Category Archives: Theology

Multifaith Service of Concern and Commitment

Last night, our congregation hosted a Multifaith Service of Concern and Commitment, an event sponsored by Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice. Held on the eve of the presidential inauguration, the event aimed to demonstrate that many people of faith do not agree with the stated agendas of the incoming presidential administration, especially religious intolerance and anger directed at immigrants. We had an overflow crowd, with people seated in the lobby and a few standing along the walls.

The service opened with the sounding of the Jewish shofar by Ted Kahn, a Christian call to prayer by Eileen Altman, an Islamic call to prayer by Ahmed Saleh, and a Quaker invitation to silence by Eric Sabelman. Longer reflections came from a Native American tradition (Chastity Lolita Salvador), Judaism (Sheldon Lewis), Christianity (Annanda Barclay), Islam (Samina Sundas) Buddhism (Ayya Santussika), and an immigrant reflection by Guadalupe Garcia. Here’s Samina Sundas giving her reflection on what it means to be a Muslim in the U.S. today:

We had music by an Islamic ensemble, two Jewish singers, a Catholic pianist, and a Unitarian Universalist choir. To close the evening, Amy Eilberg and Diana Gibson, two of the organizers of the event from Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, asked everyone present to talk in small groups and commit to one or more actions to keep us moving in a positive direction over the next few years — that is, moving away from hatred and division and towards acceptance and love. Here are some of the commitments that people wrote on sticky-notes and posted for all to read:

This was a good way to mark the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, a presidency which had its faults but which was marked by an attempt to move the U.S. towards greater unity and acceptance of each other. This is a good time to commit ourselves once again to the moral ideal of loving one’s neighbor as oneself — it’s going to take a bit more effort under the new presidential administration, which so far has been distinguished morally by selfishness, defensiveness, and self-righteousness. Time to gird up your loins, campers, and get to work — ’cause we haven’t reached the promised land yet.

For reference, here’s a PDF of the program for the Multifaith Service.

“There Is More Love Somwhere”

I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but if you like the hymn “There Is More Love Somewhere,” there’s another version you should know about.

This is not a widely-sung hymn; I can’t find it in in the vast collection of hymnals at the Hymnary.org Web site, and the only hymnal I’ve seen it in is the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition. The version in Singing the Living Tradition closely follows the melody sung by Bernice Johnson Reagon on her 1986 album “River of Life,” and you can hear Reagon’s version on Youtube. In the booklet that goes with the CD, Reagon says that she learned the song from Bessie Jones. (The only other commercial recording I’ve been able to track down is one by Eileen McGann, a Canadian folk singer, on her 1997 ablum titled “Heritage.”)

Reagon might well have learned the song directly from Bessie Jones, but there’s also an Alan Lomax recording of Jones singing “There Is More Love Somewhere.” Now Bernice Johnson Reagon is a hugely talented singer, but I much prefer Bessie Jones’s rendition of the hymn. Reagon was making a commercial recording, and her performance is highly polished and meticulously crafted. Jones sings the tune in Alan Lomax’s living room, and her performance is by no means a commercially polished recording; yet I feel she gets deeper into the feeling and meaning of the song. Musically, Jones’s version is more direct; Reagon adds carefully articulated sixteenth notes (all of which are carefully reproduced in the Singing the Living Tradition version), where for her part, Jones varies and improvises on the melody, shades pitch and plays with the rhythm, and goes whither the Spirit leads her.

Lest there be any question, the lyrics Jones sings make it clear that this song comes from the African American Christian tradition. Her lyrics begin with “There is more love somewhere,” then go on to “more joy,” “happiness,” “Jesus,” “more peace,” and “heaven,” before reprising “more love” and “more joy.” (If you don’t like heavenly love and joy, you may not want to sing this song.) And as you’d expect from a song out of the African American Christian tradition, there is no pretence that we all have plenty of joy and happiness right here and now; joy, happiness, heaven are all theological ideals, the end towards which we direct our lives, with no guarantee that we will achieve that end now or in the immediate future — we can only hope to find them “somewhere.”

I should also note that Singing the Living Tradition names the tune “Biko,” but as much as I admire Stephen Biko I consider this to be a misleading name that doesn’t relate to the actual origins of the tune. Bessie Jones told Alan Lomax the song came from the Georgia Sea Islands, so “Sea Islands” would be a better name.

In any case — listen to the Bessie Jones version of this tune. Now that I have Jone’s version in my ear, any time I sing it I can’t help but remember that the song comes from the Gullah people of Georgia’s Sea Islands, people who managed to keep their direct cultural connections to Africa; that it’s a song of deepest spiritual longings and hope for the future; and that you don’t need to sing it like a commercially produced recording, you can sing it from the heart.

“On Being Sixty”

Years ago, I bought a used copy of “A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems” translated by Arthur Waley, and published in 1919. A book plate pasted on the fly-leaf reads “The Vedanta Center Library.” I had never looked at the introduction to this book until today, and there, tucked in next to a page describing Sung dynasty poetics, was an old and yellowed newspaper clipping with this poem:

On Being Sixty
Po Chu-i

Between thirty and forty, one is distracted by the Five Lusts;
Between seventy and eighty, one is prey to a hundred diseases.
But from fifty to sixty one is free from all ill;
Calm and still — the heart enjoys rest.
I have put behind me Love and Green; I have done with Profit and Fame;
I am still short of illness and decay and far from decrepit age.
Strength of limb I still possess to seek the rivers and hills;
Still my heart has spirit enough to listen to flutes and strings.
At leisure I open new wine and taste several cups;
Drunken I recall old poems and sing a whole volume.
Meng-te has asked for a poem and herewith I exhort him
Not to complain of three-score, “the time of obedient ears.”

This poem appears on page 233 of the book, and there Waley adds a footnote to the last line: “Confucius said that it was not till sixty that ‘his ears obeyed him.’ This age was therefore called “the time of obedient ears.” As for the Five Lusts, this is a reference to the Buddhist worldview, so “lust” in this context apparently refers to things like an attraction to colors, appearances, etc.

I’m not sure I like this poem. I’m fifty-five, and I know from experience that being fifty-five is different from being, say, thirty. But, in direct contradiction to Po Chu-i, my heart is far from calm and still. This may be because I’ve never had any resonance with the Buddhist worldview in which nirvana, or nothingness, is the ultimate aim. Nor have I found much calmness or stillness in my middle fifties: the world is still screwed up, there is still a great deal of work to be done, and I really see nothing to be calm or still about.

I guess I prefer what Confucius says about the different ages. Here is James Legge’s translation of the Analects, bk. II, ch. 4:

“The Master said, ‘At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning.
‘At thirty, I stood firm.
‘At forty, I had no doubts.
‘At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven.
‘At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth.
‘At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right.'”

The concept of “heaven” for Confucius was not the same as the usual Western Christian conception of Heaven; it’s not some place in the sky that you’ll go when you die, rather it is more like the natural order of things. The Confucian concept of “knowing the decrees of Heaven” reminds me of the ancient Greek concept of phronesis. Aristotle identified phronesis as one of the four types of human wisdom. Aristotle said we attain phronesis, or practical wisdom, at about age fifty, and it is those who have phronesis who are fit to be rulers.

Po Chu-i likes being sixty because his heart is calm and still, his ears are obedient, and he can still get drunk and recite poetry. And when he’s seventy, he’ll be prey to a hundred diseases. Confucius likes being sixty because he knew the decrees of heaven, and his ears were open to the truth. When Confucius got to seventy, he had aligned himself with what was right to so great an extent that what he desired was what was right. I guess I’d rather follow in the footsteps of Confucius.

Critical Approaches to Faith and Environment

The 9 a.m. session on Tuesday, May 24, of the Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference, titled “Critical Approaches to Faith and Environment I,” included presentations by John Fadden, adjunct professor at St. John Fisher College, and Shalahudin Kafrawi, professor at Hobart and William Smith College.

In “The Apocalypse of John: Friend and/or Foe of the Environment?” Fadden gave an analysis of the book of Revelation. As a Biblical scholar, he said that we have to be careful about using a two thousand year old text to discuss contemporary issues. John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, was writing for a first century C.E. audience in the Roman Empire; he was not writing for a twenty-first century audience, and did not specifically address global climate change or other ecological concerns.

“He’s also not really concerned with the end of the world in the way we have perhaps come to associate with the apocalypse,” said Fadden, “especially what we have come to call dispensationalism,” a contemporary interpretive framework that inspired the Left Behind series of books. “That’s not really his interest,” said Fadden, and “as Biblical scholars, we have to be sympathetic to the first century audience.”

However, the intended audience of the Bible is often forgotten. For example, in 2005, during George W. Bush’s presidency, some observers believed that Bush was influenced by an apocalyptic attitude, and those observers believed this attitude had an impact on Bush’s environmental policies. Some of these observers went to far as to wish that Revelation had not been included in the Bible. But Fadden says you can’t really blame a first century text for George W. Bush’s environmental policies. “The problem is not the text so much as how you might interpret it,” he said.

Thus Fadden is interested in seeing if there is an alternative, “eco-friendly way of reading the text.”

Continue reading

Panel on Environmental Relationships, Environmental Readings

The second Wednesday morning session of the Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference, titled “Environmental Relationships, Environmental Readings” at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25 included presentations by Brianne Donaldson, professor at Monmouth College; Jamison Stallman, M.A. candidate at Union Theological Seminary; and Cecille M. Medina-Moldonado, M.A. candidate at Loyola University. I was most interested in hearing Donaldson’s presentation on Jainism, but ultimately found Medina-Moldonado’s presentation equally interesting.

Donaldson’s presentation, titled “I Ask Pardon of All Creatures: The Centrality More Than Human Life Jain Text and Rituals of Repentance,” began with some basic information about Jainsim, including an introduction to the principle of ahimsa, not causing harm. Pointing out that Mahavira, the key figure in early Jainism, was a contemporary of Gautama Buddha, she said, “Both buddha and Mahavira prioritize ethical action over Vedic ritual practice.” [Note that I am not able to include diacritical marks for Sanskrit transliteration on this Web site.]

“Jainism posits a universe of which our universe is just one part,” said Donaldson, adding, “There is no deity.” instead, according to the Tattvartha Sutra, there are six substances, including jiva which may be interpreted as soul, or as sentient substance. All organisms house a jiva, she said, including microorganisms.

Jains believe in reincarnation after death. They also believe in karma, said Donaldson, which she described as a kind of “causal entanglement. “Just to live in the world has a cost.”

“One’s own jiva might yet be reborn in a the body of a plant or animal,” said Donaldson, so care for other organisms is important, as one might sometime be reborn in one of those bodies. This leads to ethical concern for other beings.

Continue reading

Environmental ethics panel

Presenters at the Environmental Ethics session of the Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25, were Lyndsey Graves, recent graduate of Boston University School of Theology; Michael Malley, student at Methodist Theological School in Ohio; and Etin Anwar, professor at Hobart and William Smith College.

I was particularly interested to hear Graves’s presentation, “Liberal vs. Literal?: Opportunities for Environmentally Ethical Pentecostal Interpretations of Genesis 1:26-28.” Pentecostalism is arguably the fastest growing religious group in the world, and as such could be a valuable interfaith ally in addressing the current global environmental crises.

Graves chose to address Gen. 1:26-28 because it has been such an influential text, with its injunction to “subdue” and have “dominion” over the earth. While this text has often been interpreted as giving humankind license to exploit other organisms and non-living things, eco-theologians have re-interpreted the text as calling on humans to be responsible stewards of the earth. Graves said that today, some Pentecostals are now “creatively coming up with ways to reinterpret Genesis 1:26-28.”

“I am focusing on the words ‘dominion’ and ‘subdue’,” Graves said. She pointed out that liberal Christians can say that this passage is not particularly important to them, or they can re-interpret the text to call for stewardship, “which I do not think is really justified in the Hebrew.”

But Pentecostals do not really have these options. Pentecostals assert the “inerrancy of the word of God, and because of this they do not aim to evaluate the Bible, but “to understand it and submit” to the will of God.

Graves reviewed the work of several relevant theologians who have provided readings of the text that might prove useful to Pentecostals.

Continue reading

Catherine Keller on “Ecologies of Diversity”

Catherine Keller, author of From a Broken Web, was the keynote speaker at the opening session of the 2016 Sacred Texts and Human Contexts conference at Nazareth College, Rochester, New York. This year’s conference theme is “Nature and Environment in World Religions.”

Keller’s address was titled “Ecologies of Diversity: Beyond Religious and Human Exceptionalism.”

To help address the global environmental crisis, Keller believes religions must move beyond human exceptionalism — that is, religions have to get over the notion that humans are somehow more privileged than other organisms. Furthermore, she believes that we must also move beyond religious exceptionalism.

She said she assumed that those of us attending the conference are participants in a faith that is “planetary.” “By talking together, we hope to get and give some hope,” she said, “Hope for the planetary future.” She added: “Those hopes come encoded in our sacred texts.”

Keller went on to make three main points:

First, the unprecedented planetary emergency should not be treated as exceptional, she said. The current ecological crisis is driven both by politics that use emergency powers to prolong the crisis, and by various types of exceptionalism. Instead, she said the planetary emergency can be understood as “an emergence.”

Second, Keller believes “an alternative politics” is needed. “The key to this alternative is, I believe, what might be called ‘entangled difference’.” Her 2015 book Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement goes into more detail on “entanglement,” which she relates to the concept of quantum entanglement.

“Difference is not a separation, but a relation,” she pointed out. Thus, difference and entanglement can go hand in hand. “And so while difference may exclude or ignore” that from which it is different, there is still a relationship between the things that are different.

Third, Keller said, “If we can turn catastrophe into catalyst, the answer is hope.” In fact, she said that “catastrophe must become a catalyst” in order for positive action to happen.

Continue reading

William R. Jones writing retreat

Hassahan Batts writes: “Practitioners Research and Scholarship Institute (www.prasi.org) is having another writing retreat where we are bringing together students of Dr. Jones in Allentown, Pennsylvania. If interested please email justequality@yahoo.com .”

No date given, so if you’re interested I’d suggest writing to the above email address right away.

New edition of “A Treatise on Atonement”

Now in print: a new reader’s edition of Hosea Ballou’s classic statement of universal salvation, A Treatise on Atonement.

This new edition has been edited for clarity and ease of reading. I broke up long paragraphs, modernized punctuation, and added section breaks where there was a logical break in the text. I also added an extensive general index that references names, topics, etc., and also references Ballou’s entertaining illustrations and parables. Scriptural references have been added in the text where missing, and there is a full scriptural index. An appendix has a brief biography of Ballou, written by Thomas Whittemore a year before Ballou’s death.

This project started almost a decade ago, when I couldn’t find an adequate online edition of Ballou’s Treatise. Scott Wells, Russell Allen, and Steve Rowe all helped produce the Web edition, which went online in 2011. This new print version represents a complete revision of the online edition, with added indices and appendix.

Why bother with a new print edition when the classic Ernest Cassara edition, published by the Unitarian Universalist Association, is still in print? Most importantly, the text of the Cassara edition retains the crazy-long paragraphs of the early nineteenth century editions; adding new paragraph breaks makes the book much easier to read. Then too, I’ve long felt that the index to the Cassara edition was inadequate. Finally, after Cassara’s death earlier this year, there was no longer any hope that he might revise his edition.

The new 2015 edition of A Treatise on Atonement is available now through Lulu.com for $12.99 plus about $3.99 for shipping. In approximately 8 weeks, it will also be available direct through major online booksellers, as well as through bookstores via Ingram distributors, at a retail price of about $12.99 (the minimum price I can set that allows such wide distribution).

Treatise on Atonement, thumbnail of cover

What’s a deity?

This week I’ve been posting images of deities. But what is a deity, anyway?

Here in the United States, popular culture has been heavily influenced by Protestant Christian culture, and so when we are asked to define a deity, we default to the concept of a monotheistic transcendent deity. If we have to draw a picture of this deity, we might either draw a picture of a man with a white beard sitting on a cloud, or say that this deity is transcendent and can’t be pictured.

However, most of the human race, for most of human history, has had a far more complex and nuanced understanding of deities. In our own Western cultural tradition, which extends back to the civilizations of Rome, Greece, and the ancient Near East more generally, we can find a great diversity of deities. Here’s a list of some of the categories of deity we can identify in the Western religious traditions:

• a single transcendent deity, e.g., the transcendent god of Xenophanes and other early Greek philosophers; God for some Jews; God the Father for some Christian sects
• a most powerful deity among other deities, e.g., Zeus in ancient Greece
• greater deities, e.g., the more powerful ancient Egyptian deities such as Horus, Osiris, and Ra
• lesser deities, e.g., the Titans in ancient Greece
• local deities, e.g., river gods, deities of a grove or forest, etc.
• household deities, e.g., the household gods of ancient Rome, etc.
• deified humans, e.g., the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, Roman emperors deified after death, etc. (some might argue that the Virgin Mary of some Christian sects fits into this category)
• humans that are more than mortal but slightly less than gods, e.g., Herakles for the ancient Greeks, Jesus for the Christian followers of Arius, etc.
• humans with special powers who are worthy of veneration, e.g., canonized saints, sports figures and celebrities, etc.
• abstract concepts as deities, e.g., god as the unmoved mover in Aristotle, scientific method, financial success, etc.

These are just the first examples from the Western religious traditions that come to my mind. Then we can add in all the deities which are current in our increasingly multicultural world, such as the vast hierarchy of Hindu deities, the several Buddhas (who may appear as humans with special powers, but who may also appear as transcendent deities), ancestors who are venerated (as in some African traditions), deities as part of nature or tied to natural places (as with some Navajo deities), etc., etc.

I don’t believe we should accept without question the U.S. Protestant Christian definition of deity as a single transcendent god in whom one either believes or doesn’t believe. Humans in the U.S. today venerate a variety of deities, many of which look nothing like the U.S. Protestant transcendent God. And that veneration can take a variety of forms, from overt public worship to more covert forms of veneration. Given that, don’t you think that there is a lot more religion in the U.S. today than is captured by polls which ask whether people believe in “God” and attend “church”?