SOMETHING There Is. . .

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“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”
-Isaac Newton, English physicist, mathematician and theologian

In North of Boston, his second collection of poetry, Robert Frost includes a poem entitled, “Mending Wall.” The poem conveys the story of two neighbors who meet and converse over a traditional New England stone wall that needs springtime repair. It is, however, obvious that this portrayal is a metaphor for the relationship between two people. The wall is the manifestation of the emotional barricade that separates them. The poem begins with these words:
SOMETHING there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun.

The interesting thing about walls is that they block sight. They restrict relationship between the two sides. Even in Frost’s poem in which one of the characters twice proclaims, “Good fences make good neighbors,” the gist of the poem is one of careful consideration about the usefulness of walls or fences.

Clearly, although the wall has kept the property lines clear and the wildlife at bay, the narrator of the poem finds something innately disturbing about walls. Walls are inherently exclusive, as opposed to inclusive. They force boundaries rather than allowing for open relationships. Walls demarcate lines of power and dominion, hierarchical inequality, and privileges of membership. They hide, separate, alienate and, ultimately, prevent us from dealing with one another face to face, in real and personal ways.

Once one begins to question the wall and the dividing wall begins to fall, what does one do with the rubble? Does one act as those people portrayed in the film The Pianist, in which Polish Jews – abused, oppressed and excluded people during World War Two by the Nazis – are required to take down a wall that was built and haul off the rubble until it was decided to use the rubble to build another wall? The message should be clear to each of us. Obviously, each of us must work with others to remove the rubble once and for all and to build something beautiful out of that ugly rubble.

As was realized in the case of the destruction of the Berlin Wall, “wanting” a wall down and “taking” such a structure down are two different things. Taking a wall down requires serious commitment and hard work – the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” kind of hard work – to invoke Winston Churchill’s famous phrase. Taking a wall down requires us not only to question the usefulness of a wall, but also to recognize that sometimes what we have revered as infallible, irreversible and necessary may have become a source of destruction, discrimination or dissolution. And that “infallible” source of exclusion may even include scripture, canon law and commandments. What we must recognize is that the overriding value – the fence-leveling value, wall-toppling value – comes from the conviction that people come first – not scripture, not the canons, not the Ten Commandments, not the dividing walls – but people.

The Reverend Canon Eugene Taylor Sutton, (now the fourteenth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland) in his baccalaureate address to the seniors at Hope College, told the following story that illustrates this point. It seems that a young man applied for a position in his local school system. He wanted to teach, and felt that he could make a positive difference in young peoples’ lives. He wanted to give something back to the city system that prepared him well enough to make it through the tough college from which he had just graduated. Receiving his application, the receptionist looked it over to see if everything was completed, and then noticed that he missed an important section of the form.
“I notice here at the top that you didn’t check one of the boxes under ‘Race,’” she pointed out to him.
His light skin normally would have moved her to check the appropriate box for him, but there was something about his dreadlocked hair and thick lips that threw her off.
“I see that you wrote ‘Human’”
“Yeah, I know,” he answered. “I wrote it down.”
“No, you see,” she insisted, “you need to check something here: White, Black, Latino, Pacific/Asian, Native American; or you can write in a race if you like.”
“I did,” he answered. “It’s human. The race is human.”

The answer that the Right Reverend Larry Earl Maze, formerly the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, gave to his people when asked why he signed a controversial document regarding human sexuality is apropos here. His response was this: “When faced with the decision of to exclude or to include, I will always choose the way of inclusion…”

Later in his poem, Frost has the line: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/ That wants it down.” For some, the “Something” of which Frost wrote is what African-American poet Maya Angelou may have had in mind when she penned: “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” That is to say, our better natures beckon us to come together as members of the human race to work together to build a common dwelling place – to build a place of inclusion, a place that has no dividing walls. Yes, SOMETHING THERE IS that doesn’t love a wall. . .”
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PART II: SERIOUSLY – BUT NOT LITERALLY

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(CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK’S POST)

(Last week, I introduced you to a twenty-four year-old man named Joe Dearing. I indicated that I had at least two major problems with what he said. In last week’s post, I wrote about my initial concerns. In this post, I continue with the second problem I have with Mr. Dearing’s statements.)

The second problem I have with what Mr. Dearing believes is that beyond his odd reasoning, the truth is that no matter how much one may want to read the Bible as a clear account of actual events, the Bible inherently resists such literalism. His apparent ignorance about the Bible and his insistence that “the King James Version is not just a translation of the word of God. It is literally the supernatural word of God” troubles me and it should trouble you as well.

In the first place, the King James Version, like all versions of the Bible, is a translation.

Detail of Moses (circa 1513–1515) by the Italian High Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti, housed in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome

Detail of Moses (circa 1513–1515) by the Italian High Renaissance artist Michelangelo Buonarroti, housed in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome


The books of the Jewish Scriptures were written in Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures that were later added were written in Greek and Aramaic. Any versions in any other languages, then, are translations – including the King James Version. And as we all know, much is often lost in translation. Other translation problems are more obvious. For example, in the fourth century the Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate, Moses, the great Lawgiver of the Jews is described as coming down from Mount Sinai with horns on his head. (Exodus 34:29) The error was compounded by the Italian artist, Michelangelo, in his sculpture of Moses, which portrays Moses with two horns. But this imagery comes from a mistranslation of the Hebrew word karnai’im, which can mean “horns,” but in this instance it means “light rays.” This mistranslation has led to the stereotype, which was common until quite recently, that Jews have horns or are demonic!

The King James Version of the Bible, which Mr. Dearing believes is “literally the supernatural word of God” derives its name from the King of England and Scotland – King James I/VI – and is the product of a political decision as much as anything else. The King James Version, also known as the Authorized Version is an English translation of the Bible for the Church of England begun in 1604 and completed in 1611. This version was the third translation into English to be approved by the Anglican Church authorities. The first was The Great Bible commissioned in the reign of King Henry VIII (1535) and the second was The Bishops’ Bible (1568), translated during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. In January 1604, shortly after he became King of England and Scotland and Head of the Anglican Church, King James I of England convened the Hampton Court Conference where a new English version was conceived in response to the perceived problems of the earlier translations as detected by the Puritans, a faction within the Church of England. King James I gave the translators specific instructions intended to guarantee that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England and its belief in an ordained clergy. The translation was done by forty-seven scholars, all of whom just happened to be members of the Church of England.

For the Old Testament, the translators used a text originating in the editions of the Hebrew Rabbinic Bible by Daniel Bomberg (1524/1525), but adjusted this translation to conform to the Greek LXX (Septuagint) or Latin Vulgate in passages to which Christian tradition had attached a Christological interpretation. For the New Testament, the translators chiefly used the 1588/1589 and 1598 Greek editions of Theodore Beza, which also present Beza’s Latin version of the Greek and Stephanus’ edition of the Latin Vulgate. Both of these versions were extensively referred to as the translators conducted all discussions among themselves in Latin.

(A word to Mr. Dearing. If you really want to know what the Bible says, become proficient in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic.)

Secondly, the Bible is not in any literal sense “the word of God” and certainly not “literally the supernatural word of God” as Mr. Dearing claims.

Only someone who has never read the Bible would make such a claim. The Bible portrays God stopping the sun in the sky to allow more daylight to enable Joshua to kill more Amorites (Joshua 10:13), and ordering King Saul to commit genocide against the Amalekites (I Samuel 15:1-35). Can these acts of immorality ever be called “the word of God”?

The book of Psalms promises happiness to the defeated and exiled Jews only when they can dash the heads of Babylonian children against the rocks! (Psalm 137:9) Is this “the word of God? What kind of God would that be?

The book of Deuteronomy when read literally, for example, states that children who are willfully disobedient to their parents shall be stoned to death at the gates of the city. (Deuteronomy 21:18) Is that the word of God? Would any rational person be drawn to worship such a deity?

Leviticus tells us that people who commit adultery, people who are homosexual and people who worship a false God shall be executed. (Leviticus 20) Is that the word of God?

II Samuel suggests that God will cause the baby born out of an adulterous relationship to die as punishment for the adultery of the child’s parents! (II Samuel 7:11b-16) Is that the word of God?

The Epistle to the Colossians instructs slaves to be obedient to their masters. (Colossians 3:2) Are these attitudes in compliance with “the Word of God?”

Paul writes that women should be silent in the churches (I Corinthians 14:34) Is that the word of God? And the author of I Timothy says: “I forbid a woman to have authority over a man.”(I Timothy 2:12). Are we reading in these instances “the Word of God?”

Certainly not!

Over the centuries, texts like these, taken from the Bible and interpreted literally, have been used as powerful and evil weapons to support killing prejudices and to justify the cruelest kind of inhumanity. To refer to all of the words of the Bible as “the Word of God” or as “The Word of the Lord” encourages a kind of ignorant fundamentalism that sucks the very life out of Christianity today.

In every parish I have served, I have instructed lay readers to simply say at the conclusion of the reading, “Here ends the reading” (or “Here ends the lesson”), instead of “The Word of the Lord.” It is a small step, but one that hopefully discourages this kind of Biblical literalism.

Some of our other traditional, liturgical customs feed this same ignorance. In the worship of my beloved Episcopal Church, for example, I have to ask what are we as a church communicating to GOSPEL
our congregations when we process into our Sunday services holding the Gospel Book high as if it is to be worshipped or adored? What are we communicating when the one reading the Gospel (always an ordained person, never a lay person), proceeds to the center of the nave led by a full complement of crucifer, torch-bearers, Gospel bearer, and thurifer, and goes through all kinds of physical acts of crossing oneself or making the sign of the cross on the text of the Gospel before it is read or in some places intoned? What are we communicating when, before the Gospel is read, the reader censes the Gospel Book with no less than three swings of the thurible so as to cover its words with a “mystical” smell? All of these practices suggest that it is the Gospel itself, rather than the God to whom the words of the Gospel point that is the object of worship.

Biblical literalism has plagued the church for centuries. It needs to be exposed for what it is. These “pious practices,” which we have so universally wrapped around the Bible, are not just, as their defenders claim, acts of devotion; they are rather practices rooted in the claims we have made for a literalistic attitude toward the Bible. That attitude reflects a form of idolatry that is called “bibliolatry.”

Finally, The Bible requires interpretation.

In spite of the popular belief that the “true” religious stance is one of biblical literalism, the fact is that even the most orthodox branches of religions are not, never were, and cannot be, based on the literal reading of ancient Scriptures. No Jew, for example, lives by the strict word of the Torah, and none could, because the Bible can be very unclear. What does that verse about “don’t stew a kid in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19b; Exodus 34:26b; Deuteronomy 14:21b) really mean? Often such verses rely on metaphor, and were written by a different culture with references to things that no longer exist. This is why the Jews created both the Talmud (extensive documents that openly present questioning and arguments about the meaning of Bible texts) and the Midrash (a method of interpreting biblical stories that goes beyond simple distillation of religious, legal, or moral teachings, and fills in gaps left in the biblical narrative regarding events and personalities at which there are only hints).

Similar to what we find in Judaism, theologians of all faith communities (Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist) continually debate and hone the meaning of their sacred writings. Such refining and examination is not an attempt to ignore, or to whitewash, or to avoid what is written, but is the very process by which religions grow and stay relevant.

I wonder if Mr. Dearing realizes any of this.

As a priest, do I believe that God – the eternal, non-physical, ground of Being itself – actually “wrote” the Bible and gave it to us exactly as we have it? No, I do not believe that.

In his 1956 film, The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. De Mille seems to believe that God literally wrote the Decalogue. In the film, De Mille dramatically depicts a lightning bolt from heaven inscribing two tablets of stone with God’s words. Well, that’s Hollywood for you! Unfortunately, many people’s knowledge of the Bible comes from popular culture such as films rather than from the Bible itself. To such people, I must say that the simple truth is that God neither inscribes stone tablets nor writes books. People do.

Scene from De Mille’s The Ten Commandments in which the fire of God burns the commandments into the mountainside, then carves them out into two stone tablets. When the commandments are finished, Moses cautiously approaches the tablets, proclaiming that they were “written with the finger of God.”

Scene from De Mille’s The Ten Commandments in which the fire of God burns the commandments into the mountainside, then carves them out into two stone tablets. When the commandments are finished, Moses cautiously approaches the tablets, proclaiming that they were “written with the finger of God.”

Do I believe that the Bible is the source of spiritual insight and thought that is taken to levels of discernment and beauty that, in my experience, literalism has never produced? Yes, I do believe that.

For me, the ultimate meaning of the Bible escapes our human limitations and calls us to recognize that every life is holy, every life is loved, and every life is called to be all that that life is capable of being. The Bible is not about religion at all, but about how we can become more deeply and fully human. That certainly was the message of Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps best expressed in words that John’s Gospel has Jesus speak: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (Quote is from Mr. Dearing’s beloved King James Version).

When reading the Bible, we do not need to choose between a literal reading and a rejection of that reading. Both, I find, are small-minded and spiritually deadening positions. The Bible is far too rich to be reduced to such an insipid formula, and we are far too magnificent to allow ourselves to be reduced to such trifling behavior. If I may paraphrase a headline from an article for Progressive Christianity.org: We should take the Bible seriously, but not literally.

PART I: SERIOUSLY – BUT NOT LITERALLY

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The date was 28 November 2007.

The place was Saint Petersburg, Florida.

The occasion was the CNN/YouTube Republican presidential candidate’s debate before the 2008 election.

“I’m Joe,” the 24 year-old Joseph Dearing began. “I’m from Dallas, Texas. And how you answer this question will tell us everything that we need to know about you. Do you believe every word of this book? And I mean specifically this book that I am holding in my hand. Do you believe this book?”

The book Dearing was holding was an apparently well-worn Bible. Dearing took great care to show that it was specifically the King James Version because apparently that was a crucial part of the question from his point of view. None of the three candidates invited to respond appeared to catch the particular reference to the King James Version, however.

Rudy Giuliani, former Mayor of New York and a Roman Catholic, took the first stab at the question. “The reality is, I believe it, but I don’t believe it’s necessarily literally true in every single respect,” he said. “I think there are parts of the Bible that are interpretive. I think there are parts of the Bible that are allegorical. I think there are parts of the Bible that are meant to be interpreted in a modern context. So, yes, I believe it. I think it’s the greatest book ever written. I read it frequently. I read it very frequently when I’ve gone through the bigger crises in my life, and I find great wisdom in it, and it does define to a very large extent my faith,” Giuliani said. “But I don’t believe every single thing in the literal sense of Jonah being in the belly of the whale, or, you know, there are some things in it that I think were put there as allegorical.”

Dearing described Giuliani’s response “a cop-out.”

Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, former pastor and former Governor of Arkansas gave the next and perhaps the most polished response. “Sure, I believe the Bible is exactly what it is. It’s the word of revelation to us from God himself,” Huckabee said to applause. “And the fact is that when people ask do we believe all of it, you either believe it or you don’t believe it. But in the greater sense, I think what the question tried to make us feel like was that, well, if you believe the part that says ‘Go and pluck out your eye,’ well, none of us believe that we ought to go pluck out our eye,” Huckabee continued. “That obviously is allegorical. But the Bible has some messages that nobody really can confuse and really not left up to interpretation: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ and ‘as much as you’ve done it to the least of these brethren, you’ve done it unto me.’ Until we get those simple, real easy things right, I’m not sure we ought to spend a whole lot of time fighting over the other parts that are a little bit complicated. And as the only person here on the stage with a theology degree, there are parts of it I don’t fully comprehend and understand, because the Bible is a revelation of an infinite God, and no finite person is ever going to fully understand it. If they do, their god is too small.”

Huckabee’s answer also did not satisfy Dearing, who advocates the use of only the King James Version of the Bible. “I think Mike Huckabee is a typical liberal pastor, because I heard in a previous debate that he didn’t think it matters whether or not you believe the creation in Genesis was six literal days.”

Finally, it was Mitt Romney’s turn to answer. Romney, whose Mormon faith had been a sensitive issue for evangelical voters from the start of his campaign, stumbled on his answer. “I believe the Bible is the word of God, absolutely,” he said. “And I try … (Applause) … I try to live by it as well as I can, but I miss in a lot of ways. But it’s a guide for my life and for hundreds of millions, billions of people around the world. I believe in the Bible.”

“Does that mean you believe every word?” pressed Anderson Cooper, the debate moderator for the evening. “You know,” Romney paused, “yes, I believe it’s the word of God, the Bible is the word of God. The Bible is the word of God. I mean, I might interpret the word differently than you interpret the word, but I read the Bible and I believe the Bible is the word of God. I don’t disagree with the Bible. I try to live by it.”

Dearing’s response to Romney’s answer was: “It was very telling that he wouldn’t give a yes or no to the question,” he said. “His entire religion is in direct contradiction with the Bible.”

And just who is Joe Dearing? “I was saved from eternity in a literal fiery hell in 2003 by the only means possible – grace through faith in the blood atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross,” Dearing has written about himself. “He died as a sacrifice to pay for my sins and then rose from the dead,” Dearing continues. “Since then, I’ve grown a lot spiritually, thanks to the influence of the infallible word of God, which today is found in the Authorized (King James) Bible. The King James Version is not just a translation of the word of God,” Dearing says. “It is literally the supernatural word of God, just as much as the original autographs were the word of God. The main reason I’m saved now is what I learned from Bible-believers showing me the differences between the Bible versions. You can’t get saved until you understand the gospel, and I didn’t understand the gospel until I read the King James verses,” Dearing said.

There are so many things I want to say with regards to Mr. Dearing’s statement and those three politician’s pandering answers (in the political sense), but I will confine my remarks to just two things. I am not sure I follow Mr. Dearing’s logic – such as it is – but I have two main problems with what he says.

The first problem has to do with his claim that a specific question about religious doctrine, so specific that it apparently includes an insistence that candidates endorse a particular biblical translation, can tell us “everything that we need to know” about a person. No one that evening in Saint Petersburg seemed to object to this line of questioning or to say that we need to know more about presidential candidates than whether or not they believe in “this book.” Even more importantly, no one apparently remembered that pesky Article VI, paragraph 3 in the Constitution of the United States. You know, the one that states: “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” (bold text is for emphasis).

The fact that no one raised the issue greatly troubles me and it should trouble you as well.

Apparently, Mr. Dearing has never heard of the No Religious Test Clause of the U.S. Constitution. This clause has been interpreted to mean that no federal employee, whether elected or appointed, career or political, can be required to adhere to or accept any religion or belief and is cited by advocates of separation of church and state as an example of “original intent” of the Framers of the Constitution of avoiding any entanglement between church and state, or involving the government in any way as a determiner of religious beliefs or practices.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

PART II: THAT SETTLES THAT!

(CONTINUED FROM PART I)

Since one’s beliefs drive one’s behavior, we need to be certain that important decisions affecting, for example, the issue of embryonic stem cell research, are not based on the biblical commandment that one shall not commit murder. Far-fetched? Not at all, especially when one learns that former President George W. Bush referred to such research as the taking of human life, saying as he vetoed a measure lifting his restrictions on human embryonic stem cell experiments: “Destroying human life in the hopes of saving human life is not ethical,” He called the United States “a nation founded on the principle that all human life is sacred.” Now, I cannot get inside the mind of our forty-third president, but I suspect that he has based that comment on his understanding of the Bible and not upon scientific evidence.

After all, this is the man who told a Texas evangelist: “I feel like God wants me to run for president. I can’t explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen… I know it won’t be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it.”

This is the man, mind you, who told Nabil Shaath, Palestinian foreign minister at the time: “I am driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did. And now, again, I feel God’s words coming to me, ‘Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East.’ And, by God, I’m gonna do it.”

Such statements worry me. And they should worry you as well.

And then there is Willard Mitt Romney who almost became President of the United States. On Meet the Press recently, Romney said: “But I think marriage should be defined in the way that it has been defined for several thousand years . . .” implying, of course, marriage as defined by the Bible.

Such statements worry me. And they should worry you as well.

And as for getting married biblically, you can do that in all kinds of imaginative ways – take two wives and someone else’s sex slave as the patriarch Abraham did, or three hundred sex slaves as King Solomon did (not to mention the seven hundred wives), or your brother’s widow in addition to your own wife. And remember, if your sex slave runs away because you are cruel to the person, the Bible (in the New Testament book of Philemon) says that other people have the duty to return the slave to you, which basically imposes the duty of trafficking slaves back to sadistic sex maniacs who exploit them. But if the owner is nice and a good Christian, he might consider letting the sex slave go. But he does not have to. Of course, Saint Paul solves the whole problem in 1 Corinthians 7:8 when he writes: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do.” So contrary to Romney’s notion that the Bible authorizes only a single kind of marriage, (of which it approves) actually it much prefers believers to die out in a single generation. And if all the biblical literalists would just obey 1 Corinthians 7:8, instead of holding up some imaginary ideal of biblical marriage for everyone, the whole problem would be over with in just a generation. Then the rest of us could have some peace and quiet and make rational policy on social issues.

Alfred Jules Ayer, the British philosopher who is best known for logical positivism, makes the point that statements have scientific meaning only if they are verifiable. Therefore, statements such as “God exists” or “human life has purpose” or “abortion is evil” are unverifiable statements and scientifically meaningless, although hotly debated, because they cannot be tested.

Again, the famous British writer W. Somerset Maugham, an avowed agnostic, and best remembered for his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage, writes this in The Summing Up: “Experience has shown that the prevalence of a belief, no matter for how long it has been held, is no guarantee of its truth. It appears, then, that none of the arguments for the existence of God is valid. But, of course, you do not disprove his existence because you cannot prove it. Awe remains, man’s sense of helplessness, and his desire to attain harmony with himself and the world at large . . . There is no reason why you should not believe so long as you are aware that your belief lacks proof.”

Ah, yes, but there is the rub. If one is unable to distinguish between a fact and an opinion, and if one believes that one knows the “truth” and that all the answers to the current problems of civilization can be found, as the Rev. Dr. Alfred Starratt said in a 1979 interview, “embalmed in printer’s ink between the covers of a book” (i.e. the Bible), then you will not be inclined to seek any other knowledge that might conflict with your preconceived beliefs.

“God said it. I believe it. That settles it.

In an article that appeared in the Baltimore Sun, noted psychiatrist, Gordon Livingston, wrote these words: “The human quality required for the progress of any civilization is curiosity. This desire to formulate and to try to answer important questions about our world is the fundamental driving force behind all scientific inquiry. It is the nature of religious dogmatism to close the doors to discovery.”

Ask Copernicus or Galileo about that! If one is required by one’s faith to believe that the world is nine thousand years old, was created by God in six days, and is the center of the universe, there is no evidence, geological or otherwise, that will cause such a believer to change his mind. This is the difference between a scientific theory, which can be disproved, and a religious belief, which cannot.

We seem not to have learned this. We are still expected to listen to the rantings of those who believe that the State should be in the killing business, of those who would confer personhood on a microscopic collection of cells, of those who would deny us the benefits of stem cell research, and of those who believe that good works are insufficient credentials to enjoy life everlasting.

Do you know that at one time if one lived in the state of Connecticut, one could not buy any form of contraceptives? One had to cross the state line and go into the state of New York for such a purchase. And, why? Because the state legislature was influenced by very vocal and powerful Roman Catholics, whose official dogma was and still is that there can be no “unnatural” form of birth control because the Bible directs humankind to “be fruitful and to multiply.” This directive, of course, can also be interpreted to prohibit abortion.

On February 22, 2006, the state legislature of South Dakota made such an interpretation and passed a bill banning all medical abortions except those necessary to save the mother’s life. Governor Michael Rounds (who happens to be a Roman Catholic) signed the bill on March 6 and the ban was to have taken effect on July 1, 2006, but never did because of a court challenge. A referendum for a potential repeal of H.B. 1215 was placed on the ballot for the November 2006 statewide election due to a successful petition. On May 30, over 38,000 signatures were filed, more than twice the 17,000 required to qualify. The law was ultimately repealed by voters on November 7, 2006, the day of Rounds’ re-election.

There is reason to be alarmed that Roe v. Wade, the landmark case decided by the United States Supreme Court on the issue of abortion in 1973, is in grave jeopardy.

In his book, The Sins of Scripture, retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong writes: “The only place where the traditional sexual teaching of the church fuels emotion today is on the issue of abortion, which I regard as nothing more than the last gasp of the birth control battle. Abortion would be minimal today if sex education and birth control were available to all of our citizens. But, of course, conservative Roman Catholic and Protestant churches would never allow that . . . Unfortunately, that effort is periodically impeded by American politicians who seek the conservative religious vote by prohibiting funding of any family-planning clinic where abortion or abortion counseling might be available.”

“God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

Columnist Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe wrote in 2006 these words concerning Plan B, the so-called Morning After Pill: “First, a cowed and politicized FDA told the manufacturer to reapply, restricting the pills to 16 and over. Then, more than a year later, one acting FDA commissioner upped the age to 17. Now the newest acting FDA commissioner, Andrew von Eschenbach, has pushed the age up to 18.” While I suppose we all should be grateful that he did not push the age to menopause, why exactly did the would-be commissioner pick eighteen? Was there some new data? Was there a new study, perhaps? The most that any senator could find out from him at his confirmation hearings was pretty cryptic: “I believe 18 is appropriate.” Of that statement, Goodman writes: “With that, von Eschenbach won the title of ‘The Believer’ to match his friend and president, ‘The Decider.’”

This bureaucrat believes that age eighteen is “appropriate?” How can he believe that? There are still about 750,000 teenagers below the age of eighteen who become pregnant every year. About seventy percent of all Americans have sex by age eighteen. I find it ludicrous that Dr. von Eschenbach, who was eventually confirmed as Commissioner of the FDA by the Senate on December 7, 2006 and currently serves on the Board of Directors of BioTime, a biotechnology company, never told us why eighteen is so appropriate. A blanket age restriction is never appropriate. Is this just another example of a religious belief driving national policy? Just asking. . .

So, what can we learn from all this? Perhaps just two things.

First of all, we can learn that the Bible should not be used as the basis for making decisions on issues that have national and global implications and to justify despicable behavior. Gandhi once said: “The most heinous and the most cruel crimes of which history has record have been committed under the cover of religion or equally noble motives.”

And secondly, we can learn that we should recognize that one’s religion is a very personal matter and that each of us has the right to believe what seems right for each of us. This attitude should encourage us to respect the viewpoints of others who may think differently from us.

I believe that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katherine Jefferts Schori, said it best when asked if she believed that Jesus is the only way to get to heaven. She replied: “We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could act in no other way is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.”
I most heartily agree with that viewpoint. One version of respectful Christian prayer for members of other religions is expressed in a fraction anthem at the Holy Eucharist used at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, (as well as other places) drawn from an unknown source:
“We break this bread and drink this cup for those who journey with us,
for those who travel the way of the Hindus,
for those who follow the path of Buddha,
for our sisters and brothers of Islam,
for Native peoples,
for the Jewish people from whom we come,
for all those who walk the way of faith,
for the earth we have wasted, for those who have no bread
and for ourselves in our brokenness.”

Well, I do wonder what the person with his bumper sticker theology thinks about any of this! By his standards, my beliefs as a Christian are questionable. If he goes by the criteria propounded in the creed by Athanasius, a fourth-century Bishop of Alexandria, I am clearly suspect. In part, that creed states: “Whoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly . . . This is the Catholic Faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved.”

I have not lived my life by the Athanasian Creed. I have lived it by my own creed. The basic difference between my personal credo and that of Athanasius is that while Athanasius held that beliefs are a prerequisite to being a Christian, I believe that deeds are far more important. As I have grown older, (and hopefully, wiser) I have become less a believer in creeds, doctrines and dogmas and more of trying to be a follower of the first century Galilean Jew known as Jesus. For me, at least, what should I do as a Christian is a far more important question than what should I believe.

In the book, The Power of Myth, based on a six-part PBS television series hosted by Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell asserts what he believes is the highest religious teaching. Campbell states: “I think of compassion as the fundamental religious experience and, unless that is there, you have nothing.”

When I was chaplain in a hospital, I visited all patients in the hospital regardless of their religious preference, which included those having none at all. On more than one occasion, a patient would look at me with fearful eyes and confess: “Oh, Father, I haven’t been to church in thirty-five years.” And I would respond, “I don’t remember asking you when you last attended church. Now that we have that issue out of the way, how may I help you through your stay here in this hospital?” On more than one occasion, I accompanied a patient to the Operating Room, especially if that person had no family or friends to give him support. I would like to believe that my response was what Joseph Campbell had in mind when he spoke of “compassion as the fundamental religious experience.”

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth demonstrated that quality and after a lifetime of studying his life, and after separating what I consider to be the wheat from the chaff, I have tried to confront every situation that I have encountered by doing what I believe is consistent with what Jesus would have done. I certainly do not say this in any prideful or boastful way, but I am satisfied to let my record speak for itself and to humbly say with Gandhi, “my life is my message.”

And so to that dear soul with his succinct nine-word bumper sticker theology, I sincerely hope that settles that!

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(In coming posts, I will have more to say about the Bible as the “Word of God” as well as whether this nation was founded on Christian principles. Stay tuned.)