What is God doing here? : Three book reviews

kinnamonbookThis is a review of “Christianity Without God” by Lloyd Geering, “The Historical Jesus Goes to Church” By Arthur Dewey and “Can a Renewal Movement be Renewed? Questions for the Future of Ecumenism” by Michael Kinnamon.

Only three books? It seems that every book I read now I want to share with my fellow pilgrims, and every book fits the discussion of the moment. The three I cover briefly here are the most recent. Last week I found myself involved in a continuation of the discussion around interfaith dialogue, countering the arguments of frequent SpokaneFAVS commenter, Dennis, and agreeing with the arguments of our resident atheist and another free thinker who hasn’t given up, yet, on god talk. All points, especially those made by Dennis, were excellently drawn, given the parameters of their differing criteria, and all stirred my morphed imagination to the overflow point again. Then I read an editorial in the May 12th edition of The Nation, which called me back to reality:

“This is the dilemma we as a civilization now confront. Our [authorities] are warning that all we hold dear will perish if we continue on our current trajectory. But they also say we have the tools to turn away from death and build a brighter future. The hour is desperately late, but the choice is ours to make.”

Remarkably religious in tone. Paste back in the term ‘scientists’ for my substitution ‘authorities’ and watch the color of the quote change. The world, because of our western consumerism, is going to hell in an incense censure, poor or marginal people are suffering and armies gathering to protect the power and properties of the rich, and powerful, and self-righteous. Why am I spending my time arguing about the final days — are they real, are they here?, etc. — as if God, if there is such a god, would care. That there is suffering, and much more on the way, is all I need to know. So my question stated in religious terms is, What does God, if there is such, call for me to do to realize God’s loving neighborhood?

Global warming and my profligate lifestyle are religiously moral questions.

That we haven’t addressed these questions is one of the major reasons few people nowadays participate in a religiously oriented life. The Christian church, and even many non-Christian churches, are declining in numbers and influence. We are in a secular age. Geering addresses this phenomenon in his book suggesting that we consider a Christianity without God. He is an Australian theologian who faced defrocking a few years ago for taking the freedom to ask and discuss this question. He goes into the long history of that consideration, as old as the faith, discussing the history of the concepts of god and of Christianity, finding that many before have asked the same question. If we mean by belief in god the theistic view of god, it is a very real question, answered clearly by the enlightenment and subsequent philosophers and theologians. He clearly traces the development of the history of these ideas, resolving the question with a clear and simply defensible, “If we are to save the church, we will have to see that we serve God by serving humankind, letting the idea of God go the way of other dusty, unused  notions.”  After discussing the doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation, he shows how one traditional interpretation of the latter is that, first, god entered a man, then humankind became divine. Jesus is not the only incarnation. So, he suggests that we adopt a religious humanism, becoming once again, as not seen in 400 years, relevant to what we think is the real world. Historically informative, intellectually stimulating, in clear and ordinary language, this book deserves to be read by all of us. It would clear out as much rubbish as the dedicated use of a bush hog could. If anyone still thinks their eternal resting place is more important to discuss, so be it. They can embrace their own irrelevancy, but let them do so considering the irony of finding their life by losing it.

That Geering’s ideas are not the isolated notions of a radical free thinker becomes obvious when one reads  “The Historical Jesus Goes to Church,” a collection nine papers delivered by a good cross section of academics connected with the Westar Institute, the stepchild of the Jesus Seminar, delivered at one of Westar’s twice yearly conferences in New York, 2004. Here is discussed the difference between Jesus, a historical figure and Christ, an intellectual non-historical figure. As the former, Jesus and what we can surmise as his message is subject to the dictates of the science of historical research, using literary, historical, and anthropological evidence to reconstruct  the foot prints of Jesus’ life and works. The latter is subject not to considerations of how real are the subjects of the intellectual ideas, but how consistent and useful are they; useful for the realization of a society that affirms our religious values. The discussion takes off from Christianity but is also relevant, with some translation, to other religions. Discussions like these are already being noticed and used by Islamic scholars, much like Christian scholars once studied the Islamic scholars who had something important to say about cosmology and the nature of ideas and reality derived from their readings of Aristotle. How indebted we are to each other.

Many of the essays are commentaries on this indebtedness. Our individualism, in considering how to be happy (get as many toys as you can) or how to get to heaven (get as many merit badges as you can) is seen as “the American disaster” by Hal Taussig, in “The search for community & the historical Jesus.” He presents his historical research concerning Jesus and the formation of early Christian communities, Jesus’ ideas about community, and the influence on subsequent cultures, with some provocative thoughts about our own dysfunctional consumerist society and the church’s response. One essay (by Glenna Jackson) takes the question to Africa. Most others tease out answers while considering the new intellectual methods demanded by our development of intellectual techniques. What do they mean for our practices, such as prayer, and the lecture form of worship adopted by the school deprived protestant movement.

The overall tone of both of these books is the need to preserve both religious culture and the church, or temple, or synagogue, or mosque, and to meet as brothers and sisters to discuss. Stated poetically: where is god leading us? Being a Campbellite “Disciple of Christ,” the largest indigenous frontier domination in America, I have been impressed by Kinnamon, a fellow congregant of that denomination. We were founded on the idea that it was a shameful sin for Christians to be so divided that we would split up churches over rather small differences, such as open communion, shared baptism, use of musical instruments, or the divine rights of men or slave masters, or is it all right to kill for the state? Shouldn’t the church be a place we can disagree and discuss our differences, perhaps resolving them? Should Christian fight Christian?

Kinnamon, like his denomination, has been at the forefront of the ecumenical movement, which became very active for the three decades after the Second World War.  He is now at Seattle University, a disciple in a Jesuit university. He has been a leader in the National and World Council of Churches. He discusses the long term and the recent history of the ecumenical concept, and suggests where it could go intellectually: into interfaith, inter-religion alliances. He notes the successes of the movement, many of which he was instrumental in forming. He discusses point by point, the reasons for the successes, and then point by point, the reasons for their failures. The major reasons he finds have been the reduction in financial resources, the fact that the successes have been substantial and need to now be more formalized, and the lack of their being firmly established on a local, congregational level. Perhaps it is asking too much that in half a century we move from excommunicating each other to happily gathering around a table to feast together in communion.

Yet Kinnamon holds out the possibility that the direction of the historical development of religion in this new age is to learn how to be a community while also disagreeing with our neighbor on ideas and practices that we each hold important to us. How can we say “no” and find a way to “yes?” He suggests, only slightly vacuously, that we gather around the Eucharistic table, pray together, and share in being the body of Christ, much as the historical Jesus would have us do.

He does have a rather one sided view of the Israel/Palestine conflict, seeming to have been more influenced by the Israeli controlled media without actively cultivating a countervailing presence of Palestinian authority. That is a small fault in his overall argument, but significant, for it models a way to close down discussion. Yet he has wanted to remain open and available to those Jews who would see more of a self-critical way to peace than the conservative Israeli government could tolerate. So he accepts the basic yet very debatable argument that Israeli oppression through occupation is a response to Palestinian terrorism, without giving much notice to Israeli terrorism.

That criticism is countered by one great virtue, for he has faced the criticism of the ecumenical movement’s taking positions on controversial topics by presenting a chapter which, for me, is the best argument against the statement of factual claim, unsupported by any evidence, that by taking such positions the church would drive away too many people who disagree. By asking and answering, “Has the ecumenical movement become too political?” he puts to rest that argument. Not only is the refusal to take a position the taking of a position that supports the often unjust status quo, but the separation of Jesus or Christ from political questions is the separation of faith from public life. He discusses seven tensions this question imposes on us. We need to make a public witness of our belief while also modeling our prophetic basis. We need to imagine, advocate, and proclaim alternative realities with hope for a new, just future. And we need to be humble in the face of god’s initiatives and our own failures to respond fearlessly to that demand. We need to remain available for god’s grace while not using that humility falsely to justify our own tendency toward spiritual laziness. After all, there is a tension between serving the issues of justice and the issues of unity. How much can we stand before blowing apart? The UMC is facing this question right now. It is a shame that they, in their long history of considering same sex marriage and ordination, have not had the courage to study how to be unified while disagreeing. It often seems more comforting to serve unity, the unity of a nice, quiet, country club of similarly minded smilers. But haven’t  they, and ourselves, too often mistaken the peace of ‘Peace of Mind’ for the security of a batch of agreeing good people. Never mind the disagreement. We can keep those who do disagree out, one way or another. God will take care of them.

Am I too cynical? My heart often turns downward. With these books, my hope becomes prayers.

About Thomas Schmidt

Thomas Schmidt is a retired psychotherapist and chemical dependency counselor who belongs to the Sufi Ruhiniat International order of Sufi’s and is a drummer in the Spokane Sufi group and an elder at the Country Homes Christian (Disciples of Christ) Church. He is a member of the Westar Institute (The Jesus Seminar people). He studied for the ministry in the late 1950’s at Texas Christian Church and twice married Janet Fowler, a member of a long tern TCU family and a Disciple minister. He was active in the Civil Rights Movement, studying philosophy at Columbia University and psychology in the University of North Carolina university system. He has taught philosophy and psychology, and was professionally active in Florida, North Carolina, and, for 25 years in Spokane. He has studied and practiced Siddha Yoga, Zen Buddhism and, since the mid 1970’s, Sufism and the Dances of Universal Peace. He has three sons and three grandchildren. With the death of his wife, Janet, he is continuing their concentration on human rights, ecology, and ecumenical and interfaith reconciliation.

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  1. Wow, that was a thick review, the reads must of been quicksand, you should get free drinks at the next mixer for giving such a studious review. I haven’t been able to get my review of a comic book into Tracy. Sheesh, I feel like a turnip.

  2. Thanks, Eric. You can stand me to a drink any day. However, I’m under no delusion: Turnips are more nourishing than alcohol.

  3. Tom, I will concur that even the review is thick wading. The books must have been a challenge. What I see, again, as missing in the discussion is the third worldview. I see the secular, or naturalist and I see the religionists, but sadly the biblical worldview is either ignored or purposely disallowed.

    Any offshoot of the Jesus seminar obviously discounts a belief in the bible as being God’s inerrant revelation of Himself and His plan. That is my view and because of that I don’t have a fear of the church disintegrating and needing to somehow cobble my version of “the church” together. God would prefer one true believer to a billion Pharisees working their own unacceptable righteousness. True biblical Christianity is necessarily exclusive, and certainly not because of any of its adherents’ self-righteousness, but because of our Lord’s own commands on the subject. It knows nothing of interfaith and that’s probably why it is excluded from the discussion.

    You acknowledged at the beginning all the problems confounding our world today and anyone with eyes, ears and mediocre thinking capacity can see that these things are accelerating. The biblical worldview corroborates this as part of the fulfillment of the world’s final rejection of God and His Son, Jesus Christ. In fact scripture says that when Jesus does return the world will muster an army, under leadership of the man of sin, to try to fight Him off.

    I’m totally baffled at what kind of Christianity could possibly be adhered to apart from God. That, to that unaddressed worldview, would be blasphemy, and the defrocking would be totally justified. He would be totally free to question, but not as the leader as any of Christ’s churches (Rev. 2-3).

    Am I totally out of the thought process here?

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