OUR CONTEXT

One of the greatest challenges facing civilization in the twenty-first century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns – about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering – in ways that are not flagrantly irrational.
– Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

Living in a Post Christian Age

Western societies are waking up to the fact that the predominant cultural influence of Judeo-Christianity of the past 1800 or so years is now waning. Two thousand years ago, Christianity emerged from Judaism, and displaced various forms of polytheism and indigenous religions throughout the Western world. Now, Christianity itself is being displaced by various secularisms and ideologies. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we live in a post-Christian age.

The current religious reality is one of declining institutions and congregations, declining financial support, declining participation, and declining relevance and even interest. Entire denominations are on a trajectory to vanish within a decade or two. More than a third of Americans are no longer affiliated with a church, the situation in Europe is even worse, and the rate of loss is increasing. (See the Pew Research Center or Barna Research for studies and figures.)

More so that declining institutions and numbers, a cursory survey of the current mainstream culture reveals a tremendous loss of influence. In this sense, “post-Christian” means that the meta-narrative and cultural influence of Christianity has essentially been rejected by the mainstream culture of the West. The moral residue of Christianity continues to influence Western culture, but is certainly fading.

What Happened?

In general, the church (universal) is finding itself more and more abandoned by the culture: not because the culture is corrupt or immoral or lost, but because growing majorities within that culture have looked intently at the church’s actions, statements, and behavior, and found them wanting and of little value and relevance – more and more people are rejecting what they see and are moving on.

Much of the decline is Christianity’s own fault, the result of overreach, unjustified theologies, arrogance, smugness, and abuse inflicted in the name of Jesus and God. Some of the decline is rooted in the playing out of pivotal intellectual ideas, the rise of science, and even the fruition of ideas inherent in Christianity itself (See the work of Charles Taylor for more on that theme.) And some of the decline is the result of cultural trends of individualism, consumerism, and various forms of egoism writ large. 

We now find ourselves at a moment where the mainstream culture is indifferent or even hostile to Christianity and where Christians are struggling to find effective ways to dialog with the culture and convey a positive message. At the heart of the Plain Spoken Theology movement is a two fold aim:

1. Find ways of speaking to the mainstream culture about the teachings of Jesus that are reasonable and acceptable to the contemporary, educated, postmodern mindset.

2. Offer evidence and reasoned justifications for our insights and values, and do so in a way that is humble and inviting – not triumphant, controlling, judgmental, or arrogant.

The Decline of Theology into Fantasy Projection

Much of the problem is due to Christians having failed to update their theology with the findings of modern science, social science, and cutting edge human knowledge.

Much of what Christians say and claim no longer adequately aligns with contemporary experience and knowledge of reality. Human learning and knowing has outpaced most theological development. Yes, some of Christian theology has kept up. But sadly, most theological innovation has not reached the average layman and has not been adopted by mainstream Christian churches. Many Christian communities remain mired in various, sometimes overt, sometimes subtle, forms of literalism and fundamentalism. 

And many of these communities wear their literalism and backwardness as a badge of honor, claiming they alone offer the pure Christianity – which is too often equated with rejecting reason, science, and the best of human learning. We have stupidity and error proudly and pridefully being defended. 

In some instances, we see poorly educated, yet highly outspoken and pushy clergy, absurd public policy stances, outrageous public statements, and an assertion of an unmerited privilege have all weakened Christianity’s standing. Much of Christian theology has been rightly passed over and even rejected, because many Christians insist on poor formulations, outdated intellectual defenses, and illogical arguments for their claims. 

There remain Christian communities and denominations that have an intellectual predisposition. Yet even traditions and communities that are erudite and intellectually savvy, still sometimes suffer from outdated ontologies and presuppositions long shown to be untrue.

As a result of poor formation, many Christian churches have fostered spiritualities that amount to magical thinking, wish fulfillment, and ego-projection. These communities have sadly traded appreciation of sacred mystery and the message of self-giving of the gospels, for a spirituality that worships Santa-God who gives out gifts to good boys and girls and treats Jesus as some kindly, imaginary friend molded in our own image.

Many spiritual practices and attitudes reduce God to a favor dispensing mechanism. Much of mainstream Christian spirituality is juvenile, “pop-spirituality” rooted in rudimentary exchange, barter, and control behavior. “If I say my rosary, go to church, say the right prayers, do my bible study, and be a good boy or girl, Santa-God will bring me good things.”

At it’s best, religion is about meaning, not control. And religion rooted in control will ultimately disappoint.

The increased influence of postmodernism, relativism, individualism, and consumerism predispose many to see Christianity’s often weakly made truth claims as authoritarian and even imperialistic. There’s a growing distaste for using religious language, especially talk of sin, which is widely interpreted as prudishness, moralism, and the unnecessary inducement of guilt. Increasingly, Christianity is viewed as backwards and a threat to reason, human rights, and social progress. And Christians have helped foster that impression.

A Distaste of Weaponized Christianity

Christians have too often used their religion to justify the abuse, marginalization, and the effort to control others.

Decades of political overreach, intentional marginalization of others, a desire to control the culture and not merely influence it, and unsophisticated resistance to certain cultural trends (the equality of women, LGBT+ equality, etc.) have left Christianity not only looking bad, but being held in suspicion, and even seen as hostile and dangerous to social progress.

The so called culture wars of the past several decades has left a lingering bad taste in the mouths of many. The fact is that every issue backed by traditional Christian institutions and bolstered and defended with theological arguments has lost in the ongoing cultural conflicts – abortion, divorce, contraception, premarital sex, homosexuality and same sex marriage, and so on.

Some of these positions deserve defending, or at least seriously discussing. And people of good will and sound minds will reach different conclusions – even Christians. Whatever one thinks about some of these issues, if Christianity wants to be influential, if it wishes to be taken seriously and have it’s message considered – it must formulate it’s arguments in clear and reasonable language, avoid appeals to religiously sectarian justifications, and demonstrate to the culture the truth of it’s propositions.

Few would argue that Christianity should not attempt to influence politics and culture. The question isn’t influence, it’s control.

In the United States, the marriage of conservative Christianity with the Republican party has won a few elections, but likely damaged both partners for the long term. Worse, this grab at power was not for the sake of the poor or marginalized, it was an attempt to control the mainstream culture along the lines of a narrow theological worldview. Numerous Churches have damaged their credibility  – and the credibility of nearly all Christians – as a result.

Christianity Coopted by The Culture

Christians have often failed to live up to their own ideals. This is to be expected given human imperfection. We’re all human.

Yet when churches use religious liberty as an excuse for grasping at cultural privilege, when the largest denomination in the world overlooks decades of systematic child rape and horrific sex abuse committed by its own clergy, when thousands of churches spend tens of thousands of dollars installing coffee bars and fellowship lounges, but do little for the poor, when Christian leadership aligns with the powerful and offers no voice for the powerless, and when church communities promote marginalization – when our churches are merely extensions of the Empire – most recognize such as serious, corrupting circumstances.

So much of Christian thinking and practice has been co-opted by the mainstream secular culture. Our religious thinking has been infected by consumerism and individualism. Worse, it has suffered from the reductionism of niceism – the watering down of the gospel message to being nice (unless the other is a feminist, gay person, liberal, and so on.)

When the Christian message becomes a hybrid of outlandish, magical claims, narrow pushes for cultural control, and coupled with undifferentiated personal behavior from that of the popular, secular culture, the entire edifice becomes redundant and irrelevant.

Further, many churches have ceased to foster meaningful religious experience aimed at conveying a sense of mystery, sacredness, and wonder. Banal music, liturgies, rituals, and shallow teaching have taken their toll. This is not nostalgia for some lost Golden Age of liturgy or church–  no such reality ever existed.  The proposed solution is not Latin Masses, choirs led by organs, or 1940s style liturgies. Rather, communal ritual must reclaim its gravitas once again. When Sunday morning is more entertainment rather than it is reflection, when it’s more political message than exploring communal meaning, it comes at the expense of mystical experience however understood. The failure to convey the mystical erodes lasting, authentic commitment.

The above is critical and to some will sound exceedingly and unnecessarily harsh. Many will protest that there are kind, intelligent Christians who practice humility, tolerance, and love while effectively living and demonstrating the Good News. And yes, it’s true that there are many loving, healthy, balanced Christians. Still, and honest assessment will show the situation to be dire in terms of trends and overall expectations. Unfortunately, much of the above criticism is bitter tasting, but necessary medicine. The spirit of this project is hopeful, positive, and constructive, but to be effective, we must acknowledge the truth of the criticism.

So What?

Why should anyone care that this is the case? Why should there be any concern over the decline of Christianity? Afterall, religious traditions and their influence rise and fall. Maybe Christianity has outlived its usefulness and purpose? Perhaps, it’s simply time for the West to move on? Perhaps Christianity has become so damaged it’s time to pull the plug?

Yes, many current forms of Christianity need to dramatically reform or disappear. And many Christians are so lost to absurd ideologies and theological fantasties that hope is difficult to muster.

Yet my argument – my conviction – is that the Judeo-Christian worldview rightly understood – has crucial value. That’s its loss of influence in the culture is a risky situation. That lurking beneath the bad theology and corruption are valuable truths about human nature, meaning, and morality.

My conviction is that contained in the teachings of Jesus, there is a solid core of wisdom and truth that can be powerfully and compellingly stated and presented. Can this wisdom be found elsewhere? Yes, much of it can be found elsewhere. Is Jesus so unique and the gospels so amazing that Jesus and his teachings can be viewed as necessary in order to understand human nature and meaning? No. But in the right light, the gospels are deeply insightful, accurate, powerful conveyors of penetrating truths about human nature and the meaning of human life.

Reason and disciplined philosophy can lead one to the truth of the value of kenosis and the primacy of love, the merits of generosity and kindness, the universality of the human family, the benefits of inclusion, and the rightness of a just and compassionate society. Such insights are not the sole property of the Christianity nor were they first uttered and presented by Jesus. There are many ways to the truth.

However, I also remain convinced that a combination of myth, ritual, symbol, art, music and community is a more powerful and enduring way to engage, be transformed by, and convey such truths. Myth and ritual, the tools of religion, are not inherently nor necessarily irrational, in fact, they are at their best and most effective when fully rational. There is something about human beings, even in the early 21st Century, that narrative, ritual, symbol, and metaphor speak powerfully and more holistically, than philosophy or science alone.

There is a beauty and simplicity to the Beatitudes, to the story of the prodigal son, to the parable of the good Samaritan that is persuasive and clear. Narrative, reinforced by community and ritual and symbol, work in ways deeply understood by the human psyche.

The myths, rituals, symbols, and practices of Christianity are still recognizable by many, still entwined with Western culture to an extent that it makes sense to reevaluate. Retold reasonably, reinterpreted according to reliable psychology, philosophy, and contemporary human experience might prove viable once again.

There are core ideas inherent in the Judeo-Christian worldview – human dignity, the value of kenotic love, an objective-inherent moral dimension to human being, and an immutable, enduring, sacred reality that serves as the context for experience of the daily world (Cosmos-Logos) – that need be retained, strengthened, and reasserted, less we tip the scales in favor of the barbarism, coarseness, violence, and cruelty, and shallow materialism that constantly threaten humanity (Chaos-Nihilism.)

Granted, many current Christian notions, ideas, and emphases must be jettisoned and placed aside. The teachings of Jesus must be reexamined, the claims of Christianity sifted through, and a large scale revisioning and reformulation must take place if the beneficial aspects of Jesus’ teaching are to have any influence moving forward.

A (Re)Visioning – Necessary Updates

Most of us have had the experience of having to install updates on our computer or smartphone or even install a totally new operating system. We do this because the old system has flaws and design limitations and we’re promised that the new features or system is better.

And we all hate these update experiences because they take time to download and they make us change things we were familiar and comfortable with.And if we’re honest, most of the changes are for the better in the long term, although not all the changes bring their promised benefits.

Christianity needs some badly overdue updates and operating system upgrades. These changes are required for the sake of the truth as well as for the sake of the long term viability of the tradition.

And like software and computer updates – they take time to download and will result in uncomfortable, even sometimes painful changes. Yet sometimes we even need to delete data and start over with new code and instructions.

The choice is ours – upgrade and change – revision our understanding of Christianity – or allow our old, outdated systems and programs to eventually freeze up and crash.

Postmodern Everything

Jesus taught and conducted his ministry in a world very different than our own. Yes, trees are still trees and we can all still get our head around what a mustard seed is, we’re still familiar enough with agricultural metaphors of sowing and reaping, and human nature itself hasn’t changed much, if at all.

So, what’s different then?

What’s radically different is how we understand reality, the depth, content, and nature of our knowledge about the world and ourselves – we live in the same world but operate under very different worldviews.

The ancient cultures of First Century Palestine functioned from a worldview that thought there was water above the dome of the sky, that believed in ethereal spirits, demons, and gods, and was somewhat animistic concerning nature.

The worldview of Jesus and his Jewish communities as well as the first Christian communities who wrote our core, sacred texts operated without science, or modern medicine, or psychology, or even a decent sense of history. Our ancient spiritual ancestors understood nothing about space or physics, the big bang, or evolution. They had not harnessed electricity or even fossil fuels. Their world was primitive, superstitious, and full of mystery and conflict.

This is not to say that our ancient spiritual ancestors were stupid or naive. In many ways they were quite sophisticated, often more so than we their postmodern descendants. Their worldview leaned more on mythopoetic and metaphorical forms of reasoning and understanding, whereas ours leans more on science, history, and advanced forms of social science.

Theologian and Jesus Historian John Dominic Crossan offers the example of a statue of Abraham Lincoln to illustrate the differences I’m speaking of here.

Crossan asks us to imagine a state of Lincoln swinging an ax, breaking the chains of a young slave girl. Crossan then asks us, the reader, if the statue is true?

We postmoderns tend to approach the question of truth in terms of science, history, and facticity. As far as we know, Lincoln never swung an ax to free a slave girl.Yet most of us also understand that there is more to the question of the truth of the statue than the historicity of the event being depicted. Lincoln played a significant leadership role in ending slavery. He metaphorically swung many axes, broke many chains, and sadly at great price and with much suffering.

In terms of meaning, from a mythopoetic view, the statue is true in terms of what it seeks to convey.

Keep this exercise in mind as we move forward in our discussion.

Christianity in the Postmodern World – What Christianity is Not

The first Christians lived in a polytheistic world where exorcism was real, miracles occurred regularly, where sacrifice – often bloody – was required to atone, please the gods, and keep social and spiritual equilibrium.The sacrifices offered in the Temple in Jerusalem were understood as necessary to keep the world steady and to keep chaos and trouble at bay. The daily offerings in the Pagan temples were worked to achieve the same goals – order, the Empire – to maintain the cosmos.

As we will later discuss, these notions of sacrifice played out vividly in the social order through public festivals and celebrations that centered on sacrificial meals, where the poor and destitute often were able to eat meat, something of a ancient luxury. That meat being sacrificed in honor of some deity, and provided through the benevolence of some patron, power broker, wealthy aristocrat, or politician. These patrons well understood that public sacrificial meals maintained the sense of cultural and socio-economic order, reminding everyone who had the power and who did not. To participate in these communal celebrations was to experience and know one’s place in the power systems and structures that governed their lives.

The ancient world was saturated in myth, poetry, symbol, sacrifice, and power structures – it was an enchanted, if not often brutal, world.

Much of these trappings, symbols, and myths have carried over the generations and can be found in Christian churches and communities today. And we need to ask the hard question as to whether they belong, whether they serve any useful purpose, whether they serve human welfare and thriving, and most of all, whether they are true or not.

Is Christianity served well by its assertions of virgin births, angels, Marian apparitions, exorcism, supernaturally charged jewelry, icons, and artifacts? What do medieval notions of transubstantiation do for us today? Should we really be thinking that the rapture or Jesus returning on the clouds is a serious possibility?

More importantly, are these things true? Can we offer repeatable, reliable evidence for such? And if we want to continue to argue that such things are true – then we must return to Lincoln’s statue, and ask true in what sense?

We in our post-Enlightenment world, often forget that there are some truly weird things out in the world, that not everything can be explained, and that mysteries still exist. But we should also be honest with ourselves when we hear the story about the sister of someone’s aunt of a friend of a friend who was healed during a prayer meeting exorcism – especially when we eventually learn that such healing was temporary, and that the medication and therapy are working much better.

Central to my argument is that the decline of Christianity as a cultural force is due in large part to the seemingly absurd claims made my millions of Christians. Increasingly, more and more people, thanks to education, reasoning, and self honesty, no longer accept spirits in the ether or magic bread – or notions of sacrifice, blood atonement, the inferiority or marginalization of women, and so on.

In many ways, the pivotal question is why do so many invest so much in Iron Age notions that lack any grounding or evidence in today’s world? And what do holding onto to such things gain us?

The difficult task for those serious about core values and insights of Christianity so badly needed today surviving beyond the next few generations is to wrestle with our claims for things that simply don’t exist. Our credibility is at stake.

Christianity in the Postmodern World – What Christianity Can Be

How to avoid tossing the proverbial baby out with the proverbial bathwater?

Modernity and the emergence of reliable natural sciences and the scientific method, coalescing in the Enlightenment and carrying forward, have cast shadows on many Christian claims, disproven others, and have rattled the general foundations of the tradition. The postmodern Western mind leans toward science, reason, and secular understandings of the world.

The challenge for Christianity is to remain credible and influential. Yet for it to remain a viable enterprise and cultural influence it must now dramatically reconsider its claims and core convictions – simply doing business as usual and continuing to cling to the same understandings will diminish Christianity and likely force it into terminal decline.

We are witnessing these dynamics play out today with clarity.

Much at the heart of the conflict between Christianity and the modern world is the unfortunate tendency of modern Christians to literalize their mythic claims and fail to separate metaphor from literal claim. The ancient world employed a way of thinking that can be described a mythopoetic. Mythic in that story and narrative was a primary format for conveying core truths about human meaning, purpose, morality, and so forth. Poetic in that these stories also contained core metaphors and symbols that reinforced and further conveyed meaning and truth.

The ancients thought in mythopoetic terms (as well as in terms we’d today call superstitious) and we moderns lean more toward a literal and factual mode of thinking. Modern thinking has led many Christians to literalize the mythic, metaphorical, and symbolic claims of the tradition. This, unfortunately, has rendered the claims meaningless and absurd, and thus diminished their ability to convey the underlying truths containing within.

Once we peel away the unjustifiable supernatural lingerings of the ancient worldview, what wisdom is there to cling to and develop?

Yet we also realize and appreciate, even need, some of the wisdom of our ancient ancestors. Their insights into human dignity, the value of freedom, equality and inclusivity, compassion, care of the poor and marginalized – their resistance to the dehumanizing forces of Empire – such things have value and still resonate in our Postmodern reality.

We must again learn to think mythopoetically, yet do so with the advantages of contemporary learning and knowledge. Like Lincoln’s statue, we need to wrestle with the layers of meaning and truth of things such as sacraments, virgin births, healing, and the like.

My strong sense, supported by careful historical study, is that Christianity spread throughout the ancient world – not because it claimed or performed miracles, and not because sinners were convicted of their faults by Jesus on the cross, and certainly not because of claims of a resurrected savior.

Christianity spread initially because it offered alternative communities of love, acceptance, and practical benefit. Christianity provided a buffer to the dehumanizing oppression and rigid socio-economic power structures of the Imperial elite and their favored ones.

Christian communities fed people, welcomed them, helped them navigate the often brutal desperate, uncaring ancient world. And it did so without requiring legalistic ritual and ceremonial barriers to entry such as circumcision, the rules of Kashrut-Kosher living and eating, and other such burdens.

And further, it did so, without regard for the concerns of tribalism, social standing, gender, or ethnicity and national origin.

There was no longer gentile or Jew, slave or free, female or male, rich or poor – but simply dignified persons pledging to reform their lives through the teachings and example of Jesus. Tax collectors and prostitutes ate at the same table as artisans, laborers, and the well to do. Social bonds were formed outside of an beneath the Imperial culture and enlivened by a radically different set of values and priorities.The requirement for entry into this new community of kindness and counter-culture? A willingness to master self, be generous with others, resist the Imperium, and follow the ways of Jesus.

Constantine’s conversion in the 4th Century catapulted the Jesus movement and its scattered, but growing communities, into the Imperial structures of power. His turn to Christianity was a political move and attempt to consolidate power. Constantine remained a pagan until his formal conversion on his deathbed. And while Christianity would now take over the Empire from within, its new found political favor came at high costs of authenticity, mission, and integrity.

Our best historical and textual analysis shows Jesus teaching and establishing the Kingdom of God as a new social-religious reality rooted in the conviction of human dignity and committed to justice, compassion, and peace. This social and communal vision went hand in hand with the call to personal reform, self mastery, and control of ego and baser self.

To be a Christian meant a life of self examination, self reform, and self giving in order to achieve a social reality rooted in love, compassion, justice and care of the needy.The movement slowly, but steadily grew, resisted attempts to eradicate it, and scared the hell out of the cultural and political elite of the Empire.

Is it possible today to preserve and practice self reform and radically caring, intentional communities, without having to also accept outdated Iron age concepts now known to be untrue? Can mythopoetic reasoning be tempered by post-Enlightenment sensibilities?

It remains my conviction that there is something unique, valuable, sorely needed in the Christian vision – that Jesus taught a wisdom that shaped the early Christian communities and eventually all of Western culture.

And today’s ongoing collapse of Christianity risks the West losing vital convictions, insights, convictions, and practices that continue to resist the harsher, inhumane, oppressive forces of today’s Imperial structures and powers.

We must find the way to keep the existential, psychological, anthropological, human insights of Jesus, formed by his Jewish traditions, and further developed by the early Christian communities, while being honest about supernatural claims that neither further the above agenda, erode the credibility of the movement, and lack evidence and justification.

The central thrust of my reflections is this – there remains room for authentic, legitimate innovation in Christian thinking, theology, and practice. And such innovation is necessary for Christianity to endure and be a source of transformative power in anyone’s life.

Following Jesus While Rejecting Christianity?

Personally, the Jesus I find in the gospels is compelling, while at the same time I find much of Christianity annoying and sometimes even offensive. I often yearn to pull Jesus out of the tangled system of nonsense overlaid on him by two thousand years of theology.  The desire to peel away all the bad theology to retain only the pure, unfiltered Jesus, is indeed a common one.

But the unfiltered Jesus isn’t available. One can only access Jesus through the claims of earlier Christians. Everything he did, taught, and emphasized comes to us only through the mediation of early followers.

Therefore, the temptation to take the pure Jesus and walk away from the flawed and messy Christian tradition – with all its baggage, nonsense, irrationalism, and even hatreds – isn’t an honest or even possible venture.Many today want Jesus, but not Paul. Or Jesus without Christian theology. Or Jesus without the church. Jesus remains attractive, but the institutions, ideas, and even those around him are deemed less so.

Yet Jesus is available to us only as mediated through community – through the written claims of the early communities that encountered Jesus and through the real communities of flesh and blood, and sometimes annoying, people.

To meaningfully engage Jesus necessarily means associating with some unwanted company – something Jesus would have likely found highly amusing.

________

Integrating Religion & Ecology

While a variety of methodologies are utilized in the study of religion and ecology, four interpretive approaches have developed: retrieval, reevaluation, reconstruction, and creation.

Retrieval refers to the investigation of a particular religious tradition, its scriptural, commentarial, legal, and other narrative sources for evidence of teachings regarding nature, ecology, and related concerns. In addition, the method of retrieval examines ethics and rituals present in the tradition in order to discover how the tradition actualized these teachings in practices and bringing those practices to the fore.

Interpretive reevaluation occurs when a tradition’s teachings are considered with regard to their value and relevance to contemporary situations and crises. In what ways can the ideas, teachings, or ethics present in these traditions be adopted by contemporary scholars, theologians, or practitioners who wish to help shape more ecologically sensitive attitudes and sustainable practices.

The third approach, reconstruction, offers ways that a religious tradition might adopt its teachings to current circumstances in new and creative ways. In essence, this is an innovative approach that may produce new synthesis or creative adaptations of ideas, practices, and celebrations.

The fourth, and final approach is creation, meaning crafting new spiritual traditions rooted in new narratives. The creative approach can be seen in some neopagan traditions emerging – many of which claim inspiration in ancient practices, but in reality are new spiritual systems and ventures – crafting myth, ritual, symbols, and practices as they go.

JEWISH

The concerns of spiritual ecology blend extremely well with those of Judaism, given that Judaism developed as an indigenous religious tradition and therefore is rooted in nature-based concerns and imagery as well as systems thinking.

Interconnectedness is a primary Jewish insight in that the spiritually mature person will recognize that every creature is essentially bound up with every other creature, and that we share a collective destiny. These insights are clearly seen in the creation myths of Genesis, the ecological regulations offered in Leviticus and elsewhere, the immanent theology of the Burning Bush, the spiritual growth of the Jewish people wandering in the wilderness, and the generous use of nature imagery throughout Torah.

Further, Jewish teaching contains significant amounts of ecological rules and regulations – prohibitions against pollution, waste, wanton killing, the destruction of trees and other natural resources, dietary rules, the humane treatment of animals – all spilling out from a primitive ecological worldview.

Therefore, the fundamental Jewish attitude toward nature and all living things should be one of harmony, balance, conservation, and compassion, and not subjugation, utilization, acquisitiveness or aggression. This ethic applies toward all levels of creation.

____________

Judaism, which like all religions is the result of natural human development, has often being referred to as a religion of ethical monotheism. However, as a result of a number of changes wrought by Reform Judaism and, in the United States of America, Reconstructionist Judaism, much of modern-day Judaism is for all intents and purposes devoid of notions of supernaturalism. This should not come as a surprise, as there has always been much less emphasis on the supernatural in Judaism than in, say, the religion of Christianity which sprang from it.

Judaism has nearly always been a practical, this-world focused system of ethics and practices. Judaism is not a religion of personal salvation but one of self-improvement, social justice, and ecological balance. The Jewish eschatological vision is not the Kingdom of God as some supernatural event imposed or revealed by God, but the vision of a social order in this world in which there is justice, equality and freedom for all.

Judaism is therefore rational, logical and moral. It is not a creed, but a way of life. It demands righteous living and not acceptance of dogma. Beliefs as such are only significant if they serve as a means to foster goodness and wholeness.

In many ways, and increasingly so as time goes by, Judaism is the most humanistic of all the world’s religions, even more so than Buddhism. It is also deeply personalistic in that its primary drive is the affirmation of human dignity and the ordering of the world according to such affirmation.

Further, there is no doctrine of original sin in Judaism, nothing of the ‘total depravity’ of man that is so much a part of certain versions of Christianity. The ongoing refrain of “and it was good” echoes throughout Jewish thought concerning humanity, nature, and the world.

Increasing number of Jews are finding meaning in the celebration of life through the Hebrew calendar and its multiple holidays while seeking to interpret this calendar and its celebrations in a naturalistic way.

Modern liberal Jewish theology is therefore a humanistic theology that also contains several roots and sources for further developing a Jewish spiritual ecology.


GREEN

Rabbi, and professor, Arthur Green a liberal theologian is one of the founders of Neo Hasidism – a movement that values the teachings of Kabbalah and Hasidism as holding deep insights into the human psyche and spiritual life, rather than as bearers of metaphysical or cosmological truth.

The application of liberal theological insights also rejects remnants of the disenfranchisement of women, the marginalization of non-Jews, and promotes acceptance of LGBT+ individuals and their relationships.

Calling for a non-dualistic Judaism that embraces both spirit and body, Green argues that while some Jewish rituals may indeed still be meaningful, a vibrant Jewish life will depend on a radical and bold reimagining of both Jewish theology and praxis.

These include his understanding of Judaism that embrace religious humanism, an ongoing commitment to renewal and innovation, rooted in a theology that has moved beyond a personal God, yet one that maintains a deep respect for tradition without feeling bound to it.

The language of Hasidic panentheism, he writes, enables modern seekers:

a theology that could be characterized as a version of religious naturalism, yet a naturalism deeply tempered by a sense of the transcendent, an openness to the profundities of inner experience, and a humility about the limits of human knowledge.

Green affirms the notion of interconnectedness as at the heart of the Jewish faith, one that points beyond itself toward the ultimate oneness of all being.

For Green, the attempts at describing and living in the mysteries and meanings of life and nature, striving for insights into human wholeness, is called theology.

In his later work, Radical Judaism, Green begins the interpretation of  Jewish theology in terms of evolutionary thought and theory, thus laying solid foundations for a Jewish spiritual ecology.

__________________

Kashrut – Keeping Kosher

We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject al such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization. We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation.

– Reform Judaism 1895 Pittsburgh Platform of Principles

Kashrut is the body of law explicated in Tanakh and Talmud regulating diet, food choices, cooking, and the humane treatment of animals. Some argue that these laws spill over into matters of personal care and hygiene, consumer choices, food justice issues, the treatment of agricultural workers, organic farming, soil depletion, and so on.

Some of the traditional rules for keeping Kosher include not eating pork or shellfish, not mixing meat with dairy products, only eating the meat of healthy, whole animals humanely slaughtered, the removal of blood from meat and poultry, and other such restrictions.

The basic regulations have developed various applications throughout history, including keeping separate cookware and dishes for meat and milk meals, not killing a mother animal when it still has young, and so on.

The vast majority of Jews do not keep Kosher. Some observe various aspects of the traditions, while many do not. Perhaps not eating pork is the most widely practiced dietary restriction among Jews, but there are still those who like bacon with their eggs and cheese after Saturday morning Torah study.

The above quote from the Pittsburgh Platform of 1895 which launched the Reform movement in Judaism rejects Kashrut as outdated and unnecessary. This view is still maintained by a majority of Reform Jews and those who advocate Classical Reform Judaism – a manner of practice and observance more closely aligned with the original ideas of Reform.

Notions that the original and ancient impulse for Kosher eating was health and food safety concerns is misplaced. Rather, it seems likely that fostering communal and cultural identity and boundaries through dietary rules is the central impulse. How is a cultural and religious identity created and maintained? Regulating food, sex, and other daily practices is certainly a set of tools that can help achieve these aims.

Reading Talmud and Torah on these matters reveals a secondary impulse – kindness and the human treatment of animals. Requirements for painless slaughter, against dismemberment, against cruel and harsh husbandry practices, all are entwined in Kosher eating.

Gone are many of the motivating factors for keeping Kosher. Yes, some Jews practice Kashrut out of a reverence for tradition and/or as a personal discipline to aid awareness and self control. But gone is the biblical literalism of centuries ago, the personal God who commands such (and the accompanying Divine Command ethical views), as well as the need to stay separate and apart from Gentile neighbors and friends.

Yet saying that most Jews don’t keep Kosher and that the reasons for doing so are today unimpressive, does not mean that Jews are free to eat whatever they want without further consideration.

The ethical impulse to Kosher eating and living remains. To honor this impulse, Jews today are faced with the responsibilities of ethical eating, ethical agriculture, ethical food sourcing, ethical environmental practices, and so on. Most Jews today feel free to eat shrimp or clams. Yet such freedom does not mean that considerations of ecological sustainability, food worker justice, proper sourcing, food safety, as well as personal health can be dismissed.

Something isn’t right when Diet Coke is Kosher, but whole wheat pasta with organic, humanely raised chicken isn’t, because cheese is part of the sauce.

True to the Jewish innovative spirit, there is a growing interest in and practice of variations of eco-Kosher, ethical eating, and concerns of Jewish spiritual ecology. Many of these concerns advocate for sustainable farming, the humane treatment of animals, if not vegetarian or vegan eating, farm and food worker justice issues, organic farming, local farming, and so on. Some Jews integrate the above modern concerns into the traditional Kosher observance. Others are convinced that the above constitutes the fulfillment of the demands of Kashrut properly understood for today’s realities.

Much of the joy and benefit of liberal Judaism is that individuals and communities are free to wrestle with, experiment with, and hammer out their own observances that they believe proper and holy.

 

 

 

 

Toward an Innovative, Sustaining Jewish Spiritual Ecology

1. There is only One. All exists finds its being in the interconnected web of the cosmos. The fundamental Jewish assertion that God is One means that reality is a unified whole of interdependent relationships and connections. Humanity is therefore one family, and that family is naturally in interconnected relations to all other living families – be they animals or plants.

2. Jewish mysticism therefore focuses on the experience of the unity of all being and the divine, ordering, creative presence (shekhinah) that underlies, surrounds, and fills all of existence. The encounter with this presence is intoxicating and transformative, the true stuff of religious experience. Sparks of divine light are embedded and infused everywhere. Our task is to seek out and discover those sparks, even in the most unlikely places, in order to transform the world. This work of redemption is the human task.

The way we relate to every creature is a reflection on our character and understanding of our Jewish religion. This process begins with the key devotional pair of love and awe, which together lead us to our sense of the holy.

Ritual traditions are the tools the Jewish tradition provides to achieve and maintain awareness. But they are to be seen as means rather than as ends, as practices that increase awareness, deepen empathy and compassion, and aid in self mastery and improvement.

Jewish values should put us at odds with the superficial values of the consumerist and overly individualist society in which we live. We must take a critical stance toward all that we regard as unjust or degrading in our general culture. Without seeking to impose our views on others, we envision a Jewish community that speaks out with a strong moral voice on behalf of the oppressed, needy, and marginalized – be they human or other animal.

8. The above principles all flow directly from an expansive reading of Torah that includes our own interpretive voices. We are not literalists about Torah, but we know that our people have mined endless sources of wisdom from within those texts, and we continue in that path, adding new methods to the old. The whole process is sacred to us.

10. Our world suffers from a great imbalance of what may be called male and female energies. Judaism is being reshaped by the voices of women alongside men, as full participants in every aspect of religious and social. We welcome the use of the divine metaphors of shekhinah and binah, God as life-giving, nourishing, and protecting Mother.

11. We affirm personal autonomy in the religious and moral life and  We therefore underscore the Hasidic and Reform teachings that each person has his/her own path to walk and truth to discover. We encourage spiritual independence and responsibility. We encourage each Jew to study and probe the rich Jewish tradition, clinging to those insights, practices, and advices that make life more meaningful and us better persons.

12. Judaism deeply affirms and believes in the value of community. The sense of hevrayyah, or fellowship among followers of a particular path, is one of the greatest tools it offers for spiritual growth. The heart of such a community lies in cultivating spiritual friendships that allow us to rejoice together in life’s blessings as well as to talk through the struggles and obstacles we all find in our path. Developing an ear to listen well to the struggles of others is one of the great skills to be learned from the Hasidic tradition.

13. We recognize that Torah is our people’s unique language for expressing an ancient and universal truth, one that reaches beyond all boundaries of religious tradition, ethnic community, or symbolic language. As heirs to a precious and much-maligned legacy, we are committed to preserving our ancient way of life in full richness of expression, within the bounds of our contemporary ethical beliefs. But we do not pose it as exclusive truth. We happily join with all others who seek, each in our own way, to realize these sacred truths, while admitting in collective humility that none of our languages embodies truth in its fullness.

A Possible Way Forward – Evidential Theology

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
– Antonio Gramsci

Human society is always in some form of crisis and churches and religious institutions are not exempt from this dynamism. The history of Christianity contains dozens of examples of rise and decline, change, adjustment, and the emergence of new styles, emphasis, and practice.

But this time, this crisis, appears to be somewhat different. The issues cut to the core of what it means to be a Christian and how we understand the meaning of the gospels. It seems that Christianity has lost its ability to speak meaningfully to the culture.

The scope of the renewal necessary is daunting – ranging from rethinking the foundations of our theology, to reading the scriptures with fresh eyes, to finding more effective ways of communicating and explaining our claims, to changing Christian practice and spirituality, to restoring the primacy of love, hospitality, generosity, and tolerance on the part of all Christians.

The renewal needed goes far beyond tweaking programs, music, and liturgical styles.  It is not going to be found in committees, tool kits, and conferences. Such efforts might help, but are marginal. Christianity is not a program. The necessary changes go deeper to the level of self-understanding and theology – and even beyond that, to the level of individual and communal acceptance of the need for this change.

A credible way forward seems to include two pivotal undertakings:

A) The renewal and revisioning of Christian theology – engaging a daring reimagination of Christianity through the lens of the best of human knowledge – science, up to date history, psychology, and so on.  Christian theology must conform to the truth – and that requires the application of science, social science, and the best of human learning and experience. 

B) The establishment of authentic, organic communities of like-minded individuals interwoven in non-institutional circles of mutual support, willing to live counter cultural lives as a witness to the convictions outlined above. Current models of “church” are no longer viable. 

The above calls for the following seven goals:

1. Produce an evidence-based theological approach that balances mythopoetic, metaphorical thinking, understanding of allegory, symbol, and ritual with solid scholarship of all kinds. 

2. A continuing, renewed understanding of the nature of divinity which aligns with the best of human understanding and science, as well as the best of human religious imagination, myth, and poetry.

3. A vigorous proclamation and defense of human dignity that opposes the dehumanizing forces of today’s forms of empire, secularism, consumerism, and nihilism.

4. Continued refinement of our understanding of Jesus of Nazareth, what he taught, the emergence of Christianity, and the content and nature of our sacred texts, applying insights from Historical Jesus scholarship, Biblical studies, hermeneutics, and reliable cultural and textual scholarship.

5. Moving beyond problematic notions of original sin, blood sacrifice, substitutionary atonement, religious violence, and Divine reward for good behavior that reduces Christianity to primitive notions and concepts and keeps it stuck in outdated modes of thinking.

6. Making Jesus’ rejection of legalism, moralism, ceremonialism, and literalism – all of which tempt us to build walls, control others, and establish abusive power structures – central to our understanding of Christian practice and communal organization.  

7. A deemphasis on institutional structures, denominational identity, clericalism, and American-style, 20th Century “Church”, instead favoring personal empowerment, organic community, sacramental living, and local transformation.

 

 

____________________

 

Christianity in the Postmodern World – What Christianity is Not

The first Christians lived in a polytheistic world where exorcism was real, miracles occurred regularly, where sacrifice – often bloody – was required to atone, please the gods, and keep social and spiritual equilibrium.The sacrifices offered in the Temple in Jerusalem were understood as necessary to keep the world steady and to keep chaos and trouble at bay. The daily offerings in the Pagan temples were worked to achieve the same goals – order, the Empire – to maintain the cosmos.

As we will later discuss, these notions of sacrifice played out vividly in the social order through public festivals and celebrations that centered on sacrificial meals, where the poor and destitute often were able to eat meat, something of a ancient luxury. That meat being sacrificed in honor of some deity, and provided through the benevolence of some patron, power broker, wealthy aristocrat, or politician. These patrons well understood that public sacrificial meals maintained the sense of cultural and socio-economic order, reminding everyone who had the power and who did not. To participate in these communal celebrations was to experience and know one’s place in the power systems and structures that governed their lives.

The ancient world was saturated in myth, poetry, symbol, sacrifice, and power structures – it was an enchanted, if not often brutal, world.

Much of these trappings, symbols, and myths have carried over the generations and can be found in Christian churches and communities today. And we need to ask the hard question as to whether they belong, whether they serve any useful purpose, whether they serve human welfare and thriving, and most of all, whether they are true or not.

Is Christianity served well by its assertions of virgin births, angels, Marian apparitions, exorcism, supernaturally charged jewelry, icons, and artifacts? What do medieval notions of transubstantiation do for us today? Should we really be thinking that the rapture or Jesus returning on the clouds is a serious possibility?

More importantly, are these things true? Can we offer repeatable, reliable evidence for such? And if we want to continue to argue that such things are true – then we must return to Lincoln’s statue, and ask true in what sense?

We in our post-Enlightenment world, often forget that there are some truly weird things out in the world, that not everything can be explained, and that mysteries still exist. But we should also be honest with ourselves when we hear the story about the sister of someone’s aunt of a friend of a friend who was healed during a prayer meeting exorcism – especially when we eventually learn that such healing was temporary, and that the medication and therapy are working much better.

Central to my argument is that the decline of Christianity as a cultural force is due in large part to the seemingly absurd claims made my millions of Christians. Increasingly, more and more people, thanks to education, reasoning, and self honesty, no longer accept spirits in the ether or magic bread – or notions of sacrifice, blood atonement, the inferiority or marginalization of women, and so on.

In many ways, the pivotal question is why do so many invest so much in Iron Age notions that lack any grounding or evidence in today’s world? And what do holding onto to such things gain us?

The difficult task for those serious about core values and insights of Christianity so badly needed today surviving beyond the next few generations is to wrestle with our claims for things that simply don’t exist. Our credibility is at stake.

Christianity in the Postmodern World – What Christianity Can Be

How to avoid tossing the proverbial baby out with the proverbial bathwater?

Modernity and the emergence of reliable natural sciences and the scientific method, coalescing in the Enlightenment and carrying forward, have cast shadows on many Christian claims, disproven others, and have rattled the general foundations of the tradition. The postmodern Western mind leans toward science, reason, and secular understandings of the world.

The challenge for Christianity is to remain credible and influential. Yet for it to remain a viable enterprise and cultural influence it must now dramatically reconsider its claims and core convictions – simply doing business as usual and continuing to cling to the same understandings will diminish Christianity and likely force it into terminal decline.

We are witnessing these dynamics play out today with clarity.

Much at the heart of the conflict between Christianity and the modern world is the unfortunate tendency of modern Christians to literalize their mythic claims and fail to separate metaphor from literal claim. The ancient world employed a way of thinking that can be described a mythopoetic. Mythic in that story and narrative was a primary format for conveying core truths about human meaning, purpose, morality, and so forth. Poetic in that these stories also contained core metaphors and symbols that reinforced and further conveyed meaning and truth.

The ancients thought in mythopoetic terms (as well as in terms we’d today call superstitious) and we moderns lean more toward a literal and factual mode of thinking. Modern thinking has led many Christians to literalize the mythic, metaphorical, and symbolic claims of the tradition. This, unfortunately, has rendered the claims meaningless and absurd, and thus diminished their ability to convey the underlying truths containing within.

Once we peel away the unjustifiable supernatural lingerings of the ancient worldview, what wisdom is there to cling to and develop?

Yet we also realize and appreciate, even need, some of the wisdom of our ancient ancestors. Their insights into human dignity, the value of freedom, equality and inclusivity, compassion, care of the poor and marginalized – their resistance to the dehumanizing forces of Empire – such things have value and still resonate in our Postmodern reality.

We must again learn to think mythopoetically, yet do so with the advantages of contemporary learning and knowledge. Like Lincoln’s statue, we need to wrestle with the layers of meaning and truth of things such as sacraments, virgin births, healing, and the like.

My strong sense, supported by careful historical study, is that Christianity spread throughout the ancient world – not because it claimed or performed miracles, and not because sinners were convicted of their faults by Jesus on the cross, and certainly not because of claims of a resurrected savior.

Christianity spread initially because it offered alternative communities of love, acceptance, and practical benefit. Christianity provided a buffer to the dehumanizing oppression and rigid socio-economic power structures of the Imperial elite and their favored ones.

Christian communities fed people, welcomed them, helped them navigate the often brutal desperate, uncaring ancient world. And it did so without requiring legalistic ritual and ceremonial barriers to entry such as circumcision, the rules of Kashrut-Kosher living and eating, and other such burdens.

And further, it did so, without regard for the concerns of tribalism, social standing, gender, or ethnicity and national origin.

There was no longer gentile or Jew, slave or free, female or male, rich or poor – but simply dignified persons pledging to reform their lives through the teachings and example of Jesus. Tax collectors and prostitutes ate at the same table as artisans, laborers, and the well to do. Social bonds were formed outside of an beneath the Imperial culture and enlivened by a radically different set of values and priorities.The requirement for entry into this new community of kindness and counter-culture? A willingness to master self, be generous with others, resist the Imperium, and follow the ways of Jesus.

Constantine’s conversion in the 4th Century catapulted the Jesus movement and its scattered, but growing communities, into the Imperial structures of power. His turn to Christianity was a political move and attempt to consolidate power. Constantine remained a pagan until his formal conversion on his deathbed. And while Christianity would now take over the Empire from within, its new found political favor came at high costs of authenticity, mission, and integrity.

Our best historical and textual analysis shows Jesus teaching and establishing the Kingdom of God as a new social-religious reality rooted in the conviction of human dignity and committed to justice, compassion, and peace. This social and communal vision went hand in hand with the call to personal reform, self mastery, and control of ego and baser self.

To be a Christian meant a life of self examination, self reform, and self giving in order to achieve a social reality rooted in love, compassion, justice and care of the needy.The movement slowly, but steadily grew, resisted attempts to eradicate it, and scared the hell out of the cultural and political elite of the Empire.

Is it possible today to preserve and practice self reform and radically caring, intentional communities, without having to also accept outdated Iron age concepts now known to be untrue? Can mythopoetic reasoning be tempered by post-Enlightenment sensibilities?

It remains my conviction that there is something unique, valuable, sorely needed in the Christian vision – that Jesus taught a wisdom that shaped the early Christian communities and eventually all of Western culture.

And today’s ongoing collapse of Christianity risks the West losing vital convictions, insights, convictions, and practices that continue to resist the harsher, inhumane, oppressive forces of today’s Imperial structures and powers.

We must find the way to keep the existential, psychological, anthropological, human insights of Jesus, formed by his Jewish traditions, and further developed by the early Christian communities, while being honest about supernatural claims that neither further the above agenda, erode the credibility of the movement, and lack evidence and justification.

The central thrust of my reflections is this – there remains room for authentic, legitimate innovation in Christian thinking, theology, and practice. And such innovation is necessary for Christianity to endure and be a source of transformative power in anyone’s life.

Following Jesus While Rejecting Christianity?

Personally, the Jesus I find in the gospels is compelling, while at the same time I find much of Christianity annoying and sometimes even offensive. I often yearn to pull Jesus out of the tangled system of nonsense overlaid on him by two thousand years of theology.  The desire to peel away all the bad theology to retain only the pure, unfiltered Jesus, is indeed a common one.

But the unfiltered Jesus isn’t available. One can only access Jesus through the claims of earlier Christians. Everything he did, taught, and emphasized comes to us only through the mediation of early followers.

Therefore, the temptation to take the pure Jesus and walk away from the flawed and messy Christian tradition – with all its baggage, nonsense, irrationalism, and even hatreds – isn’t an honest or even possible venture.Many today want Jesus, but not Paul. Or Jesus without Christian theology. Or Jesus without the church. Jesus remains attractive, but the institutions, ideas, and even those around him are deemed less so.

Yet Jesus is available to us only as mediated through community – through the written claims of the early communities that encountered Jesus and through the real communities of flesh and blood, and sometimes annoying, people.

To meaningfully engage Jesus necessarily means associating with some unwanted company – something Jesus would have likely found highly amusing.