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December 2016

Gotta Have Faith


Practice was over and everyone was in the locker room getting undressed in order to shower.  Most awkward when you are in eighth grade.  Moreso if you are a nascent gay boy around lots of unruly jocks.  Suddenly organ music was playing, and I was confused.

One of my classmates had a giant jam box on the bench where he was changing clothes.  The jam box was the source of the organ music.  Had organ music suddenly become popular, I wondered?  I was a dorky, religious and intellectual kid who had no sense of popular trends.  Then, suddenly, the organ gave way to the beats of one of the most popular songs of the moment.

This was the first time I ever heard the album Faith by George Michael (as opposed to the hit single, and ultimately singles, on the radio).

I was raised a Southern Baptist.  We were always on guard for religious faith to be mocked in popular culture.  We were particularly alarmed whenever spirituality and sexuality were intertwined (Madonna freaked Evangelicals out).  So all these impulses and passions were at war when I listened to such popular music.  

The decades bring further reflection  upon the enjoyable ironies of moment.  Here in the most homoerotic of heterosexual spaces--the junior high locker room--I always felt manifestly uncomfortable and most different from my classmates.  Playing this sexually charged popular music made me feel even more different.  Yet, the cool, popular straight guys were listening to George Michael sing erotic songs.  George Michael who later came out as gay.

Douthat on Religious Experience

Ross Douthat has an interesting column borrowing a title from William James, though not citing him in the article.

As a strictly intellectual matter, I am very confident that God exists. In dark times, though — and this has been a dark year in many ways — I wonder if the Absolute relates to us in the way that my church teaches, if he will really wipe away every tear and make all things that we love new.

Adams, Liberal Christianity, Moral Virtue, and Democracy

John Adams
I'm rushing through Amy Kittelstrom's The Religion of Democracy but am woefully behind in my blogging I want to do about it.  So, let's begin trying to catch up.

The first full chapter was on John Adams as a paradigm example of the development of liberal Christianity out of Puritan Calvinism in the 18th century and how that liberal Christianity was connected to the development of democracy.

Back in college I researched and wrote some on this topic and now want to find those papers.  I remember reading about Adams' pastor Lemuel Briant and Briant's role in introducing Adams to John Locke.  Though I had read this, I've never encountered the thought again anywhere, so was glad to see a discussion of Briant in this book.  I had also written a college paper exploring how a phrase of Locke's had entered the Baptist Faith and Message of the Southern Baptist Convention.  That led me to the Cambridge Platonists, who also are discussed in this chapter.  Dissidents on both sides of the pond were reading and interacting with each other as liberal Christianity and democracy were developing hand-in-hand.

Part of what spoke to me as I read this chapter was the importance of the moral virtues.  My reading solidified thoughts I've been having that in the unvirtuous Age of Trump we must focus upon the cultivation of the virtues.

She writes that Adams grew up in a home with a "lifestyle of simplicity, modesty, and charity, and the regular enforcement of Christian order at home."  Adams did not continue the strict Calvinism of his father but she boils down his moral ethic as "one that valued the common good over self-interest, extolled the pursuit of knowledge as a way to worship God and his creation, and insisted on both the divine right of private judgment and the related, God-given 'dignity of human nature.'"  Yes, we are in sore need of those virtues.

Another valuable thought--"Human limitations are woefully apparent--and this is why liberty matters.  It is the necessary precondition for the fight against sin."

18th century liberal Christianity developed three rules for right reasoning:

The first rule was for Christians to acknowledge that they are not yet in possession of truth.  Call it humility, call it partiality, call it fallibility, it is objectively true from a Reformation Christian perspective that no one can claim to possess the whole truth any more than they can claim to be free of sin.  Therefore all must continue to seek more truth.

The second rule taught the critical thinking necessary to discern between doctrines.  Truth-seekers must be open-minded, honest, and sincere.  They resist appeals to authority, tradition, or superstition, thinking for themselves and being both candid about what they think and willing to consider all claims.

The third rule of right reasoning directed the Christian to consider the effects of a doctrine as indicative of its degree of validity.

Elaborating the final point (which according to the narrative in the book ultimately becomes Jamesian Pragmatism in the late 19th century) she writes, "in the American Reformation, the right of private judgment pointed to a duty of public expression too, evaluating the results of holding this or that belief by measure of the virtue or nonvirtue such a belief produced."

As I get time this weekend, I'll try to catch up with further blogging.

Call from Tomorrow

Call from Tomorrow

Matthew 1:18-25

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

18 December 2016



    No matter how familiar we are with that story, it should still grab us and make us think, wonder, and (maybe) smile at the ironic beauty.

A pregnant virgin is a sign that God is doing something radically new and different. And God didn't chose to act through what was perfect or even conventional. God's radically new thing will be done through a small village scandal—an unwed, pregnant teenager.


This summer, on my sabbatical, I was reading in some corners of Christian theology that were new to me. One was a book by the Taiwanese theologian Choan-Seng Song entitled Third-Eye Theology. The book interprets Christian thought through the lens of East Asian cultural idioms, finding touch points with Eastern religions, such as Buddhism.

    Published in 1972, the book is also deeply affected by the war in Vietnam. I realized that I don't think I'd ever read a rich theological response to that war, and I definitely had never read an Asian perspective.

    The middle section of the book is entitled "Suffering Unto Hope." In this section he explores the impact of the war upon families and women in particular. Yet, his discussion is framed within the concept of hope. Remembering, of the deceased in particular, is an essential part of hoping in the midst of suffering.

He also writes that "Memory does not only have to do with what has taken place. It enables us to anticipate the future and envision what is still to come. In a sense we can also say that memory is the power of the future."


In Matthew's story, the Holy Spirit moves within Mary's womb and Joseph's dreams. Matthew focuses on Joseph, who is challenged in his dreams to do something radical because God is at work. And we admire Joseph because he listens and obeys.

When the Spirit moves among us, we are called into a new and abundant future. Theologian J. Kameron Carter writes that the gift of the Spirit "liberates all things into the possibility of not just being or existing, but into the possibility of flourishing."


This Advent we have tied together remembering and dreaming as essential tasks in our preparation for the coming of Christ again into our lives. Essential to my own understanding of this season is the idea of the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart that the birth of the Christ is not simply some historical event to be remembered. It has meaning for us if we understand that Christ can be born anew in us. For me, every Advent is a reminder of and a preparation for this renewal. God can do a new thing for me and in me and through me. If I am willing. Choan-Seng Song writes that "When God acts, something new happens."


In our hopes and dreams, the Spirit is calling us from tomorrow, offering us a realm of endless possibilities where we might flourish. This is what we anticipate this Advent and every Advent as we wait and prepare for the Birth of Christ.

So, remember. Tell your stories. Know who you are.

Dream. Hope for the future. Imagine possibilities.

And respond to the call of God, who keeps surprising us by making all things, including ourselves, new.



Willimon has been quite blunt in his appraisal of the election of Donald Trump in his writing.  Last week he said it was unChristian.  Now this week he calls for revolution.

Ministry Matters™ | Christmas: Herod in trouble

I can’t join those Christians who respond to the current political climate with calls for civility, unity, harmony and healing of our nation. Matthew’s story says to me that ours may be time, not for pacification, but for resistance and revolt. We ought to be more fearful of missing out on God’s revolution than afraid of Herod’s reprisals.


American Religious Liberalism

I'm enjoying the book I began last week, The Religion of Democracy: Seven Liberals and the American Moral Tradition by Amy Kittelstrom.  The preface states:

This is a book about how an originally Christian, eighteenth-century idea changed into a universal modern idea.  Some New England Christians believed that every human being is a moral agent endowed with the sacred faculties of reason and conscience, a faith that their Christian and post-Christian intellectual descendants transformed into a "religion of democracy" in which the human right to dignity--to freedom and equality--became a practical faith for driving moral action.  This transformation helped produce the modern concept of universal human rights.

She believes that New England Congregationalists engaged in an "American Reformation" which helped to give birth to American independence and more.  Those New Englanders shared agreement on the "perfection of God and the moral agency of human beings" but divided into two groups--neo-Calvinists and liberals--though both maintained their allegiance to elements of the original Pilgrims and Puritans.  Here, she describes the divide:

Their devotion to Reformation Christian liberty made New England patriots extremists in the colonies when it came to the cause of independence, but by the time the war arrived they had started to disagree with one another over a fundamental matter of faith, the very nature of truth.  One side, the side the founding father John Adams practiced, believed that the truth could be known in full to no human being, and that humility and open-mindedness as well as sincerity and candor were therefore fundamental characteristics of piety.  These Christians became the first people in the world to call themselves liberals, by which they indicated their commitment to open-minded moral agency.  The other side of the New England Christian debate believed that ultimate truth was contained in Calvinist articles of faith and ought to be spread evangelically.  This side, although its commitment to Calvinism loosened over time, has been contending ever since that the United States is a Christian nation, meaning a nation founded upon an evangelical Protestant faith dubbed orthodox.  The argument between these splintering halves of New England Christianity produced a novel turn in thought and culture, an American Reformation.

Interestingly, she points out that most liberals were Republicans well into the early 20th century and that the term only took on its secular political meaning during the era of the New Deal.

What I most enjoyed was her exploration of how this original meaning of liberalism was tied to moral and intellectual virtues such as humility, open-mindedness, and service.  One reason that intrigues me is that with the advent of the Trump era, I believe those opposed to him (whatever their political party or philosophy) should focus on the virtues as our central organizing principle, since his views are antithetical to the moral and intellectual virtues.  I'm hoping this book may help to guide my thinking on those issues.

Between the tick and the tock

I'm currently working through The Interfaith Prayer Book in my morning devotions and yesterday I read an Inca prayer that intrigued me.  Here is the closing section:

Hold us in between the tick and the tock, between the spaces
Hold us in the place of infinity
Where all the stories exist simultaneously
Where all the healing happens instantaneously
Thank you for bringing us together
For letting us sing our soul songs, one more day in one more way
Teach us that we are the ones we have been waiting for.


SPQR: A History of Ancient RomeSPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fun and engaging read about Roman history. And not your normal history, full of biography of great men, but a wide-ranging exploration of the people of Rome from the founding of the city through the expansion of citizenship to the population of the entire Empire in 212 C. E.

Some familiarity with the big stories helps, as Beard doesn't tell them as much as she questions their authenticity and explores the meaning behind why the stories were told the way they were.

View all my reviews