Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Faith and Taxes

A recent article in the New York Times described the views of a tax professor in Alabama who also has a degree in religious studies and has published articles making the argument that tax
policies that are not progressive violate Judeo-Christian values. Johnston, David Kay, "Professor Cites Bible in Faulting Tax Policies" (New York Times 12/25/2007).

For those who might be interested in reading her most comprehensive article, see Hamill, Susan Pace, "An Evaluation of Federal Tax Policy Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics," 25 Va. Tax Rev. 671 (Winter 2006). (More information about Prof. Hamill and her writings can be found at

The law review article is written in a dryly academic style, but I found it to be very comforting
and exciting to read, for a number of reasons.

First, it shows that there are still people who take faith seriously. Not "seriously" in the gay-bashing, defend-against-an-alleged-war-on-Christmas, or put-the-10-Commandments-in-the-courthouse kind of way, but in a "what does it mean to love your neighbor" and "what should we be doing to improve the lives of others" kind of way.

The article also made a number of statements which were consistent with my beliefs, and so provided me with some assurance that perhaps I wasn't as much on the fringe as I often feel.

In that way, the article was also comforting because it provided evidence that a liberal Quaker like myself can find common ground with conservative evangelical (which is how Professor Hamill is described). (That a desire for social justice should unite liberal and conservative Christians was also one of the themes of Marcus Borg's book, The Heart of Christianity, which is highly recommended.)

Finally, the article was comforting because it gave me hope that, if we can all think and talk more about our values, and think less about our own pocketbooks, maybe we can achieve some real progressive tax reforms and social welfare reforms (such as universal health care)

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Light, Darkness, and Consciousness

In The Hidden Gospel by Neil Douglas-Klotz, Ph.D. (Theosophical Publishing House, 1999), Dr. Douglas-Klotz writes that the words in Aramaic (and Hebrew) for "light" and "darkness" signify not just different levels of light but also different qualities of thought. Light is orderly and linear, while darkness is chaotic and swirling. He states that, "Psychologically, they are like the start-to-finish, cause-and-effect nature of rational thinking compared to the zig-zag nature of intuitive thinking."

I have previously written that the story of Adam and Eve might be a mythic explanation, or metaphor, for the emergence of consciousness out of breakdown of the "bicameral mind." Our brains have separate hemisphere, one of which is more intuitive and the other of which is more logical, and what we call consciousness may have arisen when the two halves of our brains began to interact more closely.

Dr. Douglas-Klotz believes that the creation story in Genesis expresses a need for balance between light and darkness, which is undoubtedly true, because God did not abolish darkness, but only separated the light from the darkness, calling one "day" and the other "night." (Gen. 1:4-5) But it is also important that the darkness preceded the light, because before God said "Let there be light," a "darkness covered the face of the deep." (Gen. 1:2)

In other words, not just the story of Adam and Eve but also the creation story itself may be a metaphor for the rise of rational thought out of the "swirling" of a brain dominated by its intuitive hemisphere, and the rise of consciousness out of the balance between them.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Seeing God

I have been reading The Hidden Gospel by Neil Douglas-Klotz, Ph.D. (Theosophical Publishing House, 1999), which is about understanding the teachings of Jesus as they might have been understood by someone who heard them in Aramaic, which was the language spoken by Jesus. I will be writing more about this book later, but a few explanations are needed now.

The author does not claim to know exactly what words Jesus used in Aramaic, because the oldest manuscripts of the Gospels are in Greek. There is a very old version of the Gospels in Aramaic, but most Western scholars believe that it is a translation into Aramaic from Greek, rather than a version of the Gospels that pre-dates the Greek versions. The author therefore uses the Aramaic Gospels to explore possible different understandings of what Jesus taught, and makes no claims about what Jesus "really" said or meant.

I had only reached the second chapter of the book when a translation at the beginning of the chapter stopped me in my tracks. The Beatitude that is translated in the King James Version of the Bible as "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God," (Matt. 5:8) was translated from Aramaic into English as "Ripe are the consistent in heart; they shall see Sacred Unity everywhere."

The KJV version is mystical and to me, largely incomprehensible, even though it is familiar. The Aramaic version somehow had instant meaning for me, even though it was unfamiliar.

I had already read that the Aramaic word for "ripe" also meant "good" and "ready." The phrases "consistent in heart" and "see Sacred Unity everywhere" reminded me of an experience from several years ago that profoundly affected my view of the world. As I explained in a much earlier entry, on "Holiness," I once did an exercise in silently blessing those I encountered during the day, and as a result I began to see those I blessed (and myself) differently. Remembering that experience as I read the phrase "consistent in heart," I realized how important it was for me to bless everyone, without any judgment about them In that consistent view of those around me, I saw what I would now (as a Quaker) call "the light within." By consistently viewing all of those around me as blessed children of God, I had "ripened" and come closer to seeing God (the "Sacred Unity") itself.

It may seem like a self-fulfiling exercise, but my experience has been that, if you consistently look for that of God in everyone, you will see God in everyone, and will see that which unites us rather than what divide us.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Doing the Right Thing

In talking about religion and political or social issues, many people want to discuss what is the “right thing” to do. But before trying to decide what is right, you might want consider why you would want to do the “right thing.”

Assuming that the “right thing” is something that is (or has been) determined by God in some way and is knowable by us in some way, I can think of only four different reasons one might want to do the “right thing”:

  1. Obedience for the sake of obedience: You should follow God’s laws simply because they are God’s laws, without regard to consequences.

  2. Reward in the afterlife: There is a life after death and God will punish you in the hereafter if you don’t do what you’re told, or will reward you if you do what you’re told.

  3. Reward here on earth: God will punish you here on earth by bringing misfortunes on you if you don’t do what you’re told, or will reward you with worldly riches if you do what you’re told. Or, if you prefer a more mechanistic and less anthropomorphic theology, you could say that God’s laws represent fundamental physical and social laws, so “doing the right thing” should produce desirable consequences here on earth.

  4. Spiritual reward: God will not actively punish or reward you, but has put in you a desire to be at peace with God and your fellow human beings, and you can achieve spiritual peace and contentment by doing the "right thing."

Let’s explore through each of these possible reasons and look to see if they make any sense.

Obedience for the sake of obedience

There are several problems with the idea that we should obey God’s law (or “do the right thing”) just because God says so, without regard to the consequences.

One problem is that it is inconsistent with the idea that human beings can think and exercise free will. Why would God both give human beings the ability to think and expect us to do what we are told without thinking?

Another problem is that the lack of consequences to our actions seems to make the rightness of our actions meaningless. What is the point of spending time figuring out what God wants us to do, and then doing what God wants, if it has no consequences whatsoever. It’s sort of like asking a question and then ignoring the answer. God asks us to do certain things, we do them, and then he pays no attention whatsoever to what we do. It's all a complete waste of time.

Although I said I was going to assume that God's will is knowable, a complete lack of consequences would also seem to make God's will unknowable. If there are no consequences to what we do, how can we ever be sure we’ve got it right? Without any standards to just how well we’ve done in the past, our future actions become increasingly uncertain.

Which makes the concept of “right for right’s sake,” and the people who believe in it, very frightening. If a person can't decide what is or is not the “right thing” by looking at the consequences, then the decision about what is “right” is completely arbitrary, depending in many cases on what the person was taught as a child, or what the person has been led to by a charismatic leader. Without any way of testing their beliefs, people can make all sorts of toxic judgments about what is the “right thing,” which can be relatively mild (such as shunning homosexuals) or more extreme (such as deciding to kill heretics).

Reward in the afterlife

Obeying God’s law in order to achieve eternal life, heavenly paradise, or some other reward after death is a little better than simple obedience for the sack of obedience, because at least we know why we’re doing what we’re doing. But it's contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

Take the parable of the prodigal son. The son who goes off and commits just about every sin imaginable is welcomed back by his loving father without ever having to repent, express regret, or pretend to change his ways. And this is consistent with many other parables and teachings of Jesus, who describes a God of seemingly infinite and unconditional love. I am, for that reason, a "universalist." I simply cannot believe in a God who would ever punish anyone for anything.

Needless to say, if everyone gets into Heaven, then it's no longer a reward for "doing good" on earth and a different motivation is needed for "doing good."

The idea of a reward in an afterlife also suffers from a lack of empiricism. If all the rewards (or punishments) come after we’re dead, and no one comes back from the dead to tell us what works or doesn’t work, how can we ever know if we’re making the right choices?

Reward here on earth

Now we're getting closer to something empirical and verifiable. If there are material consequences for our actions, then we can test whether or not we're doing the right thing by seeing how God reacts. Prosperity means we've been doing good things, and drought, plagues, disease, and calamities mean we're doing the wrong things.

It's a good belief system and is still used in many parts of the world, including parts of the world that call themselves "Christian." Of course, what Jesus said is exactly the opposite.

"[Your Father in heaven] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." (Matt. 5:43.)

Just about everyone who has ever thought about it has puzzled over why God would cause bad things to happen to good people (and vice versa).

So scratch the idea that God provide material rewards for good behavior.

Spiritual reward

My fourth choice, that obeying the word of God gives us spiritual peace and contentment here on earth, is more than just a winner by default, but represents the best explanation of the teachings of Jesus and other great religious teachers of history (e.g., Buddha, Lao-Tzu, et al.)

Jesus said that "The kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:21) And, as I have argued (and will argue) elsewhere in this blog, the ultimate purpose of the teachings of Jesus is the achievement of what Buddhists call "nirvana" or "enlightenment," what the apostle Paul called "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding" (Phil. 4:7), and what I call "salvation."

Using spiritual reward as a test for God's will also creates an empirical faith, or what Quakers call "experiential." You can use your own life as a laboratory and see what kinds of thoughts and actions lead to peace and what kinds lead to anxiety or strife.

Try it.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Where the Decisions Come From

I recently attended a workshop on clerking at Pendle Hill, which is a Quaker center for spiritual growth, study, and service in Wallingford Pennsylvania. During one of the workshop sessions, the leader asked us why we are concerned about unity in our meetings for business and why strive for a "sense of the meeting."

I have some thoughts about an answer to that question, but some explanation of Quaker process may be needed first in order to make the question understandable to non-Quakers.

The members of Quaker meetings (by which I mean the churches or congregations of Quakers) conduct their business (such as the adoption of budgets, elections of officers, and other matters relevant to the meeting) through a "meeting for business," also known as a "meeting for worship with a view towards business." It might also be described as a "meeting for business in a spirit of worship." In a meeting for business, the members of the meeting strive to achieve unity in every decision, and much of the workshop I attended was devoted to understanding how the clerk of the meeting (who presides at meetings for business) can help the meeting achieve that unity. But why do we Quakers care about unity? Why can't we simply take a vote and let the majority rule, or why can't we simply negotiate a consensus? Why do we struggle with the leadings of the Spirit and strive for unity?

In thinking about those questions, I remembered a story that John Woolman (1720-1772) related in his Journal. Woolman described a meeting for worship that he attended along with several native Americans. After hearing a long prayer from Woolman, one of them put his hand on his own chest and said "I love to feel where the words come from." That is very good description of the joy of Quaker worship. When we are lead by the Spirit and speak out of silence, and we hear the words of others who have been lead to speak, we can feel a connection to God and it is that connection that brings us both peace and joy.

Quakers also love to feel where the decisions come from. When we are able to reach a sense of the meeting in unity, there is a great sense of both peace and joy. If there is that of God in all of us, and we are able to share that part of God in our decisions, then the decision-making process (and the decision itself) becomes part of our connection to God and to each other.

The Quaker decision-making process is therefore an outward manifestation of our inner faith. It is one of the ways in which we try to put our belief in the goodness and sacredness of each person into practice. And when we are successful in achieving unity, it is indeed a form of worship, a sacred "thin place" in which we can become closer to the Divine.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

War Tax Resistance

Quakers have a long history of refusing to pay taxes that pay for wars. In modern times, we have not had taxes specifically identified as taxes for wars, so those who decide that they cannot, in good conscience, pay war taxes are lead to withhold a percentage of the federal income tax based (usually) on the percentage of the federal budget war that is military spending.

Refusing to pay taxes (or parts of taxes) used to fund wars seems like a logical extension of the Peace Testimony, but war tax resistance does not seem to be well supported by the teachings of Jesus, and might actually be inconsistent with those teachings.

When Jesus was asked about the payment of Roman taxes, he asked for the coin used to pay the tax (a Roman coin) and then asked whose image was on the coin. When told it was Caesar's, Jesus replied that we should "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's; and to God the things that are God's." Matt. 22:15-22 (NRSV). (See also, Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26.) That story might or might not be a commandment that we should always pay our taxes, but it certainly doesn't support the idea that we should be refusing to pay taxes. The Roman Empire was an empire built by military conquest, and the taxes paid to Rome supported that military. If Jesus had qualms about paying taxes to support military conquest, he certainly didn't show it there.

Other teachings of Jesus are similarly inconsistent with tax resistance, even in those passages often quoted to support the ideal of pacifism. In the version of the "Sermon on the Mount" in Matthew, Jesus said "Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile." Matt. 5:39-41 (NRSV). My understanding is that the "forces you to go one mile" was a reference to a Roman law or custom that required Jews to carry for at least one mile the baggage of any Roman soldier or official who might command it. Needless to say, this was greatly resented, and yet Jesus said that if your hated Roman oppressor forces you to do something, do even more than you are required to do. If our own government is evil, should we resist? According to Jesus, it is acceptable, even preferable, for us to help officials of a government that is violent.

Jesus also said that "you shall not murder" is not enough. "But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment...." Matt. 5:22 (NRSV).

What sense are we to make of these passages? Why would God want us to help our enemies, and why would God not want us to be angry?

The common thread in most of the teachings of Jesus, and the theme that allows his teachings to make sense, is spiritual peace. We are to give up anger, and be willing to love and help our enemies, because that is what will give us the greatest spiritual peace, happiness, and contentment. Eliminating war and violence may be noble goals, but that is not what the teachings of Jesus are about. The purpose of Jesus's teachings is to help us find inner peace, and not necessarily outer peace. (Jesus said "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." Matt. 10:34 (NRSV).)

A person who opposes war and other forms of institutional violence could find it spiritually disturbing that his or her tax dollars are used to help pay for war and weapons, and so war tax resistance might be more peaceful to that person than paying the taxes. But war tax resistance can have consequences, such as tax penalties, interest on both the taxes and the penalties, and even jail. (Willful failure to pay a federal tax is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine not exceeding $25,000.) And if the war tax resister has property, the government will eventually collect the taxes, interest, and penalties, regardless of the religious beliefs of the taxpayer.

So which are we to choose, the economic and emotional costs of war tax resistance or the emotional and spiritual costs of war tax compliance?

Like many other problems in life, the question seems to be addressed by the "Serenity Prayer" of Reinhold Niebuhr:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

War is something that needs to be changed, but tax resistance does not seem like an effective way to change it, even assuming that it can be changed. By the standard of the Serenity Prayer then, war tax resistance seems like an unwise choice.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


The word "humble" and all its variations (humility; humbly) and synonyms (e.g., the "blessed are the meek") appear frequently in both the old and new testaments of the Bible, but what is humility?

The Bible says that "the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth." Num. 12:3 (NRSV). The man who spoke to God, confronted and defied the pharaoh of Egypt, and led an entire people into the wilderness towards an unseen promised land was "very humble"? What kind of humility is that?

When I think of humility, I often think of submissiveness, which suggests weakness, but humility in the Bible suggests a kind of quiet strength.

This is explicit in one of the commentaries to "the Lost Gospel Q" (Marcus Borg, Consulting Ed.), which translates the beatitude "blessed are the meek" as "fortunate are the gentle." A footnote explains that the original Greek word was "proates" which is more accurately translated as "gentle but strong" and "connotes strength that is gentle and tinged with of caring."

All those thoughts were jumbled up in my head when I read this passage by William O. Brown (1978): "Humility is a form of inner strength, a kind of dignity that makes it less necessary for a person to pretend." (Daily Readings from Quaker Writings Ancient & Modern, Linda Hill Renfer, Ed., Serenity Press)

Mr. Brown pretty much nailed it there. Humility is an expression of confidence, because a person who is truly confident does not need to brag or boast. And when you combine that kind of confidence with compassion for others, you get the "gentle strength" that Jesus was talking about.

And I have thought of at least two ways in which humility can bring power:
  • Humility gives us the power to see more clearly. All too often, our perceptions of the world and ourselves are clouded by our own egos. When we see ourselves as "right" and others as "wrong," it prevents us from seeing the truth in others and prevents us from learning new truths. And seeing more clearly gives us the power to act more clearly.

  • Humility also gives us power because people are more likely to listen to a voice of humility than a voice of pride or arrogance. The Tao Te Ching says that "All waters are drawn to the sea; it is its lowness that gives it power." People are actually more likely to trust the judgment of a person who expresses occasional uncertainty than the "know it all" who always claims to have all the answers.

Finally, and most importantly of all, humility reflects our right relationship with God. Our faith in God give us confidence and strength. But that confidence and strength is tempered by our understanding of our human weaknesses, by our inability to understand God's plans, and by our knowledge that our salvation comes from God's grace and not because we can earn it or deserve it.

Which helps my understand a little better my favorite passage from the old testament:

"And what does the Lord required of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Invisible Hand

In The Wealth of Nations (1776) the economist Adam Smith wrote that, when individuals pursue their own economic self-interest, the general wealth of the country increases and that general increase in prosperity benefits everyone. He described this as an "invisible hand" that guided individuals to benefit everyone even while they thought that they worked only for their own profit.

I have come to believe that there is a similar "invisible hand" in spiritual matters. When an individual acts to increase his or her own spiritual peace, the general peace of the community is increased, and so there is a benefit to all.

It's the flip side of John Donne's "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." (Meditation XVII.) Changing the negative to positive, every man's joy enriches me, and I never send to know for whom the bell peals, because it peals for me.

And so I rejoice when I learn that someone has made a life-changing or career-changing decision, even if I think that the decision might work against me. For example, if a co-worker quits, it might mean more work for me, or it might mean that I will need to help find and train a replacement. But it also might be good for me in the long run. The replacement might be someone that I can like or learn from. Upon losing an employee, our supervisors might realize that they either need to change their ways or lose more good employees. Or I might finally decide that I need to quit in order to find a better job. But how the change benefits me is unpredictable and not important. The important thing is that someone has acted to benefit his or her own life, and that action can only serve as an inspiration or model for others and only increase the prosperity of peace in the world.

And so I embrace those who have the courage to act to change their lives. I don't know how their decisions will help me, but I am sure they they will, if for no other reason that there will be happier people in the world.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Reaping What We Sow

In one of my previous posts about violence as public policy (i.e., "Guantanamo"), I quoted the Biblical admonition that "you reap whatever you sow." (See also, "The Wide Gate of Torture.") Well, it looks like at least part of the harvest is starting to come in.

The New York Times has reported that, after more than a decade of declining crime rates, many areas of the country have been experiencing double-digit increases in violent crime over the last two years. ("Violent Crime in Cities Shows Sharp Surge," 3/9/2007.) Theft and other crimes against property continue to go down, and the biggest increase in violent crime is in aggravated assaults with guns (i.e. shootings).

The article talks about a lot of different possible causes, including economics, a rise in the abuse of methamphetimine, and declining federal aid to local law enforcement, but most of the law enforcement officials who were interviewed talked about it as a social problem. There are simply more people willing to use guns to settle disputes or avenge perceived wrongs.

The leadership of a country influences the thinking of the country, so let's look at where the Bush administration has been leading us.

One of the most important policy formulations of the Bush administration is the "Bush Doctrine" that was first announced by President George W. Bush in a commencement address to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on June 1, 2002, and is laid out in more detail in the "National Security Strategy of the United States" issued by the National Security Council on September 20, 2002. The essence of the Bush Doctrine is that the United States intends to maintain overwhelming military strength and will use that military strength unilaterally and preemptively against any people or country who might pose a threat to us. This policy has been described as "muscular," but it could also be described as "macho," "violent," and "paranoid."

So then we invaded Iraq without the approval of the United Nations in order to protect ourselves from weapons of mass destruction that might exist but don't, as it turns out. And, in addressing a question about the dangers of attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq, President Bush responds with "bring 'em on." (7/2/2003)

The administration also has policies of seizing people it thinks might be a threat (e.g., "extraordinary rendition") and holding them indefinitely (e.g., Guantanamo) while subjecting them to "tough questioning" (i.e., physical and mental stress, threats, and abuse) without the authority of any law and without any judicial review.

And Republican leaders regularly mock those who want to cut back on our use of violence as wanting to "cut and run," implying cowardice.

So, within a few years, people on the streets begin to think (and act) as though the same rules (or lack of rules) apply to them, using deadly preemptive violence to respond to perceived threats, and never backing down from a fight.

We're reaping what the President has sown, and it is still just the beginning.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Wide Gate of Torture

In Matthew's version of the "Sermon on the Mount," Jesus presents the following admonition:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that lead to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Matt. 7:13-14 (NRSV).

This is pretty much the same thing that H.L. Mencken said 1,900 years later, which is that "There is always an easy solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong."

A recent article in the New Yorker talks about the growing acceptance of the use of torture in both the government and popular culture. The Bush administration is on record as claiming that the standards of human decency contained in the "common Article III" of the Geneva conventions do not apply to terrorism suspects in U.S. custody and, although the administration rejects the word "torture," they admit to "harsh measures" such as "waterboarding," which is universally recognized as a form of torture.

In popular culture, the use of torture as a plot device on television has exploded in the last few years, particularly on the Fox network show "24," where hardly a week goes by without the use of physical coercion or threats of physical coercion.

And the appeal of torture is obvious: It's simple and it's easy. Never mind the morality, or legality, or even the effectiveness of it; it's a simple solution to what is otherwise a complex problem. When we are threatened, all we need to do is threaten back. When they hurt us, we hurt them back. If we think someone knows something that we want to know, we hurt them until they tell us what we want to hear.

Of course, every suspect we abuse learns to hate us and becomes a terrorist for life. And the stories of torture and abuse become recruiting tools for the bands of terrorists who want to kill us. And our allies are becoming increasing disgusted by our behavior and have started to indict our agents (in Italy this week, for example, and perhaps soon also in Germany).

Yes, torture is simple. The gate is wide and the road is easy, and it leads to our destruction, not our life.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Religion v. Science

(Today is "Evolution Sunday," and the 198th birthday of Charles Darwin, and so I wanted to republish my commentary on creationism, evolution, religion, and science, which I originally posted on 10/2/2005 on my "Thoughts" web page.)

I made up my mind years ago about the "conflict" between evolution and what is sometimes called "creationism," and in the process I developed a new way of looking at religion and science and the differences between them. I always expected that someday I would hear or read of someone who had reached the same conclusion, but I never have so I guess it’s time to explain my view and the reasons for it.

What appears to be a conflict between religion and science can be resolved quite easily once you understand that there is no conflict. There is no conflict between religion and science because they answer two completely different kinds of questions. As long as they can’t both answer the same question, they can’t be in conflict.

Science can really only address the question of "how." How were stars formed? How can we predict the movement of the planets? How are diseases transmitted? How do birds fly? And so forth. Science investigates and explains the chemical, mechanical, electromagnetic, atomic, and other processes by which things happen.

Religion can really only address the question of "why," which is a very different question because it goes to the meaning or purpose of the way things are and the things that happen.

Unfortunately, scientists sometimes think that by explaining how something happens, they have explained why it happens, which is where a lot of the confusion and conflict comes from.

To illustrate, consider the "debate" between "creationism" (or another other religious view of the origins of mankind) and evolution. A Darwinist might think that he (or she) has explained "why" man evolved by explaining that a process of genetic mutations and natural selection resulted in the evolution of modern man. But why did the process of natural selection lead to mankind and not some other kind of creature? The Darwinist might reply that natural selection occurs because some animals are better suited to their environment than others. But why was there an environment that lead to the evolution of man and not some other kind of creature? The Darwinist might reply that the climate on earth a million years ago was favorable to the evolution of man. But why was there a climate a million years ago that was favorable to the evolution of man?

I hope you can see where this is going. Every "answer" can be countered with another "why" and, just as a parent eventually tires of answering the repeated "why" of a three-year-old, eventually the Darwinist will have to say either "That’s just the way it was" or "Because I say so." And neither of those is really an answer.

Many scientists will dismiss what I’ve just said with the explanation that they simply don’t have all the answers yet. But that simply means that they don’t yet understand the problem, because it is becoming increasingly clear that science will never know "all the answers." Every new discovery brings more questions and so, the more scientists learn, the more they find how little they’ve learned.

Even more importantly, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are some things that are simply unknowable. For example, one of the fundamental principles of quantum physics is that you can’t know the energy (or speed) of a subatomic particle at the same time that you know it’s location. The more precisely you know a particle’s location, the less you know about it’s energy, and vice versa. This is known as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and it’s not something you can solve with better equipment of more sophisticated experiments. It’s a fundamental limitation on what is knowable.

Because there is this unavoidable level of uncertainty, the interaction of atomic particles is often completely unpredictable, and this was a shock to scientists. The classical, Newtownian view of the universe was that it was predictable, almost like a giant machine. If you knew where something was, where it was going, and how fast, you could predict where it would be in the future. If you knew where everything was and where everything was going, you could (in theory) figure out the future of everything. In quantum physics, that predictability fell apart and suddenly the future was very random.

Even the brilliant Albert Einstein tried to reject this aspect of quantum theory, stating that "God does not roll dice." What he (and others) overlook is that our inability to predict the future does not mean that God is "rolling dice." The fact that it looks random to us does not mean that it looks random to God (or even that it is random).

Another example of unknowability is chaos theory. One of the initial discoveries of chaos theory was that sufficiently large and complicated systems (such as, say, the weather, or life on earth) are inherently unpredictable because very small events can have very large consequences over time. The classic example is that it is theoretically possible for the flutter of the wings of a single butterfly to change the atmosphere in such a way that a month or more later a tornado that was going to form, doesn’t (or vice versa).

If small events affect large events in ways that are unpredictable, and the smallest (i.e., molecular) events are inherently unpredictable, what does that tell us about how well scientists can predict the future? Over the short term, and for most of the things we can see, scientists can tell us the rules and can predict what will happen fairly accurately. But over longer periods of time (say thousands of years) and for smaller objects (say the genetic material in cells) things start to get very unpredictable, and there is often no good scientific explanation for why one thing happens and not another.

Now let’s look at the religious point of view. Ignoring the Bible (I’ll get back to that later), a belief that God created man in His image does not require any particular method of creation. If God had a choice of two or three different ways of creating man, who are we to criticize His choice?

So let’s assume that God had a choice between snapping His fingers and having mankind appear instanteously, out of thin air, or having mankind appear slowly, first in the form of protoplasm, then single-celled organisms, then multi-celled organisms, then fish, then reptiles, then mammals, then hominids, and finally homo sapiens (mankind). Do we really care which method God chose?

As far as the Bible is concerned, it contains some very interesting and profound thoughts of some very wise people, but those same people also didn’t understand the chemistry of fire and so the chances of them guessing right on questions of genetics can summed up as "small."

Another problem with the Bible is that there are actually two different creation stories in the book of Genesis. The more familiar story is the one that starts at Chapter 1, verse 1, and describes the creation of the universe in seven days, with God creating "humankind in his image, .. male and female he created them" on the sixth day. Gen. 1:26-27. The other creation story appears in Gen. 2:4-25. In this second version, the earth and the heavens are made in one day, and God created a man out of the dust of the ground, and then created a woman from one of his ribs.

Can anyone really claim that the Bible is "right" when it can’t even tell the same story twice without changing it?

Where does that leave us? Science is interesting, and it’s valuable. It provides better ways of living and interesting toys. So I want scientists to continue to tinker. But scientists are not much more than plumbers or electricians installing new appliances and fixing the shorts and leaks in the universe that God built. As useful as they can be, they can’t tell us why we’re here. They can tell us how we got here, but not why we’re here. When we want to ask questions like "why," we need to talk to God and listen for that still, small voice.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Why I'm Quaker

Gregg Koskela has written his "Top Ten Reasons I'm a Quaker" and his reasons are similar to mine, but not identical, so I thought I'd write down the reasons I became Quaker, and why I enjoy being Quaker.

As you'll see, I came up with six reasons, not ten, which seemed like a good enough number to me. And you'll also see some connections between the reasons. That's okay with me also.

In no particular order:

Universalism - I have always been disturbed by the notion that some people will be "saved" by God (whatever that might mean) and others damned, and that the key to salvation/damnation is the right religion, or the right baptism, or the right lifestyle. It was therefore a relief to join a group that is very spiritual, with strong feelings of their own, who nevertheless believe that there is "something of God" in everyone, and do not claim any exclusivity to divine inspiration or salvation.

Continuing Revelation - I have also been very puzzled for most of my life by the notion that God spoke to ancient Hebrews, and spoke to Jesus and the apostles, but suddenly decided to draw a line across the page at the end of John's Revelation and has been mum for the almost 2,000 years since then. So it was, once again, a relief to find a group that believed that continuing direct revelation from God was not only possible, but should be considered normal and not necessarily symptomatic of a serial killer.

I also like the idea that there is a body of religious thought to which I can contribute. A by-product of the belief in continuing revelation is the accumulation of a Quaker literature which is not the product of professional theologians but of "ordinary" Quakers who have been inspired to write down their thoughts about God, Jesus, scripture, and Quaker faith and practices. Because the most important qualification is inspiration from God, and in the Quaker view of the world all are equally qualified, the Quaker "theology" that exists is extremely egalitarian and accepts contributions from all.

Walking the Walk - One of the truly wonderful things to me about Quakers is that they not only "talk the talk" about their relationship to God, but that they also "walk the walk" in trying to put their beliefs about God, and the teachings of Jesus, into their day-to-day lives. The clearest example of this are the Quaker "Testimonies," which are not "testimonies" in words but testimonies in how we live our lives. (I.e., "Let your life speak.") Another example is the strong social and political activism of Quakers, who have a political impact that is very much disproportionate to their actual numbers.

The testimonies have become a comfort to me, because I find that they give me an excuse to do (or not do) the things I wanted to do (or not do) anyway. So, when I want to avoid a party or other frivolous event, when I want to get rid of some stuff I no longer have any use for, or when I want to buy clothes that are practical and comfortable (and even inexpensive) but not necessarily stylish, I can cite the Quaker testimony of simplicity as my justification. When I want to express myself in a non-tactful way, I fall back on the testimony of integrity. When I look in the bushes for cans and bottles, it's not because I'm obsessive-compulsive but because of the testimony of stewardship for the earth and its resources. The testimonies therefore provide me with a (relatively) guilt-free lifestyle I can enjoy.

Decision-Making - I still enjoy Quaker decision-making, as time-consuming and frustrating as it can be, because I have found that the need for unity, and the resulting need to listen to and take into account the thoughts of all of the members, produces better and more positive decisions than can be produced by a mere majority.

Listening - Because of both the decision-making process and the belief that there is something of God in each of us, Quakers seem to spend more time truly listening to each other than any group I have ever experienced. And when I say "listening" I don't mean being quiet while the other person talks but truly concentrating on what the other person is saying in order to understand the other person's point of view. To me, it is a very loving act to listen to another person's point of view, and so I see the ability of Quakers to listen to each other as a continuing expression of love for each other.

Silence - And I enjoy the silence. Even the brief silences that begin and end most gatherings of Quakers outside of meeting for worship (e.g., committee meetings) are a welcome pause in the day to gather my thoughts and give thanks for where I am, what I'm doing, and how I'm feeling. In a world where multi-tasking is becoming the norm, some periods of no-tasking are very welcome.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The Parable of the Dutiful Son

(In a previous message, I referred to my thoughts about the parable of the prodigal son. This is my commentary on that parable, which I originally posted on 10/19/2003 on my "Thoughts" web page.)

What I call the "Parable of the Dutiful Son" is what most other people call the "Parable of the Prodigal Son" found in Luke 15:11-32.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son can be summed up as follows: A man has two sons. The younger son takes his inheritance and leaves home, proceeds to waste his money in an immoral and irresponsible life, and ends up coming home penniless and humble, hoping to work as a servant for his father, but his father greets him with joy and prepares a great feast in his honor, to the displeasure of the older son who remained behind. The younger son represents the sinner, the older son represents the faithful, and the father represents God. The moral of the story is that God always loves us no matter how we have sinned, and those of us who don't sin just have to learn to live with it.

The Parable of the Dutiful Son is more complicated. The facts are the same but the focus of the parable is on the older son who stays behind and why he is resentful.

When the younger son returns and the older son discovers the celebration going on, he becomes angry and refuses to go in. The father comes to plead with him, and the son states that he has been working like a slave for his father, and has never disobeyed him, and yet the father has never given him "even a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends." (15:29.) The father begins his reply by saying, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." (15:31.)

This seems terribly unfair. And the father's response, that "we had to celebrate" because the younger son "was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found" doesn't really seem explain the unfairness of squandering a fatted calf on behalf of a wastrel and denying the hard-working son even a young goat.

But did the father ever deny his older son a young goat "to celebrate with my friends"? The older son doesn't actually claim that the father ever denied him anything. What angers the older son is that the father never gave him the goat. And the father replies by saying that "all that is mine is yours," which is a round-about way of the father saying that he couldn't actually give the older son anything, because everything already belonged to the older son (i.e., you can't give something to someone that they already have). If the older son never had a young goat to share with his friends, it was because he never asked for one (or just never took one).

And the father described in the parable does not seem like the sort of father who would work his son like a slave. So if the older son worked like a slave, it was his decision to do so, and not his father's.

Taking these observations one step further, I believe that the older son was waiting for his father to die. The older son was dutiful and served his father, but he had more or less put his own life on hold until his father died and he came into his own inheritance. Only after his father died would he begin to live and enjoy himself. Until then, he would be the dutiful son and work like a slave.

So the parable actually does address the "unfairness" of the father's actions, and shows that what seems to be unfair only seems that way because of the actions and decisions of the older son, and not the father. It was the older son who decided to work like a slave, and not the father. It was the older son who decided never to take a young goat to celebrate with his friends, and not the father. It was the older son who decided to live a boring, unhappy life, and not the father. And the father loved both his sons, and the fact that the older son had decided to make his own life unhappy was not going to stop the father from celebrating the return of the younger son.

So the parable is not just reassurance to the sinners in us that our Father still loves us, but also a wake-up call to the slaves in us that our Father also loves us and that everything our Father has is already ours. It is up to us to enjoy our lives, and to enjoy the world and the gifts that God has given to us.

God's gifts and grace are unlimited and are available to all. If we begrudge God's grace to anyone, it is probably because we have begrudged God's grace to ourselves. If we enjoy our lives and the grace and gifts our Father has given to us, we will not be angry or jealous when our Father celebrates the return of one of our brothers, but we will be able to celebrate with our Father and share our gifts with our returning brother.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Divine Forgiveness

Years ago, when I was still Presbyterian, I was sitting in a Presbyterian church on a Sunday morning listing to the same kind of pastoral prayer that I had heard for most of my life and, when the minister came to the "prayer for forgiveness," it suddenly struck me as very, very silly.

The minister was talking (as Presbyterian ministers often do) about how sinful we were, and unworthy of God's love and grace, and how we were nevertheless humbly seeking forgiveness. But I had by that time come to believe that Jesus meant exactly what he said in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32.), and about how God causes the sun to rise on both the evil and the good (Matt. 5:45). God loves us, and has forgiven us, is forgiving us, and always will forgive us.

The reason that we need to pray is not so that God will forgive us, but so that we will forgive ourselves. The problem is not that God does not love us and forgive us, but that we have not yet figured out how to accept that love and forgiveness.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


(We recently "celebrated" the fifth anniversary of the establishment of a detainee camp at the U.S. military base oat Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and I wanted to republish this commentary that I wrote and published on June 30, 2004.)

As I watched the special report on the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay that was broadcast by ABC News on its "20/20" program (Friday, 6/25/2004), the terrible sadness and sickness of it was almost overpowering to me. I fear not only for our souls, but for our safety.

Nowadays, we say that "what goes around comes around." Jesus said, "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get." (Matt. 7:1-2)

In the form of the "Golden Rule," this becomes, "Do to others as you would have them do to you." (Luke 6:31)

The idea that there is a reflectivity in the universe appears frequently in the Bible, most often as a warning:

"As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same." (Job 4:8)
"For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind:" (Hosea 8:7)
"According to their way I will deal with them; according to their own judgments I will judge them." (Ezekiel 7:27)

The most frightening version comes from the letter of Paul to the Galatians:

"Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for you reap whatever you sow." (Gal. 6:7)

A teacher of mine sometimes said that "the only way to stop a behavior is to stop the behavior." What does that mean in real life?

It means that we can’t teach kindness by practicing cruelty.
We can’t instill a sense of mercy by acting mercilessly.
We can’t establish a rule of law through lawlessness.
We can’t expect justice by administering injustice.
We can’t create peace through war.
And we can’t stop terrorists through terrorism.

Which brings me to my favorite passage from the Bible:

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8)

In the policies of the Bush Administration, there is no justice, there is no kindness, and there is no humility.

And I am afraid that we will reap the whirlwind.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


The word "repent" appears in the New Testament and in Christian literature and sermons. And yet it seems to be the result of a faulty translation, a translation faulty enough to distort our view of both Jesus and God.

The word "repent" is derived from the Latin paenitere, which means to regret or be sorry, from which we also derive the words "penitent" and "penitentiary." But the Greek word used in the manuscripts of the New Testament is metanoia, which means to change your mind or change your heart. (See "The Lost Gospel Q," Marcus Borg, ed., p. 34, n. 1.)

John the Baptist was not calling on people to express regret or feel guilty, but to renew their minds and hearts. Mark 1:4 (NRSV) says that John was proclaiming "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." In "The Lost Gospel Q," the same phrase is translated as "baptism and a change of heart leading to the forgiveness of sins." In "The Gospel According to Jesus," Stephen Mitchell translates the phrase as "a baptism of renewal for the forgiveness of sins."

The act of forgiveness is itself a change of heart or change of mind. When we forgive, we go from anger, resentment, or disapproval to a state of peace, love, and non-judgment. Similarly, we are "reborn" in Jesus because we can then change our hearts, putting aside our fears and sorrows and regaining the faith and innocence of a child.

It is true that, in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the son who has lead a sinful and dissolute life admits to his father that he has sinned when he returns home, but the father does not seem to pay any attention at all and immediately calls for a celebration. The son is never asked to perform any penance and his sincerity is never questioned. The son never even asks for forgiveness. He is simply accepted home and unconditionally forgiven as soon as he appears. His change of mind and decision to return home was enough.

Renewal and rebirth are central to the teachings of Jesus, and it is unfortunate that we have become burdened by the idea that we have to be penitent before we can be reborn and return to God.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

A Thin Place

The name of this blog is based on a phrase used by theologian Marcus Borg to describe a place (or a thing) where the distance between the divine and the secular are narrowed, and we are able to come closer to experiencing the divine.

My hope is that this blog will help me (by writing it) and others (by reading it) experience that kind of "thin place."

This is a continuation of a web page I created some years ago,, and I will be copying my previous postings from there to here for the sake of "completeness."