Monday, August 20, 2012

Cars and Creeds become dated . . .

R.E. Olds actually began building cars before Henry Ford – and for many decades the Oldsmobile brand was an industry leader. In 1988 sales were poor – and the company introduced its new model with the tag line – “This is not your grandfather’s Oldsmobile”. That didn’t work and the final Oldsmobile rolled off the factory lot in April 2004. Nostalgia for what once was doesn’t work in today’s automotive world.

The Apostles Creed is certainly one of the oldest in Christendom, developed between the 2nd and 9th centuries. Pre-dating the Apostles Creed is, of course, the Nicene Creed, developed in 325 to battle the teachings of Arius. It experienced many re-workings over the centuries. The version most frequently in use today dates back to 1549!

While some may think reviewing the use/acceptance of cars and creeds odd – [even ludicrous?], factors in both have similarities:

·         Egos! The history of creeds and Christianity has clearly been impacted when egos clashed over interpretations, control issues, political battles, etc. Such is also true in the automotive history. Think Paul vs Peter, Athanasius vs Arius, Martin vs Leo; think Olds vs Ford, GM vs Toyota.

·         New knowledge!
          o   Autos
                §  Initially used heavy metals in manufacturing. Now & other lighter materials
                 §  Computers now handle timing, maintenance, cruise control, global positioning and a myriad of other aspects involved in driving an auto.
                 §  Environmental impact of burning fossil fuels [as well as cost increase] has led to newer means of propelling an automobile.
                §  Safety and comfort factors became more mandatory.
                §  Foreign manufacturers were able to compete successfully in all aspects of the auto
          o   Creeds
                §  Galileo and Copernicus revealed the earth is not the center of the universe. No longer can we postulate a “tiered” universe in which heaven is “up”, hell is “down”.
                 §  Newton forced us to recognize that this universe operates on certain laws which even God cannot suspend without dire results.
                 §  The discovery of ancient manuscripts reveal many other texts with significant claims to being considered as important as the Bible.
                §  Darwin’s work on the evolution of humanity reveals that creation is not “done”  but is still evolving; that while the Psalmist saw us as little lower than the angels, we are really only a little higher than animals; that it is even possible we could become extinct!
                 §  Freud’s work on the human psyche opened up the way humanity reacts when the reality of mortality confronts us: we create gods and myths, experience fear and anger, and come to feel guilt.
                §  Sputnik – and all the other works involving outer space – make us aware that our galaxy is only one of many; that the distances involved are trillions of miles; and creation is very, very old – long before Genesis 1!
                §  Our involvement with persons from other creeds/religions forces us to re-consider whether or not we can insist on the supremacy of Christianity.
                §  All these aspects need to be worked into our theologies [just as our ancestors had to do in their time].

The world of 2012 is much more than what our grandmothers and grandfathers knew. It’s time to up-grade our creeds!

Monday, August 13, 2012

WORDS . . . . .

Grocery-store-aisle conversations are frequently informative!  Such was the situation recently when I met a fellow member of my congregation. A professional man, he had been very active in the days I served as an Interim Pastor. He began our conversation – “I know you haven’t seen me very often recently…” Since my attendance has also been very infrequent, we quickly moved to grant our mutual words of assurance that we – personally – were still o.k. We are probably members of what Bishop John Shelby Spong calls the Church Alumni Association [Into The Whirlwind, p22, 1983; St. Johann Press].

My friend mentioned that a daughter had just graduated from a prestigious mid-western University with a major in linguistics. He further related that she now considered herself an atheist! Altho both of us felt some sadness, we also affirmed our understanding of her current stance. Within our family of 7 children [6 married] and 17 grand-children, the situation would not be greatly different. [While they might not claim to be atheist, many would be members of that Church Alumni Association!]

My sadness at the loss of my friend’s daughter to the church was also amplified as I reflected on her field of study – linguistics.  A noun, linguistics is “The study of the nature, structure, and variation of language, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, sociolinguistics, and pragmatics.” How critical such a person might be to an organization founded upon the “word become flesh”. We are an organization whose history is richly characterized by those who sought life’s meanings and answers through such studies. And, we are an organization critically in need of such persons willing to provide leadership in 2012 as we seek to relate that “Word” to modernity.

Think of the words used weekly in worship – words whose meanings in 2012 carry vastly different pictures than when they were first written:
·         I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.
       o   Is an anthropomorphic God, especially singularly identified as masculine, appropriate for the 21st century?
    o   Is it helpful to continue describing our God as “Almighty”, when we more often see God as unable to change powers of destruction?
    o   Is it wise to continue to speak of a “heaven” and an “earth” [and, later, a “hell”] as if we believed in a tri-level universe? Now that we know there are multiple galaxies beyond ours, such language [at the least] is a major stumbling block for our youth.

There are similar challenges in the 2nd and 3rd articles of the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the stories of miracles, the theological dicta predicated upon thoughts/beliefs/ideas we know are no longer valid, and much of our hymnody!

This is not to denigrate the value[s] of such. Think of how our ancestors – male and female – argued fervently to advance “words” that conveyed the Good News.

They knew that words were important!

Jesus also knew that how such words were understood was equally important – and open to change!
   Matthew 5:22-24: “Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment:  22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

It is not an easy challenge to engage in such study, debate, and dialogue. Indeed, it is scary because to do so asks one be willing to move forward trusting beyond what s/he can capture in their own minds, their own intellects, their own rationalities. It takes what Tillich referred to as a “leap of faith” – from a place we feel is secure [even though our minds inform us it is not] to an unknown place [one that our minds may not fathom, but which our belief can affirm is still with God!]

May we all be linguists – and let’s convene the Church Alumni Association!

Thursday, August 9, 2012


In 1955 the United Lutheran Church in America brought three young clergy before a Tribunal on charges of several heresies! The charges included denial of the virginity of Mary [they believed that it was not necessary for the divinity of Jesus]; the creedal statements suggesting a three-tiered universe [they argued that the church needed to move beyond the pre-Galileo/Copernicus struggles]; the physical ascension of Jesus [they argued that even Paul speaks more of a spiritual ascension]; and the efficacy of prayer [is prayer an attempt to change the mind of God or, in the act of praying, is the prayer changed?].

Seminaries convened their seniors to make certain that they would give correct answers when being examined for ordination. From today’s vantage point [57 years] I think few of us were even aware of the questions raised in/through these concerns.

·         We knew that “heaven” was not “up” and we knew that “hell” was not “down”. But being “out” in the universe was still moving from the comic strips – and “sputnik” was still a year or so away.

·         We knew that Paul talked much about “in-the-body” or “out-of-the-body” and that his Damascus road experience with Jesus was not a “physical” meeting.

·         We knew that the advances being made in psychology were radically altering our understanding of the “self” – and that in the act of praying one was affirming the “self” as dependent upon and lesser to the “Other”. Still, in 1955 [and for many subsequent decades] many of us believed that prayer was both an attempt to alter/change the mind of God and a practice that changed my “self”!

The clergy were George Crist Jr. (31), Victor Wrigley (36) and John Gerberding (33). Crist and Wrigley were adjudged as guilty. Gerberding was acquitted – but within a year he resigned from the roster. My attempts to learn more of their subsequent lives have been at fraught. Googling their names have been unsuccessful.

Such “anonymity” is unfortunate. Theological progress always comes out of the intense dialogues with those who raise questions about the status quo. Those discussions almost always identify “truths” which need to be altered due to advances of knowledge.

Unfortunately [albeit understandably] the victors would declare the losers as heretics. Excommunication, banishment from the community, even death were the usual punishments for the losers – and, most likely the arguments they proposed were also eradicated. (The Heresy Tribunal records are sealed in the ELCA archives until all parties are deceased.)

The term heresy is from Greek αἵρεσις originally meaning "choice". It also referred to that process whereby a person could examine various philosophies to determine how to live one's life. In light of the phenomenal knowledge changes experienced between 1955 and 2012 such a process ought to be mandatory:

·         Evolution is only a controversy within certain religious groups. For many today, life is involved in a continual creative process. History is replete with organisms that came into existence and then moved into non-existence. Our belief(s) in a Creator must move beyond an anthropomorphic tribal leader.

·         Prayer whose goal/aim is to thwart laws of nature [suspense of the law of gravity so the vase won’t break!] or to gain while another loses [my team or my army or my political party] or to seek healing as if an angry or vengeful god must be assuaged so as to grant mercy – such prayers challenge all that my 21st century rational mind believes! I do believe there is a power in/with prayer – but such exists only through hard, focused effort.

·         “Truths” are all relative! That’s scary. There is not any field of life that has not been impacted by having its “truth” declared invalid. All have experienced it. We need to live in that paradox. Live in it – and help our people know that life can still have love and hope.

It would be exciting to visit with Crist, Wrigley and Gerberding and to continue their quest. Life in 2012 has moved light years beyond 1955. We need to capture the original sense of the word “heresy” so as to consider choices more reflective of what is known today!