Hallowing Halloween

All Souls' Day by Jakub Schikaneder, 1888. The painting shows an elderly woman after placing a wreath upon the tombstone of her loved one.

All Souls’ Day by Jakub Schikaneder, 1888. The painting shows an elderly woman after placing a wreath upon the tombstone of her loved one.

In the parish that I attend, an announcement was made that this year the congregation would be celebrating Halloween with something called “Truck or Treat.” I had never heard of this term. I know what Trick or Treat is, but “Trunk or Treat?” What is that?

So I went to the Internet for the definitive answer and here is what I found. A “Trunk or Treat” is a Halloween event that is often church – or community – sponsored. People gather and park their cars in a large parking lot. They open their trunks, or the backs of their vehicles, and decorate them. Then they pass out candy from their trunks. The event provides a safe family environment for trick or treat-ers.

Sounds innocuous enough, but one particular sentence caught my eye. It stated that Trunk or Treat was “a Christian alternative to Halloween.” A Christian alternative to Halloween? Really? Halloween is already a Christian festival. It does not need an alternative – Christian or otherwise.

Some Christians do not like any mention of Halloween – and they will make sure you know it. Christians love to argue about Halloween and while I cannot solve that dispute here on this blog post, I do want to challenge both sides to look at this festival and the issues surrounding it with a more open mind.

What is this holy day really about? For most ordinary people it is just a silly celebration where children have fun and we satirize things that normally make us uncomfortable. American culture does not have any real answer for death or demonic forces. So, Halloween is just one attempt to cope with those fears.

One weakness some Christians have is the tendency to become so focused on avoiding something potentially bad that they overcompensate and throw out too much of what is good – to “throw out the baby with the bath water,” to paraphrase Thomas Carlyle. Protestants in particular have a history of this. In their attempts to avoid what they have perceived to be “too Catholic,” they have no doubt stripped their worship experience and their theology of much that is good over the years. And their faith traditions are all the poorer for it.

Halloween is one such example.

Depending on whom one asks, Halloween probably falls somewhere between a harmless secular celebration on one end of the spectrum and a pagan or satanic holiday on the other. Most of us probably do not even think of it as a Christian holy day. But that is actually what it is.

The word Halloween (sometimes written Hallowe’en) is simply a contraction of All Hallows’ Evening. You may be familiar with the adjective hallowed, which means set apart or consecrated. The verb hallow means to make or set apart as holy. Hallow can also be a noun, and it means a holy person or a saint.

Where does Halloween fit into all of this? Traditionally feast days, such as All Saints, called for a day of preparation of heart and mind, in order to properly observe and celebrate the feast. Prayerful preparation preceded the holy day. That vigil became All Hallows’ Eve and originated from the Jewish practice of beginning days at sunset, not midnight, a practice that carried over into the early Christian Church. An earlier title for All Saints’ Day was All Hallows’ Day. The day before, then, is All Hallows’ Eve, which became Hallows E’en and finally Halloween.

That is where we get Halloween. Essentially it is another term for All Saints’ Eve, and that makes it pretty significant, because on 1November, All Saints’ Day is observed by many Christians as a major feast day. John Wesley, for instance, spoke of All Saints’ Day as “a festival I dearly love.” It is a day of celebrating the communion of saints, a community made up of all past, present and future Christians. 1

Halloween (31 October) and All Saints’ Day (1 November) are followed on 2 November by a third, lesser known day: All Souls’ Day. The combined three-day observance is called Allhallowtide.

What is the difference between All Saints’ and All Souls’, you may ask? Currently, there is not much difference because the two have been conflated over time and many churches do not even observe All Souls’ Day anymore. But the original purposes of the two days are quite different. Although the focus and purpose were quite different, the common theme of the dead was present in all three festivals. But All Saints’ Day is not just about those who have died.

All Saints’ is a day when Christians recognize those who have died, but it is also a day of asking how they, the living, should live as saints now and how they intend to pass on the faith to future generations of believers. That is what the Communion of Saints is all about.

In the New Testament, the word “saints” is used to describe the entire membership of the Christian community. From very early times, however, the word “saint” came to be applied primarily to persons of heroic sanctity, whose deeds were recalled with gratitude by later generations.

It is believed by many scholars that the commemoration of all the saints on 1 November originated in Ireland, spread from there to England, and then to the continent of Europe. There was the desire of Christian people to express the intercommunion of the living and the dead in the Body of Christ by a commemoration of those who, having professed faith in the living Christ in days past, had entered into the nearer presence of their Lord, and especially of those who had crowned their profession with heroic deaths.

Beginning in the tenth century, however, it became customary to set aside another day – “All Souls’ Day” – as a sort of extension of All Saints on which the Church remembered that vast body of the faithful who, though no less members of the company of the redeemed, are unknown in the wider fellowship of the Church. It was also a day for particular remembrance of family members and friends.

Though the observance of the day was abolished at the Reformation because of abuses connected with Masses for the dead, a renewed understanding of its meaning has led to a widespread acceptance of this commemoration among Anglicans, and to its inclusion as an optional observance in the calendar of the Episcopal Church as well as of several other Christian communities.

An eleventh century Benedictine abbot, Odilo of Cluny, fixed 2 November as a commemoration of “all the dead who have existed from the beginning of the world to the end of time.” All Souls’ Day spread as the Clunaic reforms spread through Benedictine monasteries into Western Christianity generally.

Nowadays, many American churches fuse All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day into one day and celebrate it on the Sunday following All Saints’ if 1 November does not fall on a Sunday. (This year it falls on a Sunday) Unfortunately, this practice has probably further separated Halloween from All Saints’ Day in the minds of many Christians.

Just as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny have little to do with the real meaning of Christmas and Easter, so, too, a Darth Vader costume has virtually nothing to do with a true understanding of Halloween. The modern secular holiday of Halloween has been shaped by a number of factors, including paganism, Christianity and commercialism. (And the greatest of these is commercialism?) Because of Halloween’s association with death and evil, some Christians have avoided observing All Hallows’ Eve entirely. Others have attempted to Christianize the celebration of Halloween, which I find somewhat puzzling. How do you Christianize something that is technically already Christian?

Perhaps what is needed is to do something radical and return Halloween to its roots as an All Saints’ vigil. Contemporary society celebrates a Halloween void of any real meaning; it is fun, but it is empty fun. The church, however, possesses a Halloween full of meaning. It can become a hallowed evening again – a true Halloween. It is time to put the “Hallow” back in All Hallows’ Eve.

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Navel-Gazing

Adam and Eve (detail) by Peter Paul Rubens

Adam and Eve (detail) by Peter Paul Rubens

During the past week I have been doing a bit of “navel-gazing.” Not the reflexive kind of navel-gazing, but real navel gazing – gazing at navels. Let me explain.

I recently was working on a project that included viewing some paintings of the great European painters who worked during the period roughly 1300-1830. In the process of this viewing, I chanced upon some paintings depicting the creation and especially of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I noticed that in just about every painting the couple had navels. Hence my reference to navel-gazing. You might be somewhat surprised, if not stunned, to learn that the human navel, perhaps better known to most of us as the “belly button,” has been the cause of tremendous theological debate for centuries. Specifically, the question that has led to such scholarly reflection is: “Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?” I know, I know. It sounds ridiculous. It is almost as bad as the theologians of the Middle Ages arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. And, yes, they did debate that point (pun intended). Although such debates sound frivolous at best, nevertheless there is some merit to this question. The great belly button debate is worthy of our attention and further reflection, as it raises some serious questions that challenge a few of the very foundations of our faith. I assure you, it is far from frivolous. Indeed, how a person responds to the question – “Did God create Adam and Eve with navels?” – can have tremendous bearing on one’s conclusions as to the nature of God and of this marvelous universe.

Before we jump into the heart of this debate, let me take a few sentences to take note of the purpose of this scar on our human anatomy. The umbilicus (aka: belly button or navel) is the indention or protrusion that eventually forms as the result of the removal of the umbilical cord from a newborn child. As a fetus develops within the mother’s womb, it is suspended in amniotic fluid and connected to the mother via a life-line known as the umbilical cord. This is a flexible tube that carries oxygen and nutrients to the growing fetus from the mother, and carries waste products away from the baby so that the mother’s body might eliminate them. At birth, when the baby now assumes these functions for itself, the tube is removed. The belly button marks the spot where one was previously attached to one’s mother, and is a visible testimony to the fact that one was a product of a natural birth. The navel is a fascinating bit of symbolic anatomy – and I say “symbolic” because the belly button in all its forms is little more than a scar, a bodily opening to nowhere and a collector of lint!

But as interesting as this biology lesson is, let me get back to the theological debate concerning the navel.

The traditional biblical or theological answer to the question “Did Adam have a belly-button?” is this: “No – Adam did not and neither did Eve.”

Why? Because, as I stated above, your belly-button (navel) is a sign that you were once attached to your mother.  You depended on that life-line – the umbilical cord – for your nourishment from her body as you developed inside her. But, according to the Bible, our first parents, Adam and Eve, did not develop that way. According to the biblical record in Genesis, Adam was molded from spit and clay and Eve from Adam’s rib. They were not born of woman, so how could they have navels?

What is more, so the argument goes, this lack of a belly button would be a tremendous testimony to God’s creativity. Ken Ham, president and founder of the creationist organization, Answers in Genesis, once put it this way: “Lack of a belly-button on Adam and Eve would be one of the biggest tourist attractions in the pre-Flood world, as the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren would come up and say, ‘Why don’t you have a belly-button?’ And they could recount again and again, to generation after generation, how God had created them special by completed supernatural acts, and yet had designed them to multiply and fill the earth in natural ways that are equally a part of God’s continuing care for what He created.”

Lest one think this is all rather frivolous and trivial, and that no one really ever gave this matter much serious thought, it should be noted that the question as to whether Adam and Eve ever possessed such a distinguishing mark as a belly button not only generated debate in the religious world for centuries, but also even reached into the United States Congress! In 1944, a subcommittee of the United States House of Representatives Military Committee refused to authorize a little thirty-page booklet entitled Races of Man, that was to be handed out to our soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting in World War II because this little booklet had a drawing that depicted Adam and Eve with belly buttons! The members of this subcommittee ruled that showing Adam and Eve with navels “would be misleading to gullible American soldiers.”

And the navel was, of course, the subject of the long-running television show, I Dream of Jeannie. In the series, Jeannie (Barbara Eden) wore her trademark “Jeannie costume.” During the second season, reporters visiting the set would joke that Eden had no navel, as it was almost never visible when in costume. The story picked up momentum and as it did, the network censors began to insist that her navel remain hidden. In the fourth season, George Schlatter, the creator of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, expressed a desire to premiere Jeannie’s (Eden’s)  navel on his show. As soon as his intentions were revealed, the network held a meeting of executives to discuss his idea and it was deemed inappropriate to do so. Eden writes of the whole episode: “And, George [Schlatter] told me in later years, ‘I walked into this meeting and I have never seen so many suits sitting around an oak conference table talking about your belly button.’ He said it was the silliest thing he had ever seen, and of course they said no. Then it really became the cause célèbre, and I was just an outsider looking on that whole thing and giggling.” However, Jeannie’s navel was glimpsed in a few season-four and season-five episodes, much to the dislike of the censors.

Some of the world’s greatest artists also wrestled with this problem, as did the Roman Catholic Church. In 1646, Sir Thomas Browne, a doctor and philosopher of the church, published a work entitled Pseudodoxia Epidemica in which he sought to expose some of the “vulgar errors” then present in society. He devoted an entire chapter to “Pictures of Adam and Eve with Navels.” He declared that to paint Adam and Eve with belly buttons would be to suggest that “the Creator affected superfluities, or ordained parts without use or office.” For the most part, the Roman Catholic Church was against artists depicting Adam and Eve with navels in their paintings, so this posed quite a problem for a number of these artists who did not want to antagonize their sponsor – the church. According to the biblical record in Genesis, Adam was molded from spit and clay and Eve from Adam’s rib. They were not born of woman, so how could they have navels? Yet they would look pretty silly without them. Artists wanted to present the scene, but they had no first-hand knowledge so they took poetic license. Adam and Eve represented all men and women of the artists’ time. The forbidden fruit was often depicted as an apple; the deceiver was depicted as an unassuming garden snake. Also, in the pre-scientific era, such paintings were not meant to be literal truth, but allegorical truth. So the artists drew naked people as they knew people – with belly buttons. The great Michelangelo, for instance, dared to paint Adam with a navel and to place it right there on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel! A good many of the artists, however, chose to take the safer path and simply painted the couple with strategically placed foliage, long hair, or forearms blocking the abdomen.

But this silly question about Adam’s navel paved the way for evolution. The question took on huge significance in the 19th century. Just before Darwin, geologists began seeing a world far older than Adam and Eve written in fossils and geologic structures. Suddenly, there was all this history before the creation! Navels suggested only that Adam had a history before he was created. Now these geologic remains suggested that Earth itself existed – alive and changing – long before the biblical creation.

In 1857, a fundamentalist scientist (now there is an oxymoron for you!), Philip Henry Gosse, addressed the matter. He published a great treatise entitled Ompholos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot. (This was only two years before Darwin completely changed the conversation about biblical literalism with his illustrious opus, On the Origin of Species.) Ompholos, I should add, is Greek for navel. Did Adam have a navel, asked Gosse? Sure he did, was his answer.

Gosse looked at the fossil record. It proclaimed a world with a very long history – much older than Adam and Eve. Gosse said that God had created a world with a built-in history – just plopped it down, history and all. But it was history that had not happened – yet.

Still, Gosse said, that history is worth studying and understanding because God put it there. Naturally, logic like that cooked Gosse’s goose. (Sorry about that) He left us with a huge looping blunder. His deep error occurred when he wrote that the question of history made no practical difference. Gosse plainly said that a created world and an evolved world would both look exactly the same.

In the end, Gosse had made the scientific search for reality into a great cosmic joke. At best, God had deceived us. At worst, nothing was worth knowing anyway. After that, humans were ready to quit messing with baseless logic and to take the fossil record seriously. People were ready to allow that Adam had a navel after all, along with all his forbears. After Philip Gosse, the world was ready for Charles Darwin.

In our post-Darwinian world, it is understood that Adam and Eve are literary archetypes, not real people. Adam simply means “man” in Hebrew. Adam was formed out of the “adamah,” which is Hebrew for ground. (See the word play?) Eve simply means “source of life.” Modern biblical scholars regard both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 as conveying theological and existential truths, not historical and scientific truths about who created the world (God), how we were meant to live in peace and harmony (Garden of Eden), yet how we continually make selfish and short sighted choices (eating the fruit of the tree of life) that throw us out of synch with each other, God and creation (being expelled from the perfect harmony of the Garden and the resulting pain, toil, death, etc.) The Genesis stories are not meant to be a historical narrative. These stories contain mythic truths, rather than conveying factual truth.

Thus we embark on a voyage through time and space, starting with the big bang some fourteen billion years ago and ending with the evolution of Homo sapiens some four billion years later. The book of Genesis covers that time in just seven hundred words (The Bible is really not much of a textbook) and focuses primarily on the importance of humans as God’s handiwork.

By contrast, science gives us a very different picture of our cosmic relevance, a point summed up with delicate irony by Steve Jones, former Head of the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College, London: “It reminds us that mankind lives in a minor solar system at the edge of a suburban galaxy, is in his physical frame scarcely distinguishable from the creatures that surround him, and – most of all – that he still understands rather little about his place in nature.”

And so it goes, with science continuing to chip away at humanity’s vision of its own exalted importance. As Jones puts it: “Scientists have gained insights into the physical world rather more dependable than those of the Scriptures. Science has, in its brief history, lived up to most of its promises.” We may not like end result, depending upon where we find ourselves on the theological spectrum, but in this matter, there is no denying the supremacy of science over scripture. It remains to be seen which one will outlast its rival.

In the meantime, I am going to continue to do some gazing at navels of a beautiful babe like the one below. . .

navel3

In 1492, 1493, 1498, and 1502 Columbus sailed the ocean blue and never once discovered America!

Christopher Columbus is depicted landing in the West Indies on 12 October 1492

Christopher Columbus is depicted landing in the West Indies on 12 October 1492

After my third trip to my mailbox this past Monday and finding no mail, my ever-patient wife reminded me that Monday was Columbus Day – a federal holiday – and therefore, no mail. For me, a day without mail is like a day without sunshine. So why is Columbus Day a federal holiday?

The first Columbus Day celebration took place in 1792, when New York’s Columbian Order (better known as Tammany Hall) held an event to commemorate Columbus’ historic landing’s 300th anniversary. Taking pride in Columbus’ birthplace and faith, Italian and Roman Catholic communities in various parts of the country began organizing annual religious ceremonies and parades in his honor. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage with patriotic festivities and in 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, largely as a result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, an influential Roman Catholic fraternal organization. Originally observed every 12 October, it was fixed to the second Monday in October in 1971.

And yet…

Christopher Columbus did not really discover America. The western Europeans simply had not heard from the Russians, the Vikings, and the Chinese that it was here. Also, the latter three groups did not have the same clout and voter blocks as the Italians and the Roman Catholics. So, the misleading “truth” that Christopher Columbus discovered America is still taught in schools even though we all know – or should know – that it is not true. So, who really did discover America? If not Columbus, then whom?

It is widely accepted by scholars that humans entered the Americas via the Bering land bridge – the once-exposed landmass between Siberia and Alaska – some 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. (We are indeed a country of immigrants.) These individuals were known as the Clovis people. But it has become more widely accepted in the archaeological community that people were here prior to the Clovis, thus America may have been discovered simultaneously by two different cultures – one crossing the frozen Bering Strait on foot and the other island-hopping from Europe to America’s east coast by boat.

Sites in Siberia have shown that people lived in the harsh region of the land bridge as early as 27,000 years ago. It is believed that people could survive in that Arctic environment and survive quite well. There would be nothing to stop them from heading east into present-day Alaska. (No “Trump Wall” at the border.) Moreover, sites like Chile’s Monte Verde, where tools have been dated to 12,500 years ago, have bolstered the theory that people were in the Americas before the Clovis period. Thus the land bridge theory no longer holds a scientific monopoly. Some scholars favor coastal migration theories, in which early settlers hopped along the Pacific coast in boats. More controversial theorists will not rule out the possibility of ocean crossings from Europe or Africa. However those first Americans arrived, the remains they left behind may be the only clues that could someday tell their story.

Now fast forward to circa 1,000 CE, when Eric the Red, a Viking, had followed generations-old seafaring routes westward and discovered Greenland. Naming the frozen wasteland “green” land, he hoped to entice and establish Viking settlements, which he did. When Eric the Red’s son, Leif Ericsson was old enough to take command over settlements and voyages, he became an influential young man, especially as the son of the man who discovered their new home country.

It was during these days that another young Viking named Biarni Heriulfsson (Biarni Heriulfsson?) arrived with his ship in Iceland to sail with his father back to Greenland. When Heriulfsson was told that his father had already set sail, the younger Heriulfsson rounded up his crew and set sail as well. Heriulfsson eventually made it to Greenland, but not before becoming lost in the Atlantic Ocean. The written Norse legends describe a scared and lost crew, adrift in the wide open ocean with no wind and at the tide’s mercy. It eventually pulled them to a chain of islands. When the crew asked if Heriulfsson thought it was finally Greenland, he replied, “no.”

He pointed out that each of the islands was covered in grass, hills and woods. He also noticed how there were no rising ice mountains in the background as in Greenland. And most of all, the temperature was nice. When they actually set foot on one of the land masses, they noted how the grass was covered with dew and the Vikings scraped it up with their bare hands. Heriulfsson and his crew eventually found their way to Greenland where they entertained children and sailors alike with their tale of discovering a new, lush and beautiful land. One of those most fascinated was Leif Ericsson, son of Eric the Red.

Ericsson was so taken with Biarni Heriulfsson’s tale of accidental discovery, he went to visit Heriulfsson to inquire further. He ended up buying a ship from him and rounding up a crew of his own. Together with Heriulfsson’s directions and descriptions, Ericsson set sail for this mysterious new world across the Atlantic.

Ericsson had one ship and a crew of thirty-five, including himself. After leaving Greenland, they first happened upon an undiscovered island made of rock with icy mountains in the background. The second island they found contained flat white sand beaches and woodlands. Continuing westward, the third giant island they found may not have been an island at all. Many historians believe that Ericsson and his crew had just discovered the New England coast!

The Vikings were so happy to find such a beautiful paradise, they built a large cabin and stayed for the winter. They documented an abundance of life-sustaining plant and animal life. In particular, they told of how both the streams and lakes were overflowing with the biggest salmon they had ever seen. Another plentiful item was grapes, with which they loaded their ship for the voyage back to Greenland in the spring. Upon leaving, they called their newly discovered paradise, Vinland – the area of coastal North America and Newfoundland.

The credibility of the Viking expedition is well established, but some people argue that the Chinese discovered America in 1421! Come on! The Chinese? To arrive at this conclusion, most researchers cite the 2002 book, 1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies. Gavin’s book has been described as “charming, seductive, and inventive, but his book is just an elaborate literary hoax.” Assuming that Menzies is correct – and that is a huge assumption – and has not committed a literary hoax, it appears Menzies focuses his investigation and theory on a map discovered in 1972 in Taiwan by Baptist missionary Dr. Hendon M. Harris. The map turned out to be an ancient relic illustrating the fabled Chinese lost continent of Fu Sang.

Upon further inspection of the Harris map, it was determined that the size, location and outline of Fu Sang were almost identical to North America. Taking it as further evidence that Fu Sang was actually North America, the ancient Chinese map also included geographical landmarks, most notably the Grand Canyon. Gavin Menzies believed it was too much of a coincidence and he embarked to discover more evidence that the Chinese had been to America before Columbus. For additional evidence, Menzies pointed to a Chinese relic called the “1418 Map” because that is the date it is believed to have been created. The Chinese map included outlines and details of each of the world’s continents, including North and South America. Even more impressive, it included accurate depictions of major rivers throughout America. Menzies and many others believe the Chinese could not have mapped inland America without coming here personally. Is it a hoax or a reality? The jury is still out on this one.

So we have the Russians, the Vikings, and possibly the Chinese – each of whom with a claim of discovering America.                      

All of this brings us finally to 1492 and the year that Columbus supposedly discovered America. Actually, 1492 was the year that he discovered the Caribbean. Columbus, like most educated Europeans of his day, understood that the world was round, but he did not yet know that the Pacific Ocean existed. As a result, Columbus and his contemporaries assumed that only the Atlantic lay between Europe and the riches of the East Indies.

In his first journey in 1492, with three small ships – the Santa María, commanded by Columbus himself, the Pinta under Martín Pinzón, and the Niña under Vicente Yáñez Pinzón – Columbus visited San Salvador in the Bahamas (which he was convinced was Japan), Cuba (which he thought was China) and Hispaniola (where he found gold).But alas, America was not one of the places discovered on this voyage.

On 3 November 1493, fitted out with a large fleet of seventeen ships, Christopher Columbus set out on his second voyage, landing on a rugged shore on an island that he named Dominica. On the same day, he landed at Marie-Galante, which he named Santa María la Galante. After sailing past Les Saintes (Todos los Santos), he arrived at Guadeloupe (Santa María de Guadalupe), which he explored between 4 November 4 and 10 November 1493. Again, America was not on the list of “finds.”

The object of the third voyage in 1498 was to verify the existence of a continent that King John II of Portugal claimed was located to the southwest of the Cape Verde Islands. Columbus explored the Gulf of Paria that separates Trinidad from mainland Venezuela. He then explored the mainland of South America, including the Orinoco River. He also sailed to the islands of  Chacachacare and Margarita Island and sighted and named islands Bella Forma (Tobago) and Concepcion (Grenada). He described the new lands as belonging to a previously unknown new continent, but he pictured it hanging from China, bulging out to make the earth pear-shaped! Still, America was not to be found on this third try.

In 1502, Columbus made a fourth and final voyage, nominally in search of a westward passage to the Indian Ocean. If he could sail past the islands and far enough west, he hoped he might still find lands answering to the description of Asia or Japan. He struck the coast of Honduras in Central America and coasted southward along an inhospitable shore, suffering terrible hardships, until he reached the Gulf of Darién. Attempting to return to Hispaniola, he was marooned on Jamaica. After his rescue, he was forced to abandon his hopes and return to Spain. You guessed it. America was not discovered on this final voyage.

By his third journey, however, Columbus realized that he had not reached Asia but instead had stumbled upon a continent previously unknown to Europeans – the “New World.” The term “New World” today means a new continent, but Europeans of the time often used the phrase simply to describe regions of the world they had not known about before. Columbus believed the world consisted of three parts: Europe, Africa, and Asia. Since he knew that the world was round, this meant that if one could sail far enough to the west of Europe, one would reach the Far East. This was exactly what Columbus believed he had done. Columbus clung tenaciously until the end of his life to the idea that in crossing the Atlantic he had reached the vicinity of Japan and China. He thought he had shrunk Europe’s geographical horizons; in reality, he had expanded them.

So Christopher Columbus did not “discover” America. He never set foot on what we would call “American soil.” Leif Ericsson may have, but not Christopher Columbus. He was not even the first European to visit the “New World,” as I have tried to show. However, his journeys kicked off centuries of exploration and exploitation on the American continents. The consequences of his explorations were severe for the native populations of the areas he and the conquistadores conquered. Disease and environmental changes resulted in the destruction of the majority of the native population over time, while Europeans continued to extract natural resources from these territories. Today, Columbus has a mixed legacy – he is remembered as a daring and path-breaking explorer who transformed the New World, yet his actions also unleashed changes that would eventually devastate the native populations that he and his fellow explorers encountered.

Many Native Americans hold Columbus in contempt and mark that year as the date when the white man launched his war of genocide upon them. While I have great empathy for Native Americans, it is worth noting that Columbus never made it to America. And Native Americans were immigrants to America themselves at one time, having come from across the oceans. Also just like the white man, the Indian tribes that European settlers wiped out, had wiped out the weaker ethnicities that occupied the lands before them. The moral of the story is that peoples and nations have been conquered and annihilated since the beginning of time and they still are today. It does not make it right. It just makes it true. Columbus should not be vilified for vanquishing the Indians any more than the Indians should be vilified for vanquishing America’s original Asian and European inhabitants who first migrated here 14,000 years ago.

One may well be fascinated by the accomplishments of Christopher Columbus – impressed in much the same way twentieth century human beings were impressed when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and said: “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Even so, I must say that I still miss receiving my mail on the second Monday in October.

Why Are Christians So Obsessed With Sin?

baptismI have been asked to baptize the newborn baby of a couple I married about a year ago. As a retired priest, I do not have the opportunity for many baptisms but I am sort of the “family priest” in this case. Through the years, I have officiated at this baby’s grandparent’s wedding, baptized his father, married his mother and father, and now will baptize him – the latest addition to the family. This relationship made it possible for my participation in this happy occasion.

I will use the baptismal liturgy of the Episcopal Church from the Book of Common Prayer of 1979, which unfortunately still contains some rather harsh and, I believe, inappropriate language to apply to a beautiful newborn baby. The 1979 baptismal liturgy still focuses on the baby’s “sin.” We pray for the child to be “delivered” from sin and that the child might be “cleansed” from sin. I could not help but wonder as I read those words just what sin it is of which this baby is guilty. This baby will only be a few months old. I believe that I can say without fear of contradiction that he has never robbed a bank, or told a lie, or committed adultery, or killed a person, or displayed a prejudice, just to name some of the more notable sins.

So, why is Christian liturgy so obsessed with sin? In fairness, I must say that this baby – like all babies – is somewhat selfish, is sometimes inconvenient, is quite demanding, is overly impatient, and is even outright insensitive to his parents’ needs, especially in matters of sleep. Theologian Ronald Knox humorously once described babies as “a loud noise at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.” True, but none of these things makes a baby culpable, or is an expression of evil. Surely something else must be going on in human life that finds expression in the words of this baptismal liturgy.

What is the source of this idea that human life – including new-born human life – is in and of itself evil? I do not find this note in the gospels. So where did it originate?

My research has led me to the conclusion that the idea is nothing more than a hangover from the 4th century – to the time when the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds were formed. In the 4th century, we find in the early Church Fathers, such as Ambrose, Gregory the Great, and Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, an obsession with evil. These “fathers” of the church, especially Augustine of Hippo, treated the Hebrew Scriptures as if they were the literal words of God. In this regard, they were the original fundamentalists. The first chapter of Genesis describes a divine creation, in which all that God made was pronounced to be good. According to Genesis 1, human beings bore the image of God (Imago Dei). The second chapter of Genesis then describes how this perfect creation has been broken and how the Imago Dei in us has been destroyed. According to Genesis 2, it is through human disobedience that humankind has become “fallen” creatures incapable of saving ourselves. With that as an understanding of human life, Christians proceeded to tell the Christ story as God’s rescue operation, designed to save human life afflicted with something that was called “Original Sin.” That’s capital “O” and capital “S.” “Original Sin” was seen as a universal, inescapable, and all-pervading aspect of all humanity. That is why our favorite titles for Jesus historically have been “savior,” “rescuer” and “redeemer.” Jesus saves us from our sins, rescues us from the fall, and redeems us by restoring our lost value.

The concept of “Original Sin” assumes that there was an original perfection from which we have fallen. It assumes a passive human helplessness from which divine rescue is essential. It assumes that salvation is achievable only through the invasion of our world by a theistic deity. This is the portrait of the God who decided to punish Jesus for our sins. It is this dated theology that permeates the Christian Church even today. Out of this theology we Christians continue to say strange things like: “Jesus died for my sins,” which I must say never made much sense to me. If we say Jesus “died for my sins” are we not saying that your sins and mine were the reason that Jesus had to be crucified? Does that not make us “Christ Killers,” turning Jesus into one who loves to suffer? This theology turns God into a monster who requires a human sacrifice and a blood offering. It turns Jesus into a victim and it turns human beings into guilt-filled creatures, groveling before God and begging for mercy! Besides all of these liabilities we also now know that this theology not only is repulsive, but also is simply wrong. Are people ever helped by being told how bad they are?

And this kind of thinking does not stop with our baptismal liturgy. We notice that what we Christians say about babies in our baptismal liturgy, we also say about adults in our traditional Sunday worship. I remember a scene from the 1955 movie entitled, Good Morning, Miss Dove that speaks to this point. The title character is a strict disciplinarian, but a well-respected teacher in a small town. She is taken ill and is admitted to the hospital. While a patient in the hospital, her parish priest comes to visit her. She asks her priest: “Will you read the general confession?” He replies: “Yes.” To which Miss Dove retorts: “Then I warn you, when I say that prayer, I do so with reservations. Her cleric is somewhat surprised and asks: “Reservations?” To which Miss Dove says: “I have made many mistakes. Perhaps even sinned. I admit my human limitations. But I do not, in all honesty, find the burden of my sins intolerable. Nor have I strayed like a sheep.”

This idea of human sinfulness permeates traditional Christianity. Look at the words used in our churches on a typical Sunday. In the prayers of the Episcopal Church, for instance, we call ourselves “miserable offenders.” We say that “there is no health in us.” We declare that our sinfulness is so great that “we are not worthy to gather up the crumbs under thy table.” We fall on our knees as beggars and over and over again ask for mercy. “Lord, have mercy,” we cry. “Christ have mercy”, we plead. “Lord, have mercy,” we repeat. We shift to Greek and say three-fold Kyries and sometimes nine fold Kyries. In our prayers we say: “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” What kind of God is it who requires that we approach the Holy One on our knees, begging for mercy? Perhaps a trembling child standing before an abusive parent might well ask for mercy. Possibly a convicted felon standing before a “hanging judge” might well pray for mercy, but is “Lord have mercy,” ever an appropriate prayer for a child of God to utter to the Source of life, of love and of being as Reformed theologian Paul Tillich might have put it? I do not believe so and neither is the posture of kneeling, which is the position of a slave before a master, a serf before the lord of the manor, and a beggar before the source of his or her next meal.

Yet these ideas and practices remain prevalent in the way we engage the Christ story in worship. They make so little sense to modern, educated people. If this is what Christianity has become then, is there any wonder that those we call “the millennials” no longer have time in their lives for the Christian message? The time has come, I believe, to declare that these traditional ideas and practices are based on a false premise. They are not true. They need to be abandoned and Christianity must evolve into something other than this or it is doomed.

For instance, we now know that the stories in Genesis 1 and 2 were not originally related to each other. Even though they follow one another in our bibles, most scholars date Genesis 1 some 500 years after Genesis 2. The perfect creation was not followed by the act of disobedience. “Original Sin” is not true, even metaphorically. We live on the other side of Charles Darwin and Darwin’s version of the origins of the world and of human life is vastly different from the biblical view. Whether traditional Christians like it or not, Darwin has won this battle. Every competent scientist assumes the truth of Darwin and every accredited medical school in the world operates on Darwinian principles. In Darwin’s view of our origins there was no original perfection. The universe was born in an explosion of matter, euphemistically called “the big bang,” about fourteen billion years ago. (As an aside, even the television comedy The Big Bang Theory, acknowledges this fact in the opening music of the show. Listen to the song and you will hear reference to a fourteen billion year old universe.) Life entered this universe, so far as we now know, about four billion years ago, but only as a single cell. Over the next four billions of years, this single cell of life evolved and is still evolving into a self-conscious being of great complexity that we know today as a human being. One cannot fall into sin from a perfection that one never possessed. So, the idea of original sin is bankrupt. One cannot be rescued from a fall that never happened, so the way we traditionally tell the Christ story has become meaningless. One cannot be restored to a status that one has never possessed, so the way we talk about salvation has become irrelevant. Once these things are raised to consciousness, can any church continue to pretend that no one notices? Does the church not then look like a vestige of a long dead past? Those are the issues with which Christians must deal and the service of baptism raises them overtly.

So instead of seeing ourselves as fallen sinners who need to be saved, a place to begin is to think of ourselves as incomplete human beings who need to be made whole. I used to have a sign on my office wall that read: “Be patient with me. God is not finished with me yet.” When we begin to think like this, then Jesus can become not the savior of the fallen or the rescuer of the lost, but the presence of the One who empowers us to become all that we can be. I admit that would be a dramatically new approach to Christianity, but it would be in line with all that we now know about our origins. It would also be in line with the Johannine Christ who came, he said, that we “might have life” more abundantly.

Let me return to that with which I began: Baptism. We must look anew at baptism. It does not wash away the stain of “original sin” for a young and beautiful life like the baby I am going to baptize. Rather, it is the entrance rite that places that infant overtly and self-consciously into a community of people (the Church) who are committed to love him, and in which his life can be nurtured into a new fullness. In the Episcopal Church, the 1979 baptismal liturgy has clearly begun to move in that direction, but it is still bogged down in the “sin” definitions of yesterday. But there are hints of movement. For every newly-baptized person, we now pray: “Open his heart to your grace and truth. Fill him with your holy and life-giving spirit. Teach him to love others. Bring him to the fullness of your glory. Give him an enquiring and discerning heart, the courage to preserve and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.” The Episcopal Church is beginning to move from “original sin” as well as abandoning what is called “Atonement Theology.” As far as I am concerned, such developments are clearly moving in the right direction. And so is the Church of England, who just recently dropped all references to the devil in a new baptism service. The new wording, approved on July 13, only asks whether parents and godparents will “turn away from sin” and “reject evil.” Speaking after the new wording was overwhelmingly approved Robert Paterson, Bishop of Sodor and Man said: “We all know that for many people, the devil has been turned into a cartoon-like character of no particular malevolence.”

That certainly is a step in the right direction. Only those fearful of the future will try to hold this institution back. Baptism introduces us to a Christian life that frees us to live fully, empowers us to love wastefully, and gives us the courage to be all that we are meant to be, as John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark is inclined to say. If this perspective ever becomes the Christian message, then the church may spring back into life, drawing a hurting world to itself. Then we can promise to give to each other what we pledge to give to all persons at their baptism – a full life, abundant love, and the gift of joy and wonder in all of God’s works.  Now, to my mind, those are things worthy of obsession.

Ben Carson: The Devil, He Says

Dr. Ben Carson

Dr. Ben Carson

As I write this, GOP presidential hopeful Ben Carson is just one percentage point behind the GOP front-runner, Donald Trump. I find this state of affairs to be both amazing and troublesome. At one point in time, Ben Carson may have been best known as an excellent, even groundbreaking, neurosurgeon. He was featured in national magazines and was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor. In the parish where I served, Dr. Carson was invited to give the annual lecture that the parish sponsored. All of that lauding of Ben Carson was well-deserved. But in recent years, it seems that Dr. Carson has done everything he can to throw that splendid reputation away. There is no doubt that Ben Carson was (and probably still is) a brilliant neurosurgeon, and I would want my family members in his capable hands if, God forbid, the need ever arose. But running the nation is another matter – one that involves diplomacy, tact and the kind of interpersonal intelligence that Carson does not seem to have outside of an operating room.

You may have noticed by now that, for a neurosurgeon, Ben Carson is a surprisingly unscientific guy. He may have been first-rate at cutting into brains and making repairs, but once he left the operating theater he became a bit clueless, to say the least. He rejects evolution and climate science because he happens to know better than to believe those “lies.” Now, some new video has surfaced of a talk that Carson gave to a Seventh Day Adventist meeting in which he explains that the Big Bang is merely a “fairy tale” and that the theory of evolution is an actual tool of the devil. Sounds pretty groundless to me! So let us see what we can learn (if anything) from this great man of medicine.

In the video, Ben Carson says that the big bang theory is part of the “fairy tales” pushed by “high-faluting scientists” as a story of creation. Similarly, Carson, a noted creationist, also says that he believes the theory of evolution was encouraged by the devil.

I wish I could say that I have misinterpreted Carson, but I have not. The retired right-wing neurosurgeon, known for his off-the-wall ideas about a great number of issues, called the science surrounding the big bang “ridiculous,” and added in reference to evolution: “Interestingly enough, this [evolution theory] is a relatively modern science concept. Before Darwin came along, it wasn’t. You know, scientists like Sir Isaac Newton – considered one of the most scientific minds ever, inventor of calculus, so many things – had a strong belief in God, big mission outreach. Einstein! When you think about genius, what is the word you come up with? Einstein. He believed in God. A lot of people believe in God, but I personally believe that this theory that Darwin came up with was something that was encouraged by the adversary.” In this context, “the adversary” appears to refer to the Devil. (By the way, although born into an Anglican family, by his thirties, Sir Isaac Newton held a Christian faith that, had it been made public, would not have been considered orthodox by mainstream Christianity; and in recent times, he has been described as a  heretic. Einstein’s concept of God, if you have to put a label on it, is not of the Biblical theism variety, but a sort of nebulous Deism: Maybe God played in role in creating the universe – because nature inspires such awe and the universe seems perfectly guided by mathematics – but God has no direct effect on our lives today.)

Imagine with me for a moment that it is 1970 or so, and you are a young Ben Carson sitting in a biology class at Yale University. With your sharp mind and your strong study habits, you do not have much problem understanding the material, grasping the copious evidence underlying the theory of evolution – all the fossils going back millions of years, how it all fits together in an endless process that affects everything, from a towering redwood down to a microscopic virus. And yet, the whole thing sounds like an attack on the beliefs about the universe you were taught your whole life from your family and your church. How can you resolve this contradiction?

That resolution came somewhere along the way for Ben Carson: It was the Devil. Evolution is the Devil’s doing.

The fact that Carson believes this is a true puzzlement. After all, Ben Carson is an undeniably smart man. He did not become one of the world’s most renowned neurosurgeons without the ability to understand complex systems, evaluate evidence, sift the plausible from the implausible, and integrate dissimilar pieces of data into a coherent whole. And yet Carson believes that the theory of evolution is not just a great big hoax, but a hoax literally delivered to us from Hell by that fellow in red with the horns, a long tail, and a pitchfork!

Forgive me for my contemptuous tone, but that is what Carson actually believes.

Carson reveals that he plans to write a book explaining how the organs of the human body refute evolutionary theory. Carson told a crowd, with a little giggle, that he was planning on writing a book to be called The Organ of Species – not the Origin of Species. Get it? It is a pun! In this book, Carson plans to “talk about the organs of the body and how they completely refute evolution and several other things as well.” It is not at Amazon yet, so I suspect that Carson is still in the drafting phase on that one. This is a huge disappointment, if only because I was hoping to find out what other stuff our organs disprove, beyond mere evolution. Perhaps we will just have to wait on that book until after President Carson (Heaven help us!) has served his two terms!

Wow. So where to start?

How about this: The Big Bang is not something in which you believe. It is a scientific model, supported by a truly vast amount of evidence. It does not take faith; it takes science (and, despite Carson’s claims, science is not faith-based).

Here is Carson explaining why the theory of the Big Bang Theory has to be bunk: “I find the big bang really quite fascinating. I mean, here you have all these high-faluting scientists and they’re saying it was this gigantic explosion and everything came into perfect order. Now these are the same scientists that go around touting the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is entropy, which says that things move toward a state of disorganization.”

Well, he is off the track already! First off, I am pretty certain one would not find many astrophysicists describing the universe as being a place of “perfect order.” It is true that there are physical laws that make things predictable, but there is also a lot of stuff crashing into other stuff – galaxies colliding into one another, and the like. This may all depend on how you define “order,” of course. While I admit that my understanding of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is very limited, my comprehension of the Law is that it only says that eventually – in a closed system – things will fall apart. That inevitability is not a problem for the universe yet, since as far as we know we have a few hundred billion years to go before the heat death of the whole shebang occurs. Ah, but Carson’s only getting started with the goofy stuff. Somewhere, he seems to have acquired the idea that mainstream science believes there have been multiple Big Bangs – a bunch of test Bangs before the universe was perfect. He says: “So now you’re gonna have this big explosion and everything becomes perfectly organized and when you ask them about it they say, ‘Well we can explain this, based on probability theory, because if there’s enough big explosions, over a long period of time, billions and billions of years, one of them will be the perfect explosion.’ So I say what you’re telling me is if I blow a hurricane through a junkyard enough times over billions and billions of years, eventually after one of those hurricanes there will be a 747 fully loaded and ready to fly.”

Aha! The old 747 in a junkyard fallacy comes to the fore. Carson is not even trying now. He concludes that the Big Bang has to be nonsense because gravity works and comets travel in predictable orbits: “Now that type of organization to just come out of an explosion? I mean, you want to talk about fairy tales, that is amazing.”

Remember, this man believes himself to be qualified to be President of the United States. But sure, let us toss out science because it is hard to believe, especially if you have a book that says everything was just poofed into existence – twice actually, if you read Genesis closely – by a theistic God who resides hovering above the sky of a three-tiered universe. This is actually perfectly scientific because The Good Book says it is so.

Creationists who dismiss the Big Bang usually do so because they believe that the Earth is young – 6,000 to 10,000 years old. This belief, to put it succinctly, is simply wrong. We know that the Earth is more than 4.5 billion years old, give or take a few million years. The evidence for this is overwhelming. We also know that the Universe itself is older (about fourteen billion years); a huge number of independent lines of evidence make this clear. It does not take faith to believe the Big Bang is true; it takes a profound dismissal of all of science to believe it is not!

Such thinking brings us to evolution. Young Earth Creationists dismiss evolution as well, due to the age issues, as well as others (for example, the Bible stating that God created Adam fully formed and in God’s own image, the so-called Imago Dei). Carson says that Charles Darwin came up with the theory of evolution through natural selection when the Devil whispered the whole thing into his ear! Considering that Ben Carson also believes that God gave him the answers to a chemistry final exam in a dream, it is not difficult to see that he really believes that the devil literally co-authored Darwin’s work! Ah, yes, the evil evolutionist conspiracy comes to the surface to silence critics of evolution.

But, contrary to Ben Carson’s beliefs, evolution is a fact. Like the Big Bang, the evidence for it is overwhelming.

It bothers me greatly when a presidential candidate is so cavalier in dismissing facts. That is a route we have been down before and it leads to very bad things. The almost unutterable irony here is how Carson dismisses all this, talking about “high-faluting” scientists. But he was a neurosurgeon. His entire career owes its existence to science, yet he tosses out the men and women whose expertise over the past few centuries have allowed him to benefit so greatly from their contributions to his practice.

I know that many in the Republican base are very religious people and they have every right to be. But fundamentalism is dangerous; it promotes clearly erroneous claims while simultaneously encouraging people to legislate those beliefs. We have seen what happens there. I also know that the vast majority of creationists have very basic disputes about evolution, about the Big Bang, and about science in general. (I am trying very hard to be polite here, given that I am dealing with people’s personal beliefs.)

But I take a totally different stance when it is a politician who espouses these views, especially when that person is running for the highest office in America. If someone wants to run for the Presidency, then that individual better show a solid grasp on reality. It is horrifying to think that in 2015 not only that this ignorance exists, but also that it exists in a serious candidate for President of the United States. Dismissing and actively denigrating strongly understood science – whether it is astronomy, biology, or climatology – is, at the very least, cause to disqualify that person. And Ben Carson, you are disqualified.