responsibilities in sickness and in health. A truer moral calculus will compare such commitments across the board. People need to acknowledge that gay unions can measure up. That doesn't mean the Church necessarily blesses them; surely, muslims can be righteous. So can gays, and so can their unions.

    There is something, on the other hand inherent, in the choices of the heirs of Stonewall which won't bear up under this kind of comparative scrutiny. After all, there is a quality of lifestyle that is imiplicit in the difference between 'gay' or 'queer' and merely 'homosexual'.

    It is not sufficient to suggest that a community that shares conflicting values over sexual preferences will collapse. When the question is marriage then the topic needs to focus on those things people do, or do not do, in the context of their vows. The Church and the State both will need to determine what they mean by it and how well they maintain the quality of lives sustained by the values they publicly bless. It is my expectation that the state will lower the bar and that less is to be expected. But drawing a conservative line at the current denotations and connotations of Holy Matrimony will not be such an easy case to prove. The Church needs to be prepared to prove some things, if only to the faithful. After all, if the dysfunction of nordic marriages is self-evident, who is claiming them to be truly married? The Church?

    Posted by mbowen at 02:43 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    Parablemania: A Kindred Spirit

    I've just discovered Parablemania. I like it. I think that I have stumbled upon a treasure, a place where theologists and ministers post and discuss ethics. Beauty.

    Naturally, I'm following remarks on the Gibson film and same-sex marriage.

    Posted by mbowen at 10:01 AM | TrackBack

    March 03, 2004

    Church of the Grisly Christ

    I have returned from seeing the latest Mel Gibson movie. It was painful.

    We Episcopalians say "He suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures." A good third of this movie stops at about the second word. Mel Gibson has beaten Jesus to a bloody pulp in this film and I'm wondering if there is any sect of Christianity that has made such a graphic iconography of his torture. I hope not because I've had a wonderful lifetime of 'hating' Baptists; they'd have to step aside for the Church of the Grisly Christ.

    The film's opening is off to a lurching start. Jesus suffers in the Garden of Gethsemane realizing the weight of his doom. As we watch, we know he's going to die, but his trembling seems overdone. There are not enough words to carry us forward - indeed this film is almost subliminal. Only knowing what Christians know gives any clue of the pain to come, but even the most seasoned Christian in the audience can only guess at the horrors in store.

    I found myself asking, especially at Golgotha - the place of the actual crucifixion, how is it that Christians chose this particular moment as a focus for the great symbols of faith. The answer is obvious from the film's perspective. In essence, the Christ is the one, the only and ultimate martyr of Christianity. The sacrifice of body and blood are not merely symbols but the gritty gorey reality of ancient Roman brutality, and what was so monumental about Jesus' sacrifice was that he knowingly, preciently perhaps, walked directly into that hell on earth. For all the films ever made of the life of Jesus, certainly one should give contemporary audience the full weight of the pain of that bloody sacrifice. In that, the Passion is an extraordinary success, the Saving Private Ryan of its genre. Mel Gibson can now be acclaimed as the master of period violence. If he had only been the director of Gladiator, that fate would have been sealed forever. But the Passion could have done it on its own with little need for Mad Max, The Patriot or Braveheart.

    This is a subliminal movie. Its script is the merest suggestion of familiar scripture and it does little to give us anything but our own memories to underlie the drama. It provides a modern vision for ancient stories, a realization as graphic as movie technology can provide but it does so without so much narrative as necessary to hold an ordinary film together. One is left with the distinct impression that Gibson studiously avoided adding a single word that might contradict some bibilical interpretation, and so left the talking, literally to the camera. By having all the dialog in Aramaic and Latin he has created an authentic, if claustophobic, world. The film provides no context, it refuses the backstory of John the Baptist, for example. It doesn't allow the man on the street to be heard or the mob to shout anything more than 'Free Barrabas'. One must come to such a film with a great deal of subtext already in mind because the story is told like a courtroom drama where only the prosecution speaks. He could be any man, and perhaps he was. As he stands accused and for much foreground story, Jesus is mute. He stands oddly defiant, neither subversive, nor superior as the Pharisees led by Caiphus denounce him and ask for his head. So I can understand why some Jews would become upset with what they might percieve as a dramatization of that which many [failing] Christians insist binds all Jews as Christ killers. There is no subtlety in the portrayal of these religious leaders, these are the Bad Guys, outraged at the impiety of this Nazerene. The slap and spit, they manipulate mercilessly, they call for blood.

    The film handles Judas' anguish at his betrayal with some brilliance, his madness, grief and desparation are perfect material for Gibson's macabre touch. Yet in all of this there is but one actor who takes us onto our toes. Only Pontius Pilate, played brilliantly by Hristo Shopov head and shoulders above any previous Pilate, gives us something studied, even Shakespearean. His inner conflict gives the film its only mystery and tension. The rest is a kind of eyes open grand guignol one can only bear to watch once.

    Of the dramatic depiction of Jesus himself, the stroke of genius is the actors' single, open amber eye. This one unblemished spot on the body racked from head to toe with ripped flesh conveys the silent dignity of a man condemned and resigned to that fate. In the single open eye of Jesus the Nazerene it is possible to see divinity.

    But it is not divinity which is the subject of The Passion. The great wincing weight of this film is found in the lacerated body of Jesus himself. I defy anyone not to be moved by watching, over and over in slow motion, a mother's tears as her son is flayed to the bone. The unmerciful cruelty is so wrenching that it is nearly impossible not to feel compassion. The Roman thugs so delight in their brutality, the throngs so transfixed by the spectacle, the Marys so pitiable and traumatized that there is nothing left to do but cry. Through this unflinchingly goulish lens, Gibson does damage to the import of the message of Christ. I immediately thought, this must certainly have happened a thousand times all over human history, so what difference does it make that the torturers are Romans, that the accusers are Jews, that the martyr is Jesus? It matters and yet it doesn't. If it weren't Jesus, we'd walk out of the film having endured the bludgeoned point quite long enough, and yet because it is Jesus we stay, waiting for him to be Jesus. But he's just a man beaten into a gelatinous hulk stumbling up a hill, we pity him, we cry for him, we wish it were otherwise. Is the film heretical? No, it casts Jesus in the light of a warrior rather than as a teacher. Jesus has his heroic moment while chained to the whipping post, standing courageously as the King of another otherwordly kingdom, bloodied but unbowed. And then the beatings come with even more cruel ferocity. He is beaten into oblivion. It is surprising in many respects that nobody loses their lunch in this film as half the audience is wont to do. It must be the blood, the blood of Christ that gets to you, not the vomit, teeth and piss any other man would have shed under such torture. So what makes this the perfect sacrifice for the whole world is not the consistency of Jesus deportment as teacher to the end, but his willingness to soldier through the greatest pains imaginable. This is the point slammed home in Gibson's Passion, the sheer bonecrunching agony of it all.

    Can one person's death be so significant? One could watch this film as a cautionary tale about inhumanity or about what happens to justice during occupation. So much of the import of the life of Christ is bound up in the travesty that someone unfamiliar with many Christian principals, while getting it on this basic physical level would lose sight of the transcendance. It wasn't that Christ died so horribly, but that he loved so transcendently, that he taught so wisely, that he lived with such integrity.

    Gibson has created more than a film but an event which will prompt discussion about the nuts and bolts of Christianity. It marks us all that the incitement for this is such a grisly affair.

    Posted by mbowen at 10:30 AM | TrackBack

    February 22, 2004

    On Marriage: The Incremental Morality of Sexual Love

    There is none. To the extent my Christianity informs me, there is nothing more particularly sanctified about generosity in sexual gratification of a partner. If this were true, then the whores would be beatified, and sluts would be saints. The way I look at this, it limits the legitimate aegis of the Church's responsiblity for extramarital sex. Sex itself is not moral currency. Nothing depends upon the act itself, rather it is the context in which the act is performed which gives sex meaning (which may or may not be magnified by the degree of sexual quality). While there may be some sexual rites which offer purification in some religions, there are none in Christianity.

    Therefore sexual gratification is a purely personal matter of expression, and as such should not be protected nor proscribed except to the extent to which it is a 'gateway' act to sin. But that would put the Church in the position of encouraging the right sort of sex in order that it be a gateway to acts of charity. Non-starter. Sex itself has no sacraments. So I don't buy into arguments that there is something special about gay sex which requires the protection of marriage. I don't buy it for het sex either. American Christianity has a big hole in it because it doesn't ritualize sex. It doesn't say what good sex is, or what holy sex might look or feel like. All it has is Marriage and a Puritan proscription against pre-marital sex, which is hardly a thick enough ethos for people to respect or follow with any detail. There is a difference between blessing the union and blessing the sex. This, ironically, is where I think those would would argue for a change in the Order of Matrimony have a case. I think it is a weak case, but a legitimate one. Sex is not the church's business; one's salvation does not depend on the manner in which you get your rocks off, but with the quality of love you give and receive.

    But here's the kicker. I'm never going to ask to marry another man. But I could love a man as much has his gay sexual partner could. Simply think of that man as my brother. What is so special about the love of those gays who would marry that I do not have for my own brother? What indeed is so transcendent of gay love which ought to be recognized as a sacrament which is more transendant than that love of a mother to her son, or a daughter to her father, or between sisters? Nothing.

    Sex does not make love more moral.

    Posted by mbowen at 10:51 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

    On Marriage: Rule #1

    I have tried to pack everything into one post but my mind keeps rebounding and tangenting. I spent most of the day yesterday and a good amount of time today writing about Gay Marriage, then Marriage, then Sex, then Love. I wanted to do a DenBeste but I'm going to break it up. So here's the first installment off the top of the massive essay (which is broken down into segments anyway).

    I've come to some fairly solid conclusions about what I think about the prospects for Gay Marriage. Basically, I think the idea is doomed. There is nothing fundamentally changing here and people need to calm down and think it through. I have and I've come to see it in the context of the following several themes. This is going to be a big post, so pack a lunch.

    Rule #1. There is Marriage and there is Everything Else
    Marriage, as I've said before, is an institution ordained of God, and by Marriage I mean the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. If you modify the vows, it ain't marriage. But I need you to think about it backwards.

    The central proposition to the institution of marriage which makes it more than just a relationship is its aspect of permanent committment the basis of which is central to family. This is the essence of what is sacred and critical of Marriage, without which it is nothing more than a formal acknowledge of a relationship between people. So it is not religion that makes marriage sacred though we refer to it as Holy Matrimony, rather it is the transcendent aspect of love embodied in the ideals of Marriage that gives religion appropriates as a sacrament. That is why Marriage is universal and religious rites center on its transcendant aspects the most important of which are permanence and fidelity.

    When I say 'central to family' I mean it in the context of the understanding that the Wedding Vow althought it denotes the love between two, connotes the role of parents. DINKs are Marriage Lite. Voluntarily sterile DINKs are life partners for sure, but that's not what we mean by marriage. If it were nothing more than a blessing on a 'significant relationship' then we'd respect the host of the Dating Game (or any of its variants) as much as ministers who marry.

    There is a historical majoritarian argument about Marriage which makes it permanent in the culture. The experience of husbandhood is a subset of the experience of married fatherhood and it is this experience of married parenthood that informs what families pass on as knowledge about life. It is a fundamentally and extraordinarily challenging role in whose execution most of us ask ourselves, how the hell did I get here. Honoring of the wedding vow is critical in the enhanced morality and standing of Marriage.

    It is this honor which is part and parcel of the transcendence of Marriage. In that way it is much like a soldier's vow or a doctor's creed. For the sake of not only the union of those dedicated but for the sake of others (children) the sacrifice is made.

    Posted by mbowen at 10:48 PM | TrackBack

    February 16, 2004

    Alter Call

    I continue to be inspired and impressed with our new Rector. Yesterday she initiated something I don't believe I've ever seen at St. John's. We had an alter call.

    But let's go to the sermon first. She quoted from Luke this time in a reading of what sounded very much like the Beatitudes. But Luke's version of the Sermon on the Mount is half a tale of blessing and half a tale of woe.

    Luke 6:20-26

    20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.

    21 Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.

    22 Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man's sake.

    23 Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets.

    24 But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.

    25 Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.

    26 Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.

    She spoke of balance and turning and in this passage she went in a direction that compelled me to think of Christ's understanding of contingencies. For me, echoes of the Tao were inevitable. For if Christ suggests that the weak have hope and the hopeful have weakness and that our love should extend to those who suffer, surely this is not a one-sided affair. It is a confirmation of all redemption because those who will be made low are those to whom we must reach out yet again. Beware, your position is not fixed.

    Yet again she appeals to our desire to believe that love is eternal and conquers all, very powerful. As she prays, she invokes God's use of us as instruments of his grace. To the rich, to the poor, to all who will suffer woe as a result of their accomplishments, to all who will be blessed with joy in remission of their suffering.

    During the prayers of the people Rev Collins called to the people to join her at the alter. Say what? As the St. John's Choir, those angels, sang Blessed Assurance the entire pace of the service slowed to a crawl.

    What's magical about this place is the quiet. In all my years I have never experienced the plaintive quality of the swooning songs played to a quiet room. Instead of the spirit filled arpeggios and funky blended notes with the organ on full swell, the a slightly Puritan discreteness in near silence filled this large stone church. Usually it is during the quiet after a loud stomping, while people's hands are still raised and swaying, during the times of the calming 'Yes Lords' that this sense of Holy Spirit is present. But here it was in the middle of the prayer - the quiet hugging meditative prayer at the Episcopal alter. It is a potent blend of the African and the Anglican that I have never seen before. I was as teary as I've ever been, but that's not the end of it.

    Apparently, a skunk under her house managed to destroy 17 of the reverend's suits. So she was feeling a bit out of it. So immediately after the first alter call, we had an alter call in reverse. This was something extraordinary beyond even high expectations. 100 people left their pews to come and pray for the minister. It was the most touching moment I've experienced in quite some time. Every once in a while there are moments at which men have a certain pride in their tears. There it is.

    Posted by mbowen at 05:29 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    January 05, 2004


    The past few months, I've been attending more Christian services than I have in quite a while. It's been something of a strange dance. It reminds me of a trip to Phoenix several years ago.

    I was calling on one of the IT divisions of American Express. Afterwards, I found myself ambling about a large mall. I found myself in a jewelry store, of all places. So brotherman calls me over from browsing, and I say out loud, "Ok salesman, shoot me your best shot." I had absolutely no intention of buying a thing, but I wanted to see if I could be seduced. That's the story of how my wife got a ring with five diamonds for that year's anniversary.

    I'm not casting about for a church home, but I am being open. I'm saying, "OK preacher, shoot me your best shot." I'm being highly analytical about it. I'm taking note of their devices and skills. It has taken me through a couple churches here in the South Bay in the past two years. But as I mentioned before, something magical is happening at St. John's Episcopal Church here in Los Angeles, and I can feel it.

    The idea that inspired me to write today was that it suddenly occured to me that St. John's is about the only thing in my life today that follows me all the way back to the 1970s. Since moving back to California, I attended about twice or three times a year between 97 and 2002. This year, I'm sure to go once a month if not more.

    Today we installed a new minister for community affairs, and suddenly the black clergy are front and center. There were a couple dozen visitors from Christ the Good Shepherd and one of my Old School favorites Church of the Advent. Every pew had a body all the way to the back of the nave, which is unusual for St. John's on this particular Sunday in the calendar. The service stretched till noon, and there was more laughter in church than I can ever remember.

    But I'll tell you what did it for me. Hit me right in the heart. It was the bells. Well, it was the incense too, but it was the re-introduction of the chimes into the liturgy. If you're familiar with the Catholic Mass (Vatican II), you know that there are chimes rung by the alter boy right after '..do this for the rememberance of me.' and the blessing of the host and the bread. I haven't heard this in an Episcopal service here on the west coast in at least 20 years. Our new rector is bringing it way back and moving it way forward.

    What I love about church services and churches themselves are the connection they provide to history. The tradition of ritual, standing, sitting, kneeling, reciting, embracing, singing, eating, meditating, praying, moving through the sanctuary, smelling the incense, crossing, bowing. It moves its way deep into you powerfully. Even as I relieve my boredom staring up into the rafters, there is continuity back to my own adolescence and that of generations before me.

    Like my unnatural attraction to Pasadena, California and a certain kind of black woman, there is little I can do about something so deep in my bones. And I don't mind it at all.

    So while all the analytics continue, there is a very simple slot in my person for St. John's Church, its relics and its ceremonies.

    Posted by mbowen at 10:18 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

    December 07, 2003

    The Rev. Dr. Lynn A. Collins

    Something important has happened in Los Angeles. You wouldn't know by reading this brief announcement, but the selection of this woman to be Rector of St. John's Church heralds the beginning of something great. I know because I was at the 10 o'clock service this morning.

    Rev. Lynn Collins comes to the ordained ministry after a career as a systems engineer and programmer for Chemical Bank, among other companies. She received an Associate's of Arts degree from Queensborough Community College (New York City) in 1974, a Bachelor's of Arts from Brooklyn College in 1976. She then worked at a Wall Street firm while attending New York Theological Seminary. She received her Master's degree from seminary in 1989.

    During seminary and beyond, she was a youth leader at St. Augustine's Church in New York City where the Rev. Dr. Errol Harvey is Rector. Next, she was the Diocese of Ohio's Jubilee Ministries urban intern working in three parishes during a two-year stint.

    Rev. Collins then became rector of St. Paul's Church in East Cleveland, Ohio, a 150-year old parish where she had been until her June 1, 1995 appointment to the Office of Black Ministries at the Episcopal Church Center.

    There's a lot more to her as you can Google and see.

    The first thing that came into my head when she started her sermon was that she was channeling Cornel West. It's that 'kinetic orality' of the Old School tradition of preaching that suddenly morphed into the sound of Maya Angelou or a performance poet speaking assiduously. She showed a little of that bop, heh when the preacher emphasizes by squatting an inch and then popping back up. But in a moment she started to shine through and warm up and you could feel her mind and heart in the emphasis. Any moment she'd spontaneously comment on something, right in the middle of service or during her sermon. It's more than a breath of fresh air, it's a warm breeze. saint_john_episcopal.gif

    What is clear is that she is putting Love in the middle of her ministry. She is putting thenames of our bishops, and what they are doing back into the intercessions. She is offering up prayers for George our President and Arnold our Governor, and I think we'll hear more about that. She is talking diocesan politics. I heard things in this service this morning that I haven't heard since the Reverend Bill Purcell was the Rector back when St. John's used to fill every pew. She is talking about God's love and refueling the spirit and leaving your burdens at the Cross, so that we may go out into the world and fulfill God's purpose. She is talking about youth ministry and service to the elderly. And she is doing all of this in a way that makes me believe that not only will it happen, but we're all going to love being part. Her emotions are infectious and today's was the longest exchange of the Peace I have witnessed in years. What a debut!

    I think this excerpt from a sermon she wrote reinterates much of what her ministry sounds like to me:

    Our lives are filled with mixed messages from hyperspace, telephone calls of hopelessness, hearts of loneliness. We often wallow in despair and feel we have no choice but to sin, to lie, cheat, deceive, or compromise our faith for money. Our lives are busy, frequently too busy for family, for friends, for love. We are too busy for ourselves. It is true that we ride the tide of life bending to stay on the top of the rising crest of the wave, but soon we realize, once that crest descends that we are riding on the false promises of the world and we are without love.

    Here is when God's grace is most prevalent in our lives, when we are at our weakest moment of despair. How many times have we all said, "Dear God, if you just help me this one last time"; or how many times have we tried to negotiate with God by saying "God, if you do this, I'll teach Sunday School for a season; and be good..." We almost sound like children, trying to negotiate to stay up late. God's grace brings us to a new place in life. God's grace is a gift given unconditionally. It is difficult for the human mind to comprehend "unconditional love." But God's grace can not be earned, it can not be purchased, it can not be negotiated. God's grace is a gift that refocuses our soul and enlightens our heart with an epiphany of newness. God's grace heals, inspires, is creative, and creates. God grace is a gift of love that creeps into our souls and transforms a part of our being.

    Experiencing God's grace means we believe we are forgiven and forgive ourselves. Experiencing God's grace simply means we recognize a change in our attitude, our soul, and our very being. God's grace is manifested in a peace and love unknown to human kind. Today, God invites us to accept God's grace. We have experienced God's grace in this place today just by acknowledging the presence of God's love.

    She is a healer. You can see it in the way she looks at people, and how she touches them. Interesting times are ahead.

    Advent is here, and we are back to the front of the 1982 Hymnal. The cadences of Christmas and the optimism of the baby Jesus are back in the house. The calls have their Alleluias and so do the responses. Can you feel it? The choir at St. Johns has never seemed so strong as they did this morning. Could it be that I was in that horrible echo chamber of the 1970s built nave of St. Francis in PV several weeks ago? No. Was it the karaoke 80s backdrop to 'Contemporary Christian' that I heard at a Baptist church which shall remain nameless? No. It was that the St. John's Choir is simply magnificent and so very confident. This is a world-class choir that sings from both European and African American traditions well. Did you hear me? Well, I say. So many choirs who do the traditional European hymns have no tight bass. The men are just droning in the background. Not here, they are hearty. I cannot remember an extraordinary soprano solo in the recent past, and perhaps they can use that, but otherwise they are simply excellent. When they sing, it's holy.

    St. John's Church is about to become, with any luck, the extraordinary place it has been before. I hope very much that it can fulfill its destiny. Pops and others on the search committee labored well and their choice of Lynn Collins shows brilliantly. You could just see all of the members of the Committee in the congregation beaming with pride this Sunday morning.

    It's a brand new day.

    Posted by mbowen at 08:45 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

    November 25, 2003

    Whose Word of God?

    Introducing the new category 'Matters of the Spirit', I will dare venture into the worlds of God. I'm kinda sick of the obsession over Iraq and all that warblog meme.

    Anyway Rik provokes:

    I ask you, how on earth could God so radically change his mind on this topic? most likely not because the bible repeatedly points to the eternity of God's word. Everyone knows that the bible is there partly to check on whether the spritit truely spoke to you or that you are subconsciously making something up.

    I've studied the bible under different folks, so I believe that I have a materially different understanding about religion, faith, spirituality than the average bear.

    I went to Catholic School with the Columbans for middle school and audited the Catechism class. I knew all the prayers and all the material as well as anyone, but I wasn't allowed to participate in First Communion. I can't say that I was entirely disappointed, but I was entirely excluded. At the same time I was a regular attendee with my mother at the Foursquare Church. I'm sure that membership had everything to do with it. These are the Holy Ghost, speaking in tongues, pentacostal evangelists. And yes I have watched my own mother hold a sign saying 'The End is Near'. I've heard more fire and brimstone preaching than most folks. I went to highschool at a Jesuit all boys prep school where courses in religion were required. We deconstructed the Pentatuch and lexically analyzed the different authors of Genesis. My favorite class however was 'Saul to Paul'. I decided, in the end, to attend Confirmation classes, be baptized and confirmed into the Episcopal Church at the age of 16, having been a page at the Episcopalian Convention, sung in the youth choir at the Cathedral (solo actually) and been a camp counselor at Episcopal Camp Stevens in San Deigo County. These days, I spend most of my time in church with Baptists (go figure).

    So I have always been a thinking person when it comes to religion. I had not simply inherited something and never questioned it, or simply rejected the idea of God because of one (or fifty) bad experience(s).

    That said, I think that ones experience of God is ever personal and ever evolving, and that it is altogether too simple to suggest that my experience or any sigular experience as a Christian is or should be defining. I think that is exactly where people are making mistakes about the bishop. I believe that a particular strength of Christianity is its ecumenical nature as contrasted to Judaism or Islam. But certainly there are some sects of Christians who believe entirely different, that a varying interpretation of scripture is a weakness.

    Understand, however that from my perspective the major difference of Christianity is the example and the words of Christ. In the life of Christ we are 'living members'. I don't know how else to explain it other than by the understanding that Christ himself was at odds with the Scribes and the Pharisees who were the leaders of the church of the God of Abraham. What I'm saying is that Jesus himself had issues with the Bible thumping fundamentalists of His day. What he specifically didn't do in his ministry was to go around telling people how they were living in contradiction to the written word of God. And this more than anything angered the church leaders of his time, and they sought to trap him with trick questions about religious law. His commandment was about Love. Jesus wasn't a scold, and it is my belief that our calling to be Christlike does not also require us to scold, rather it calls us to Do Right.

    But that's simply on the personal level. The duty of the Church is a different matter. I would simply say this. The purpose of the Christian Church is to maintain a community in Christ. It is the collective body of the living members and through its various ministries reminds us of our committments and houses us and protects us in our faithful lives. Where I take issue with the Catholic Church is in how its formalism constrains the behavior of its members. There's not an easy way to describe this, but the mechanistic way in which it deals with sin & confession presumes too much of its understanding of sin. In short, the Catholic Church has a 'banking' approach to sin, confession, repentence & redemption with I think is too easily abused and corrupted.

    It's true and quite possible that any sect of Christianity could get away from the 'true message of the Bible' or the meaning of the Life of Christ. But if there is a bigger sin, surely it's the latter.

    Let me say this and then I'll quit for the moment. The Bible wasn't written in English. The one man I've met who has studied the Bible harder than anyone - to the point at which in his professional life you get one drink in him and he starts in on Biblical Interpretation is my touchstone on this. He essentially taught himself Latin and finally Hebrew in order to read other translations of the Bible. Myself, I'm a King James man although I can deal with the Revised Standard Version. Neither of these satisfied my man Kevin M. So he ended up studying with a Kabbalist rabbi and said that in his entire life he never truly understood the scriptures until then. It gave him a tremendous amount of respect for Judaism and Orthodox Jews in general.

    So if you are not going to go and translate the Bible for yourself, there is a great deal of lattitude you have to give your sect in its interpretation. I'm willing to do that for the Episcopal Church having attended all different kinds of Christian churches in my life.

    Posted by mbowen at 02:52 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

    July 01, 2003

    Rites vs Rights

    "The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God�s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God."
    -- The Book of Common Prayer

    Marriage is an axiomatic article of faith. Profession of marriage before God is therefore a declaration of faith, not only in one's spouse but in the principles under which it was created. What then is the state's interest in marriage?

    I would suggest that the state express passivity with regard to the holy orders of matrimony as part and parcel of its duty to the First Amendment. The Constitution binds us to respect freedom to worship and thus protects, without underwriting or respecting the practices of religious ceremonies and rites. The state simply recognizes the right of churches to establish and maintain their rites and balances that interest with domestic tranquility.

    The Episcopal Church ordains women as priests. This was once very controversial but is less so today. In this expression, the Episcopal Church has declared this gender role as appropriate. The state must not either encourage or inhibit ordinations of women and do so only affirmits its neutrality on the merits of the rite. Furthermore it should restrain others who do not respect the ordination of women according to their beliefs of gender propriety, from interfering with the free exercise of Episcopal Ordination.

    Whether the state does so for 'Gay Marriage' depends entirely upon whether or not gay marriage is recognizeable as the exercise of religious beliefs. If some church establishs a gay rite, then the state is bound to allow it. The question is how much trouble would Christians, Jews or any other group make trouble over the issue with whichever religious sect establishes the rite. The state can and should issue a hands-off warning if it sees that rite coming.

    We have common law marriages recognized by the state as regards property rights, benefits eligibility and parental rights. The state establishes, de facto civil unions which are not recognized as religious sacraments for these and other reasons, but these are entirely independent of those rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. The rights and responsibilities of partners in civil unions and common law marriages are are defended for different reasons than that of a religious rite of gay marriage. Gay domestic partners should be considered similarly to common law partners for civil purposes.

    Therefore the state should not *recognize* 'Marriage' any more than it recognizes 'Extreme Unction'. The state buries unidentified bodies in the ground but that does not make it a Funeral. The state recognizes civil unions bt that doesn't make them Marriages.

    It is important that the state make it clear that its acceptance of any marriage rited certified by a religious body is only accepted in the same way as any other religious rite, balanced as they are against the state's compelling interest in domestic tranquility. The state does not or should not give standing to religious exercise.

    Is then Marriage recognized by the state? I beleive that the state can substantially recognize all the qualities of marriage without endorsement of its articles of faith. And for this reason a civil union can in fact be functionally equivalent to a marriage. But it cannot be a marriage which is, as I've said, axiomatically ordained of God. All protestation to the contrary, Churches do have the equivalent of a trademark on the word, and those who seek the mask of respectability afforded marriage without the blessing of the Church, well they are on their own without God.

    What then of the weddings of atheists? Are their marriages ordained of God? Strictly speaking, they are civil unions. A justice of the peace is not a priest, so when a state vests authority in a justice of the peace it is not establishing religion. Yet this is the gray area where my argument falls off a cliff. I hope to get a few hints as the subject progresses.

    Posted by mbowen at 06:27 PM | TrackBack