Tuesday, February 25, 2014



The late February edition of The New Yorker has a “Critic at Large” piece by Adam Gopnik that reviews recent books by militant Atheists and suggests that there may be more common ground between (at least some versions of) religious belief and non-believers than what Atheist authors such as Mitchell Stephens want to acknowledge. Quoting Peter Watson, author of “The Age of Atheists: How we have sought to live since the death of God”, the article states that “…we are divided not so much between believers and non-as between what might be called Super-Naturalists, who believe that a material account of existence is inadequate to our numinous-seeming experience, and Self-Makers, who are prepared to let the human mind take credit even for the most shimmering bits of life.” The article states that “most [Self-Makers] believe in something like what the Super-Naturalists would call faith- they search for transcendence and epiphany, practice some ritual, live some rite.” By the same token, Gopnik observes that few “Supernaturalists” “believe in an omnipotent man in the sky making moral rules and watching human actions with paranoiac intensity.”
My own view is that militant atheism is twin to militant fundamentalism, whether the latter is of the Christian, Muslim, or other variety. These evangelistic adversaries act as if they believed more strongly in demons than in anything else, and go after each other with the fierce concentration of exorcists.  This would make more sense if we really thought about God the way the “Two Thousand Year Old Man” did in a Mel Brooks’ film, who told how  “a guy in our village named Phil” was worshipped by everyone because “he could break you in two with his bare hands.” When Phil gets incinerated by a lightning bolt from the sky, the villagers conclude that “there’s something bigger than Phil” and so religion is born.
I suppose that fear, a desire to placate unseen dangers lurking in the dark, had a role in the development of primal religion, but I don’t think “Super-Phil” theology is anything like the whole story. There is anthropological/archeological evidence brought forward recently that explains the origin of cities, not in the usual terms of economics alone, but as an outgrowth of the craving ancient nomadic people felt  for a place to celebrate sacred festivals.  So great was their sense of gratitude at the miracle of their survival that they just had to dance! Temples and cities emerged where the tribes habitually gathered. In this account, religious belief was a byproduct of festivity and community, not the other way around.
Even more ancient is the impulse reflected in the wall and cliff paintings found in the caves at Lascaux and elsewhere. These drawings of animals were, it is supposed, scrawled there by awe-struck hunters anxious to illustrate their stories and express their amazement at the existence of such large animals as Wooly Mammoths, and , even more, that such puny creatures as themselves could successfully kill and eat them.  If they were not utterly amazed, they should have been! I have hunted deer every year since 1989, dressed in high-tech insulated fabric, armed with a repeating rifle, and even wearing electric socks, and have not killed a deer in all that time. These ancestors of ours survived and multiplied with nothing but rocks and sharp sticks as weapons! Don’t tell me they were not amazed.

From that primal amazement came the icons, and the dances, and the sacred stories, and the periodic festivals, and the shamans, and eventually the temples and the priests. If there was fear in it, it was fear of proving unworthy of the joy, of presuming upon the abundant generosity by which the animals renewed their numbers every year, of regarding their own prowess and success as something other than a gift.
OK, the “Self-Makers” are right to say that Wooly Mammoths did not present themselves at the mouths of cave dwellings and conveniently drop dead. Of course they had to be hunted down and killed with great ingenuity and skill, not to mention bravery. This is where the paths of skeptical Supernaturalists and committed Self-Makers converge. Adam Gopnik says that the unreligious humanists have “a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world,” which believers once controlled and now covet. That may or may not be so, but the “Supernaturalists” have all the cool dances and chants and the coolest old buildings.  
Gopnik concludes his article with some speculations of his own, supposing that the conflict between atheism and its counterpart will simply disappear as the world grows more economically prosperous and pain-free. That might be true for people like me, who might well have avoided entanglement with religion altogether were it not for early experiences on rivers and in the woods. But when my eight year old grandson (shown above), who is a master at video-game technology, reminds me of “the time when we listened to the crickets,” he sounds like a hunter to me, and like one who will always “search for transcendence and epiphany, practice some ritual, live some rite.” In my tradition, God has an affinity for such people, and will continue to haunt their imaginations, lure them to liturgies, and provoke them to pray.     

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Possum Christ?

This poor little possum escorted me up the driveway into St. Augustine's House last Thursday evening, much like the Verger at Christ Church Cranbrook leading the procession on solemn occasions. This little animal was no grand costumed figure, however, but rather a half-bald casualty of the most bitter winter we have endured within memory. The poor creature's natural caution had been frozen out of existence, I expect, and I know it must have been close to starvation, because on my way out a few hours later I encountered the same forlorn animal, crouched over the roadkill remains of another animal of the same species. A mate, perhaps, or offspring.

Who wants to think about such things, or witness them? It appalls me, and would make me even more sad if I weren't a deer hunter and used to pondering the dark side of nature's ways. I know it has to fit in somewhere, however painfully.

Elizabeth Johnson, s Roman Catholic theologian at Fordham University, spoke at the Trinity Institute last fall about "deep incarnation", about the embodiment of God reaching far past its human manifestation and to embrace the entire creation with all its travail and tragedy. Thus we read in Colossians 1:23 how the "gospel which you heard...has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven...[that] through [Christ] God was pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven...".

Does that include my little cannibal possum? Was that a little Possum/Christ I saw, escorting me into church before attending to its grisly evening meal?

If so, I have to do better than just feel disgusted and sad.  I have to feel this winter in my bones. I have to overcome my fastidiousness and repulsion, whether toward the loathsome diet of a starving possum or the bodily excretions of my dying father-in-law.  I have to do something with my anger at God, whose way of beholding and inhabiting this universal winter seems so inscrutable. I have to do something more with it because, if Christ is anywhere at all, Christ must  must be present here, before my eyes, bereft of fur and vestments, Christ with tiny pink paws padding along the frozen road.
We praise you possum Christ,
      Verger in the wild;
      I love you, though you are not nice;
      In you, the world is reconciled. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Notes on readings from Genesis during Epiphany

Following the readings assigned in the BCP during Epiphany involves a descent into the subterranean depths of our religious tradition. For me, the stories around Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar inhabit the same psychic territory as do the most deeply embedded memories of early childhood, and the most recurrent nightmares and paradigmatic dreams.
The vindictive and impulsive God who appears in these stories does, nonetheless, prove to be a promise-keeper and loyal companion, and does show signs of affinity for the underdog, the hospitable, the compassionate, and the homeless. I don’t see how anyone can read these stories and not see how our concept of “God” has evolved and developed, even if the One who is the target of all our conceptualizing were to stay the same.
Abraham, however, comes across as a passive-aggressive wimp, saved for posterity by his stubborn loyalty to his experience of God. Sarah’s treatment of her maid, Hagar, and Hagar’s son Ishmael, is unpardonably cruel, but at least Sarah had a sense of humor. Her name, we are told, means “she laughed.” She seems to assert a more forceful presence in the stories than any of the male figures, and Abraham and God both seemed scared of attracting her disapproval.
God’s agenda, it seems to me, is most clearly revealed in Ishmael’s deliverance from dehydration in the desert, and also Isaac’s last-minute reprieve from becoming a human sacrifice at Abraham’s hands. Abraham’s personal issues do not disqualify him from serving as a patriarchal founder of God’s holy people and role model for future generations of faithful screw-ups like ourselves. Quite the opposite.   A more consistently heroic figure would seem less credible, and a lot more boring.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Lenten surgery

When Jesus said, “if your hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee. It is better to go through life with one hand than to have both and be cast into hell,” he may have had in mind that “amputation” can describe more than the removal of a damaged limb.
        Lent, however, ought not to be regarded as a surgical procedure, even metaphorically. Lent is more like rehab. Lent appears on the calendar every year, a sequence of predictably purple days, a ritual of self-denial and reformation that requires plans and programs and prescriptions. Lent is what the church does while waiting for, or remembering, the unplannable * events that bring about our salvation.
        We might prefer a world where amputation would never be required, just as we might like a religion that’s all Easter and no Lent. That’s why some people spend so much energy on denial.     
         Lenten self-denial is of a different sort. It does not seek to deny reality, but to embrace it. It does not seek to rationalize our sorry condition, but to name it.. Having done so, we can move on to new forms of constructive activity, such as learning how to impersonate a sloth.


Lent begins with ashes, old palm branches burnt and blessed, and with the unsettling words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Do we really need to be reminded? How could we possibly forget? But we do. And all around us the frozen Michigan earth awaits the return of spring blossoms and our dust. We are dust…living dust…dust swirled about with Spirit…dust bright in Paschal Light. We are Holy Dust…beloved dust, dust burnt and blessed.
    In the face of such realities can we believe Lent’s promise? Can we believe that this bitter winter is drenched in God’s life, this scarcity pregnant with God’s abundance? Can we believe that God’s love is like a mighty urn for all the ashes of the past? Can we believe that we are welcomed into the future by the outstretched arms of the Risen Christ?