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Essays on this Page:

The End of Spirituality

When I Knew God:  A Freethinker’s Confession/Testimony

First Church of Compassion: Mission Beyond Faith?

Benjamin Franklin on Religion and State


Jesus Was Not and Never Could Be a Christian

The Myth of Progressive Christianity

Why I Am Not an Atheist (or a Theist)

World Without God?

Cosmic Civil War

Where Wisdom Lies


Was Jesus a Pacifist?


The End of Spirituality: Toward a “Sacred Secularity”

We are all tired of the contemporary cliche, “Spiritual but not Religious.” We might be surprised to hear someone say “I’m Religious but not Spiritual” though that may simply be an example of a person who does not connect to the word “spiritual”–they may like the word Religion or religious, or judge “spiritual” as being too closely associated with recently invented religions, shallow anti-intellectualism or fringe movements (and maybe it is). Whatever the semantics, all of this signals game-time for scholars and students of religious history and study. Teams are formed (called schools, seminaries, blogs and the like), ideas are tossed around, each side scores points and sometimes a winner is declared. Books are published; new “spiritual (or religious) stars” arise, until the next challenger steps up to throw out a new, agitating idea.

It can all be great fun–a fine distraction. Or deadly serious. At least since the un-dramatic moment when I left my ordination at the altar a decade ago, a troubling question has been pinging in my mind: Are we near to the end of this slippery thing called Spirituality as we have known it–or not known it? After this disturbing question downloads, another couple quickly upload: Could some kind of Sacred Secularity take its place, and what would that mean for historic Religions as well as perceptions of personal connections to the Sacred? I’m not convinced that most people, and perhaps especially the Proud Progressives, are ready to “friend,” “like” or thumbs up! this one. The urge to delete the disturbance might be just a little too great. When I used to teach courses in World Wisdom I would urge students to read the source texts as the primary means of hooking the wisdom of the past. For many this was their first time reading the Qur’an, the Tao, the Dhammapada, the Gita or even the Bible in the context of all the totemic Texts. And this was always directly plugged into meeting people of various faiths and visiting synagogues, mosques, temples and churches. Then and only then could the most “real” questions be asked so the “real” education could emerge.

We discussed the stunning fact that most if not all of the so-called Great Spiritual Teachers from Abraham to Lao Tzu to Buddha to Jesus to Mohammad to Zoroaster (and maybe some of their hidden female cohorts) had their original experience of something called Spirituality in the wild places–forests, mountains, deserts, countrysides, etc. It can be quite a wake-up for some to realize that Religions did not originate by praying in a Holy House or by reading a Sacred Scripture. The origin of something that came to be packaged, stamped and sent out as Spirituality was in Nature–a direct experience of the natural world. How do you package that? How do you send it? For reference see the History of Religion. My own vocation as an Interfaith Chaplain among outsiders and castaways confirmed the seismic impact of going into the wilderness (though it be a steel cave of a jail cell or the concrete forest of street life) to discover what rarely if ever makes an appearance on a Friday evening or Sunday morning. Now there’s something troubling! If anything is “discovered” in marginal ministry it may not simply look like God but the God-awful and God-damned. Hard to get a handle on these things, other than the faces, names, lives of each individual and the wild edges of our packaged and stamped “communities” where the despised and damned simply strive to survive. A college student taking a course in environmental ethics asked me if I thought the earth was sacred.

After a pause, I responded by saying that I could answer “yes” but the rest of the page would be one long footnote. I said that as soon as you name a piece of ground (or book, or person) “sacred” then all else becomes “secular” and I’m really fine with Secularity–in its primary meaning as this present world. I really don’t know how to relate to anything else. In my opinion we are now facing a moment in history when any and all divisive, separatist terms (such as “sacred” or even “spiritual”), concepts, beliefs, books or traditions must be fully justified–if they can be–by extended footnotes. That is, if anything disconnects the human family from itself or its home (the eco from the logy or the ecu from the menical) it should be forcefully detained and interrogated for relevance, cross-examined as an unhelpful obstacle or clear and present danger for destruction to persons, communities or the planet itself. I would present that Religion and Spirituality themselves fall within this arena for open critique, eventual museum display or perhaps immediate shredding.

If these are found to be clearcutting the forests of Reason or poisoning the drinking water of billions on the globe (literally or not), decisive action must be taken. In that mobilizing action, collaborative coalitions will arise to lead the way forward without appeal to “higher” authorities. We the People (of the Planet) have to live here, now, and do what must be done, naturally–according to Nature, which includes our nature. We too must meet our “Greater Spirit” in the wild places (be they mountains or rivers, prisons or streets) even as we learn from our world and preserve it for generations ahead. As Emerson said, we have no need to look over our shoulders to those who faced their God in the past when we can face that Creative Reality fully and fearlessly today. This is all of course a great threat to the hand-me-downs of our historic religious traditions. Yet we know that religions come and go or at least mutate and evaporate. One is born; another dies. Stronger religions beat out the weak–survival of the faithfully fittest. But could it be that it is time to acknowledge an evolutionary leap in the Ontological Olympics? Could it be argued that “spirituality” as an imagined connection to a Super above, behind and beyond the Natural, has run its course, lost its momentum and meaning, and Religion itself has dropped out of the race to relevance? Could both theists and non-theists at least ask the questions, and have a conversation? Could the discussion lead to decisive, collaborative responses to real needs in our (common) world? Let’s hope so. Astronomer Carl Sagan wrote,

“In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. . . .‘Spirit’comes from the Latin word ‘to breathe.’ What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word ‘spiritual’that we are talking of anything other than matter. . .or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel ee to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. . . . The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”
If we choose to juggle and struggle along with this slippery something called Spirituality, it seems to me that Sagan’s sensible and sensate scientific spirituality makes immense sense for us today. In a deeply divided world where people, their lands and the interrelations of the environment are being threatened or destroyed every day we need to explore some common ground–literal dirt, soil, something to stand on.

Theists and Non-Theists need to engage it all, to work side by side in the present, natural world, putting aside needless and unhelpful divisive, distractive debates over Super-Nature. Heaven’s golden pavement no longer offers a safe ride and holy books no longer provide much more than torn and yellowed road maps for one tribe to drive over another. We need a GPS that locates our place among many and includes those across borders (physical and mental). We need a Google Earth mentality that spins us around (and reminds us of our axis), forcing us to “get real” and a real perspective of where we live and how small and inter-related we are. We have to ask ourselves and each other: What is the alternative? As was once said of The Poor, religious communities will always be with us. Religion will always offer something to download and install. But Nature is the ultimate and final organic link we have to our own humanity and this present world.

All the links are posted and clearly presented for our connecting click. What if we seriously considered the practice of a Sacred Secularity, a direct and common experience of what is, what we face as a species among species, from water to air to energy, from economies, to housing, justice, rights and communities? What if? Without a need to fall on our knees beneath something or someone outside Nature we can sink in the soil to plant seeds of secularity, to admit we are a wonderful, even “sacred” (amazingly delightful) mix of mostly water and air and earthy dirt. Could we grow to better “recognize our place in [the] immensity” and discover that what we used to call the Spiritual Path is a pilgrimage closer to home than we ever imagined, a trail laced with breath, bones and blood, with ancient stones, verdant moss, leafy branches, twisted roots and much more? With a deep breath and a courageous sense of adventure, we may open ourselves to landscapes never seen, alongside our furry, feathered, finned companions who may just lead us beyond religion, beyond spirituality, beyond words.

Chris Highland


When I Knew God

The following testimonial arose from my reading of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, especially the chapter “Obsessed with Reality.”  

When I was 12 going on 13 there were some things I knew, I just knew, were real and true.  I read every book I could find on dinosaurs (and loved Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World long before Jurassic Park) sure that some “terrible lizard” still roamed some remote wilderness.  I virtually inhaled anything on U.F.O.s, fully convinced rather horrifying and human-hating extraterrestrial creatures were visiting Earth and may be “among us.”  In fact, I was sure, just sure, that I saw an other-worldly airship out the family room window one dark night.  There was a slow moving light in the sky; too low for a plane–I was sure.  While hiking and climbing trees in thick, dark and damp Pacific Northwest forests I always kept an eye out for Sasquatch, Bigfoot.  I had little doubt the big hairy guy was out there, probably watching me.  This was reinforced by all the Saturday Creature Features I watched on Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman and, of course, the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  Another of my favorite shows was Sons of Hercules and I had endless fun pretending I was a super strong little guy (“they were men as Men should be!”), much more real than Superman, Batman and the rest, though I loved them too.  Comic Books helped imprint those images of monsters and mutants on my youthful mind.  The Sleeping Prophet was a bestseller and I started buying and reading all books by and about Edgar Cayce  and his “miraculous” cures, descriptions of past civilizations and amazing predictions of future events.  “True Crime” stories fascinated me and I sneaked a few True Confessions magazines into my room to peek through when I wasn’t utterly engrossed in watching Dragnet, The F.B.I., Adam 12 and all the rest on television with the family.  There was always something or someone hidden out there in the shadows–crooks, creatures or cosmic boogeymen–and they were not nice at all.  I was already a convert to science fiction, committed to watching any show or movie on space or the latest science show on technological wonders.   I enjoyed flipping through my dad’s Popular Science magazines, thrilled by the pictures of the latest fantastic inventions.  I loved any good mystery, loved being scared, and loved being comforted afterward by a hot cup of cocoa or a sound night’s sleep (if I wasn’t hearing voices, footsteps or knocking from all those monsters!).  And because I was born on Christmas Day I still had a suspicion there really was a Santa Claus.  At least he was, generally, a nice fellow (unlike that nasty Grinch).

For me it was all fiction, fantasy, entertainment. . .yet real, true, wonderful, compelling, even inspiring.  The contradictions made it all that much more real and intriguing.

Then one night something entirely different, or so it seems, happened.  As a somewhat shy and withdrawn early teen I was watching my small black and white television in my room of refuge.  Blacklight posters covered the walls, along with glossy photos from Nature magazines, Rock stars and school art projects.  Clicking the dial, in those days before the genius of “remote control,” searching for Star Trek, Night Gallery, Outer Limits, a good cartoon, crime drama, Disney movie or comedy show, I saw something quite amazing.  A thin old man (at least he looked old to me) with longish graying hair was holding a worn black book with a floppy leather cover high up over his head, yelling at a stadium full of silent, attentive people.  An announcer told me this was a famous man named Billy Graham and this was his “Crusade” from some sport arena far away.  The preacher sounded very sincere, somewhat angry but curiously concerned about something called my “soul.”  He looked and sounded radically different than the pastor at church who usually gave dry-as-cereal sermons after I was dismissed to Sunday School.  As this “Billy” person yelled on, my heart was, in the words of Wesley, “strangely warmed.”  At the “altar call,” when it appeared that thousands of people were coming down to the Evangelist’s feet to “give their lives to Christ who gave his life for them,” I dropped to my pajama knees next to my bed in front of the glowing box and “accepted Jesus into my heart” (whatever that meant), repenting of my awful 12 years of “Sin” (something that made the Preacher and God apparently very unhappy with me).  I devoted my life to. . . .  I hadn’t a clue, and really didn’t care.  I cried and felt very loved, noticed, not alone anymore (my parents were very loving people and never neglected me, but this was inviting a friend and teacher to be constantly present with me, for me).  I looked up, over the top of the little t.v., and gazed through tears at the picture someone in the family or at the church gave me:  a “photo” of a long-haired man with a bronzed face looking up into a light above him.  This was the man called “Jesus” the preacher in the stadium was yelling about.   Now I “knew” that he was real, I “knew” he loved me (yes Me, Chris!) and I “knew” he would now lead me as a kind older brother, a doting father, a white-robed shepherd, a faithful companion and friend.

Through High School I became a Baptist-Presbyterian-Pentecostal-Evangelical-Campus Crusader and Youth Group Leader.  Lots of friends, cute girls and respectful adults who gave me lots of attention, and I just knew God loved me and wanted the whole world to hear what I had to say!  Couldn’t beat that!  I took every opportunity to “bring others to Chris. . .then Christ” so they might “know God” just like I did.  It was all great fun.  Well, not all of it.  Every believer has “trials and tribulations” to go through–“lessons” from God (because “He loves us”).  Girls of course were the one great “stumblingblock” on my “walk with Christ” who didn’t appreciate how I wanted to kiss them and touch their breasts.

All these years later I reflect on my early “knowledge.”  With help from Carl Sagan I find myself wondering about my early sense of Wonder; my tendency, even delight, at being time and again bamboozled.  As he puts it, “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle.  We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth.”  I knew Jesus, and I knew he was there with me, in me, in my room, watching me, caring about me, displeased with me (over and over, I was so bad you know).  I knew he was “in my heart” (still didn’t know what that meant).  I knew in exactly the same way I knew there were UFOs piloted by low-flying aliens, knew there was at least one or two Sasquatches, knew there was a Loch Ness Monster and many more monsters, knew Edgar Cayce was a “prophet” and knew Kirk and Spock would survive on that weird and dangerous planet with blue trees.  I knew America would win in Vietnam, because I knew my country was the greatest, strongest, rightest, most blessed and Christian Nation on earth!  I knew it all.

My youthfully morphing (easily shaped) mind was continually bothered, troubled, disturbed and deeply saddened when others didn’t know and believe what I knew and believed.  When they didn’t “just believe” and “just know” in the same way.  No doubt (yes, pun intended), to “just believe” was identical to “just know.”  Faith and knowledge dissolved into one.  It was like the transporter on Star Trek–faith transported, sparklingly dissolved into knowledge and back again–the strange, unusual, bizarre, weird and wonderful became accepted, usual, normal for me.  When a friend took me to an odd, elderly woman’s house where they were all speaking in “tongues” the strangeness quickly became not so strange, oddly attractive.  I had to have it.  And voila!  I got it!  The Holy Ghost was now in me and now God could speak directly through me in a mindless but heavenly language (never English).  There was no going back.  I knew God, God knew me, and because I was filled with the Spirit (breath) of the Almighty Creator of the Universe, I knew what God thought, felt and desired for everyone else on the planet and in the universe.  And I was only 16!

My current guide through the Cosmos perceptively describes the sad and shadowed history of deception, gullibility, irrationality.  What he says of people who converse with spirits (such as “mediums” and the like) can be said for all claims to Know.  “Seances occur only in darkened rooms, where the ghostly visitors can be seen dimly at best.  If we turn up the lights a little, so we have a chance to see what’s going on, the spirits vanish.”

People want to believe so badly, so desperate for assurance of an alternate world and sense of belonging.  I wanted to know, to believe, to sense it was all true from science fiction to spirituality, from ghosts to god, from the hairy monster hiding in the trees to the hairy super-human Palestinian Jew hung on one.  It all seemed so real.  I knew; I just knew.

Now, I think I know better because my knowledge is based on years of experience.  I have experience with thinking and questioning and living in the light of a brighter, more wondrous and incredibly beautiful world with its mix of disaster, disease and death, delight and daily discovery.  The mysteries still remain, but they are mysteries that can be questioned, explored, challenged and changed, revealed, brought to light as we probe and seek to understand.  This knowledge is open to change because views and opinions and beliefs change.  They must.  Now, I know that what I “knew” was not knowledge but wishful thinking, accepting others’ opinions about the world, myself and the supernatural.  Many of the people were good and kind and thoughtful folks.  But they too had accepted the beliefs and “knowledge” of others.  Hand-me-down knowledge, second-hand truth, has to be seriously questioned to see if it really fits reality.  Wishful thinking, like flying through space with the crew of the Enterprise, may be amusing and fun in the fantasy, but it is wishful and not often fulfilling.  Imagination is a great thing–maybe one of those Only Human gifts from evolution–, but imagination has to be taken for what it is and not confused with “truth” or “reality” or “knowledge.”  Having worked with mentally ill people for many years, and seeing first hand the effects of delusion, this is practical advice!

I understand better now what I believed and why.  The difference is that, all these years on, like the young boy turning the dial on that old black and white set in the darkened room on that lonely night, I know–it’s only a t.v., only a show, it’s not real or true.  It was once entertaining, even exciting and ecstatic to play along.  But it was all fiction.  I know that now.  I know.  I know now that I did not know.  But now I know.

Sagan ends his chapter with a warning that won’t surprise alert and attentive people in our time, yet we would all do well to take heed:

“Baloney, bamboozles, careless thinking, flimflam, and wishes disguised as facts are not restricted to parlor magic and ambiguous advice on matters of the heart.  Unfortunately, they ripple through mainstream political, social, religious and economic issues in every nation.”

Chris Highland

July 2011


First Church of Compassion: Mission Beyond Faith?

In previous essays and in my book Life After Faith I have presented both blunt and sharp critiques of the Christianist faith based on many years experience within that circle.  I have attempted to clarify a contemporary challenge to the fundamental foundations of faith itself with reason and wisdom drawn not so much from agitated anger or brewing bitterness but grave disappointment in my former mental/spiritual fold.  In my essay “The Greatest Terrorist Threat” I went so far as to suggest that evangelical Christianism is itself a great threat to the security of the nation (and the world)–as are all anti-rational, super-natural (unnatural) agendas seeking power, political influence and propagation through procreation (the real but hidden reason behind rabid anti-abortionism).

In Life After Faith I laid out my own personal pathway out of a religious, super-natural worldview and offered a positive, creative and joyful alternative in what I call Natural Spirituality (the connectedness and interrelatedness of spirituality without invented dimensions of reality).   Life After Faith reveals the “Achilles Heel” of Christianism in the cross, the theology of the cross (blood sacrifice to please a bloody monster of a god) and the fall of the cross–and whole forests of crosses–broken and lifeless (“broken for you; broken for me”).   As in my statement to leave ordination (Appendix, Life After Faith), I argued that the Church and its doctrines are essentially irrelevant to a rational, enlightened time and its practice detrimental, even dangerous, for a healthy community and cooperative, solution-oriented world.

I have clearly presented a fairly simple observational perspective, that in my experience there are always a few (a “remnant,” to use the old biblical lingo), be it a precious few, in many congregations who “get it”–that is, they seem to understand that it is not so much their religion, their beliefs, their parochial mindset, that matter, but the quality of their lives shaped by what they see and feel and think must be done, here and now, to benefit the wider world outside the bubbleworld that is faith.

Here I wish to focus attention for a time on what I believe is truly happening when a person of faith, even an evangelical god-is-our-god faith, moves beyond their faith to act and act decisively, positively, humanely, cooperatively.  This movement, this pragmatic shift, can certainly be unconscious.  In fact, in some sense I suppose the shift will be unrecognized, yet here is the critical question:  What occurs or can occur in the human community when faith is suspended for a “higher” purpose?  Some will be quick to say that the opposite is operative, that we are observing a person actually “living their faith” in these moments of active participation in the community.  This would be the argument of so-called Christianist “Progressives.”  However, I submit that there is a deeper, more reasonable explanation.  Let me present a very present example.

The county I live in, like countless counties across the nation, has struggled for years to address the perpetual problematic issues of homelessness (actually housing is the real issue, but it is easier and perhaps less expensive to pour boxes of bandaids on a huge gaping wound–and, to mix the metaphor, it is more comfortable to paint the reststops than to fix the freeways).  Expensive shelters have been built, a large support system (read “bureaucracy” with lots of leaky holes) has been created to assist those who are “fit” to be fitted in to the structures rife with lists of rules, regulations and procedures and a social service/medical apparatus that fires on a few cylinders depending on the day and hour.  And, lo and behold, there are many who simply don’t fit (dammit).  As one who conducted over one hundred memorial services for the “misfits” in my past life as a chaplain, I have a particular and peculiar sensitivity to the misfits (odd-shaped pegs who don’t fit in to our odd-shaped holes).  The most vulnerable, weakest, sickest neighbors in our communities are literally and figuratively left out (at times we literally shoot our wounded).  The vignettes in my book, My Address is a River describe this story more forcefully and graphically.

A large coalition of politically-minded people held gatherings, meetings and lunches for over a year to establish a shelter for the LeftOuts.  Progress was made; a plan was constructed.  The talking and meeting lingered long into the cold, wet winter months.  One chilly evening a downtown pastor who happened to lead a small evangelical congregation near the free dining room, was walking with “Ross,” a member of the street community.  I know Ross very well and he has come through addiction and homelessness to become a committed volunteer for several agencies working with people in poverty.  Ross walked into the small storefront space of the church and said to the pastor, “Why not open the doors to let people sleep here?”  After some thought, the pastor said that he was open to that kind of openness and that it seemed the right thing to do.  For a week this small congregation took in up to 50 people seeking shelter.  Then, two of the street community ended up in the hospital with hypothermia.  A social worker called the county and the ball began to roll.  A “disaster response” kicked into gear and leaders from various agencies met with a county representative to act quickly to open a safe place.  The gathering was held in the small church downtown.  By that evening, a space in the civic center usually open only for entertainment events became the “warming center.”  The Red Cross proclaimed it an Emergency Disaster and county nurses and others flooded in.  After several days, the local National Guard Armory was secured as an official Winter Shelter.  In the chaos of this moment and with some hesitation, I was asked and consented to become the coordinator of the shelter.

Now here is where it gets interesting.  The National Guard announced that they needed to utilized the facility one weekend each month.  We had a few days to find another place to house up to 80 people.  The same downtown church pastor readily offered his space again and we decided to shelter the women there.  We approached several other larger churches who each had too many concerns, regulations and “hoops” to leap (too many committees, boards of trustees, religious activities and prayer meetings).  The pastor suggested we contact a colleague of his, another evangelical pastor, who seemed willing to assist.  Within a day we established his church as the second location to shelter the men.  I met with both pastors and they expressed the understanding of the need and their own need to respond and be involved.  I was quite moved when one of the pastors took me aside and apologized for ignoring my invitations to assist this kind of work over the years.   It wasn’t so moving in the next weeks when I never heard back from some congregations while other ones enthusiastically joined the little coalition of “shelterers.”

In the midst of this emergency response situation a theory of mine was confirmed.  Though I am certain these two pastors felt they were formulating their decisions primarily on their faith systems,  I was struck by the goodheartedness of their willingness to help, their obvious compassion and simply their demeanor as “nice guys.”  To my mind, these gentle and caring people were just that:  gentle and caring people–  like Ross, like those few who show up and respond from their diverse circles of influence, like anyone who does what they know is right at the right time.

I know that I will be developing this theory based on my years of cooperative action and centered on these ongoing relationships with people who may call themselves by many names, claim uniqueness as members of this faith or that faith, yet who are just basically good and decent people who know it is right to help with whatever heart and skills they may bring.  In my mind, a suspension of faith, of super-naturalism, is operative at those moments when the goodness of the human person emerges.  It is not “an act of faith” or “what my religion tells me to do” or “the bible tells me so” that motivates so much as the fundamental awakening of consciousness to what is at hand and what must be done.  This sentiment may be related at times to a faith perspective, yet it seems whenever a person is faced with “An Act of Good” right before their eyes, a compassionate and caring response is not only possible but actually required.  Not because God Says but because Goodness and Kindness arise, simply and naturally arise.  It appears that the distractions and abstractions of another world above and beyond dissipate, in our best moments, when the immediate needs of this world can no longer be ignored or spiritualized.

A non-theist (person without faith) asked me the other day what faith meant to me in those years when I was doing ordained ministry.  I explained that my motivation came primarily from the desire to help, and to learn from those who I was helping.  In other words, the “help” and the “education” were a two-way street.  I will readily admit that in some deep sense the example of compassion in the life of Jesus pushed and pulled me along this road of ministry.  And I must also give credit to many other examples of caregiving in countless lives.  So, my faith was a strong factor, initially, before I gradually let that go in favor of the much more powerful and sustaining sense that I am interconnected to others in my world and where there are areas in which I can assist others I still feel drawn.  This is not to serve or please God or “show my faith” or live “according to the scriptures”–this is quite simply a human desire to work with others to make the world a better place, reduce suffering and learn to find solutions together.

If this hypothesis is correct, that faith is not the main operative factor in “mission” even among the most passionately faithful, might we all find more solid common ground in our compassionate natures and set aside the divisive nature of faith?  Evidence for this theory is growing.  I welcome your comments.

Chris Highland, January 2009

Benjamin Franklin on Religion and State

Independence Hall, Philadelphia


“If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

While yet a teen, witty and wise Ben Franklin wrote an anonymous letter published in his brother James’ newspaper, The New England Courant.  James had been tossed in jail for three weeks after printing articles critical of Boston authorities.  On July 23, 1722, young Franklin wrote a letter that set the groundwork for his many years of service to his country and the incisive, independent mind that established him as an American Founder.

In this incredibly perceptive letter, Franklin, using a wonderfully whimsical name of a widow he made up–Silence Dogood–the young printer’s apprentice wrote, “It has been for some time a question with me, whether a commonwealth suffers more by hypocritical pretenders to religion, or by the openly profane?”  The widow Dogood (Franklin) goes on to state that she is inclined to think that the hypocrite is the most dangerous, “especially if he sustains a post in the government.”  She explains that an openly profane person primarily ruins themselves in private–their’s is a personal destruction, whereas the public leader who is in reality a hypocrite purposely deceives the people with the result that they “ruin their country for God’s sake.”

The widow Dogood (Franklin) doesn’t let the dog lie for long.  She points out that a little religion “goes a great way in courts” yet “’tis not inconsistent with charity to distrust a religious person in power, though he be a good man.”  If this publically pious leader has some private gain in mind, the good widow wonders if they might just have some other purpose in their faith-based “public service” besides gaining heaven.  Then comes perhaps her most scathing commentary:  “[an elected official] compounded of law and gospel, is able to cheat a whole country with his religion, and then destroy them under color of law.”  She sees this as particularly odious because of the likelihood that clergy will be first deceived and then they will turn around and deceive the people, everyone distracted so much by the good words and apparent piety of the official that they suddenly find themselves oppressed by someone who is out of reach of both religion and law!  Silence Dogood observes that clergy are blinded by this political piety since they “see nor feel nothing of the oppression which is obvious and burdensome to every one else.”

Silence goes on to warn that she’s becoming a bit indignant that this kind of character is showing its ugly face in her own New England.  These deceivers need to be set in a true light–to be forced out to show their true colors–and those who are deceived by the rhetorical religion and fictional faith of these imposters must finally see the “enemies of our peace and safety.”  The best way to flush out these false leaders is to be a discriminating, vigilant and intelligent populous.  We must not judge leaders by their best actions when they show they can do some good, but we should keep a wary eye on “the whole of their conduct, and the effects of it.”  In the good widow’s humble opinion, “thorough honesty requires great and long proof, since many a person, long thought honest, has at length proved a knave.”  The public’s lack of wider vision regarding their leader’s conduct is not only detrimental to the country as a whole but to the complete happiness of all the world.

Whether or not Franklin’s “Dogood” got his brother out of jail any quicker is unknown.  How much his “Silence” permeated the climate of independence and independent thinking in later years is unclear.  Yet we could perhaps, if not deceived too greatly, find some parallels to his/her critique of civil society and “leadership” in our day.






“In proportion as [a person] simplifies their life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

~Henry David Thoreau, conclusion to Walden

“I have just three things to teach:  simplicity, patience, compassion.  These three are your greatest treasures.”

~Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter sixty-seven

“I grow less complicated all the time and that is a joy to me.”

~John Steinbeck, letter written 8/9/33

“I am bound to praise the simple life, because I have lived it and found it good.”

~John Burroughs

Less Space, Small Things

The path to simplicity is similar to the path of simplicity.  There is always a not-yet-arrived quality.  One chooses at each step to let things go, to lighten the load in mind and body, to boil life down to the basics.  It is a decision, an attitude and an action.  We simply choose to live simply.  Discovering what comprises our essentials, our necessities on the path and identifying what it is that attracts us to the experience of living a simple life–these draw the new maps into what Thomas Merton called “the trackless wilderness.”

One need not be a monk in the desert or a hermit in a mountain cave in order to practice a simpler life.  Every person can make the choice and make simplicity a daily practice.  Those who live with little, either by voluntary choice or involuntary poverty, have a great deal to teach those of us who carry more through life than we ever need, we who accumulate so much that at the end of our lives others are left to sort through and discard vast amounts of needless junk.  Isn’t life too short and fragile to burden ourselves and others with piles of sticks that line our rabbit-hole or rat-den?

Over the course of the past few years I have moved into smaller and smaller dwellings myself.  Circumstances squeezed me out of some places but choice led me to better places to call home, howbeit temporary home.  A personal dream “to live in a cabin in the forest” has been fulfilled, and the dream appeared through many sleepless nights and hardworking days.  The hard labor has not ended and the nocturnal tossings have not ceased, and the dream has so far taken the form of two small cabins in succession, yet the vision has now become rooted in earth not fanciful ephemera.  

Along this way into the woods I have delighted in letting loose of the tight grip held on the rope of heavy things.  I mean this literally.  I no longer own heavy furniture.  I am deeply pleased that I can move all my possessions by myself, in my own small truck, in comparably little time.  My bed is foam, my chairs are light, my tables are small folding wood trays, my cheap bookshelves can be carried by one hand. During one settling period I sifted through mounds of old photographs and hauled a large bagful to the dump.  Some might be horrified by this.  I felt relieved.  So much less weight.  Less stress.  The bins of books (the “mobile library”) are the largest challenge in terms of carrying and storing.  Yet each move affords me the opportunity (one I now welcome) to release more of those things that weigh a person down.  This is of course a philosophical and spiritual act as well.  I will say more on the impact of stuff on simplicity later.  

During my first six months in the woods I returned to the wood-wisdom of Henry Thoreau.  In the section on “Housewarming” in Walden Thoreau describes the simple philosophy that guided his cabin life.  He chose to live in voluntary poverty as a philosopher abiding by the dictates of wisdom.  His independence was rooted in the simplicity cultivated by the bare necessities of wood-life.  He built his own chimney, plastered the walls for insulation, picked up odds and ends such as a few chairs for visitors.  For his small dwelling (10×15 like mine–see photo above) he was pleased to have all “attractions” in one room:  kitchen, chamber, parlour, keeping-room.  He admits to dreaming of a larger house but this would also be a house with one room, “where you can see all the treasures of the house at one view;” “a house whose inside is as open and manifest as a bird’s nest;” “everything hangs upon its peg that a [person] should use.”  Of course, for the Concord cabinman and for me, a move into the home of the woods carries with it the intentional understanding that the forest, or any wild place, is Nature’s home and we are but guests.  A dwelling, however natural in material, is an artificial squatter’s shack in someone else’s living room.  Throughout my time among the greenlife and creatures of the sylvan land I have learned, like Henry, that my nest here has not caged anything including my body or my thoughts.  Rather, I have become “neighbor to the birds,” having settled, if only a bit, near to them and all this wild outdoor life.

While I have not built the two cabins that have been my home, I can say that I have built upon them, perhaps improved them.  I completed a railing on a porch, repaired a ceiling, constructed a solar shower, helped build and paint an outdoor “green room” for a compost toilet, bricked a base for a woodstove, hammered up hanging racks for clothes, laid rugs, cleaned and organized.  Around the cabins I have cleared paths, clipped and pruned, fixed walkways, sealed sections of the underside, chopped and stacked wood and planted squash, onions, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, mint and wildflowers.  For hospitality I have hung out feeders for winged neighbors.

Crossing over to the Self

In my journey out into the simpler life I have tested the truth of John Muir’s words:  “My going out was really my going in.”  This is the balanced log that crosses the river to simplicity.  There is a fundamental reciprocity that appears when one’s life spans the two shores of one river–the shore of the wild other and the shore of my own wildness.  We go out and find a way in.  An ancient Buddhist text, the Prajnaparamita Sutra, calls this “Streamwinning”–to “win” a crossing by letting go, to ford the obstacles to awareness and awakening.  But how do we lose to win?  How do we get to the inner and win the crossing?  How does one find a footing in the slippery, liminal areas on the edges of what we think of as a balanced person, a good citizen or what we oddly call civilization?  It cannot be easy, or even simple, to bridge the shores of wilderness, self and society.

I have noticed a strong relationship between small things and simple living that makes possible the crossing of the river.  One can be working in society, making a living or a livelihood, even “making a difference” in the wider world while practicing an intentional recognition and appreciation for the wilder, smaller, less noticed things, including people.  In other words, there need be no incongruity between sitting on the ground observing the activity of a beetle and a livelihood that influences the greater community, hopefully a community that includes the insects.  It makes sense that “making a living” has something to do with a basic recognition of all that is living in one’s living environment then responding to what is there.  We need both recognition (re-cogitate–to “think or reason again”) and responsiveness (to be spontaneous again).  In actuality, all things “make a living” and that living makes us, one and all.  It is why we are in essence a reasonably spontaneous species.

One foggy forest morning I cleaned off an old outdoor stove.  As I began to rub a cloth on one side I found a half dozen greenish-brown baby slugs clinging to the outer plate.  One by one I lifted them off with my fingertip and let them drop into the grass below.  The next day, a living ball of tiny spiders had moved in.  One of their larger relatives began to cross the threshold of my cabin door and I stopped it in its octotracks.  “You can’t come in here now” I said.  On a hot summer day I squashed two paper-wasps entangled on the deckboards and immediately felt bad even as I knew I was protecting my small house from the colony burrowing into the cedar siding–or at least from those two.  Another day my irritability was directed toward the “squeaking rats with bushy tails”–the squirrels–who were endlessly outsmarting me to get the birdseed I suspended by long twine between the alder and elderberry trees.  Cute in its own knavery way, the non-native gray squirrel seemed to me a greedy pig when it came to food left out for others. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I enjoy or appreciate every living thing at every moment!  Yet there is a consistent congruity in my relationships with the smallest living things and my desire to simplify my life. This all may seem quite obvious until we look at the way most of us conduct our distracted, rushed lives, seemingly oblivious to everything from the slug to the sunset to the stars in the night sky.  What we are overlooking, what we are missing, is precisely the source of our salvation (soul-salving)–our enlightened emergence into better human beings.

The cure for overlooking is to underlook.  To merely see what everyone else sees, to do or say what everyone else does desensitizes us to many things that ought to be seen, heard, said and done.  Learning to underlook is the self-training that will save us from our grand plans and great egos.  What does it mean to underlook?  Maybe it means stopping more to notice the little, unobserved bits of living just beneath most fields of vision.  A friend who shares my respect for Thoreau recently spoke in an outdoor service.  Afterward I told him I was curious about the cord around his neck with an object tucked in his shirt.  He smiled and tugged the object over the button saying, “this is my sacred symbol.”  On the end of the cord was a small magnifying field lens, something he carried with him everywhere.  He took me right down to the moss under our feet to give me a close up.  We don’t see what is right under our feet, under our noses.  It is the ground, the living things, the fields themselves that we don’t notice while we are intent on the road or the plane or even the hawk high in the tree scanning for food in the field.  Our eyes are sufficient to serve as telescopes and microscopes.  We are simply out of practice.  We want helps, aids to enhance our faulty vision.  But while we fumble for our pocket lens or binoculars or camera there is so much happening in the field we may as well close our eyes and imagine the scene.  Sure, I enjoy seeing the winged wonders up close in the glass lenses too, but my point is this:  we are seeking what we seek without looking just under for hidden treasures I assure you are there.  This is more than lamenting that we do not have the eyes to see or ears to hear, because we do.  We all have senses to “see” what is there, for the greater part.  I am urging an underlooking to balance our neglectful overlooking.  We can find a way over, across to a new underlooking, because in essence we must cross over, to see, to simply see.

An Intelligent Simplemindedness

The complex demands of contemporary life are like turbulent streams that churn into the wide and populated torrent we call “society.”  Our way of “living” is anything but a peaceful river sauntering through a verdant countryside. It is an unfortunate truth and indisputable critique of our modern lifestyle that we are constrained to choose to participate in the madness of the complexity, to be trapped in its current, its frantic chase for increase in currency, position and stability.  This latter chimera of stability is perhaps the most powerful wave-force that drives the flood, ironically causing, by its very surge of destabilizing energy, the greatest personal and communal instability.  We seek a firm grounding while leaping time and again upon the sandy soil or slippery stones of the shifting riverbank.  What our time demands is to settle more, to cease, even for a time, our futile and foolish, slippery hop along the river.  Our great need is to find a steadier foothold whereupon we may scan for healthier, more viable alternatives.

Are examples of our complex ways of living necessary?  We are all aware of what is demanded of us from without and within.  Media, especially through advertising, assault us daily with images and slogans that claim to make our lives easier and more pleasurable.  Some products have done this.  In fact the main tools of the media itself, television and the internet, have given us a steady stream of entertainment and knowledge and an ease in shopping for everything from books to dates.  Here is presented the other critical irony of our lives:  the tools that make life easier also complicate life.  Despite all the claims, our lives have not been made simpler.  We now have 24/7 access to the world and what does that mean?  We have great potential to communicate and form bridges and information superhighways, to develop relationships across the globe in ways unfathomed even one generation behind.  Across the very same lines of communication we come daily face to face, mind to mind with the pressing issues and needs of the entire earth.  How can we process this tide, this tsunami of knowledge?  Where is our Reason, a balanced intellect?

Humankind created machines called processors to do our calculations and piece together microbits of information–to in-form us.  Yet, we have discovered that these processors cannot help us in the human task of processing the information into knowledge and, we would hope, into wisdom toward truly better lives.  In the face of these glowing screens we see our own faces and our countenance has little changed, etched as it is with concern and despair at our condition.  What makes this true?  It is as if the ancient words of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes) have echoed across the centuries to haunt and disarm our arrogance:  “For the Creator has put past and future into the minds of humans yet they cannot find out what the Creative Spirit has done. . . .”  Not that I believe we are wholly caught in the Preacher’s web of despair.  However knowledge has entered our minds it is clear we have a complex task to uncover our own creative spirit in the quest for a simpler way of understanding the context in which we live, the intersecting of past and future in our own present.  If we have not been seized by Koheleth’s sticky despair, are we not stuck to the substance of that web woven in the intricate complications of toil and a knotted sense of purposelessness? 


A friend was telling me how many hours a week he works.  Though he had “retired” and was doing something he seemed to enjoy, that gave him fulfillment, he was now boasting of working 40-50 hours each week.  Another friend who I hadn’t heard from for some time called to leave a message about how busy she’s been.  “It would be great to hear from you.  Call me back anytime.  But this week don’t call on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday night, and the weekend’s pretty full so don’t try in the evenings.”  I tried in the daytime on Saturday.  No answer.  A business executive left me a message apologizing for being days late in calling me when she said she would call me.  We played phone tag for a week.  In one message she apologized again saying she had “time management” problems.  I was quite unimpressed and wondered not only about her health but the health of the business.  Yet another friend is always weary from long hours balancing three or more jobs.  His real passion is cooking and composing, working in his garden and spending time in Nature.  Like so many of us, he drags through the week looking forward to any precious time to do the things he really loves.  When he says, “I’ve worked every night this week,” or “I haven’t had a day off in two weeks” I hear the brain drain and the heaviness of heart.  I feel bad for him even while shaking my head and wondering why he does it to himself.  What can he or the rest of us do, for rest?  My point is simple:  We can make our lives simpler when we choose to simplify.  No one else, no modern invention or how-to book or religious hokum can make our lives simpler.  Simplicity is in our hands.  Thoreau said it well:  “Time is but a stream I go a-fishing in.”

I get irked at the poor choices that lead to these time-bound lifestyles, and I’ve been unhappy with my own at times, because I see what we are doing to ourselves and it’s not healthy, for us or anyone else.  “The business needs me” we say, or “People need me”, “My family needs the money” or “I have debts to pay” many more of us say.  O.K.  But don’t they really need a healthy you or me?  This is a no-brainer.  A healthy you or me can do far more in less time than a cranked up, blown out, burned out shell of a workaholic.   Most of us see that.  We just can’t seem to break free.  Oddly, I frequently find that I’m feeling some jealousy of all the busyness that keeps that person from spending time with me.  That’s my ego, and my honesty.  But mostly I’m saddened.  Sad that people are grinding themselves down from some kind of internal expectations, or heavy debts, or pride in packing the most busyness into their busy weeks and lives.  There is indeed a packfull of heaviness that I see on them, in them. I hear their regrets (“I wish I could live more simply;” “I wish I could spend more time with my family or take more hikes;” “Next year I’m going to take more time for what I want to do.”).  They are slaves to something that seems out of control, untamed.  Life has become a prison they have learned to settle into, though they are far from settled.  As the Osage chief Big Soldier expressed to a white settler before his Missouri land was stolen, “You are surrounded by slaves.  Everything about you is in chains, and you are in chains yourselves.”  Are we any less enslaved today?   

If a person genuinely loves what they do they will not spend any more precious time talking about how many hours they are doing it.  If one loves teaching, they are not “doing time” as a teacher, concerned about the hours.  They are a teacher.  Or as Emerson said, they are Teacher–a representation of the great human vocation we know as teaching.  If one loves to farm, they do not think in terms of hours.  They are a farmer–Farmer.  I love many aspects of helping others, counseling, discussing issues of life, so I became a chaplain.  Yes, often I would fall into comparing “my hours” (and yes, my pay too) with others or with my own mysterious inner standards of what I suppose somehow “proved” how good a chaplain I was.  “I was a chaplain for 44 hours this week.”  Oh boy.  What a saint.  No; exactly the opposite.  I became Slave; time’s slave; slave to my own foolish attempts at proving something to somebody.  When I began to think this way I was lost.  I had forgotten that I was a chaplain, not a chaplain doing time (though when I was serving in jail facilities I couldn’t help but consider my sentence!).  Being Chaplain meant great responsibilities yet it always struck me as odd that I would often try to take better care of or give wiser counsel to another than to myself.  After all, I wasn’t in it for the money, was I? 

Slaves to Faces of Presidents

Earlier I spoke of making a living.  The phrase itself reminds us we have a say in life and our living of it.  We make our lives.  How qualitatively different is the equation of making a living with making money. As if Life equals income.  The excessive value we place on money and the getting of it has brought about the great slavery of our time.  It is no great revelation to say again:  we are servants of money.  I’ve been around people for years who either have lots of it or little of it.  Rich or poor, many attempt, with little success, to use money wisely.  But almost always the axioms are proved:  the more money, the more anxiety; the more you spend it, the more you want it; the more you get with it, the more you “need;” the greater the income, the greater the outcome measured in debt mingled with a sense of futility and lost control.  Sure, the wealthiest people seem to have no cares and they have others to worry about the business and debts.  I think it’s fair to ask:  but is this Life?  Are these money-people content?  Are their lives better because they have a thick wallet?  Who would argue that those with the most money (or possessions) are the best or happiest human beings?  What can be argued, and appropriately in the context of this presentation of the simple life, is that the quest for money–as it surely is the primary quest for vast numbers of people–leads time and again to slavery both to time (a “scheduled” life) and to the bank account (the net worth of life), since those who work 60 hours a week are, in my estimation, not really doing a “good” job, though they are financially on the fast track to More while concurrently they are physically and psychologically on the fast track to. . .   Well, I’ll leave that for the reader to complete.

When I was working as a gardener my partners and I spent hours shoveling compost into wheelbarrows.  On one particularly hot day and we were scooping and hauling load after load to the flower beds. It brought a few smiles and laughs when I began to sing through my sweat, “We move sixteen tons and what do we get?  Another day older and deeper in debt.”  At the end of the day one Mexican worker asked how much money I was paid for the job (a fair question about fairness).  I answered es bastante para comida, “enough for food.”  He smiled and nodded.  He knew as well as I, this is the simple truth for vast numbers of laborers.  It is after all the simple truth of all life–we labor for sustenance.  As I have said before, one hopes to find a livelihood–a lively and meaningful activity–in the midst of such necessary labor.    

What happens when money melts into plastic?  Why is “credit” so all-pervasive and all-consuming?   Credit is one of the oddest of human inventions.  And one of the most dangerous.  To put it dramatically, credit is like a gun (or on a larger scale, a nuclear bomb).  We tell ourselves it makes life better, safer; we feel more secure.  So we set the auto pilot and “do life.”  But are we safer and more secure?  We use what isn’t really ours and never pay off our debt (this is what has always struck me as tragic about “owning a home;” few ever pay off their “dead-weight”–the mortgage, so can it ever really be “my house”?).  I will simply say, on behalf of simplicity, that we ought to return to the old adage, “give credit where credit is due” relating to the human person rather than the depth of their pocket and the height of their debt.  I use credit, and I admit to many worried minutes over what I owe.  Having credit isn’t necessarily bad.  It simply gives up simplicity.  Yes, yes.  There’s all that “convenience” and “buying power.”  But what is the gain, really?  Endless payments, interest, higher “limits” and all the weight and discontentedness that comes with the dizzying cycle of owning–owing, owning–owing, which ought to shout out to us loud and clear:  I’m always owing and never truly owning anything!  What we need is to credit ourselves, to set up our own accounting on a personal level.  To “give account” for the credit of our lives.  I agree, you can’t take that to the bank.  Ah yes, but the potential for riches of spirit are endless, unlimited–with no annual fee.  Ultimately we can bank on this:  we really can’t take anything with us.

A Great Obstacle

Next to our own thinking, our own limiting mind, there is one other external hindrance to living the simple life.  To illustrate I offer this brief story.  I used to have an office on a busy street in downtown San Rafael, California.  It was a storefront location with large plate-glass windows across the front.  The glass doors opened to three concrete parking spots two of which were designated by the building owner to belong to us during business hours.  One day I arrived to find all spaces taken.  A torn up junker sat in one and a car belonging to the upstairs neighbors blocked my access to the front door.  I went upstairs and calmly asked the resident to move the car.  She apologized, coming down to move around the block.  I thanked her.  Problem solved.  Not nearly.  On many other occasions clients, colleagues and I could not park in front or even get in the door without squeezing by parked cars.  I spoke more than once with the neighbors and then with the building owner who, characteristically, left it in my hands.  Finally I began putting out signs on sandwich boards right in the driveway.  Obviously a simple agreement was not working.  Over the two years I was in that office I repeatedly was forced to handle this situation (one of many “not in my job description”).  What should have been a simple thing became a complicating, frustrating obstacle to something I always thought was basic:  access to one’s doorway. 

I have found time and again that other people, out of ignorance, mindlessness or meanness place themselves squarely in the center of my way and I have to trip over them to find any peace or simplicity.  Some would call this a “lesson” in patience, compassion and the like.  I no longer see it this way!  People can make themselves huge objects to stumble over in the quest for simple peace of mind.  I admit to little patience and great irritation at those who force me to deal with their rudeness, disrespect, ignorance or unfathomable lack of care.  I don’t want to sound paranoid here but everywhere I go I am constrained to face these people who seem bent on making my life and others’ lives more difficult, less smooth, less stressful.  Believe me, I understand the psychology of it.  I “handle it” with varying degrees of success (from attempts to reason to shouting matches to gestures).  This is I suppose simply a warning that people can often be large and looming obstacles on the path toward simplicity.  Anyone who tries to simplify their life will need to deal with the resistance, conscious or not, of other human beings who seek to bring their life’s discontent right in and throw it on the ground you are trying so carefully to keep clean and uncluttered. 

Liberation to the Simple Life      

The only alternative to the cycles and the slavery that I am identifying in my own life is freedom to live a contented life.  Content with what one has.  Content with who one is.  Expectations and hours, dollars and nonsense cannot rule a contented life.  In fact, they eat away true life like a cancer, or better yet, like a credit card.  Do you want this freedom?  Have you ever experienced a contentedness?  I’m not “there” yet because I suspect there is no “there” out there.  Yet I will spend it all, cash out if need be, cut up the cards, close the accounts, to gain this freedom, hopefully before I die.

A free and contented life is the only path to simplicity and simplicity is the only higher trail to the free and contented life.  So, where is the trailhead?  Where do we start?  It is not as trite as it sounds to say that asking these questions is a hopeful sign and the first unfolding of the map that will open the way ahead toward the freedom, toward the contentment we so much desire. 

It remains to be asked with great urgency whether there is a different river altogether–a river coursing in such a manner that there appears a balance of flow, a confluence of sorts, between the stream without and the stream within–the water and the blood.  Must every stream be pulsing with high pressure?  Is there no practical and potential calming stream

As I write this rainy spring afternoon I am delighted to observe the small flocks of bright yellow finches swarming upon the seeds I have cast on the deck out the window.  Their luminescent feathers mark a clear contrast to the gray and drizzly weather of their roofless air-home.  While I watch them and count some fourteen males alongside a half-dozen females, they and I are startled to flight (I fly from my chair) at the violent scream of a chainsaw nearby.  With the tiny orbs of feathered sunshine nowhere in sight I stand on the shiny wet deckboards to watch one of the few remaining trees in the neighborhood lose limb after limb to the steel chain.  Immediately I feel concern for my neighbors.  Not the humans craving for a wider view of the now-distant wildlife but the neighbors of the winged design.  These finches and flickers, nuthatches and sparrows, juncos, blackbirds and starlings who frequent my porch often are seen high in these tall firs that nobly hold to the low bluff by the salty bay.  Some are no doubt nesting and in this springtime there are little squawks of life emerging from the twig-and-leaf cabins above.  A few weeks ago I took photographs of a resident heron standing regally (could they stand another way?) three- quarters of the way up the seventy-foot evergreen.  Our local eagles perch there from time to time.  Not so many days ago a juvenile eagle, with no white on a not-yet-bald head, soared low over my head as I stood on the grass overlooking the waters teeming with fish.  Hearing the assault of the saw a few doors away I mostly think of my most cherished neighbor, the Great Horned Owl, who now and then hoots from his roost on a low limb of these trees.  Now the limb, along with many of the perches, nests, meeting and resting places of my friends, is chopped and fallen to the muddy slopes below.  And for what?  Views!  People want to see water, so they flock to it and foul it.  They love to admire the trees, then they cut them down to see distant mountains whose glaciers are melting with all the heat of humans.  They tell others of all the birdlife, then they lay siege to the rooms, homes, pastures and whole families of their most defenseless neighbors.  One wonders what happened to the good old mountain sermon and its admonitions concerning the birds of the air who “neither toil nor spin but your heavenly Parent takes care of them”!  Really?  I see it not here today!  And it delivers no comfort when I read in the Good News according to Luke that “not one sparrow is forgotten in God’s sight” since from that same lofty viewpoint “you are of more value than many sparrows” (chapter 12).  I would be there to argue with the rapturous rabbi on this point!  Surely until we find the lofty viewpoint through the eyes of the sparrows as well as the finches, eagles, herons and owls we will not cease to sacrifice our close neighbors, our spiritual teachers, on the altar of super-natural arrogance.

I digress from my topic.  Or do I?  It seems a universal principle when reflecting on our human predicament that we tend to kill off the very teachers we most require.  For every Jesus, Gandhi or King, we slaughter countless powerless prophets and professors in the great university of Nature.  Put another way, the rapid and relentless destruction of our fellow creatures, their homes and their neighborhoods, is, I believe, in all ways on par with the homicides, fratricides, matricides and deicides of our race.  In our overlooking we are undervaluing and worse.  There is something strangely suicidal in our chosen blindness, our accepted ignorance.  We are desperate for another path and a less turbulent stream.

Our Better Nature

Simply put, simplicity is our better nature.  It is time for the simple life.  It is Nature’s way.  If you are thinking “I can’t do that now, but I want that and will one day find the simple life” I’m sorry to say, you have missed the point but not the opportunity.  There is still time!  Because there is always time to simplify.  No, you may not be able to follow Thoreau to the woods or Muir to the mountains; you may not even desire to follow Dillard (or me) to the islands or tromp the path of countless seekers of an “alternative lifestyle”–but you can find your own way, in your own place, in your own time.  Problem is, most people wait too long, for when all is “right.” Strange but true, that moment, day, year, period rarely arrives.  This is not about “retirement,” the end-all illusion for masses of herding people.  Though an artificial future date (standards set by other rulers of our time and lives) can be a powerful motivator or goal, to effect the quality of life is not something to put off until retirement, which is, of course, never the cessation of work.  As Emerson and others have reminded, we must choose our own better way at the present time with courage and self-reliance.  Thoreau’s comment is almost biting in our age:  “As if we could injure time without harming eternity.”  Perhaps the Concord cabin-dweller said it best when he explained his reason for going to the pond:  “I did not wish to come to the end of my life and find that I had not lived.”  No matter how many times we have read this call to simplicity in relation with Nature we turn away again and again, in our busily distracted lives, awaiting that Someday that never seems to arrive.    

I worked as an instructor with mentally exceptional adults for six years in the 1980s.  One of the most enduring lessons I carried with me was the ability that pushes through all “disability”–the ability to take life on a basic level so as to find enjoyment in the seemingly insignificant–ordinary– things.  Students would often run up to me when I arrived with shouts of happiness and hugs (this never happened in other work environments!).  On our weekly Nature walks endless fascination sprouted up on every turn.  One young woman who could barely see would stop countless times along the way to literally stick her nose into a flower, the face of a puppy or a baby in a stroller.  Another young man who sustained a major head injury in a bike accident was very slow and distracted.  He had to drag one foot along and one arm hung useless.  Whenever we passed a restroom he would beg me to let him go, again.  When he came out he was so happy he hugged and thanked me over and over.  Sometimes this sort of work is troubling, even depressing.  Yet overall I found I was greatly inspired by the simple acts and comments of my classes.  As one of my favorite students Helen showed me, though she could not speak, her smile and shining eyes, her giggle and hug, spoke all the words that were needed to say:  Life is giggly good–let’s have some ice cream and watch a movie.


One of the simplest ways to gage our move toward or away from the simple life is in the amount of stuff, possessions, we hold onto, fill our lives with, carry with us.  The clutter god/demon is a good indication of how far afield we are from the life we need if not want.  I am continually amazed by what I collect though I can carry all my possessions myself without assistance.  I have often left furniture behind when I move on:  a desk here, a table and chairs there, a bed, a bookshelf or lamp that won’t fit in the truck.  Most of what I have can be boxed in storage bins and most of the contents are books and photographs.  I have given away many books and things that I judged no longer necessary and I will undoubtedly give away more along the way.  I admit my neatness borders on obsession now and then, yet I would rather have my few things “in order” than surround myself with disorder (as it is, there is plenty of “mental baggage” set out to trip over!).  I have no wish to have the chaotic clutter that so many bury themselves in.  I have no desire to have a larger house so that I can do what everyone does–fill it up with unneeded stuffing.  To me the American dream, to the extent that it is a healthy goal, has much more to do with simplification of life’s daily living, weeding out one’s wants, than with owning and accumulating more and more.  The sick joke that the one with the most toys wins is no joke; it is a losing game for those who play along.  Besides, many children and adults have rooms, offices, cars strewn with toys, while doing all they can each day to imagine something else and fight for more.

Inspiration and challenge arise for me in the simple philosophy of John Burroughs who built a cabin for himself near the Hudson River in upstate New York.  Burroughs wrote,

“I am bound to praise the simple life, because I have lived it and found it good. . . .  I love a small house, plain clothes, simple living.  Many persons know the luxury of a skin bath—a plunge in the pool or the wave unhampered by clothing.  That is the simple life—direct and immediate contact with things, life with the false wrappings torn away—the fine house, the fine equipage, the expensive habits, all cut off.  How free one feels, how good the elements taste, how close one gets to them, how they fit one’s body and one’s soul!  To see the fire that warms you, or better yet, to cut the wood that feeds the fire that warms you; to see the spring where the water bubbles up that slakes your thirst, and to dip your pail into it; to see the beams that are the stay of your four walls, and the timbers that uphold the roof that shelters you; to be in direct and personal contact with the sources of your material life; to want no extras, no shields; to find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to find a quest of wild berries more satisfying than a gift of tropic fruit; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest, or over a wild flower in spring—these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”  (“An Outlook Upon Life” quoted in Our Friend John Burroughs, Clara Barrus, 1914).

Having given my judgment on possessions and stuff, I sit judged.  Even in my small cabin in the woods I seem to have too much.  True, I have only lived here for a few seasons, but how little is needed when life is not based on an unquenchable neediness!  Two oil lamps, four candles, even two bookshelves seem excessive.  Yes, I may need them all at one time or another (“it’s good to have backup”)–yet, how much is really necessary?  What is not needed today may be required tomorrow.  Otherwise, things collect dust, as do we all before we become it.  And must I truly have these two bottles of white wine and the bottle of cheap Scotch!  Let’s not get hasty!  Simplicity is, after all, to some degree in the eyes of the owner.  The best I can do is to make each day less cluttered with things or worries, the tangible stuff that takes up floor space and the no less corporeal holdings of the mind.  I do well to drop one by one by one hundred if by doing so lightens and brightens my life.         

That master of simplicity, Henry Thoreau, relates a story in his chapter on “Economy” in Walden that bears repeating.  Thoreau tells us of a native tribal custom wherein the community gathers each harvest season to place all their old useless possessions, junk and remaining grain into a great common mound in the center of the village and everything is burned.  After fasting for three days all fires are extinguished. On the fourth morning the shaman sits in the center of the village, rubs dry wood together to make a fresh fire.  Then every family is given a burning stick to light a new fire in their home.  This is followed by three days of feasting, singing and dancing and several more days welcoming guests from other villages who add to the celebrations of renewal.  Thoreau comments:  “I have scarcely heard of a truer sacrament.”  Isn’t there a refreshing feel to this act of renewal?

A Simple Harvest

Within the first month living in my first forest cabin I re-read Walden.  The pond-dweller called for lovers of wisdom to start practicing the “dictates of philosophy”: simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.  Similar qualities arise again when he discusses planting and harvesting corn and beans.  When I walked back to my cabin after harvesting organic produce, picking blueberries and raspberries, snipping stems of basil, pulling up beets, carrots and onions and plucking beans and zucchini off the vines, I was reminded of life’s goodness and Good Simplicity.  The best thing about the practice of simplicity is that it is always near at hand.  In countless ways we can discover, choose, practice the simple life right where we are, bringing a freshness, even a liberation, full center into our common dull or frantic lives.  Simplicity is ripe for picking.  Let today be harvest season. 

Chris Highland

Jesus Was Not

and Never Could Be

a Christian

(or, The Greatest Untold Story)

“What think ye, my friends?  If Jesus, or his likeness, should now visit the earth, what church of the many which now go by his name would he enter?. . .It seems to me, my friends, that as one who loved peace, taught industry, equality, union, and love, one towards another, Jesus were he alive at this day, would recommend you to come out of your churches of faith, and to gather into schools of knowledge.”

~Frances Wright, Lecture on “Opinions,” New York, October, 1829

Paradigm of Faith

Who is the model for Christians, for Christian faith?  If a person wishes to see Christianity “in action” who might one look for as the primary example?  Some say the “saints” of Church history.  Others say the monks and mystics through the ages.  More say the biblical “heroes” of faith, both men and women, including the prophets and the apostles.  Many more look to their pastors and priests to see “how to live” the truly Christian life.  Whoever people may look to as images of faith it seems clear that we are talking about a long historical tradition of “following in the footsteps” of the originator, the generator of the faith–the original paradigm of Christian faith and belief recognized as the “founder” of the religion we know as Christianity:  Jesus himself.

Yet, who is this pre-eminent paradigmatic figure from two-thousand years ago?  I use the present tense since there is a profound present meaning to the question.  Scholars of the human story  and students of the history of religious experience have been probing this question for centuries.  Can anything new be written about the Man from Nazareth?  Is it possible to offer any innovative thinking for the discussion of this figure whose influence permeates cultures across the globe, whose impact is easily measurable far beyond the land where his footsteps were long ago covered by sand and soil?  Maybe.  At the very least it is my audacious intention in these pages to sketch out what may be a fresh image of the man and present some root-level questions that may stir readers to an enlightening reassessment of the one who continues to spark the deepest sentiments and highest ideals of the human community.

Questions for the Path

We have been presented with an initial, one could say preliminary, question, namely “Who is the model of and for the Christian, the faith of the Christian?”  The response seems clear and obvious.  Is not the paradigm for a Christian the one who gave his messianic epithet to the very name?  Is it not the “first Christian” who was no Christian himself? This question leads immediately and directly to a second, perhaps more revealing inquiry.  If this Jesus called the Christ is indeed the model for emulation by the faithful who seek “his way” then what was that model in the real world, in real time, that is, what is it about him that can be modeled (lived, evidenced)? 

We are now given a great challenge and the biblical “experts” in their vast horizons of interpretation give us a wealth of accessible information.  Personally, my only credentials for addressing these monumental concerns is a lifetime of staring this image in the face, exploring the bible in depth and a score of years as an ordained minister and chaplain who has served, at least in part, “in his name.”  So, with that caveat, I will take a closer view of the “model of faith” that I discover in the record and in my experience.  Be forewarned, I will not be “prooftexting,” rather I will be assuming a certain level of basic biblical knowledge in the reader.  This brief sketch of the “issues” clearly is drawn from my long-held perspective that the bible says nothing but for our interpretations.  There is no “Thus says the bible.”  It is a very old book understood in countless ways by innumerable people in an array of times and contexts.  All this is to state what is undoubtedly clear to most who will read this. 

To restate it again, if this Jesus is the “supermodel” for Christian faith what is it that a person can model or “follow?”  The answer to this primary question is particularly troubling to the person who identifies a practice (active model) of faith with certain “essential” forms.  Take the following list of accepted aspects of “being Christian” and put them alongside a cursory response from the “new” testament (which is now, very old):

1)  One is a Christian who assents to particular creeds developed in Christian history. 

Our model, Jesus, does not fit this model since he did not have the benefit of the deliberations and votes of the Church Fathers.  He offered no creeds or statements to assent to.  He was never quoted as saying an “I believe” statement. 

2)  One is a Christian who believes what Jesus believed and “believes in” him. 

This is deeply problematic.  It seems clear from the record that Jesus had a worldview and practice of daily life that focused on the Jewish God of Israel.  What he believed is difficult to ascertain.   He left no manual listing the essentials of his personal perspectives.  It would be both tragic and comic to claim he was yet another “new age” thinker who believed, above all beliefs, in himself.

Believing “in” him is an even more disturbing bucket of worms that I will hold off discussing here.

3)  One is a Christian when they are an active member of a church. 

Unfortunately our paradigm for faith fails this test hands down.  Beyond the obvious fact that did he not even know what a church was, he never used the word.  Even more troubling, it seems his experience with anything resembling a church presents a picture of someone completely uncomfortable and obviously angered by the whole experience of religious gatherings!  As a (rebellious) child we hear of him challenging the elders in the temple.  Next, we see him standing to read from the prophet Isaiah in the temple (the words quoted at the head of this essay).  His rendition of the passage so enrages the congregation that they attempt to throw him out of town or even kill him.   Lastly we have the famous image of Jesus enraged himself, storming into the temple with a whip he had made, sending the treasurers scrambling as he overturned the holy furniture, screaming  out to the “den of thieves” in the ancient words “My temple should be a house of prayer!”  The only other reference I recall was the day he walked passed the great temple in Jerusalem and told his disciples to “tear down this temple.”  The gospel writer interpreted this to mean the temple of Jesus’ body, though for some who overheard this it could only be heard as a sacrilegious terrorist threat!

So overall we find the practice of churchgoing incompatible to say the least with the practice of The Model.

4)  One is a Christian who reads, studies and believes the words of the Bible.

Sorry to say, Jesus fails this test as well.  It is not known that he was a student of the sacred scriptures at all.  Most of what we “know” is based upon a foundation of assumption and tradition, but not fact, or even the biblical record.  The handful of times he is portrayed quoting from the only bible he knew,  the Hebrew torah scrolls,  the same passages were apparently known by every schoolchild and he could well have memorized them without reading (it is intriguing to compare those in lands other than Arabia who have the entire Qur’an memorized and can recite the whole sacred text without knowing any Arabic!).   One wonders if those who use this bible-test for true Christians ever realize that Jesus only knew the “old” Hebrew testament/covenant and of that large body of literature chose a few select passages for his outdoor teaching.  What he chose however is in itself instructive.  I will say more below.

5)  A Christian is one who preaches the good news to those who are not Christians.

Jesus never preached in any way similar to our modern conception of preaching.  To preach is to proclaim, to expound a message based on biblical text and experience.  The “message” preached by the Christian Church is fundamentally proclaimed utilizing texts never known to Jesus–the gospels and the epistles of Paul.  Of course, many preachers employ the simple homiletic style of telling stories or giving personal interpretations based on personal study and understanding of the texts (Hebrew and Christian) and the “text of life.”  Yet most historic preaching has been to “preach the gospel” and “save sinners.”  One needs only hear the contemporary outcry “Don’t preach at me!” to feel the result in the popular mind.  Here again I will defer more comment until the following section.

6)  A Christian is one who lives a comfortable, successful life. 

This is rarely spoken openly, yet I feel it is often a central critique of one Christian for another. 

Taking a wide overview of the life of our Model we see something so completely antithetical to this point that it baffles understanding.  Jesus seems to have had little comfort from the day he was born!  Throughout his life (who knows what happened in those 18 years of silence) we see him without substantial, permanent housing, little money to speak of (Judas held the wallet for the entourage) and no tangible possessions.  Further, his constant debates with the “authorities” over matters of religion and government as well as his continual gypsy lifestyle provided no basis for personal or professional comfort.  He had no stability of steady income or work.  He certainly had no retirement plan!  As for success, he fell far below any regularly accepted standards for our day and no doubt for his own.   We might say that he was indeed “successfully poor!”  It would not be far afield to describe him as a homeless insurgent and certainly an uncertified teacher with no classroom.

7)  A Christian regularly prays with others, asking for spiritual and material gifts from God.

No, Jesus does not meet this standard either.  On perhaps one occasion he is recorded as looking up and thanking his “Abba” before a crowd. Interestingly, the famous event of the “Lord’s Prayer” seems not to have been a prayer at all!  He said, “pray like this,” recited the prayer and did not end with an Amen.  And, I would quickly add, there was never a mention of tacking on “in Jesus’ name.”  So, there is really no indication that Jesus ever prayed in a group, and certainly not in a congregation of any sort.  It was said that he went up once to the hills to “pray by himself” and though he was alone in the Garden before his arrest somehow someone wrote down that he prayed “take this cup (of suffering) from me.”  A natural plea for someone facing arrest!  No, Jesus was not what some would call “heavy into prayer.” 

“The Spirit is upon Me”

As identified above, the marginalized person in first century Palestine we have come to know as Jesus of Nazareth, was not much of a model for the followers who themselves became known as Christians.  He was wide of the mark, failing every test proffered for Christians, nor did he measure up to the standards imposed for faithfulness in the Church that called itself proudly by his name.  In fact, one could sadly say that poor Jesus would be left out in the cold and certainly would never be welcomed as a Christian in any one church or the Church Universal.  Sorry to say, he fails miserably as a Christian.!

It is left for us to “flesh out” and give bones and a mind of reason to what the model really was that this man presents to us.  I had a personal stake in this during the preparation stage of my ministry (university and seminary) and throughout the course of my work among marginalized people of our contemporary world.  I came to recognize these truths about the un-christian nature of the one Christians worshipped, came through that stage of bewilderment and exited the other side with a sense that it was time for Jesus to be wrestled back from those who arrogantly assume he is theirs.  The starting place for most is perhaps most easily the words and activity of the man himself.

Early in the gospel of Luke, apparently a physician who honored this radical teacher enough to write about him, we are presented with a story of the young teacher, fresh from the desert, standing up in the synagogue.  Was he invited to speak?  Did he simply stand and disrupt the usual proceedings?  How would that feel, to have someone shock everyone by getting up and reciting sacred texts when it wasn’t a part of the orderliness and ritual?  Surely it was felt as a disrespectful act to the clergy in charge that Saturday.  And what were the words this disruptor chose to disrupt and disrespect with?  Some very old but honored words from an eminent prophet in the scrolls, Isaiah. 

“The Spirit of All is upon me

to say something meaningful to people in poverty,

to liberate people who are not free

and to sing out with joy

that God is happy!”

Or something to that effect.  Ancient words, even to the hearers that morning.  Yet given new effect and meaning by the person who spoke those words.  How dare this young homeless son of a carpenter disrupt our Sabbath service by reading (or quoting) something we have all heard since we were children.  And he makes it sound as if HE is the prophet and the Spirit of All (blessed be the One) is upon HIM!  Scandalous. 

From our viewpoint all these centuries later perhaps we can appreciate the offense of this event and draw other conclusions, since we know the rest of the story.  But we cannot move on without addressing these words spoken in Jesus’ first public proclamation of his life’s message.  If it was from his heart then it reveals a critical centerpoint for all he did, said and stands for today.

“The Spirit is upon me.”  A prophetic utterance, ecstatic claim to authority.  Like saying, God is on my shoulder, in my words.  The stamp of divine truth is on my life and words.  You had better listen because I carry the sealed letter of Royalty.  I now open it before you and read it as if it is from me alone!

“To preach good news to the poor.”  This was not some spiritualized otherworldly statement to the “poor in spirit.”  That is not what was said.  If you were a poor person in the crowd the “best news”–not merely good news–would be an end to poverty. 

“To proclaim release to the captives.”  Too easy to read this as internal, psychological or spiritual.  That conveniently eliminates the offense of this as a practical declaration of amnesty, pardon.  What of all those convicted criminals?!  Yes, what of them and what are you going to do now that God is telling you to release them?

“To proclaim recovery of sight to the blind.”  Oh, you may say, this is certainly a spiritual metaphor.  Why do we so quickly pick the easy way?  If I was a person of impaired vision in the congregation that day I would hear something incredible and probably feel a mixture of both great hope and great anger.  How dare this man talk of an end to blindness!  Does he know someone who will heal all blind people? 

“To let the oppressed go free.”  That sounds very fine and good but who is oppressed?  Is this a call to revolution against the Romans?  Does he mean to break every political prisoner out of prison? Too close to home there young fellow.  Although, there is a twinge of expectancy and wonder.

“To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  An old idea, but how do you intend to apply the 50 year rule in the contemporary world?  Can we forgive debts, let the land sit without being seeded or harvested?  How can we live that way?  Or, this is a New Year in which God has made the resolution to be favorable, as opposed to all the other years when God seems so unfavorable, so unhappy with us!  Which is it? 

In each phrase of this first and last time Jesus ever spoke before the congregation of the synagogue, he shakes the foundation of all that matters religiously, politically, socially and psychologically to these people.  And if that wasn’t enough.  He rolls up the scroll, sits down and speaks one last bombshell: 

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

What if Jesus could Never be a Christian?

To fully appreciate the ramifications of this astounding proposition, that Jesus was not and could never be a Christian,  consider what the impact would be if Americans discovered that George Washington never intended his activities to create a new government or that he was not in truth the first president (there are some who honor another) or even a citizen of the young United States.  What if it was shown that Abraham Lincoln was a depressed and often suicidal person (the view presented in the excellent book, Lincoln’s Melancholy).  In other words, what if we were told that Washington was really not an American–or the one we thought he was–and found that Lincoln was not really a stable leader during the most unstable period of the republic?  Shocking? 

Spiritually speaking these concerns are far greater.  If one’s god or godlike figure turns out to be very different than what the followers of that god claim, and those same followers die in the name of that god or kill in that name, we have a grave situation.  Yet that is precisely what we have with the religion called Christianity and those who claim to follow the very non-Christian Jesus, those who proudly call themselves “Christians.”

The social reformer Frances Wright, who called for the transformation of all churches into “halls of science” and knowledge, told a crowd in New York City in 1829, “My friends, I am no Christian, in the sense usually attached to the word.  I am neither Jew nor Gentile, Muslim nor Theist; I am but a member of the human family, and would accept of truth by whomsoever offered–that truth which we can all find, if we will but seek–in things, not in words; in nature, not in human imagination; in our own hearts, not in temples made with hands.”

One can almost imagine hearing the young, radical rabbi of Nazareth nodding his head with a whispered “Amen.”

Chris Highland

“The Myth of ‘Progressive’ Christianity”

A haunting photo on the New York Times website recently showed blank-eyed schoolchildren standing before a line of burning candles.  They were attending a prayer meeting in the Indian city of Shimla.  These little christian children were there praying for the victims of religious violence, in this case, recent fighting between hindus and christians.  The photo doesn’t show it, but one gets the clear sense there are no hindu children in attendance.  Another photo on the same day shows villagers in a nearby northern area of India fleeing the worst floods in 50 years.  Many lost their homes, crops, family members.

Images like these stick with any person of conscience.  Nature’s tragedies played out alongside Religion’s tragedies.  We can’t blame Nature for growing crops and then blasting them away.  But we can blame Religion for its perennial seasons of destruction, division, displacement of the earth as well as the human family.  Harsh words to be sure.  Yet, what can be the conclusion we might draw from these endless images, stories, and violent acts done by and in the name of religious faith?  Some would say it is human nature and not religion though religion seems endemic to the human species, at least this perpetual looking up for help above–above our heads, above our reason, above the clouds, out to the universe that somehow, someway “cares.”  What have we lost by this neverending appeal to fictitious faith that is, in the end, but a glimmer of hope for something “better,” or at least something that affirms what we believe.

For a very long time I saw myself as a christian–specifically a christian “progressive.”  I believed I was following the Rabbi of Nazareth (remember the Jewish guy who got himself and his insurgent followers nailed by the state a long time ago?) and that this teacher gave us a message to do “holy” work in his name.  I went out to serve.  I served as a “minister” or “a servant” with poor and oppressed, misunderstood folk in their own communities.  I felt, coming out of a rather liberal seminary, that I knew what the bible really taught after all the old, oppressive, mindless, mythological stuff was ripped out.  I became a christian above other christians, transcending the old “mainline” stodgy church “life” and finding my way in the area of chaplaincy.  Then something began to grow in me.

After a number of years as a chaplain, an interfaith chaplain, I discovered something.  It wasn’t discovered overnight or in a dream or a book.  I simply realized that I was working alongside people of many faiths who had one goal in mind:  to serve with compassion.  I began to tell groups, congregations, schools and individuals that, as a chaplain, I was not representing any one religion but the compassion of a whole lot of good people who call themselves by different names and labels.  After explaining my self and my work in this way for years I came to another, more disturbing, question:  why call myself a christian at all?  What made me a christian as opposed to some other person, whatever they called themselves, who was doing the very same thing for the same reason I was?

Here’s one graphic way I visualize this.  A group of people come together in a public place, say city hall or a community center, to address major community issues.  Before speaking, they each place their holy book on the central table.  Each claims their book is their central guiding text for belief and social involvement and so each in turn places their book on the top of the pile of holy books.  A “progressive” in their midst stands up and proclaims, “Wait!  These are all essentially the same.  The message is contained in all of them and it is: ‘Love’, ‘justice’, ‘kindness’, ‘compassion’.  Let’s put aside our differences and work together!”  Some nod their heads in hesitant agreement while others scoff, spit and walk out clutching their precious pile of paper.  Those who stay turn to the “progressive” and say, “This is great!  Where did you learn this principle of unity?”  The “progressive” reaches in her pocket and pulls out her holy book, holding it up to announce that her holy book teaches her this way of understanding and she has personally gone through the book to delete all the non-unifying passages.  She admits there are many such passages but it’s these “best” parts that motivate her.  One wise old lady walks over, places the “progressive’s” text on the top of the remaining books and sighs as she leaves, “Ah, yes.  No one can ever seem to leave their books and practice what we all know, by reason and experience, is right, just and compassionate.  Why can’t we see that all these rivers lead to the ocean and cease this endless arguing over the best way?”

Some fairly open-minded people I know would see some truth in this story, though few I know who still call themselves christians would see a problem with preferring one book over another, especially if that book is a source of motivation, inspiration and such in their lives, their work and relationships.  They feel that  “tolerance” or a “respect for the differences” is good enough and no one need leave their faith to work together to do some good things.  No doubt this is true–I’ve seen and experienced this for years.  What I haven’t seen is the honesty to recognize that each and every religion, by placing, consciously or unconsciously, a particular divine manual, specific holy places and peculiar rituals “above” or in a primary position before other books, places, rituals (gods?), cannot really, truthfully ever be “progressive.”

The other day I came upon The Beatitudes Society.  They are an ecumenical group of christian “progressives” who are recruiting more liberal minded seminary students and others to join their “movement” for “change.”  Their mission statement states that: “The Beatitudes Society develops and sustains emerging Christian leaders at seminaries and divinity schools as they build a progressive network for justice, compassion and peace as expressed in the Beatitudes.”  It goes on to say these emerging leaders will not only advocate for these biblical principles but they will “counter the Christian Right” and “articulate a Christianity that dares to speak and act for our fragile planet and our most vulnerable citizens.”  A flier I saw for one of their conferences asks, “Social Progress: What’s Christianity Got to Do with It?”  This is indeed a very lively and viable question!  I will respond in a moment.

Now let me say that I wish some of these folks were around when I was in seminary.  We sure thought we were “cutting edge” and socially responsible, especially as we studied and discussed the Liberation Theologians–Latino, Black, Feminist and more.  I can appreciate and admire the more enlightened agendas of organizations such as The Beatitude Society and the Christian Progressives.  In my mind anything is welcome that serves to wake the Church up from what Kant called the “dogmatic slumber.”  Yet, here’s my problem:  Why must social action (the progressive agenda) continue to be this race, that religion, this gender, that language or nationality?  Should we have American Progressives over against Zimbabwean Progressives, Jewish Progressives over against Muslim Progressives, Male Progressives over against Female Progressives, and on and on?  I admit to low tolerance for this incessant sectarianism and a great impatience for the next leap in socially conscious evolution.  This would be truly Progressive!  Just start a “Progressives” organization and let everybody join and get involved.  If there is already such an animal, why wouldn’t the “Christian Progressives” simply join and let go of the exclusive religious label?  In a way, wasn’t this, at least in part, the “progressive” intention of the American revolution, to bring together divergent, pluralistic communities into the unified national community, each and all free to call themselves American?  Yes fine, continue to claim your allegiance to a religious ideology but Common Sense and Nationality trump those who would reshape the Nation into their own image.  This is, of course, the intent of the Religious Right, a stated target of the Beatituders.  Sure, keep your Christian organizations, but keep moving, growing, evolving into something wider, deeper, better for the whole human community.

Returning to the question, what does Christianity have to do with social progress?  More often than not, the Church attempts to play catch-up to those who have driven reform movements for a very long time: the freethinkers, humanists, scientists, naturalists and revolutionaries.  I recently listened to a debate at the University of Virginia on religion and politics.  The evangelicals who spoke in favor of more religion in political affairs more than once cited Wilberforce and Christian activists for the abolition of slavery.  Yes, surely there were Christians involved in the movement, though it was people like Franklin and Paine, Frances Wright, Walt Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson (non-Christians all) who pushed the agenda of conscience all over America.  And, let’s not forget to mention, if it wasn’t for the Bible’s explicit condoning of slavery in the first place, would we have had so much human misery and hence the need to fight slavery?  This point is often left out of the “debate” over Christian participation in socially progressive movements.  In the U of V debate Martin Luther King was invoked several times for his religious grounding though no one bothered to mention that King mined the wisdom and practice of the Hindu Gandhi and the Nature-worshipper Thoreau perhaps as much as the Galilean for his civil rights work.  No one would deny the profound “Jesus-effect” on many social movements.  We can be grateful for the return to some of the “basics” of the Nazarene’s gospel.  Yet, until “Christian Progressives” can let go of the holy book itself, stained as it is with the blood of generations of the persecuted and oppressed, marked as it is with a consistent appeal to a “higher,” heavenly, super-natural realm, and tainted as it is with an appeal to the irrational–until the biblical barrier can be jettisoned in favor of true evolutionary progress for humankind and the earth–religious progressivism will never have a lasting, reforming effect.  And, by the way, who determines what the “basics” are anyway?  Pentecostals think they know.  Islamists think they do too.  If the progressives choose the “best” parts of the ancient record and explain away the rest (essentially what I picked up from eight years of progressive biblical study)–if it all comes down to love your neighbor and give to the poor–then let’s be honest:  major religions all teach this and so do the “traditions” of freethinkers throughout history.

The most progressive thing a spiritually-minded person can do, in my opinion, is to let go of the “spiritual” (mystical “higher”) part as much as possible in favor of the mind, reason, common sense and natural wisdom that are to be found and experienced as each and every one of us learns to sacrifice the “books from above” for the common good of the human (and non-human) community.  What about the Great Book of Nature held up by Paine, Wright, Whitman, Thoreau, Muir, Burroughs and many others? Shouldn’t this “book” and these true progressives (revolutionaries really) be our primary source of thought and action–even “spirituality”– in a more enlightened age?

Naturally reasonable minds ask of the “progressives”:

1.  Aren’t all “holy books” just made by human hands, of elements torn from living things?

2.  Don’t each of these books (traditions, religions) all point beyond Nature to some other “better” world and doesn’t this jeopardize full participation and engagement in the only world we know or have?

3.  If the essence and core of each of these traditions teach fundamentally the same thing as regards living in peaceful human community, why not finally let go of the separations, divisions, walls of hostility and contrary theologies to do what must be done, unencumbered by the irrational and extra-natural?

4.  And finally, isn’t this what it means to truly be “progressive”–to “make use of new ideas, new opportunities” (Webster’s) and let all these artificial, super-naturalistic barriers, verbal or otherwise fade away so we can all be simply human together?  Can’t we be, simply, meaningfully, progressive human beings, if we need to label ourselves at all?

In recent days we have heard a great deal about “progressive” evangelicals, who care about politics, the environment and social causes.  In the end, the problem with this is the same as the issue with any and all christians who call themselves “progressive”:  if you have a non-rational faith in a higher being in a super-natural realm, you have chosen, by your faith decision, to be separated from vast numbers of the human family and can never be fully participating in the advancement (development, peaceful restoration, unification, etc) of life on earth.  You simply cannot.  In the geo-political sphere, the parallel is something beyond the United Nations where each country continues to say, in effect, “Our Country is Number One, Above All, God Blesses Us.”  Sure, good work is done, coalitions are formed–but, at the end of the day, each representative, as a representative of one particular nation, goes back to his or her home with the assurance and knowledge that “My Country is the Greatest.”  Not dissimilar to placing one’s holy book on the top of the pile.  And of course, as we know, put these two belief systems together (as we see all over the world) and we might ask, we are compelled to ask, are we ever far from war?

I would challenge all my “progressive” colleagues and former colleagues not to be diffident, to progress beyond the religious titles, to advance, to move forward, to completely do the good work side by side with all who see value in doing better and being better.  Why have “progressive” christians, “progressive” jews or any other religious rubric?  Let us simply do what must be done without the weights and whips of the past.  Enough of the needless, ultimately harmful, adjectives.  Away with the empty opinions and mumbling mumbo jumbo.

Those children in India, standing before the candleflames, may unknowingly be praying for the end of prayer, for the end of religion, in any form we have known.  They are directly suffering from the results of religion, maybe even a “progressive-minded” leadership.  Could it be, those children may be pleading to us for true progress that lights a lamp of freethinking not set above or on high, but in the midst of all the holy books and heavenly ideas of our sectarian past.

Chris Highland

August 2008

See also, “To Awake from a Dream” (Beyond God)

Why I Am Not an Atheist (or a Theist)

Chris Highland

*Recently I was troubled to hear someone say yet again that America is “a Christian nation.”  As a former Protestant minister I am grateful to those who speak up and speak out when “The Right” or the pseudo-patriots incessantly claim this land as their own.  Not long ago I wrote this essay in response to the response, adding my voice to the chorus of believers in another, rational, more natural way.  

“Is [your accusation of atheism ] that I teach people to believe in some gods, but in different gods from those recognized by the State. . .?”

~Socrates, Apology 399 B.C.E.

A Letter for Our Time

In his recent open “Letter to a Christian Nation” neo-atheist Sam Harris presents his response to the many letters he received after “The End of Faith” was published.  In his prefatory words Harris lays out in a clear manner the Christian color of America (much deeper than red and blue or white and black).  He states that “among developed nations” America “stands alone” in basic convictions threaded throughout the historic fabric of the country by Christian teaching.  Then he puts it blankly:  “Our country now appears, as at no other time in her history, like a lumbering, bellicose, dim-witted giant.” And he warns that we ought to be terrified by the “combination of great power and great stupidity” evident in a populous and leadership steeped in creationism, judgment-day expectations and other anti-rational religious dogma.  His assertions echo my own essay on “The Greatest Terrorist Threat” (see www.naturetemple.net) singling out fundamental Christianist teachings as the most insidious “terror cell” we face today.

Harris’ little “Letter” is less than one-hundred pages yet packed with a reasoned, no-punches-pulled argument that the time has come to fully face and forcefully challenge those who build their personal lives or even public policy upon essential Christian principles.  He sees no higher ground for religious liberals either.  He is clear:  “If the Bible is an ordinary book, and Christ an ordinary man, the basic doctrine of Christianity is false [and] the history of Christian theology is the story of bookish men parsing a collective delusion.” 

Harris reminds me of my own evangelical background and the years it took me to open my reasoning mind to a more liberal Christian point of view.  When I left the Church it was at least partly due to the same argument raised by Harris.  I left because Christianist theology, dogma, creed and practice no longer held credibility for me; I could no longer see any good coming from attempting a “liberal” or “progressive” renovation of the Church when the whole foundation was rotted.

Harris, along with physicist Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and a growing number of vocal members of the scientific, philosophical and journalistic communities, are claiming in essence a new atheism.  They are on the radical forefront of an increasingly fearless counter-attack against the prevailing winds of Christianism, winds still surprisingly strong after centuries of scientific study and philosophical reasoning.  This counter-wind or face-to-the-wind approach is refreshing, though this new atheism is a freshening breeze which must appear like an approaching tornado to so many whose faith is precariously constructed upon fear. 

Not an Atheist or a Theist

My self-analytical question has been, Am I an atheist?  Since I find so much of Harris’ (and Dawkins’ as well as Hitchens’) reasoning so compelling and clearly identify with much of their perspective emerging from my own experience, I wonder, Am I an atheist, and if not, why not?

In his best, most succinct lines on atheism Harris says, “Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious.” He goes on, “In fact ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist.  No one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist’.”  “Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”  Later he presents arguments to counter religious claims for a “Good God,” Morality, and the superiority of the Bible.  His scientific atheism tears apart the divine figure claimed by most Americans and most people on the planet.  In one section he shows how ridiculous it is to believe in a God who would create 350,000 known species of beetles and ten strains of virus for every species on earth.  Is the divine being beetle-crazy!  Indeed, someone needs to be making noises about this, and loud noises, more of a howler monkey than a cricket.  Jumping, or at least crawling, to his call to reasonable action, Harris states, “We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty.  Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.”  In the end, Harris holds to a tenuous hope that moving beyond religion and religious division and delusion we might just “stand a chance of healing the deepest and most dangerous fractures in our world.”

“Letter to a Christian Nation” concludes with some clarity of the author’s understanding of the power of religious belief.  He knows that many people feel they love more because of their faith, that they can experience bliss and transformation from their beliefs.  Yet, he says, though religion may have evolved to serve some purpose for us, that is no longer the case.  There are more rational and meaningful ways of loving, of being transformed, of feeling fulfilled. And I have to agree, with a sigh of sadness mixed with some anger, with the closing line, it is possible that religion “is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization.”

I have some anger about the role of religion in the world because my long coming-to-terms with religion in my own life has taken a toll.  Yes, I have been an innovative teacher, social worker and chaplain.  It seems true, I have been inspired and inspired others through my work, my example, my instruction, even my preaching.  However, doing many great and good things in the name of a religious faith or faith-based ideology resting on untruths, manipulative theologies and manifest destructive delusions leaves a thoughtful person aghast and somewhat empty.  As Harris points out, even Martin Luther King went to Gandhi for his practice of non-violence and Gandhi got his concept of ahimsa (non-harming) from the Jains.  To be inspired to good works through a well-orchestrated stage play doesn’t change the fact that it is fiction.  If compassion works, then work compassionately.  Where is the value in claiming it is because you are a Christian or a Buddhist, a Hindu or Jain?  If your religion teaches that God is Love then learn to love and cease claiming that your God is the best Lover.  That’s nothing more than the old line “my religion is superior because we love more, we are more compassionate.” I know of a shelter for houseless families operated by a cooperative of congregations holding widely different beliefs.  Though each community of faith might really think their way to God is the best, it seems that some at least are beginning to understand:  all our beliefs are meaningless unless we act with lovingkindness, and the best way to act is cooperatively.  Good can indeed arise from fiction and the stories we tell our children.  Yet, at what point  do we clear the stage and get real, get reasonable and get healthy?  Are we not precisely at that point?

These questions lead me right to my tentative conclusion:  I am not an atheist and cannot see that I will ever claim that.  Why?  Because I believe in God?  No.  I am neither a theist nor an atheist.  I do not believe in a deity beyond or above or inside anymore.  I have written and spoken on the kinship I feel with John Burroughs’ pantheistic view of God as Nature/Nature as God.  I feel great affinity with the “Transcendentalists,” the Idealists who find divinity in Nature and in all things.  I can deeply appreciate the worldviews of many indigenous peoples and their participation with the sacred in their everyday lives.  And I can and do support much of the intention of the interfaith movement, drawing together various and diverse communities for greater understanding and compassionate, just and peaceful activity.  For this reason I would not readily abolish religion or even “God.”  I admit to a somewhat futile feeling about that.  Yet, having said this and having acknowledged my own indebtedness to religion and its influence in some circles, I have to say clearly that for me now, in this present time, I cannot and will not place myself in any community, scientific, philosophical or religious, that shapes its identity on negation, on dis-belief or on what can often be a meanspirited attack on the faith of honest (though perhaps uninformed) people.  I cannot call myself an atheist, a non-theist, for the same reasons Sam Harris presents “atheism” as a word that should not exist.  Perhaps I simply do not wish to define myself by the negation he admits.  If  he is right, that “Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs” then I will make my own noises without using the word.  I will not take on the label of Non-Christian though I left the Church or Non-Californian because I left the state.  Unless one is nothing more than a labeler or nothing less than a dogmatic atheist, I see no problem with the more organic path I have chosen, label it as you will.

Labels and Letters

I admit to being torn here.  I am neither pro-god nor anti-god.  I am not an atheist for the same reasons that I am not a theist.  There is so much confluence I feel with neo-atheism but I think I am choosing another way of making the case against religion.  It may simply be a matter of emphasis.  I choose to emphasize what I am, rather than what I am not.  My approach has been, in recent years, to point to the natural spirituality of Muir, Thoreau, Emerson, Fuller, Burroughs and others who found their “god” in Nature.  This, for me, is my defiance in the stern face of religious dogma and creed as well as my determined stance in the stubborn face of atheist credos (however undeclared).  I do not find myself drawn to join the neo-atheists except to nod that I understand, I get it, I appreciate what they are saying because it must be said.  But what I have to say in the context of my own life experience, my own spiritual development and journey out of Christianism, is just as critical, equally called for in response to religion in our time.  With this tentative sense of tornness I can only say in conclusion that this is not my version of an a-atheism (the doubtful double negative that that is) but my personal Letter to Neo-Atheists.  It should be a most interesting and positive correspondence. 

Chris Highland

World Without God?

“Wildly here, without control; Nature reigns and rules the whole.”

~Robert Burns, “Castle Gordon”

Positive Nature of Conflict

There is a large part of me that despises conflict in any form.  Interpersonal conflict naturally leads to inner struggle and vice versa.  All conflict is uncomfortable in every way.  Yet, it is ubiquitous and inevitable.  The disturbed emotions and turbulent tensions associated with conflicting thoughts and feelings often lead to the desire for periods of  solitude even isolation where others are to be avoided because they fray the nerves and are irritating to the ear and eye.  I used to refer to a cottage I once lived in as my “hermitage” and in many ways I felt a hermit there, retreating from a very public life into hours and days of fulfilling solitude.

The other morning as I was sitting with my tea overlooking the windblown bay of the Sound, I was reflecting on the phalanx of conflicts that had assailed me throughout the week.  I became acutely aware of how knotted I was within.  In another, more apropos image, I saw my mind as a windblown bay raked by storms and rain showers.  As I became more aware of my feelings over the week’s conflicts a strange thing occurred—a smile of irony blew across my face like a wave curving the island shore.  I recognized my attraction to conflict.  Even as I hate conflict, I seek it.  My greatest inspiration in these days was in reading freethinkers in American history:  Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, Frances Wright, Robert Burns, Robert Ingersoll, Susan Jacoby, Clarence Darrow, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Mary Oliver, John Stuart Mill and others.  Each and all people who wrote and spoke their minds in conflicting historical contexts; each knowing their writings and words would invite ridicule, criticism, some social ostracism and conflict.  Still with teamug in hands I sipped the thought that I take great pleasure in speaking my mind and writing my ideas though I am certain my own words will bring even more conflict into my life.  Current writing projects on Christianity, on Politics and on Thomas Paine lead right to the heart of my own agitations over the lack of independent thinkers in our society and my own sense that I have a role to fulfill.

I thrive in the midst of conflict.  When I am pushed, I am drawn to push back to bring the conflict to center stage where it must be dealt with.  At my best moments my intention is to create an opportunity for balance and truthtelling, to teach by presenting an example of alternative ways of thinking or acting.  In fact, in significant ways, conflict makes me a better teacher.  I feel energized and I rise to the occasion with a power of self and articulation that even surprises me sometimes.  

The day before my morning tea I was driving across the island with conflicted emotions over a variety, a juggling jumble, of thoughts:  my financial uncertainties; an ongoing job search; a relationship with a woman; an unpleasant business phone conversation; a computer crash; trouble with housemates; and a few physical aches and pains.  As I was typically driving five over the speed limit, I glanced in the mirror to see a van approaching from behind.  I have been trying to make it a practice to pull off the road or slow and signal for these racers to pass.  Here there was no turn out, it was raining and I was growing irritated.  I kept to my appropriate speed.  Finally the van signaled to turn.  I slowed down and glared in my mirror to let the guy know that I might just turn around and follow him or at the very least let him know I didn’t appreciate his pushiness.  These road moments make me very uncomfortable and I understand completely where road rage comes from!  Here was another conflict to add to my already full table of crap to handle!  The better part of me says “People are not mindfully aware of what they are doing, so it’s best to get out of their way and don’t let them bother you.”  Another “better part” of me says, “O.K., this joker isn’t being aware and he’s pushing, so I’m going to communicate my displeasure without, hopefully, getting offensive back.”  Two approaches to the conflict.  Both are appropriate at different times and I try both.  Call it my penchant for wanting to wake people up, to educate and force the debate but sometimes I feel it’s my “duty” to confront the other person for their sake, for my own and, maybe in the long run, for others.

Pushing Toward a Useful Disbelief

All of this personal “conflict resolution” (that regularly presents no firm resolution) relates quite directly to the expression of my views on religion.  I write against my former religious tradition (Christianity) and the more I write, the clearer, more concise I believe I am becoming in presenting my reasoning critiques of religion.  My walking straight into the areas of conflict—the potential battlefields—tells me that I have a passion for this subject and a widening, more public role to play in addressing the most critical issues.  I speak out of my experience, the most honest thing to do, and raise my own questions and criticisms for others to either pull off the road and let me by, slow down and face my “pushiness” or ride along with me for a while.  Interesting, I become the one pushing, though it be “in the face” and not as a tailgater.  In the long run I hope I am more the model of creative tension in community than some “outsider” throwing stones or placing nails in the road. 

Conflict is, of course, one of the major elements of religious experience—perhaps the most energetic element.  In this essay I am sauntering into the greatest conflict of religion, namely, the existence of God.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) had a great philosophical mind.  I read him in the university because I was interested in his “utilitarianism”—the philosophy, similar to William James’ pragmatism, that taught that Truth was only true if useful, if it could reasonably be put to good use.  Mill was raised by a father who was educated as a Scottish Presbyterian but then rejected the harsh creeds of the church.  Mill’s father passed along this heretical bent to his son insisting that revelation and belief in any professed image of God could not hold up to reason.  The younger Mill grew to appreciate that his father was not a “dogmatic atheist”—he simply admitted that he could not come to conclusions about the origins of things.  From his father, Mill learned to question how a supposedly good and righteous God could or would create a world so full of evil, suffering and death.  He came to understand that people in all ages have progressively (that is regressively) created an exceedingly wicked God.  Mill believed the time was near when “this dreadful conception of an object of worship” will no longer be accepted or perpetrated, particularly through Christianity. 

Following the reasoning of John Stuart Mill and his father, of Thomas Paine and likeminded freethinkers, I also believe it is the right and appropriate time to disbelieve; it is the time to do the just and true thing by pulling back the Wizard of Oz curtain in the Emerald City to expose the most liberating truth of history:  There is no Wizard and there is no God.  Having taken this immense step, it is our task not to pick up the pieces, for there are no pieces to pick up, but our task is to present some way to live, sanely and virtuously, in a post-God world—a world without God.

Am I saying that the “image” of God needs to change?  Is this an argument, similar to that presented by Rev. Miguez Bonino and other “liberation theologians,” that Christians simply need to re-imagine and reconstruct a more modern image of God?  I don’t intend to speak of what Christians ought to do.  There are plenty of clergy who can speak to the flocking faithful. In seminary some spoke of a “post-Christian culture.”  Radical teachers saw this as welcome news.  Yet, hundreds and hundreds more seminary graduates went on to serve parishes, keeping the well-holy-oiled machine running as smoothly as possible. If it is a post-Christian culture, the Church and its clergy act like nothing has changed, no one has died, the elephant is not shitting in the middle of the altar.  Some progressive ideas are spoken from some pulpits.  Yet none of these preachers, no matter how “liberal,” will ever be able to say, “The Christian God does not exist,” or “The Bible is not a truthful book.” Obviously they would eliminate not only their jobs but call into question the existence of their churches as well.  I am calling for more than an image change and more than a “makeover” within any one religious tradition or in them all.  What I intend to argue here, in the good tradition of freethinking in America, is that the God presented by a vast majority of religions needs to be unmasked as a false god, or, to put it even more bluntly, God must die, indeed has died.

I do not see myself as some kind of suicide bomber walking into the sacred hallways and sanctuaries of religion.  I will simply speak my message, my truth, and seek to be heard.  It is indeed my intention to alter perceptions; to ask the most incisive and precision questions that may lead some to abandon their traditional (handed down) faith.  Yet as I hope to make clear, I am not intending to harm anyone’s honest, freely chosen faith.  It simply must be said clearly for contemporary ears to hear:  the God presented by the “World Religions” does not exist and in fact this God is wicked and the image must be shattered before more destruction and war results.  All this is scandalous to large segments of the population yet a great relief to many of us who have suffered throughout our lives in fear of the Almighty.

Autopsy on a Faith

Since I know it the best, I will now perform a post-mortem, a dissection of the cadaver of the God of Christianity.  A messy business, but someone must cut.  The God of both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles is, by nature, wicked, murderous, barely ethical, essentially evil (see the film “The Trial of God;” the rabbi speaks: “God is not good”).  Consider the all-important creed, central to all Christian tradition:  God demands sacrifice so “He” premeditated the murder of His son to appease and please himself.  This infanticide was to remedy the evil of the Fall (the first unwinnable setup for humans), redeem damnable sinners from the specially constructed torture chamber called hell, and reconcile humanity to the “Just and Loving God,” their Father through a re-birth into the heavenly kingdom (the prefix re- is popular in Christian theology).  All creeds of the centuries point to this central creed and present this Angry Parent God who time and again sets up (the Bible calls it “tests”) humans in the never-to-be-good-enough scenario of the drama written, directed and produced by the Almighty.  Unfortunately, two thousand years of human history has been a Shakespearean stage whereupon the actors live out this tragedy called Re-ligion.

Have you ever imagined what you would do if you were God?  Of course, we all have.  If even for a moment, you could create a world, how would that look?  Can you imagine forming a beautiful blue-green garden planet where all creatures would live harmoniously and enjoy your presence?  Could you picture making beings with intelligence and wisdom, who faced conflict yet learned to care for each other and live in peace?  Now, could you imagine building into these people a deep flaw, sin, something that would doom them to a place you had to spend some time constructing to punish them?  Then you would threaten these lovely beings (your dear friends and children) with torture if they refused to serve you and serve you in a very precise way, with specific beliefs to repeat over and over again, asking forgiveness perpetually throughout their lives?  Then you gave them books with contradictory instructions and incredible stories, demanding that they study these books as the highest authority.  The greatest story in one book said you killed thousands of people, including your only child, in order to atone for (make right) the serious flaw you created.  Now let me ask you, what kind of God would you be?  The very one we have been told made us to be His servants!  Could you do better than that?  Could you be a better God than that?  Of course you could, and so could I.  A child could dream up a better world.  An imbecile could make up a better story, and probably much more fair, loving and just!

Some will contend that the originators of these stories, in the Bible for instance, really intended for people to get along with each other and the other creatures on the earth.  These will say that the original message may have been buried or misinterpreted for a long time but we can recover or restore it (more re- prefixes).  So, I ask them, what was that original message and what happened to it? (for more on the bible see my essay on “Nature’s Scripture”).  And, perhaps more importantly, what other image of God can you dig up buried under all those stories of murder and incest, war, greed, sacrifice and religious propaganda?  Is there a “God of Love” behind all that?  It begs the question:  If there is a loving God buried deep in the millions of words read, studied and worshipped by billions on the planet today—why isn’t the basic, hidden message being lived?  Where is the evidence for that kind of God?  And if we could actually find Him or Her, would you not want to be at my side when I ask, “How come You didn’t just give a simple message saying ‘Love each other’ and then spend Your time helping us do just that?” 

Some will contend that we were given “Free Will” to make our own choices what to do, what to believe.  Our “free” choices make us responsible to “do the right thing.”  If we choose “wrong” we will pay the consequences.  Well, this has bothered me for a while.  I will heartily agree that we humans are indeed free to live and choose, to think and believe, and reject beliefs through reasonable analysis.  We are free to choose to believe in a God “up there” “out there” somewhere, a Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu God, or Buddha-nature.  Or we can choose to disbelieve in that God and pick something that makes more reasonable and ethical sense.  My question here is quite simple:  What difference does it make, this choice to believe or not, in this or that God?  Are religious people who believe in these traditional images living more virtuous, compassionate lives than the rest of us common folk?  Some may be.  But the choice seems nearly irrelevant.  I say I believe in the Almighty God who made heaven and earth, and I go to church and am a fairly nice person.  Another says, I believe that God is every particle of the universe, I go hiking and am a fairly decent person.  Who sorts this out?  What of free will?  Who gave us the free will, God or Nature, natural evolution, brain mechanisms, psychological development?  Does it really matter?  It seems to me that the free will argument has always sidestepped the point:  So, you’re saying that a Good and Decent, Fair and Just, Loving God gave us free will, yet, if we don’t choose to follow One Religion—the “right” religion—we are not making that God happy?  Once again, we are left with a very unhappy, unsatisfied, rather incompetent God who did not set up a very workable world. 

Look at the Christian record.  If the God of the Bible, interpreted three different ways by Jews, Christians and Muslims, really set up this incredible system of sacrifice which seems an almost complete failure, that causes a breakdown in body, communities and human reason, then we are in a most sorry state!  If this kind of Creator actually exists, well then, He/She is a blundering, bloody-hands bully and a fool—the Pilot of spaceship earth is an amateur floundering at the controls!  If this Being really lives and gave us the Bible, the Qur’an and other holy books then this Being is cruel and heartless, toying with humanity, a Beast who obviously uses such holy objects as weapons time and time again.  There could never be unity, harmony with all these religions.  You and I could simply pick one and move on.  But that would only carry on the delusions and delay the inevitable realization that there is no God, Creator, Almighty—Eastern or Western—of any religion whatsoever.  Oddly enough, this point was made clearer for me while watching a PBS independent film on Shiite pilgrims traveling to their holy city of Karbala in Iraq.  An older man, speaking of the lessons of the Great Martyr Hussein (grandson of Mohammed), said: “We should never live under a Tyrant, and we should never be a Tyrant.”  As if echoing Thomas Paine, this speaks for religious tyranny as well.

Questions and Colors on the Canvas

Now I will play my hand.  Here is the card I am holding and I have no interest in deception.  The Church has long practiced that kind of sleight-of-hand.  One cannot replace God, nor do I think one ought to try.  The answer to all this unhealthy, destructive and irrational religious humbug, at least for me, is this:  One must simply look to Nature, the natural world, with ample evidence of beauty, creativity, delightful mutability, and yes, suffering and death, to settle into our native home without fear of an angry or incompetent torturer God.  A deep awareness of Nature’s universally accessible teachings makes the bible, the church and heaven into fantastic, fatalistic and sadistic childplay.  To open the windows and doors, aye to tear down the walls of divisive separation incessantly generated by religion, is to gain the fresh air of reason and new opportunity to courageously choose life and live it to the hilt.  As entertainer Danny Kaye once said, “Life is a great big canvas—so throw on all the paint you can!”

Here are the critical questions directed at my analysis by those who wish to preserve (in formaldehyde) the traditional God-paths:

1.  Are you not merely replacing the word and concept of God with the word Nature?

No, I am not.  Nature, the natural world, is the only context we have for living this life we call human.  Some may personify Nature as a god or goddess but this is not what I am doing.  For me, Nature is alive since Nature contains and animates all things, permeates all life, minerals, water, air and the entire universe, known and not-yet-known and in fact this Nature is identical with all that is.  My own particular, peculiar understanding (partially left over I suppose from my Christian days but also a conclusion from experience) is that I can relate to Nature as a spirit, that it is an animating presence that is not super-natural but everything my senses and my reason tell me Life and the Universe are.  Because this “Spirit of Nature” interpenetrates all things a person could never pin down this immensely diverse lifeforce into one image, name or even personality (and certainly not boxed and packaged into a religion—even, ironically, a religion of nature). 

At times I feel there are emotions and thoughts that this living Nature is communicating with me (others have described similar experiences) as when a wild animal approaches, does something strange or odd that seems directed to me.  I have “met” creatures this way when they seem to be curious, appearing to have a desire to “relate” to me or express something.  This may very well be my imagination.  So be it.  If I am simply fantasizing in these profound moments of relation then I am still transformed by the encounter.  The encounters probably have very good scientific explanations and I would also be fascinated to hear them.  In fact, I fully welcome scientific investigation as a partner in understanding the natural world.  Science, like Philosophy, is a wonderful rational tool necessary to our complete education.  I am never literalizing these “I-Thou” moments except to speak of the natural setting, creatures I meet, and my thoughts or feelings about the “meeting,” speech that quite often seems best embodied in poetry, song or story.  There is no Other, set apart from, above or below me. Those common things we take so much for granted (as in “granted by God” I guess) such as sunsets, the smell after a fresh rain, birds flying by and the like, are things that I wish to notice more and learn from (the same goes for the “disasters” of earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes and the like that are not “bad” in the natural order of things; the more we learn about these natural events the more we may learn how to live with them more wisely and perhaps find that we cause many of them from our own ignorance—global warming; pollution; living on floodplains and faultlines and the like).  My greatest bias here is that I believe I have something to learn from Nature as my primary teacher.  There is some slight personification with this attitude, yet it does not, I contend, mean that I have made Nature my “God.”  I can honor, respect and learn from all there is without worshipping.  This is quite close to what I have heard in the sentiments of many tribes of indigenous people and in certain so-called pagan worldviews as well as the philosophical system I often identify with, Pantheism.  Though concerning Pantheism I hasten to remind that I am not inclined (in this chapter of my life) to any theism or theistic perspective.  As naturalist John Burroughs once wrote, “We must recognize only Nature, the All; call it God if we will, but divest it of all anthropological connections. . .the Cosmos knows no God–it is super deum” (The Light of Day, 1900).  I heartily agree.  Nature is above, far more vast, than any God or god-image we conjure up for our own comfort.  Nature is the ocean–the gods are puddles. A Christian professor I once knew loved to say that God created human beings in the divine image, and humans have been returning the favor ever since!  This is why the God of the religions always looks like, acts like, thinks like, the ones who made that God.  In the face of our propensity for running god-manufacturing plants, I would easily choose Nature’s creatively diverse, organically wondrous image.     

2.  Aren’t you simply angry with the Church?  Why don’t you get over it, get passed it?

I am not angry with “the Church.”  The so-named Church Universal (catholic, orthodox and protestant) is too big and vast and fragmented for my anger.  I am gravely disappointed in the majority of leadership, the clergy, teachers, interpreters of the Church.  And yes, I am angry at the core teachings, the creeds and the general practice of churchpeople that seem to have little to do with or are the antithesis of the basic teachings expounded by Jesus. 

I cannot “get over it.”  Most of my life was devoted to “churchwork.”  I spent countless days of my youth going to church, studying the bible, praying and preaching at others. I studied religion all through college and seminary. I gave fourteen years of my vocational life as an ordained Protestant minister.  I served in alliance with religious traditions for almost a quarter century as a chaplain.  Then, through hard experience and tough thinking I came to these conclusions that will no doubt rattle me to the marrow until I die.  And, frankly, I don’t want to get over this.  I feel drawn to get into it.  I am willing to entertain the thought that I am meant (called by Nature) to take on this role as a gadfly, a critic from the inside out, a revolutionary in the manner of a John Mill, an Ingersoll, a Waldo Emerson or a Thomas Paine.  Yet I am not them and do not wish to be.  I have my unique depth of experience with this subject.  I do not choose to be silent or sheeplike any longer.  Religion needs to be challenged.  Its harmful nature threatens the fabric of our state and our mental state.

One more point needs to be made in response to this question.  One reason that I choose not to “get over it”—these tensions with the Christian Church and religion in general—is that the Church is sick (I would say dead) and doesn’t know it, or chooses not to admit it.  People are in denial, or are powerless in the face of their religious addiction.  This is the real confession of sin, if there must be one.  Put one way—I said this explicitly when I left the Presbyterian Church and my ordination with them—the Church is mentally ill and is not managing its illness well.  As with much diagnosed mental illness there is, there can be, no cure.  Do you have compassion for an ill person?  Of course.  But I do not have compassion for this old institution that carries around a corpse and proclaims it Living!  I do not have compassion for a sick community that really is not much of a community (I have mentioned there are glowing exceptions), that in practice does not even live by the basic, the most basic, principles modeled by its “Founder” Jesus.  As I said to the Presbyterians:  “The Church is mentally ill, and speaks only with itself.”  So much for the prophetic ministry!

So, the Church is sick and in reality is dead to all it originally meant as a revolutionary society-changing army of the compassionate (though the biblical record raises serious doubts about that as well).  The Church is mentally, let’s even say physically, ill—it is a danger to itself and others; it cannot be cured but must be seen for what it is. 

Another analogy that has been meaningful to me is one of a doomed ship; a Titanic or a broken airplane that is without doubt going down.  One can see the iceberg dead ahead, the ground fast approaching.  The ship has a gaping hole or has lost a main rudder and is simply drifting to the doom of all aboard.  Are you still aboard?  Do you think it can be “repaired?”  I used to say it was like scrubbing toilets on the Titanic to remain in the Church.  Well, then stay in your seat if you wish.  I for one grabbed a life preserver (or a parachute) and jumped to save my body, mind and soul.  Yes, I can let go and will when I see with my eyes and hear with my ears and reason with my brain that this thing is no longer going to float or fly!      

To summarize:

The Church is dying, indeed is dead.

The Church is mentally ill.

The Church is a doomed ship and those with reasoning still intact ought to jump now!

3.  Why do you want to destroy the faith of billions of people around the globe?  There must be something good about religion!  Don’t you care about taking away the comfort and the motivation people gain from the good of their religion?

As I have said, I do not wish to destroy a person’s honest, chosen faith.  Yet there is the rub.  How many have really chosen their faith?  Few.  Very few.  I did not choose, as a child or as a youth.  When I was presented with only one religion and one narrow part of that religion (evangelical Christianity) I was given no real choice.  What was the alternative?  Go to God or go to Hell!  Until there is a fair and honest choice there can be no choosing.  A healthy choice comes through a good, honest look at alternatives before making such life-affecting decisions.  I will thank some of my professors at my evangelical Christian university (Seattle Pacific) for helping me with values clarification, a scientific, sociological philosophy that teaches that one only truly values what one chooses from viable alternative choices.  Made sense then.  Makes sense now. 

I have respected and will continue to respect practitioners of various religious traditions who seem to have genuinely chosen their beliefs, who are with the best intentions true practitioners of their interpretation of their religious teachings.  Some remain dear friends.  I admire a person who lives a compassionate, informed life with a progressive outlook, open to further insight and education.  This has been my goal, my intention.  However, wherever the herd mentality (so sharply identified by Nietzsche) lowers its head in submission to tradition, I must speak out without fear of harming such “faith.”  If someone finds “comfort” in words that are untrue, unjust and unreasonable I feel the necessity to speak and speak forcefully.  Who said that pews were meant to be cushy and comfortable!  When an old woman crawls on her knees around a church in devotion to her God I must say, “Woman, arise!  Be healed!”  When a man beats himself bloody in a ritual to please Allah I must say, “Man, stop!  Be healed!”  When parents kneel by the bed of their sick child and pray, foregoing the intervention of medicine, I must cry out, “People, wake up and save your child’s precious life!”  When a bearded man slips a prayer into an ancient wall and asks God for peace, then he turns away and plots revenge on his enemy, I must say loudly, “What are you doing?  What kind of God are you slavishly serving?  Wake up!”  Certainly there are those who are innocently adhering to the only rituals, words, images that they know.  I have little interest in shaking their simpleminded faith.  Yet, when I hear even a child say, “I better be good or God might send me to hell!,” I will indeed respond, “Oh, child, fear not.  You are loved!”  My contention is with the harmful effects of religion and those effects are my main concern since I see them as pervasive and perpetuated by the leaders of systems and institutions who really see no harm in the irrationality of those institutions.

Having said this I have to admit.  I do not say most of these things when I see people sheepishly herding along.  Most of the time I am so disgusted, angry with the perpetuators of that kind of religion, disappointed in the death of reason on the altar of faith, that I simply shake my head and walk away (usually from the radio, internet news service or television).  I often feel powerless over irrationality.  I mean, how do you address it?  How can one alter the mindsets that foster this widespread irrational religion?  This essay (among others) is but one way I can find to speak out, to say something that makes one contribution to the danger of religious belief as we see it daily.

And, referring back to what I said above.  If helping another to “jump ship,” and a sick ship at that, serves to save one person’s reason and human dignity then by all means I will assist them though it means they “lose faith” in the ship, its crew, its Pilot.  If the plane is going down I am not the one to ask for a pillow and blanket, and I will not simply throw a comforter (if you’ll excuse the pun) on another. 

4.    What about all the good things the Church is doing?  Don’t you see any positive effects of the religious life in our world?

Yes, many are doing wonderful things, and often in the name of God or Jesus, of Allah, Buddha, Krishna and others. I would never ask them to stop their kind deeds regardless of the intentions.  Yet I believe that intentions are important indicators of the lasting value of the works performed.  In fact, I think a person’s intentions will actually affect the depth and the meaning of those acts.  As an example:  I used to be greatly inspired by the works of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, India.  She would not simply preach about helping poor, dying, untouchable people.  She would touch them, care for them, and taught her Catholic sisters to care for them.  From all I can see, her work was amazing and admirable.  I would never have asked her to cease her activities.  I read her autobiography where she says that she served Jesus in the poor she helped.  She said something like, “The poor are the Lord in distressing disguise.”  For years, as a chaplain among poor people on the streets of America, I looked to Teresa and her work in India, as a model of how to treat people with spiritual compassion.  Then I began to see another side of the good Mother.  She was anti-abortion, even in a country like India where the birthrate is out of control, pushing families deeper into poverty and the society deeper into debt.  She would not push the role of women as priests before the power of her Vatican Father.  Finally, my presence ministry among women, men and children, outcast into the tragedy of poverty in this country, showed me that “seeing Jesus in the poor” was not guiding me any longer.  To be serving God through another person seemed disingenuous.  It was not treating another person with the unique dignity they deserved, fully present for them and not some God behind the human facade.  Could I ever look another in the eye and say, “I’m helping you because I see God in you”?  I chose never to practice that kind of “devotion” again.

People in churches often do great things.  Food pantries; visiting prisoners or the elderly; marching in demonstrations; offering affordable childcare; supporting low income housing; holding public dialogues and the like—all good endeavors.  I wouldn’t ask them to stop.  To be brief I would only say here that good things can appear out of very broken, even corrupt businesses or institutions.  In my experience these sorts of good works are shouldered by a small number in those churches.  Many of these folks aren’t even that involved in the “church life.”  Some might even hold heretical views!  They are there to do what they feel must be done.  The church resources and facility simply give a physical context for the work.  Great, I say.  Then let the resources and facilities and the pockets of energy in that congregation be completely devoted to the work that must be done.  Do the people really need the ancient rituals to motivate, to enhance their experience of helping?  I doubt it.  Perhaps new rituals will arise from the work itself.  I’ve seen it in practice (interfaith service projects, processions for justice, community meals and Thanksgiving services, for instance).  Let the “outsiders” have a go at it.  So much more can be said from my experience and you can read it elsewhere. 

The bottom line is this:  there are clearly positive benefits from some practice of belief.  What I am concerned about is who is running “the business” and for what reason.  If the religious business is being operated by an innately oppressive, irrational system of creeds and practices (such as denying full participation of women or minorities, condemning birth control, or propagating religious superiority, bigotry or authoritarianism in any form) then that system taints any and all its “good works.”  Would you give your business to someone who hung a sign outside their store saying, “No Brown-eyed People?”  Would you worship a God of love and justice in a church that might just as well hang a sign out saying, “No Women Priests or Ministers” or “No Gay People?”  What about a sign that said, “No Uncomfortable Questions,” “No Agnostics” or “No Philosophical Reasoning or Scientific Inquiry Allowed?”  Would you be associated with that kind of place?  If so, I must tell you there is one great sin and you have committed it:  Intellectual Suicide!

I used to believe that the main “test” of a church’s “true faith” was the good works of its people in true Letter-of-James style: “Faith without works is dead.”  Yet, even those good works need to be understood in the illuminating context of the system that supports them.  A bit like asking whether the government’s support of a homeless shelter is in some way a contradiction, a hypocrisy, when the government is finding hundreds of billions of dollars for weapons of war and political campaigns while refusing healthcare for all or while cutting people off welfare roles with the result that more are left without jobs or homeless.  It seems crucial to ask whether it is consistent, as well as cruelly ironic, to be offering temporary shelter while being the main facilitator of the problem.  This arises as well with the Catholic Church’s “assistance for unwed mothers,” knowing full well that many of those women would not be in that suffering state if the church taught them birth control and allowed the free, medical choice for abortion.

5.  One more question, a comment really, that may be directed toward my position and argument is this:  We’re sorry you’ve rejected God and Jesus.  Don’t you miss the fellowship of the church?  We’ll pray for you.

Well, I would say “Thank you for praying for me, but really—Don’t!”  I need no prayers, if those prayers are to the same God of the Christian Church whose image hangs like a dark cloud over the entire history and systemic program that is Christianity. Appropriate isn’t it, that the central symbol of the Church is the God-Human hanging dead (and frankly the “empty cross” of Protestants is still a symbol of execution)?  I need no prayers if those prayers are spoken as if I know nothing of an experience of the sacred in my life, that I don’t “know Jesus.”  I could say with assurance that no one, not the Pope, Mother Teresa or the best televangelist in the world can claim a closer walk with Jesus than I.  I have walked the walk, as they say and I have “followed Jesus” in his life’s work and call for my entire adult life.  People might question my beliefs but, look at my life and work: presence ministry of compassion, teaching understanding, consistent student of spirituality, working cooperatively, being an open, loving person who seeks to be better along the way.  Yet, I seek not to please some God who cares more for my beliefs about “Him” than about my work and my heart’s intentions.  Ultimately I must say to these perhaps well-meaning people:  I have not rejected hope; I have not rejected an experience of love and the sacredness of life; I have not rejected honest, tough-minded and tender-hearted community; and I have not and will not let go of a basic sense of interconnection with the Source of Life present in and animating all things.  I simply follow Jesus and all other freethinkers straight out of the Church that co-opted his good name, into the light of reason, compassion and love of this beautiful home planet. 

Standing for a Better World

I will proudly take a stance in the throng that includes the “founders” of religions and the founders of revolutionary states like America (though they are rare).  I will proudly stand beside Rumi, Martin Luther, Thomas Paine, Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, Dorothy Day, Rosa Parks, Martin King, Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu and others in the long succession of radicals, infidels and heretics who stood (or sat!) for the Truth. 

An infidel I will proudly be if it means I am without faith in the moldy creeds of old and the wicked God of Christianity.

An atheist I will proudly be if by that term is meant one who will not accept the images of the divine proffered from pulpits and sold with bibles. 

A heretic I will proudly be if it means what it has always meant, one who chooses another opinion, an alternate path, as opposed to the orthodox, “correct” opinions, the “right,” “righteous” and “godly” path. 

I would even not resist the taunting epithet of a devil, if by that is meant one who has assumed the role of satan, “adversary,” called to present a reasonable case before the High Court of Common Sense, Reason, Justice and Truth.

I believe I am square in the center of the tradition that could never be center or front.  It is the tradition of Rocking the Boat, making the comfortable uncomfortable, identifying the questions that crumble the foundations.  Never having harmful intentions or acting solely from anger (though anger is a damn good motivator!) I am hoping for substantial reform leading to revolution, evolution in society individual by individual.

There is my fundamentally personal need to “tell my story.”  It is a story of emergence from a fundamentally destructive mindset and anesthetized community; a story of developing critical faculties through experience, reasoning, reading, meditation and dialogue.  My own story brings with it a great hope for change, an expectation that my speaking out will bring about honest dialogue and even transformation.  What I say may be ignored, remain unheard by most, lie impotent on paper, yet I sense something much greater.  I sense the great possibility, potentiality for my story to be heard, engaged, wrestled with through honest reasoning.  I do not see the ramifications of these “confessions” leading to loss of faith, rather to an evolution of faith into a reasonable livelihood—a science and philosophy marked by a life of kindness, compassion and a passionate search and practice of wisdom and truth. 

It is true, I do hope many would leave the Church and question the efficacy of Religion itself after grappling with my words alongside the writings of Thomas Paine and other freethinkers.  Why do I hold this hope when my former religion caused and continues to cause such harm in the world? 

I hold to hope because I believe in a better world.  A world not beyond the natural world that is our home but a world beyond Religion, beyond the prejudices, practices and parochial thinking that have been the engines and the engineers of the grinding machine of religious tradition for millennia, a machine that continues to roll right over the powerless and poor. 

I believe in a better world, that we can do better, be better—meaning: be more enlightened and happy—beginning with this revolution (a positive re- prefix), this evolution leaving behind the snakeskins, cocoons, antlers, placentas that restricted our full development as free agents of our destiny.  We can do and be better in a world grown up and willing to grow to our full potential.  It seems reasonable to think, even to anticipate, that this positive emergence steps forward into a renewal of Life in fresh forms with imagination, intelligence, empowerment toward the regeneration of new paths of adventure in a more joyous and fruitful world without God.

 Chris Highland

January 2006

Several minutes after completing this essay, John Lennon’s “Imagine” played on the radio.  Most of what I have said here is expressed poetically in that song.

Cosmic Civil War:  Nature or Super-Nature?

New life grows beneath the cannons at New Market battleground, Virginia
A few preliminary comments on a critical subject that continues to rattle and rumble in my mind. I’m particularly troubled by the battleground of faith and supernaturalism over against nature, reason, common sense and verifiable experience.  Having recently visited Civil War battlegrounds in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland the term “battleground” has a new meaning.  Now I feel that every American, and every person who wishes to understand human nature ought to get close to these places and learn what happened and why.  We need to make clear, in this divided, polarized world, exactly what happens when people take sides enforced by supernatural “guidance.”  We would do well to learn from this very uncivil conflict of four years duration, perhaps the central event in the formation of America following the actual signing of the “sacred” documents of the Union. 
Without an attempt to lay out the full story of this tragedy, which I could not, I will only say that the American Civil War cost over 600,000 lives, North and South, and these lives were sacrificed by those who claimed God on their side.  Yes, it was politics; yes, economics; yes the issue of slavery.  Yet, beneath and behind all of these reasons for the war of secession, were people of faith who prayed, went to church, felt themselves good religious persons, and who played out their differences in wheatfields, orchards, forests and mountainsides all over this country.  They fought their theological opinions in the bodies of young men who fought and fell or were scarred for life.  Maybe God was on both sides and was suffering from severe schizophrenia? 
The war of secession points to major problems/flaws in theology itself.  The greatest problem I see with an appeal to the supernatural is, I think, obvious:  it isn’t Natural.  It does not hold to reason and leads to some of the worst abuses known to humankind, with vast consequences for the earth.  One has to look closer, at the people and the land, to draw out the true story of faith’s battlefields.  As I saw at New Market in Virginia, where hundreds of teenage boys fell in the last great confederate victory of the war, the beauty of the fields, the singing cicadas, the windblown fields full of colorful flowers, all testified to something larger, greater, more meaningful than any other issue or cause:  the earth soaks in the blood of human conflict and lives on.  Life goes on, beauty endures, the earth rebounds and continues the real foundation of our lives–a common land, a common home.  Whatever divides or threatens to divide must, at the last, be vanquished not because of “better angels” but because we wake up to realize the insanity of all battlefields and the rightness of working through differences in a better way, with our better, natural nature, leaving buried our flawed and fallen theologies of supernaturalism as we create the “more perfect Union.”
Chris Highland
September 2008

Rusted tracks but truth is always on the move

Where Wisdom Lies

{reprinted from Inspiris, March 2009}

“Wisdom may lie not in simply the blind adherence to ancient tenets but in the vigorous and skeptical and creative investigation of a wide variety of alternatives.” ~Carl Sagan

One of the most delightful gifts of wandering off into the maze of trails in Ebey’s Reserve is the sense that the wandering itself is the reason for being there.  From thick forest to open meadow the walker can discover so much to startle and stimulate the senses and stir the inquisitive mind that some imagined “end” or “destination” becomes meaningless.  The day I cycled and circled the lacework of pathways until coming to rest on a soft carpeted bluff above the Sound I was stunned into silence by a loud blow of air off shore.  Sixteen orca were steaming passed and there couldn’t have been a more impressive flotilla or armada in all the navies of the world.  The wild beauty was accentuated by the backdrop of snowy Olympics and the foreground of eagles and seals.  A more inspiring church service I have never attended.

For many years I have read, taught and written about spiritual things.  Growing up in Edmonds my parents took me to the Presbyterian church every Sunday.  Then a pretty girl asked me to take her to a Baptist bible study and a Jewish girlfriend took me to her synagogue.  Another friend brought me to a lot of Pentecostal meetings before I got deeply involved in Evangelical movements.  I sang in an 8000-voice choir at the Billy Graham Crusade in the Kingdome and gave my first sermon back in my parents’ church urging all the old folks to “give their lives to Christ.”  Joining a “house church” my faithful friends and I studied our bibles until the covers came off, praying and singing until even God seemed to doze off.  It was all fearfully fun. 

At the Methodist college that became Seattle Pacific University I studied Religion and then stumbled into Philosophy.  I began to read the wisdom books of the world and something happened that was not unlike that day sitting with the eagles and orca.  My wandering along spiritual paths brought me to the edges of wonder.  What Sagan called creative investigation was my wild liberation into the beauty that Nature, including Human Nature, opens out to.  I found a wide-angle lens.  Investigations brought me through seminary and ordination, chaplaincy and teaching.  At this end of the trail—or at least this viewpoint along the way—it now seems much clearer.  Wisdom is not one trail or even one forest; wisdom is more than an island retreat; to be wise is not to simply blabber on with the same words spoken by babblers of the past.  Wisdom isn’t very popular and most likely won’t be featured on Netflix or CNN.  Wisdom doesn’t get film festivals or headlines and may not even show up in the small print.  Yet, to be wise seems essential to healthy, balanced, reasonable living because it consists of hard and vigorous thinking, questioning and admitting we know very, very little.   Wisdom may have more to do with the mystery of the orca and the organism than our ancient tenets, theologies and creeds could ever imagine.  What if we paused on the trail long enough to ponder the world, even the cosmos, as the greatest of wisdom books, the sacred text, the only religion, politics, philosophy and science stretching out before us?

Where does wisdom lie?  Ah, that’s the rub.  Wisdom does not lie—it is truth, and truth is always on the move. 

Chris Highland

March 24, 2009

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“Now I lay me down to sleep,

I pray the Lord my soul to keep;

if I should die before I wake,

I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

I have been praying since I was a small child.  The fore-quoted was one of the earliest prayers I was taught to say as I quietly placed my head on the pillow of my Seattle home.  Ironically, this little childhood prayer shaped both the best and worst of my prayers over the next twenty years.  There are various ways of viewing the best and worst of prayer in general in the facets of these early nighttime words.

Complete definitions for such a worldwide phenomenon as prayer are practically impossible.  Yet, like prayer itself, each individual gives a meaning to and defines the act.  One initial meaning for me can be stated in this way: Prayer is the art of wakefulness.  With a sense of irony the principle of wakefulness in prayer begins in the brief lines of my earliest prayer.  “Now I lay me” centers the prayerlife on the individual self.  It is ego oriented in a fundamental way, as all prayer, even the most “intercessory” prayer, is by nature.  I lay my head, my body, my soul.  And I am asking the deity to listen to me.  Indeed I am begging, in my childish mind, to be heard and responded to.  “Down to sleep.”  I am entering the most vulnerable time of the day.  Resting, dreaming, sleeping.  This first line is telling the deity or perhaps more directly and honestly telling myself, that I am present and this is what I am doing.  It is the Now that is shaping my prayer.  This in itself is a very positive intention and result of prayer— bringing into the Now with consciousness and intentionality.  If this is where the prayer stopped it would be sufficient as the art of wakefulness.  But the prayer continues, “I pray the Lord.”  For some mysterious reason we feel the need to state in our prayer that we are praying.  “I pray.”  The ego principle is consistent.  The prayer is directed, and this is very significant, and wholly directed toward the Holy.  “Lord” is unknown to a child (perhaps to all adults as well).  The Holy is inaccessible, in the context of this and many other prayers, except in prayer when the deity is addressed in a title cloaked in mystery.  Was I actually talking to the “Lord” at that early age or did I simply want my mother and father to hear and be pleased with my praying?  Was I, in my developing mind, comforted with the words in their poetry and imagination?  I cannot say.  Prayer raises innumerable questions.  I could not have had anything particular in mind when I spoke the word “Lord” night after night.  I could only have felt the presence of my parents and been comforted by the thought, as I drifted off in dreams, that my parents were watching over me, protecting me from harm.  Then comes the opening of full mystery and mystification.  “My soul to keep.”  What is a soul?!  How does one “keep” it?  Once again the focus is ego-centered.  Whatever a soul is, it is mine–it makes me Me. Keeping, to a child, is certainly a major element of one’s daily life.  Holding tight to one’s possessions and affirming with other children “That’s Mine!” is a ruling factor that is of course carried into adulthood with varying degrees of childish grasping and selfishness.  Yet we must not readily skip over this “soul.”  At that early age I had already been taken to Sunday school in the protestant church nearby.  I was taught to memorize bible verses (some that I remember to this day), read biblical stories of gardens, floods, wild people in deserts, shepherds and a very nice and comforting stranger named Jesus who wore a bathrobe, was gentle with children like me and who was, to our horror, nailed on something called a cross made of logs.  The pleasantness of these stories was always ruined by the bloody death of that very nice man.  Perhaps even then I had an inkling of the paradoxes of this big black book with red letters—my first possession, mine.  Somewhere in those times I heard of this thing called a soul and must have shuddered to hear that I had one!  Whatever it was, I was assured it was good and given by the nice man who was hung up.  Most importantly it was Mine.  I could hold tight to it as a name alone; it was my soul and I would never have to give it away.  Yet the childhood prayer asked the Lord to “keep” my soul.  What was I to do?  It was mine.  Why should I give it to the Night Lord to keep while I was sleeping?  (I’m sure I never thought of these things at that time, but there must have been moments of a slight terror).  Was this done in the same manner as when I would fall asleep hugging my favorite stuffed animal and my mother or father would take it and put it in a safe place nearby as I slept?  Is this what it meant for the Lord to keep my soul?

Now the dramatic twist in the poetic prayer—one I could not anticipate; a phrase that made everything else, no matter how mysterious, disappear in comparison. “If I should die.”  Die!  What was that?  Only old people die.  Grandparents.  Those wrinkly old people in cracked and faded brown-tinged photographs in dusty family albums.  It had something to do with disappearing.  To die was to be gone away.  A long vacation where everyone gets sad and cries.  To die was not a good thing!  Why would I even say those words?  I, I was not going to die!  But every night I would matter-of-factly state in my quietly breathed prayer, “If I should die.”  Amazing that I would not simply refuse to say those words (and, frankly, amazing that my parents taught me this at all).  And how could I restfully place my head on my soft and feathery pillow and allow my mother to turn off the light (I often had a nightlight so the darkness would never completely take over my room).  How could I ever go to sleep with those words in my thoughts, “If I should die before I wake”?  Not only could I not die because I wasn’t old and wrinkly but I could never die in my bed during the night!  Or could I?  A terrible thought.  A child dying in a supposedly safe and sound home, in their own bed, at night in the dark—while his parents slept just down the hall?!  Never!  But I prayed on.

“I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  Wait.  This parental nice guy who was keeping my soul was standing by to take it away?  How could that be?  Why, he couldn’t have my soul!  It was mine and was given to me to keep, except during the night when he was supposed to keep it safe for me until the morning.  He can’t take it back; couldn’t take it away!  That would be like taking away my favorite toy or, horror, one of my parents!  I would not let it happen.  Well, I didn’t apparently think these thoughts and never rebelled against the prayer.  I simply prayed it through bleary eyes and weary head and felt the warm snuggle of the covers as my mommy or daddy tucked me in safely and soundly to gently drift into dreamland.

As I have said, this early prayer shaped much of my prayer experience over many successive years.  Even seminary could not  answer many of the questions that simple night-poem presented.  Through high school and college I studied the bible and then other holy books.  There were hints at what “Lord,” “soul,” and death meant—there were many opinions and images offered but never a solid and clear explanation of the words.  Yet the meaning remained.  The Lord (god-image) owns something called a soul at the center of my ego and when I die he (the deity was still male for me at that time) will take it back.  I suppose I came to feel that my body was simply a shell or vessel for this soul and didn’t matter much.  Matter didn’t matter.  The material world was essentially not good, as I saw it.  The most and best I could do was to pray.  Not that old prayer but prayers that were more sophisticated.  What I didn’t realize then is that my prayers were fundamentally undifferentiated from that earliest prayer.

I will now generalize to say that virtually all prayers are intrinsically linked to that early prayer of childhood.  Much of what I reflect on here relates to feelings I had for my parents and feelings of comfort, safety and protection as I “gently drifted into dreamland.”  This is prayer, at least prayer as we commonly know and experience it, particularly in Christian churches and the Christianist experience in general.  Here I will list the principles of commonly practiced prayer using my early model.

1.  Prayer begins and ends as ego-oriented.

2.  Prayer is related to a personal experience of the Now.

3.  Prayer is a seeking of safety and parental assurance.

4.  Prayer uses language that exudes mystery and elicits questions of personal meaning.

5.  Prayer reveals our childlike possessiveness, our fears of losing what we cannot keep.

6.  Prayer is essentially, at its best, a recognition and admission of one’s humility and vulnerability before a “greater being”.

With these six principles in mind I would make some observations about the healthy and unhealthy, the helpful and the unhelpful, aspects of the common exercise of prayer.

Regarding the first principle, that prayer is ego-oriented, it must be clarified that I see this as true even in those prayers that are ostensibly spoken or written on behalf of others, so-called intercessory prayers.  Intercession is like mediation.  It places oneself as an intermediary in the central position between someone in need and the deity.  The image might be of one who is an emissary delivering a message to a ruler.  Or, the intercessor could be imagining themselves as a lawyer in a courtroom representing a defendant before the judge.  Do you notice the image of the god that is clear in this intercession?  It is a god who must be mediated and have interpretation of needs.  It is a god who sits above and awaits messages from below.  It is a god who is, for all intents and purposes, out of touch or at the very least unable to hear, feel or receive information except through the exercise of obeisance or plea. The ego in prayer reflects the Ego (or the Freudian Superego) on the throne or court bench.

In the second principle listed, that prayer is related to a personal experience of the Now, you can see the ego pattern emerging.  One experiences emotion or the need of the moment and cries out for assistance from another, “higher” One.  What is happening in the present time is central to the words chosen and the manner in which the words are spoken.  This can be problematic when the words were scripted at an earlier, even ancient, time.  Individuals who pray (using bulletins or prayerbooks for instance) may be able to plug into the original feeling and somehow connect with the words as expressions of their present emotion.  It is also a problem if the clergy or reader in a public prayer is not presently experiencing the feeling that gave birth to the words.  The personal experience, as it is with all religious experience, is central.  Prayerful words may be spoken in community with the community needs in mind yet the focus will always be personal and now-oriented or the experience will be without content.  For instance, a small gathering of people living in poverty choose to pray together.  One person speaks words asking the Spirit to help them.  If you ask each person at that moment what they are feeling they would probably say they hear and feel only the words that relate directly to his or her own situation in life, their own personal and present experience of poverty.  Some may not recall the words at all.  The feeling is basic.  The value for them at that moment is most likely the circle of individuals, the being together above and beyond the actual spoken words.  One may ask then, why pray at all?  Why direct attention away from the central experience?  I recall a young Catholic priest who would pray before his congregation with his eyes wide open, looking at the people as he prayed to God, as if he was looking at the God he spoke to.  And I believe he really felt that he was.

The third principle, prayer is a seeking of safety and parental assurance, reveals in some sense the heart of prayer as we’ve known it.  It is a plea counting on the protectiveness from a larger and more powerful being who is somehow seen as looking over (if not overlooking) with parental concern.  I am speaking of all prayer here, throughout all religions.  It reflects deep desires to be sheltered and defended as within castle walls or to find refuge in, what the Psalms of David call “the shadow of the almighty.”  “God is my refuge and my strength, my ever-present help in time of trouble” exclaims King David (whose palace walls were apparently not enough to give him the feeling of protection in the Now).  Remaining with biblical tradition for a moment, one of the world’s most repeated prayers from Jesus himself (interesting that those who consider him a god never explain why god would pray to god) begins, “Our Father”—obvious parent-language—but moves directly into political language “Thy kingdom” ending with “For thine is the kingdom, etc.” All I will say about the whole “Lord’s Prayer” or “Our Father” at this point is this:  It is directed to a great being above, who may be a parent-figure in some ways, but is mostly identified as set apart (hallowed), who gives only what we beg for (our daily bread), who keeps tally of what we do to do the same to us (our debts or trespasses), who needs to be convinced not to put us in harm’s way (lead us not into temptation) and yet must be begged not to allow us to be harmed (deliver us from evil) and who is above and beyond our personal experience anyway (for thine is the kingdom, power and the glory forever).  It nearly makes me prefer my childhood prayer.

One other way of summarizing this principle of safety and assurance is to say that all prayer is at root begging for help (sometimes while ingratiating the One begged, as in Pentecostal “praise”).  If true, I wonder at the psychological or spiritual health of such begging and what kind of god is imaged to practice this.  I remember the man who asked me for a quarter outside a grocery store.  After giving him the change in my pocket I saw him in the store buying a can of beer.  No change there.  Did I help him?  At least he got what he was really begging for.  At another time a young man slumped outside a store and asked for money to buy food.  I looked him in the eye and asked what food he wanted and I would buy it for him.  It was simple to buy him a sandwich, a small bag of chips and a soda.  His thanks was a prayer of sorts.  At that stage of my life I felt I had done “God’s work.”  Yet, I have always been troubled:  Why do people have to beg at all?  It’s so demeaning, humiliating.  Why does our society (you and I, religious or not) refuse to eliminate hunger and homelessness so people are not left out to beg?  Aren’t these the real questions raised by our practice of prayer?  Doesn’t our need for prayer beg the question?

It should be remembered that the very verb “to pray” comes from the Latin term for begging.  What if we equated begging and praying?  Would there be more beggars or more prayers?  I remember learning in a college Greek course that one ancient term for worship was “prostrating oneself like a dog” before the deity.  Not a practice I would conform well to or condone for a healthy-minded person.

The fourth principle, prayer uses language that exudes mystery and elicits questions of personal meaning, is slightly paradoxical.  Using language where mystery is concerned and raising questions when prayer itself is a question, is paradox.  It’s odd.  To exude is to sweat out, squeeze out something.  Can mystery be squeezed out?  If we could see it, and I suppose we do every day, could we describe it?  Could we speak to it?!  The mists of mystery are impenetrable—that’s what makes it mystery.  So what are the words for?  Many who pray seem to know exactly who they are addressing and what that being feels and thinks.  Preposterous.  A known deity cannot be a deity.  The most and the best that this prayer practice does, in practice, is to elicit the questions that life raises.  It is the practice of life that we must address.

If prayer raises the most fundamental questions of life then we could say that prayer has personal, even social meaning and relevance.  The difficulty we encounter is that most prayer is expecting an answer!  An answer to mystery!  An answer to life’s questions!  If indeed an “answer” is expected then the prayer is no more than a magical incantation that attempts to put the mysterious mists of existence into a neat little jar.  It naively avoids Science and the pursuit of knowledge by the presumably god-given intellect.  It wants miracle; a childish fantasy; special effects, while all it proves is a puerile faith.  It becomes a joke.  The great laughter of prayer (as in Fiddler on the Roof for instance) would be invigorating.  But this toying with god for toys is laughable nonsense.  “Jesus went off by himself to pray,” say the gospels.  Did he laugh or cry?  Did he yell and scream or whisper or sit silently? Thankfully we don’t have the text of those prayers, if indeed words were spoken or exchanged between the Nazarene and the Holy.  I play my hand here to say now that I think the value of prayer is to eliminate everything we’ve ever known as prayer and do what Jesus did:  Go off by ourselves and do whatever seems healthy and helpful, then, get engaged with the real world–live our prayer.  Something not easily reduced to a principle!

The fifth principle is:  prayer reveals our childlike possessiveness, our fears of losing what we cannot keep.  I remember a Buddhist parable that told of three children who spent the day building sandcastles on the beach.  All day they constructed their elaborate castles, defending them against both their playmates and the waves.  At evening time, they were called to dinner and ran away from the beach leaving their castles to be crumbled and swallowed by the ocean.  The message of non-possession and the foolishness of claiming “Mine!” rings loud.  So many prayers begin with “Oh God, Please!” and many more are marked by “Please Give!”   Always asking for something—incessantly begging for what we could never keep anyway.

I have a very personal story to illustrate this possessiveness.  When my daughter was younger I would often find myself asking God to “take care of her,” to “protect her” when I, as her primary parent, couldn’t be with her to watch over her.  In essence I was begging the Great Parent to take over when I wasn’t able to be present as her parent.  This largely unspoken prayer continued on for a few years borne along by the anxiety that I needed to know my daughter would be protected and safe.  A fearful ego produced each request.  Then, I believe it came in one day of reflection, I saw the folly of these petitions.  Did I really believe in a deity who only protected small children when their parents begged over and over that they would be safe?  Was it My job to make sure that God did what God “does for a living?”  I never prayed for her safety again.  That destructive, inhuman, ungodly possessiveness had to go.  I let go and let the good guide her and guide me.  It was a relief.  Prayer began to change then.  I never used many words anyway, but those few requests that made the Spirit a sanctified Santa Claus crumbled away like sand.

Praying out of fear, especially fear of loss, is universal—a sort of all-encompassing insurance policy that we read over with God in mind.  And when loss occurs we naturally grieve and wail.  That is as it should be, healthy and wise.  But asking to be healthy forever or for one’s family or friends to never die or for there to be peace in the world is, for me, ludicrous.  It’s like leaving a nightlight on all day when the sun is shining, or, to re-jumble the metaphor, it’s like guiding your life by a nightlight for fear of the dark.  Again, what kind of deity would create a world with people who have conflicts and then wait for them to beg for peace?  Forget that.  How many have prayed for world peace over  countless eons and what is there to show for it?  It literally begs the question!  Why pray?  Peace does not come about in communities by asking one’s higher power.  Peace can not be created in a household by praying for it.  Inner peace never happens simply by asking for it.  All of the peace process is just that, with no guarantees.  It may be a nice way to calm oneself, to prepare for the work ahead.  So why not simply take a “breath of prayer,” a calming moment, then move ahead to work to create the environment for peaceful living and be thankful—grateful for human resources and innate spiritual power?  Others have said it clearly before:  a god of peace, love and justice ought to be acting peacefully, lovingly and justly.  Regardless, we ought to and can act in that manner.  Begging a god is a mute point.

The sixth and final principle,  prayer is essentially, at its best, a recognition and admission of one’s humility and vulnerability before a greater being; it is the culmination of a devoted life.  This is often a characteristic of the classic mystics.  The most eloquent and meaningful prayers I’ve heard or read breathe a humble attitude that is open to the wounds of life and the strength of weakness.  Not claiming any special ground before god, those people who pray in this way are highly cognizant of their smallness and suspicious of too many words.  Experienced to a greater degree in monastic settings, these prayers show an awareness of the position in which prayer places the petitioner.  Though elements of the intercessor with its ego-centrism can dominate at times (see first principle), here the speaker addresses the divine with deep respect, not presumptuous but confident, without fear.  The vulnerable nature of the speaker is elicited in the prostrated body as well as soul.  The greater being arises through the lesser.  This is both a personal and communal act of calling upon the inner and pain-oriented soul in union with the outer and healing-oriented Soul.  Prayer is described as a lovers’ conversation, a passionate embrace, a uniting of the seeker with the sacred.  My comment on this in terms of healthiness is two-fold:  I find it again difficult to reconcile a good and reasoning god with one who would desire a prostrating humility reinforcing a sense of smallness or lesser being.  Additionally, I find it irreconcilable with common sense that people who cloister themselves or turn to the desert/wilderness experience for enlightenment and closeness to an intimate god cannot experience the same loving, active and responsive deity in all circles of community including society and world intercourse.  I am overstating the case of course.  Some who have had a close encounter with the divine in a monastic or mystic setting are able, to some degree, to carry over the experience into society.  Francis and Clare as well as Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and Mahatma Gandhi are good examples.  Yet many of the mystics I once admired so highly I now feel slightly sad for.  And indeed many of them were sad and tragic individuals who are at least partly admired for their endurance of physical and psychic pain (for example Hildegard and John of the Cross).  What I now feel is that the sixth principle calls attention to an unhealthiness, even a terminal disease residing in almost all prayer of the world religious traditions, namely, that of encouraging higher and lower levels of spiritual experience or, to put it in another more graphic way, building walls or fences that separate human from divine, material from spiritual.  The rest of this essay will flesh this out.

Thoreau once said that “we make ourselves rich by making our wants few.”  Simplify.  Get down to basics we might say.  The richness, the wealth we can all feel and experience arises from our letting go of that which does not ultimately matter.  It really does not matter what I have—it really matters who I am and how I live.  It does not ultimately matter to me if there is some other world—this world is all I am presented with face to face.  It does not ultimately matter, or particularly matter, if I believe in a separate deity.  It matters how I live my life.  The question I must judge my life upon is this:  Do I love in the present moment with awareness, gratefulness and honesty?  To me this encompasses a life of meaning, taking justice and right action seriously.  For me, this opens a way for a richness that is sacred and divine.  If you must know, the sacred for me is embodied in all Beauty, in all Nature; my “god” is the Great Spirit of Nature that permeates all forms at all times, that animates and breathes into all life, that is Life itself.  The Creative Spirit is not greater in the sense that I am lesser.  This is reciprocal as well as organic.  He/She/It is simply and profoundly more than I am.  That is probably all the personal theology you need to hear from me.  See how I live.  As Master Kung said, “the wise one lives according to what they speak and then speaks according to what they live.”

When our wants are few we have little or nothing to beg for.  We live with and by the basics of life and need little if anything more.  I no longer pray.  I am a person on a spiritual path with no specific religion.  Does this mean I have no contact or relation with the divine?  Surely not.  My grateful awareness is my “prayer” but I don’t call it that.  Meditation most closely identifies my wakefulness, yet why name it at all?  I hope that I am more often loving than not.  To be loving is to be vulnerable in my humanity, to be open and unafraid to act freely or to think and see anew.  To love is to be fully myself and not grasp too tightly those I love; to risk and struggle with loss without simply and mindlessly accepting it.  My practice is to bow in gratefulness, to incline my head to other people as a gesture of respect, to some images that inspire me to see deeper (images such as Kwan Yin, Buddha or even Jesus).  I bow to animals and birds, to trees and waterfalls, to Nature itself in scenes of Beauty.  My practice is to breathe.  I breathe and become more aware of where I am and what I’m doing.  Is all this ego-oriented?  Is it childlike and personal?  Am I seeking safety and an assurance that I miss from my parents who are long dead, whose souls are “kept” by the “Lord”?  I suppose a mix of all that and more is honest.  I do not have a clarity of these mysteries.  I have little to offer really in guidance for others who wish to gain a higher view of the path.  I can only call myself and others to the way of lovingkindness and freedom.

The practice of prayer in the classic sense probably needs to be released, to die.  We don’t need a new religion, old age or new; we don’t need new forms of prayer that become standards by which true spirituality is gauged.  We do not perhaps even need the principles discussed here.  What we need is an open horizon to fresh and adventurous territories where we can individually find truth that can work for wellness in community.  Where we will find ourselves is not even worth the guess.  I bow to the possibilities.

Chris Highland

Summer Solstice, 2002

Was Jesus a Pacifist?

Are the teachings of Christianism (Christianity) at heart non-violent or less violent than the sacred lessons of any other religion in human experience?  If past history and current events do not present a quick and ready answer to this question, I will here and now offer one disturbing response.  No, the Christianist religion in general practice and teachings is not non-violent.  In fact, the life, teachings and death of Jesus of Nazareth, claimed as the heart of the traditional Christianist message, are inherently, essentially violent in nature and no less violent than the heart or hand of any other religion. 

In our time the sharpened and blood-stained edges of religion are so graphically clear that we cannot escape the glare or the danger of the blades.  Unfortunately even all good intentions and reformist tendencies of the “progressive movement” in small religious circles cannot seem to dull the edges honed by history or offer any defense against the extensive, pervasive use of every aspect of religion as weapons, weapons wielded against body, mind and soul.

One immediately thinks of the un-mediated conflicts of middle eastern wars.  Age-old divisions, modern fences, urban tensions and threats of technological weaponry make political failures inevitable and obvious.  The daily news and the internet circle our minds around the globe as we see so-called “sectarian” violence in regions from Northern Ireland to Sri Lanka, India, Afghanistan and rough landscapes of Africa.  We can no longer ignore the equally glaring religious and political sectarians who directly or indirectly fight for power and control in the streets, schools, courts and legislative chambers in virtually every state in “Red” and “Blue” America.  The serrated blade of religion is wielded so consistently that we often become numb to the harm done by those who would cut and divide every community into a more powerful Us and a weaker Them. 

The opening words of Emerson’s first book, Nature (1836), still speak for the present time.  He says that our age is distracted by retrospection, by our emphasis on the thoughts, beliefs and even tombs of the past (note the vast resources directed to our monuments and memorials).  With a clear eye Emerson focused on our presbyopia, the vision of the elders, noting that we honor the viewpoints of those in ages past forgetting that we too can “see God and nature face to face.”  What I am concerned with in the present discussion is the more profound loss of vision caused by our refusal to open our eyes wider, to see that even what we believe the “elders” before us really saw is blurred, distorted.  We need some spiritual optometry. 

I was listening to a public radio program on which a writer for a major magazine repeated something I have heard for many years and rarely challenged.  The writer’s comment was made in the context of a discussion of the Pope’s visit to Turkey.  While responding to the violent reaction of some Muslims to the Pope’s recent incendiary words toward Islam, the writer said, in effect, “We can see how Christians might say those violent demonstrations proved the Pope was right.  After all, the peaceful teachings of Jesus never condoned violence.”  I had to shake my head at the ignorance.  It is an ignorance perpetuated by the Church and many outside the Church who want Jesus to be a rather benign, gentle, passive shepherd with a smile and warm touch.  At least this magazine writer acknowledged crusades and other violence done in the name of Christianity (for example, the destruction of indigenous cultures, slavery, and teachings against birth control that generate greater poverty and hunger).  Yet, I can no longer simply let these easy, popular myths be passed on and preached year after year without staring down the glaring errors.

For many years I counted myself among those who quite confidently proclaimed the pacifism of Jesus.  He was, for us, the paragon of compassion, peace and non-violence.  In fact, he was so gentle and loving as to be a kind of prissy spiritual eunuch, an emasculated ghost of a man whose only charisma, his only strength, was in whispering bible verses into our ears.  Sure he was the “Lord” and commanded respect and obedience; his throne was on high.  But always his authority was based on how much our Commander sweetly cared for his faithful troops.  He walked beside us through gardens of roses with no thorns.

With time, experience and a bit closer reading of the text (what was conveniently not seen in those texts) I came to a clarity about the Nazarene.  He was not nearly as peace-loving as many would co-opt him to be. 

While I still see his basic message as one of a rough lovingkindness and truthfulness, I think a cursory scan of the Christianist scriptures presents another side to the story, nearly the diametrical opposite of the sweet-eyed, peace-sign wearing Jesus.

Basic refutations to claims for the total pacifism of Jesus can be presented in the following way.  I have modernized some of the story to show the offensiveness that has been glossed over and softened by tradition.  The language is intended to make the stories more understandable for contemporary ears. 

1)  The story of his life begins, ends and is marked by acts of violence.  Mary, his teenage mother, is essentially raped by God who tells her she is most favored.  At his birth, Herod’s fear of terrorist insurgents leads him to massacre Palestinian children.  Jesus and his family escape as refugees seeking asylum in North Africa.  Next we hear of the young twelve year old debating with the elders in the synagogue.  This was but the beginning of his years “picking fights” in conflict with clergy and other religious authorities.  He was arrested, tried, tortured and executed by the state.  Most of his fellow revolutionaries followed him into martyrdom, violent death. 

By itself, the first point does not prove this man was not a person of peace.  Others in history, who have attempted to challenge political and religious power, have suffered.  Yet this opens our other eye, it takes a hard look at the flipside or “underside” of the story we usually hear preached by the Church.  The life and teachings of this man have been greatly oversimplified by those who ought to know better. He is made to appear solely interested in un-earthly, “spiritual” things, heaven, or his own connection with the divine however that is interpreted.  Myopic “leaders” have hoodwinked their flocks into a truncated gospel of half-truths, untruth.  Many seem never to have actually read their own holy scriptures, conveniently overlooking uncomfortable passages that do not support their own narrow theologies.

2)  Jesus’ chosen message, his “good news,” was a provocative, revolutionary message inviting immediate confrontation.  He was savvy enough to know that what he said would raise organized, powerful and violent opposition.  He was anything but a pacifier.  He was a committed troublemaker and agitator.  A wide-angle view of his entire career can leave no doubt or surprise at the ruling parties and their reaction to what they could only interpret as insurgency.

3)  Throughout his ministerial career (if violent insurgency can be a ministry!) the rebellious, self-proclaimed rabbi deliberately offended people, stirring up their anger and revenge.  He called them names (“vipers,” “tombs,” “evil doers,” “devils”).  He threw scriptures at those who disagreed with him or challenged him, he condemned them, ridiculed them.  He did not set up a command operation or a monastery in the desert to send his forces into the cities against the enemy.  He took his battles to the street, put himself squarely in the public square, in the face of those he felt were wrong.  Instead of avoiding problems or issues, he forced the issues by disrupting the order of things, the comfort zones of whole towns, entire communities.  One could imagine a gatekeeper’s words, “Oh no.  Call the police.  Here comes that troublemaker from Nazareth again!”

4)  Early in his confrontational “ministry” (at least according to his close associate John), at one of the holiest shrines, at one of the holiest times of the year, Jesus grabbed some rope and wound it tight into a whip (John 2:13-16).  Like a madman he broke into the holy temple in Jerusalem and chased out the bingo players, the accountants, the secretaries and janitors.  He pushed over tables and whipped people.  He shouted, “My temple should be a house of prayer!”  He accused them all of being thieves.  He felt he was exposing corruption in the center of religion.  One wonders if he paused to pray quietly after chasing everyone out. 

5)  He was not always so kind to animals and plants either.  As a marginalized Jew he was certainly involved in religious practices of his day that included sacrificing birds for blood offerings in the temple.  He certainly wolfed down the slaughtered lamb for Passover.  For his dramatic one-act play riding into Jerusalem he sent disciples to “borrow” a donkey.  He told them that if the owner asked them they were to say “The master has need of it.”  However the animal felt being taken from home by strangers, there was no courtesy or question allowed for their actions. 

In one of the most magical stories in the gospels Jesus is unhappy that a fig tree has no fruit for him to eat (Mark 11:12-14; 20-24).  He curses it.  The next day, as they are leaving town, the disciples notice the tree has withered and died.  No tree-hugging here.

6)  The self-described “Child of Humanity” (son of man) spent a great deal of time and effort speaking of God’s Judgment.  God was going to get back at all those who did not listen and obey his (Jesus’) words.  The Great Judge would condemn most of the world to fire and horrible suffering and destruction.  An eternal place of punishment was “prepared” by the God of Jesus for those who did not take the narrow path to heaven.  This God really loves us all but in the end “Our Father in Heaven” whose kingdom is coming will butcher and burn any and all who do not fall down before Jesus. 

Now that’s a loving, non-violent God!

7)  The very influential German Lutheran minister and professor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis for his role in an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life, wrote that Jesus’ fundamental message was “Come and Die.”  If you follow this man, you will die, because God wishes you to die.  To die to “self,” to “the world,” the “flesh.”  Bonhoeffer understood the offensiveness.  This was not a call to non-violence.  The call of the Crucified God (written of extensively by Bonhoeffer’s fellow countryman and theologian Jurgen Moltmann) was to crucifixion.  Yes, resurrection too.  There is hope on the other side of execution.  But the main role of a Christian is to suffer and die in order to be resurrected to new life. 

This is the very graphic “Theology of the Cross” or the “Atonement.”  Central to Christianist philosophy the theology of crucifixion has been drilled into the minds of believers throughout the history of Christianism.  Countless people have died with this belief, this image, in their sights.  It can never be forgotten or overlooked:  the central symbol of the religion of Jesus is his mode of execution, the Roman cross–an instrument of brutal slaughter, slow, painful, bloody, asphyxiating death.  Now, children wear it as jewelry, stars wear it for fashion, women wear it between their breasts.  And of course every Christianist meeting place on the planet hangs the symbol of torture and death.  The “empty cross” of Protestants is the same.  A cross is a cross.  An electric chair is an electric chair.  Death, death, death.  Suffering.  Pain.  A God who wants it, watches it, encourages it, causes it. 

8)  At his arrest for insurgency Jesus was “sweating blood” in the garden of Gethsemane on a hill outside of Jerusalem where he had willingly come to die.  The shock of his arrest was made even more shocking by an act by his close friend Peter who jumped up, drew a sword and used it violently against an innocent man (John 18:10).  The gospel account says Jesus waited for this violence to happen before telling his friend to stop.  He is described as healing the ear of the man who was attacked before the scene is played out.  Yet several disturbing questions have to be asked. 

Why were the disciples armed?  How could it be that more than one of the followers of Jesus, having been with him for years, were armed with concealed side-arms?  Did they, like so many Christianists in our day, completely ignore the early teaching of their master, “Blessed are the peacemakers”?  Or, were they simply acting out the very natural, violent example of their teacher from beginning to end?

Why did the “Teacher of Peace” not make sure his group was peaceful, unarmed, non-violent?  Was it because he was not primarily a teacher of peacefulness at all, but one who saw violence as a necessary part of “God’s way?”

Why did he actually order them to buy swords (Luke 22:36) and tell them that what they carried was “enough” without disarming them?  Was this due to his proclamation “I came to bring a sword” (Matthew 10:34f), and his commitment to slicing into society, causing divisions that would foment conflict even in families where he urged children to “hate their father and mother and follow me?”  Is it any wonder that war-makers in our day, some who call themselves Christ-followers, see no conflict whatever between the build up of weapons and their “righteous” use in the context of a religious faith?

What are we left with in this “new” and disturbing understanding, this fresh portrait of the violent Nazarene?  Essentially we are left with his legacy of brutal truthtelling, to speak what needs to be spoken in the face of untruth without fear–with an in-the-face offensiveness intended to push or pull people off the fences of indifference or ignorance.  The truth must be told, no matter how sharp, how cutting.  Theology can be debated, open to interpretation.  Jesus had some strong opinions and seemed willing to die for those opinions and lead others in his example of suffering by choice. The historical record, such as it is, colored by centuries of tradition and non-historical legend, presents a picture of a poor and troubled man who emerged from the wilderness in the classic style of a truthtelling prophet.  We find, upon close examination, that this image is quite different–in fact, in some respects the antithesis–of the image presented and proffered by billions of his “followers.”

At this distance perhaps the best that remains is to be honest, to call the Church to be accountable and to base a peacemaking process less on Jesus than on more modern examples of true, non-violent teachers of peace.  To those interested in peacemaking, and I am one of those, it may make more sense to take seriously the practiced program of change implemented by Gandhi, Martin King, Sung Kyi, Desmond Tutu, and even Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan. 

Confrontative?  Yes.  Offensive?  Clearly.  Risking violent death?  Of course.  But fundamentally committed to a practice and pedagogy of non-violence. 

One further recent example illustrates the practice of pacifism in the face of blind opposition under the flag of faith.

The first Muslim ever elected to Congress, representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, asked to take the oath of office with his hand on a Qur’an instead of a Bible.  Predictably, in the current American climate, Ellison was attacked for not choosing to swear on, in the words of some, “the book our country was founded on.”  The American Family Association (who’s family are they representing?) want Congress to pass a law that would make the Bible the only book to be used in oath ceremonies.  One professor of law at UCLA explained how un-American that would be.  He said the Constitution allows for elected representatives to swear on any book, or no book if they so choose.  Those with no religion at all are also protected (as are their families) by the Constitution.  Once again, rather than being peacemakers, the fearfully religious choose only to attempt to make all the rest of us fall in line with their brand of American Christianism.  What they never seem to notice, or admit, is that were we to enforce their violent tunnel vision we would no longer have the pluralistic, freethinking, truly free America intended by the first Congress.  

In the final analysis, basing a peacemaking process on the life and teachings of the executed palestinian and his sword-carrying followers is doomed to failure.  Take any contemporary conflict and try to apply the actual violently narrow religious apocalyptic program presented in the gospels.  I think we would see.  There would be a remarkable resemblance to the most influential preachers, imams and rabbis we see appearing in the headlines and on the evening news. When we see and hear these myopic, presbyopic leaders we can see no peace possible at all.  We see them not just building the tombs but sending our youngest into those tombs. In the name of religion, in the claim of faith, those who assume moral leadership prove themselves the least moral of all.  And how mightily they fall.

Ultimately perhaps our journey toward peace, in our communities, in our world, in our selves, will not be guided much by the great spiritual teachers, but by the simple, reasonable, commonplace acts of those nearby, maybe you and I, who hold to no heavenly hope, who do not call us to come and die but to sharpen the blades of our minds and the vision of our eyes.  Can we imagine bringing down the crosses to build these non-violent bridges to a brighter future?  Even Jesus might have been open to that.

Chris Highland

First published on Nature Temple, 2006





1 Comment

  1. […] I’ve written on this a number of times (for instance, here). […]

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