The Quest For Meaning 6: The Final Installment

There are many today who are not affiliated with any religious institution. They are called “Nones” or “Dones.” Nones are people who answer surveys about religious practice that they do not have any religious affiliation. Many say they are “spiritual but not religious.” Dones are people who used to be affiliated with a religious institution but have opted out. Enough is enough. They are “done.” Both groups have grown significantly in the U.S. over the past several decades at the expense of established religious institutions. Christianity, still the largest religion in the United States, experienced a 20th-century high of 91% of the total population in 1976. This declined to 74% by 2016. In 2020, only 47% of Americans said that they belonged to a Christian church; this was the first time that a poll found less than half of Americans answering this way.  What is going on? Why is this happening?

The Christian Church—especially the established “Mainline Churches” — no longer meets the needs of an increasing number of people, led by the Millennials and GenXers. I would like to attribute this phenomenon in the Episcopal Church to the overuse of the Nicene Creed. Much of what is in it does not jibe with their understanding of the world today, but all Mainline Protestant churches, including many which rarely use ancient creeds in worship, have lost members, not just the Episcopal Church. The Presbyterians have fared the worst losing almost 40 percent over the last two decades.

Is there still a need for religion today? Do we live in what is becoming a post-religious world?

We Homo sapiens on the planet Earth have been asking the same questions that our ancestors were asking several thousand years ago: What is the meaning of our lives? What happens when we die? Why do bad things happen? Why is there so much suffering in the world? These have been the questions of both philosophy and religion from time immemorial. All religions deal with these questions. These questions remain as real and important today as they have been throughout history.

The secular answer is that this is just the way the world is. Get over it. You don’t have to believe in God to get by or to know Truth. Albert Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus” portrays the human condition as pushing a huge boulder up a mountain only to lose control and watch it fall to the bottom, but we humans get up and start over again and again and again. There is no such thing as Absolute Justice or Absolute Truth, just the day-in, day-out slogging along in the short time we have allotted to us. I have often used the example of running a marathon. When you stumble across the finish line, the important question is whether you have you given the race your best effort.

Now I am a loyal church goer. A lifer. My parents were religious people who attended the downtown Episcopal church in Nashville, which makes me a “cradle Episcopalian.” My upbringing is the main reason, I suppose, that I am an Episcopalian. Also, the clergy in that church visited me every week during the two years that I was at home recovering from polio when I was ten and twelve, and that made a huge difference. Religious faith was very important to me then and on other occasions in my life, but at the same time, I cannot help asking the same questions as Camus did in the Myth of Sisyphus allegory. I find myself in the skeptical world more than I would like.

From 1964-1968 I attended Union Theological Seminary in New York where I was a “postulant,” someone who intends to become an Episcopal priest. My bishop was a feisty, old school guy, who did me a great favor by telling me the year before I graduated from Union that for every year I had spent at that “heretical Protestant seminary” I would have to spend a year at a conservative, Anglo Catholic seminary, a deal he knew I would never accept. I will always be grateful to him for that. It would not have been the right job for me. He knew that.

I have been asked more than once that if I am not a “True Believer,” why do I continue going to church in the first place. Part of the reason is that I do believe in the fundamental mystery of life that we humans experience from time to time, along with occasional glimpses of the Devine. The fundamental message of God’s love resonates with me. I believe life has a purpose.

Yet at times I wonder.

(Another, I must confess, is that Embry sings in the choir and is now the Senior Warden of All Souls Episcopal Church. Plus, it is a diverse community and a warm and accepting place where people can discuss honestly questions of faith and doubt. Being part of a loving and accepting community, I think, is one of the main reasons people attend church.)

And the times we are in now are especially frightening. We need all the help we can get. The catastrophes of global warming are happening right now with wildfires, flooding, and horrific hurricanes. If the Greenland ice cap melts, it may be too late. Scientists tell us we are at the beginning of the Sixth Great Mass Extinction. More and more countries are acquiring nuclear weapons. What are the chances that they will never use them? We Homo sapiens have the power to do ourselves in and take most of the animal and plant life on the planet with us. And bad things have happened before in Earth’s 4.5 billion year history—five mass extinctions, which eliminated 80-90% of life on the planet each time. But the planet Earth is resilient. It has recovered and thrived after each extinction and is now home to eight billion people. The planet will survive for about another billion years before our sun expands into a red giant and high temperatures on Earth make life impossible. But will we Homo sapiens still be around for another billion years? Please. Does anyone believe there is a remote chance? What different kinds of life may emerge? What new or post human-like creatures will take our place?

The short answer is that we do not know and will never know the answers to these questions. We are just another animal living on an extraordinary planet. We have worked our way up the food chain as we have evolved over the past 3.5 million years. The best we can do is run our race the best we can and try to leave this troubled world in better shape than we found it, a goal which I am sad to say we are far from achieving. Where Christianity and most other religions come in is that they provide blueprints for making some sense of the world and moving forward. The point of all religions, I believe, is essentially the same—to try to understand the meaning and purpose of life, to be touched by the mystery of the Devine, and to live good lives.  One Destination, many pathways. To be part of this mysterious experience is something for which all humans should be grateful. I know that I am.



The Quest For Meaning 5: The Other Religions

While it is impressive that Christianity is the most popular religion in the world, accounting for over 31 percent of the world’s population, what about those in other religions? Are they to be written off as lost souls, following fake religions and deceiving themselves? The top three religions besides Christianity include Islam (25%), Hinduism (16%), and Buddhism (7%).  The Big Four religions account for almost 80% of the people on the planet Earth. But there are many other religions including Judaism and lesser known religions like Sikhism, Taoism, the Bahai Faith, Jainism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Zoroastrianism, and indigenous religions. Only sixteen percent of the world’s population are labeled by those who try to keep the statistics as “non-religious.” In other words, Christianity may be the most popular religion, but still out of a world population of just over eight billion, that leaves about 5.6 billion people who are left out. Some would say they are doomed to hell.

Does this make common sense?

Of course not. Especially when you consider that while there are important differences in these religions, there are also similarities. Furthermore, when you consider all the differences within Christianity concerning belief and religious practice, an argument could be made that there are as many differences within the Christian community as between Christianity and other religions.

There is lot, however, that most religions and religious practices have in common:

  • Most religions believe in a supernatural deity. Most are monotheistic though there are still some religions which acknowledge other gods. (Note, however, Christianity has been described by some as also polytheistic due to the concept of the Trinity, along with the plethora of angels that some Christians pray to.) Buddhism and Confucianism are the main exceptions and are more philosophies than religions, and neither worship a supernatural deity.
  • They promote behavior equivalent to the Golden Rule: Treat others like you would like to be treated.
  • They have rituals and sacred writings.
  • They pray to their deity.
  • They have places of worship like temples, synagogues, and churches.
  • They have an ethical code.
  • They have barriers to entry—circumcision in Judaism, baptism and confirmation in Christianity, and dietary restrictions in many religions like prohibitions on pork and shellfish in Judaism, meat in Hinduism, pork in Islam, and alcohol in many religions.
  • They acknowledge a genuine spiritual realm beyond human understanding.

Here are some of the other similarities and differences among the major religions. Hinduism, considered by some to be the world’s oldest religion, is said to have no beginning as it precedes recorded history. It has no human founder. It is a mystical religion, leading the devotee to personally experience the Truth within, finally reaching the pinnacle of consciousness where man and God are one. From a Hindu website there is this: “In Hinduism we talk of many Gods, but there is one God behind them whom we all worship. One God who is Brahman. Similarly, in Christianity there is Trinitarian conception of God. However, we accept it as one God which is all powerful and loving.”

Islam, of course, along with Judaism, worships the same God as Christians, and their members have similar ethics. Both religions have expectations regarding religious practice like praying five times a day for Muslims and attending synagogue on High Holy Days for Jews. Catholics are not supposed to eat meat on Fridays and weekly attendance at mass is expected. Protestants are not as strict in this area though church attendance at least at Christmas and Easter services is common. It is one of the ironies that the three Abrahamic religions, which have most in common  and worship the same God, have often been in conflict.

Sikhism, an offshoot of Hinduism, is strongly monotheistic, believing that God is without form, or gender, that everyone has direct access to God and that everyone is equal before God. A good life is lived as part of a community, by living honestly and caring for others. Empty religious rituals and superstitions have no value.

Taoism, still important in China, is a religion which like Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion. While there is a (small)  polytheistic component, it has a strong ethical system. Jainism, which is another ancient religion dating back to 900-600 BCE in India teaches that the path to enlightenment is through nonviolence and reducing harm to living things (including plants and animals) as much as possible. Like Hindus and Buddhists, Jains believe in reincarnation. This cycle of birth, death, and rebirth is determined by one’s karma. Shintoism, practiced in Japan, stresses purity, harmony, respect for nature, family respect, and subordination of the individual before the group. There are many Shinto gods or spirits, and these have shrines dedicated to them where people offer food, money, and prayers.

Some would argue that while the religions are not the same, they have more similarities than differences and are all trying to make sense out of the world we humans live in. I argue that this is the human condition we Homo sapiens inherited from our ancestors.

What are we to make of these other religions? Why do some Christians consider them a threat or even worse, evil? Why have there been so many wars associated with religion? Why has it been so important to convert people from one religion to another religion–to one’s own religion? Aren’t these members of other religions searching for the same things we humans who call ourselves Christians are searching for—for meaning in life, for wholeness, and for being loved and accepted, for connection with an unseen spiritual dimension, which we believe is real? This comes back to the God-gene that I wrote about earlier. It is part of our human nature. That some 85 percent of human beings living on the planet Earth are considered part of some religious group is a compelling indication that the need for a spiritual connection for us humans is strong. The skeptic, of course, would point out that just because people are searching for something does not mean that it is real or that it actually exists. And they would have a point. This is the blessing and curse of being a human being. 

And what is wrong with the notion that there is one God, the Creator of the Universe, who is accessible to all humans, who do not necessarily share the same vision or use the same name for their deity that other religions use? I remember the story of five blind men who were asked to describe an elephant:

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear. One described the elephant as a tree, another a wall, another a rope and another as a large spear.

And, of course, they are all correct. This parable is found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Jainism, and in ancient Chinese and Japanese proverbs. However, it never found its way into Christianity.

And finally, if  you ask yourself why you are a Christian—or a person belonging to any religious group for that matter– and not part of another religious group, or why you are part of one Christian denomination and not another, it could boil down to which country  you were born in, which language you speak, where you grew up, what religion your parents practiced or what you were exposed to at a young age, and other factors that have little to do with any specific creed or belief. That is another part of our human behavior: We tend to go with the flow.

The last essay in this series will be about the state of the Christian religion today in the United States. There is a strange paradox that while Christianity is growing among Pentecostals and those in nonaffiliated churches such as Praise Churches, attendance in mainline Protestant churches–and even among the evangelicals–is plummeting in the U.S. as it has been for decades in Europe. More people are signing up as “Nones,” or “Dones.” What is this all about? What if anything can be done about it? Or should anything be done about it?

Stay tuned for the final installment.





The Quest for Meaning 4: Christianity Moves Into First Place.

Christianity is now the most popular religion on the planet. As the saying goes, “You have come a long way, baby!” Starting with a handful of the followers of Jesus over two thousand years ago, Christians now account for more than 2.4 billion followers, over 30% of the world’s population. Christians are present in every country in the world. Christianity and Islam, two of the three Abrahamic religions, now comprise more than half the world’s population. While Christianity is shrinking in Europe and church membership is facing challenges in the U.S., the religion continues to grow in many countries, especially in underdeveloped countries. Part of the growth has been due to colonialism, part to missionary work by evangelical Christians, and part to the nature of the Christian message and the human hope for “salvation.”

So, what are we to make of all this? Does this mean that Christianity is the natural culmination of the human quest to experience the Divine? Of all the human attempts over a 20,000 year saga to connect with God, does it mean that Christianity has proven the best or as some would say only religion that is “true” and “real.” Does this mean that the other spiritual journeys involve “fake” or inferior religions? Does it mean that only those who call themselves Christian will have eternal life with God? That the rest will perish? Does it mean that if you are not baptized as a Christian, you are not “saved” and are destined to an afterlife in hell?

Probably many Christians, especially evangelicals, would say yes, that is exactly what it means.

But it is not just evangelicals. In the Episcopal Church which Embry and I attend we say either the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed where the essentials are laid out for being a Christian. They both were in use beginning in the 300s CE and state what determines whether you are a Christian. The longer Nicene Creed is used more often and addresses various heresies in the early days of the church. The Apostles Creed, which is below, was more often used in Baptism.

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

The creeds are all about belief, not about action or how to live one’s life. Yet believing in the creeds is considered essential by many churches. If you do not believe in your heart of hearts every word that is in the creeds, you are not a Christian. Well, some two thousand years later, for some people it is hard to say that they believe  every word in either creed. Was there really a  virgin birth of Jesus and what difference does that make anyway? Did Jesus really  descend into hell for three days  and what was he doing done there? You can be a Christian without taking the creeds literally.

Skeptics of taking every word at its face value  would warn  not to get too hung up on words that were written at a specific time that made sense then–about two thousands years ago, pre Copernicus and Galileo and Darwin and the Web telescope-but not so much now  and point out that the central message of Christianity is unconditional love and acceptance. No one is going to hell because they are not baptized. No loving God would require this. Or because they do not believe in the virgin birth. Plus, when you are looking at the Big Picture, there are many unanswered questions that we humans will never be able to answer. We cannot explain why and how the Big Bang happened. We cannot explain the cosmos of billions of galaxies, all containing billions of stars and planets. While we can understand the science of evolution, we have trouble with its spiritual dimension or how God is part of this. We do not understand the nature of evil and why bad things happen to good people. If there is an afterlife, no one can accurately describe what that is like.

 Given these uncertainties some declare themselves atheists or agnostics, concluding that there is no religious or spiritual reason for life on Earth. There is no “higher power.” There is no “God.” Get over trying to figure this all out, they say, and chill out. Just accept life for what it is. Others would say that we have clues but no absolute answers. Can you call yourself a Christian if you fall into this latter category and believe that Christianity provides the best clues to understanding the Big Picture, but there are still unanswered questions? Many would say no. It is all or nothing. I would say yes.

And there are issues with regard to the history of the Christian Church once it became a state religion, many of which continue  to the present.

While you can point to many good things that Christian churches and devout Christians have accomplished over the centuries, you can also point to a lot of bad things. The history of the Christian church is  a mixed bag. Think of the nine Crusades to liberate the Holy Land in the 1100-1200s, which resulted in over a million deaths, the Spanish inquisition beginning in the 15th Century and continuing into the 19th Century where tens of thousands died, the Wars of Religion in central Europe that lasted for over 100 years in the 1500-1600s, when several million Protestants and Catholics perished—Christians killing Christians. Think about the witch hunts in New England. What about the Christians who owned slave ships or who owned plantations in the South? And what about the  Ku Klux Klan, which describes itself as a Christian organization? Explain the persecution of Jews by Christians over the centuries. Where were Christians during the Holocaust, and why were there  so few Dietrich Bonhoeffers?  And why were most White, segregated Christian churches in the South silent and on the sidelines during the Era of Jim Crow and then the Civil Rights Movement?

Yes, the history of the Christian Church is blemished. It has its dark side. Some would put the blame squarely at the foot of human nature. Remember we are only Homo sapiens. We have made it through many thousand years of evolution due to our instinct for survival and are now at the top of the food chain.

And there are those who argue, “The Bible says God created humans in His likeness.” Can this be right?

Keep in mind that it is not fair to lump all Christians together. Christianity is divided in all sorts of ways—Roman Catholic, Russian and Greek Orthodox, and a long list of Protestants churches–all of which “sort of” believe the same thing. But then again do we really? Presbyterians are said to believe in Calvin’s idea of Predestination. Catholics are said to believe there is a purgatory and the ultimate authority of the Pope. Mormons are said to believe that Jesus came to America.  In some churches people speak in tongues. In others they swing incense. Some churches are filled with icons. Others are plain and simple. There are mystics, fundamentalists, evangelicals, right-to-lifers, and pro-choice Christians.  Christians are on both sides of gender and political issues. There are conservatives and liberals, management and labor, PhDs and high school drop outs. There are MAGA Republicans, who adore Trump and progressive Democrats who despise him.

But here is the thing: We tend to sort ourselves by our backgrounds and our opinions, which often have little to do with Christianity. And also important: We rarely attend the same churches. The compositions of most churches are segregated according to race, class, levels of education and political leanings.

Is this situation today what the early Christians had in mind?

I recall attending a revival in Covington, Georgia, about 20 years ago when we were visiting Embry’s long lost cousins, who Embry was surprised to see on the cover of the National Geographic, where they were featured in the cover story, which was about old fashioned “camp meetings.”

The three-day, small town event, which had been happening every September since the end of the Civil War, brought (White) multi-generational families together at the end of the summer for fellowship, storytelling and to hear good preaching. The preacher for the event that year was probably in his late 30s and a Southern Baptist. He was very sharp and intelligent and surprised me by preaching a progressive message of inclusiveness, tolerance, and social responsibility. Toward the end of his last sermon, he stunned the congregation of several hundred attentive listeners with this question:

“After hearing what I have preached on this week, how many think that I would say that there is not really all that much difference between the Christian Protestant denominations? We are all pretty much the same. Well, let me be clear: There is a huge difference, and don’t you forget it!”

I could feel the puzzled shock that came over the audience. All ears perked up.

“Now I am a Southern Baptist and proud of it. A Southern Baptist is a Christian who has been washed.”

I was not sure what that meant, but there were plenty of heads nodding.

“Are there any Methodists in the congregation?”

Forty or 50 people raised their hands.

“A Methodist is a Baptist who can read.”

I could hear some soft chuckles.

“What about Presbyterians?”

More hands were raised.

“A Presbyterian is a Methodist who has gone to college.”

More soft chuckles.

“And an Episcopalian is a Presbyterian whose investments turned out all right.”

This brought the house down. Everyone knew exactly what he was getting at.

In addition to all the other things that divide us, culture and social status are also often near the top.

Yet despite the divisions and the differences in worship style and belief, and values the Christian Church has survived all these years and on a global scale– except for Europe and the U.S. and a few other “developed” countries–is thriving in a world where there are many other options for spiritual life and spiritual journeys. What is that all about?

This question will be the focus of the next post, the penultimate post in this series.







Human Quest for Meaning 3: The Bumpy Road to Christianity

So what are we to make of the “relatively” long history of human’s efforts to make some sense out of what we are not able to understand about the mysteries of the world and the universe and our place in it? “Relatively long” because the kernels of the religious quest started over 20,000 years ago, but that amounts to less than a microsecond in the context of a planet that came into being 4.5 billion years ago. The takeaway from the last two blog posts was that the religious quest began with Homo sapiens due to features of our brains, which distinguish us from all other animals. We have imagination and we ask questions. Some believe human brains are “hard wired” to search for answers related to why we exist and what is the meaning of life. Over the past 20,000 plus years, religion has been the vehicle we humans have used to seek answers and to communicate with the spiritual realm. The earliest religions were animistic, and some used shamans and other holy men to help us humans communicate with these spirits, which came to be called gods. Gradually over many thousands of years, religion became more sophisticated, religious “professionals” were enlisted to help, and animism morphed into polytheism, some with elaborate cosmologies. Specific gods came to be associated with clans, tribes, nations, and empires. Common religious beliefs helped bond people together and helped leaders keep control of their clans, states, and nations.

Polytheism was the dominant form of religious belief and practice for thousands of years. The first inkling of monotheism did not happen until the writings of Zoroaster in ancient Persia around 600 BCE. The Jews were not far behind, having adopted some of the gods worshiped by neighboring tribes in Canaan and placing one god, Yahweh, above all others. By 350 BCE, however, Israel had become solidly monotheistic. Other nations and empires, however, held onto scores of deities, and two of these countries had a huge influence on the Mesopotamian world. The first was the Greek Empire started by the conquests of Alexander the Great, who conquered and ruled a huge area around the eastern Mediterranean Sea almost to India, beginning in 356   BCE and lasting over 100 years, until 30 BCE, giving way to the Roman Empire, which expanded the area under its rule, which lasted another 400 years until 476 CE.

At the time of Jesus, Palestine was ruled by Rome as a vasal state with a puppet ruler, Herod the Great. But the cultural influencer at the time was still Greece, which had ruled the region for over 300 years. Most educated people spoke Greek and were influenced by Greek religion and Greek philosophy. The early manuscripts of the Christian New Testament were all written in Greek.

This is the world that Jesus was born into. Even though Palestine was under Roman rule, Judaism remained strong as the dominant religion in Palestine and unlike the other religions was strongly monotheistic. Jesus was first and foremost a devout Jew, influenced by the teachings of the Torah and the Prophets and belief in one God.

There is very little historic information about Jesus outside of the material in the Bible. There are believed to have been brief accounts, now lost, by minor historians at the time and a brief references by Josephus, a Jewish historian, in the 90s CE and Tacitus, a Roman historian, in the early 100s CE. We know that he lived and that he was executed by the Romans but that is about it. All the information we have comes from writings which began as stories and oral tradition by Jesus’s followers. The writings came many years after Jesus’s death around 30 CE. when he was only in his very early thirties. (No one knows for sure the exact dates). Mark was the first Gospel, written a generation later between 65 and 70 CE, followed by Matthew and Luke (85-90 CE), a second generation later, and finally followed by The Gospel of John (early 100s). The writers were not likely eyewitnesses and relied heavily on oral tradition and stories passed down from those who were.

Jesus’s ministry was mainly in Galilee and lasted only a few years. He performed miracles, preached a message of love and redemption by God, and the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. He healed the sick, comforted  the poor and the outcast, and was anti establishment with calls for addressing the injustices in the world.

So here is the central question: why did this new religion centered around Jesus happen and how and why did it grow so quickly, eventually becoming centuries later  in the early 2000s the most popular religion on the planet with over 30 percent of the Earth’s population calling themselves Christian? There are  hundreds of books and scholarly articles dealing with the life and meaning of Jesus. I read some of them when I was a student at Union Seminary in New York in the mid 1960s. Here is my take:

Five things enabled Christianity to resonate and expand. The first is what I call the “resurrection experience.” Whether Jesus actually rose from the dead or not has been debated for years, but certainly Jesus’s followers believed that Jesus had risen from the dead. This was the “good news” or “gospel” of the early church and was a message that validated Jesus’s message and His life. It resonated with many people as a direct connection between Jesus and God, and morphed into the belief that Jesus was God. Were it not for the resurrection experience, at best Jesus would have been noted briefly as just another Jewish prophet.

The second reason is Saul of Tarsus, a respected rabbi, who had his own resurrection experience of Jesus after the crucifixion, changed his name to Paul and committed his life to evangelizing others. Paul was brilliant, a good writer, energetic, charismatic, and an inspiring person. He was the person who figured out what the life and death of Jesus meant. His primary audience were the gentiles (the Greek speaking world outside of Palestine) and the Jewish diaspora, not the Jews in Palestine. He was extraordinarily successful. In a word, no Paul, no Christianity.

The third reason was that humans on the planet Earth had had their fill of polytheism where hundreds of gods existed in the Roman and Greek lexicons. Human beings were searching for something better, something that made more sense. There also was much religious fervor in the Greek speaking world where Gnosticism and mystery religions were flourishing. People were looking for something more. Jews in Palestine were also unsettled, unhappy with Rome dominance and had differing views about Judaism. The news of Jesus fell on fertile soil.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, was his message: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ “ (Matthew 22:37–39). The central message of love, redemption, and hope continues to be the most important message of the Christian faith. This message has had a major impact on the history of the Planet Earth.  It has changed millions of lives for the better and provided hope for those in despair and pain.

There is a final reason and that is the Emperor Constantine, who in 313 CE   ordered the persecution of the early Christians to cease. This was instituted by  Edict of Milan, following his victory over his brother’s army in a battle for the control of the Roman Empire. Constantine’s army was much smaller than his brother’s and as a desperation measure, Constantine, who had a vision of Jesus in a dream, had the Christian symbol of Chi Rho painted on the shields of his soldiers. (His mother had converted to Christianity years earlier).  His underdog army won at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Game over. Years later Constantine’s successor, Maxentius, in 380 CE declared Christianity  the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Had Constantine lost, persecution of Christians likely would have continued, and the fledgling religion could have died out. When it became the religion of the Roman Empire, it expanded dramatically. This came with a huge price, however, as the early enthusiasm, energy and dedication  of the early converts cooled off after Christianity became a state religion. In addition it took several hundred years for the early church to come to terms with the Resurrection and what it meant. Theology was in high gear, with religious leaders and scholars trying to find answers to questions like these: Was Jesus human or divine? What was the relationship between Jesus and God? Where was Jesus between the time he died and when he rose from the dead? What does this mean for humans? Was Jesus a sacrifice to redeem the flawed human race or was he just a role model? Is there such a thing as a Holy Spirit and is that part of God? These same questions are still being discussed and debated in churches and religious institutions around the world.

Shortly after he decreed that Christians should not be persecuted, however, Constantine was concerned about the divisions in the early church. He had made Christianity safe, for goodness sake. What did they want? Constantine was not about to let the fledgling religion  fall apart and thus weaken his rule. He ordered the church leaders to come together and resolve the conflict, essentially putting all of them in a room and throwing away the key until they could agree on the fundamentals of the religion. This happened in the Council of Nicea  in 325 CE, producing the Nicene Creed  but it took over  50 years and another council to clear up some lingering issues. The council produced the creed that most churches use today, and that was in 381 CE. Bottom line: It took almost 400 years for the Christian Church to figure out the basics of the Christian faith. And as we know today, there are still deep differences regarding belief, worship and the ultimate meaning of Christianity.

So for those today who insist that Christianity  is the only valid religion and that you are going to hell if you do not take Jesus as your personal savior, which version of Christianity are you talking about and what is your answer as to why it took so long for the early Christians to figure this out?

My answer is this: We humans are limited by how much we can understand. We sit at the top of the animal kingdom, but we are in fact animals. We do  get hints from time to time, but with regard to Absolute Knowledge, it is beyond our pay grade.  For the Absolutists who label people like me heretics, explain to me the meaning of the Big Bang. Explain why it took God over 4 billion years before we Homo sapiens began our quest to communicate with God. Explain what the other 100 billion stars are all about in our Milky Way Galaxy. Explain what is going on with  the 200 billion galaxies that scientists believe exist. Some say the number is closer to a trillion. And then there is the idea that our universe is part of a multiverse, which includes an infinite number of universes.  You  do not know the answers to these questions, nor do I. Yet we say in the Nicene Creed that we believe God created everything in the universe. Sorry, friend, many things we will never know.

But does this mean that we humans should throw in the towel and become card carrying athiests? Heavens no, not in my book. Atheists are acting on faith every bit as much as Christians. Who is to say with authority that there is no meaning in life and that the spiritual world is not real? We are all on a journey to try to make sense of our lives with regard to the Big Picture; and for me, the tradition I was raised in (Episcopalian) is as good a path as others. That is why I have hung in with the Christian spiritual journey all these years. One destination, many pathways. But you have to find a pathway.


Postscript: A Note to Readers

I recently received an email asking me why I am writing about the evolution of the planet and how religious life began. Easy answer: the Senior Warden (“board chair”) of our neighborhood Episcopal Church asked if I would do a lecture/discussion series for our small congregation on something to do with religion and Christianity. We are in a transition period without permanent clergy; and given my seminary background, I was a logical candidate. Besides the warden’s name is Embry Howell. How could I refuse?

 So I have been hard at work, trying to remember what I learned at Union Seminary along with a lot more research on the web. My goodness, what a difference the web makes! However, I promise I have not gotten any help from ChatGPT or any other AI. I recall the story of the guy who asked ChatGPT if there was a God. The answer came back: “Now there is.”

 These posts (and there will be a few more) have given me the chance to try to make some sense out of my own life and my religious journey. At my advanced of age 81, there is not a lot of time left….






Human’s Quest for Meaning 2: The Beginning of Religion

Homo sapiens began between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago. In the Big Picture of life on Earth, of course, this is a mere blip on the screen. What’s a Millennium here and a Millennium there? Homo sapiens and our cousins, the Neanderthals, (who lived mainly in central Europe, and overlapped with us, and did not die off until around 40,000 years ago), appeared to have a notion of something “Beyond.” There is evidence that both species buried their dead in shallow graves—Neanderthals more than Homo sapiens– some of which included stone tools and weapons, perhaps suggesting belief in an afterlife. However, there is still so much not known; and despite intense efforts by archeologists, there is no consensus as to when religious thought or practice occurred among prehistoric humans prior to around 40,000 years ago. By this time the Neanderthals had thrown in the towel, and we Homo sapiens were all that was left standing. These early humans could better be described as “pre-religious,” than religious.

It was in the following period, beginning around 40,000 years ago—the “Upper Paleolithic Period” –that evidence indicates religion had started to emerge.

Most archeologists agree that the earliest forms of religion involved shamanism and animism. Shamanism  is a religious practice that involves a practitioner (a shaman) interacting with the spirit world through a trance. The goal of this is usually to direct spirits into the physical world for the purpose of healing, divination, or to aid human beings in some other way.

 Animism (as described in Wikipedia) “encompasses beliefs that all material phenomena have agency, that there exists no categorical distinction between the spiritual and physical world, and that soul  and spirit   exist not only in humans but also in other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features (such as mountains and rivers), and other entities of the natural environment. Examples include water spirits, and tree spirits among others.” Religious cults began in those days as well, and that is when art began to flourish particularly in cave paintings.

Among tribal people today, especially in remote or isolated areas, both animism and shamanism still exist. Some ancient religious concepts were revisited in the Hippie era–the “Age of Aquarius” — and are alive today in our secular, modern world as society drifts away from traditional worship in mainline religious institutions. Many young people today refer to themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” see merit in unorthodox views regarding religion, and shun participating in traditional religious practices.

So there you have it: The history of the planet goes back some 4.5 billion years. The history of humans on the planet goes back 3.5 million years. The only surviving human species—Homo sapiens—goes back only between 200,000 and 300,000 years, but it was not until between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago that religious beliefs and practices began to emerge for the last remaining human species on the Planet Earth– Homo sapiens. Ironically the oldest of those beliefs, animism and shamanism, are still practiced today by aborigines people and by hippie hangers on.  Art and symbolism also began to start at the same time as these early efforts to understand the nature of world, seen and unseen.

So the short answer is yes. Yes, humans had awareness many  thousands of years ago that there was something “real” about human existence that could not be explained by what they could observe, touch, hear or feel. Imagination was one of the main characteristics that separated early humans from other animals. These invisible–but believed to be real forces–were called gods. Call it the “god gene” if you like, but whatever it is, it seems to be part of our human nature. Most, but certainly not all, humans on the planet today, believe there is more to the “ultimate meaning” of life than what can be observed by us humans or can be “proven” by science. But what this mystery is varies greatly by culture, history, and language. In the early years of religious consciousness and development–about 5,000 years ago—ideas expanded from belief in spirits and a supreme being who created the universe to ideas about afterlife (a heaven and a hell), and to religious ethics (the difference between right and wrong and good and evil) and how humans should live their lives. And one of the oldest professions began—religious professionals like shamans, wise men, rabbis, priests, monks, ministers, and imams.

 Early religion around the world started off as polytheistic, a grouping of spiritual forces which were believed to impact human lives on Earth. Hinduism, which remains a complex polytheistic religion, came first, practiced in India. In Persia, there was Zoroastrianism, which had a very complex cosmology acknowledging one god above all others and a good versus evil dualism. Though diminished in size, the religion still is practiced today. Judaism emerged a little later, first as a “monolatrist” religion where “YHWH” (Pronounced as Yahweh, but there are no vowels in ancient Hebrew and the name of God was considered holy and off limits for humans to speak.)was only one of the many gods originally worshiped by the Canaanites, but who became in early Judaism the strongest and most powerful god. Over the years YHWH became the only God  when Judaism slowly morphed into a pure monotheistic religion, but that was not until much later—in the 300s BCE.

When religious or spiritual consciousness became more advanced around 12,000 years ago, religious beliefs in spirits and gods evolved from personal to familial, to tribal, to regional, and finally to national gods. Subjects in early countries and empires were expected to tow the line, to believe what their rulers and their culture told them to believe. Over a period of only a few thousand years the Big Five had all entered center stage: Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. These religions are all active today. But, of course, there are many, many more. It seems that religions tend to pop up and disappear all the time. While about 75 percent of humans on the planet Earth who are religious belong to one of the Big Five, there are estimated to be more than 4,000 currently active religions on the planet Earth.

Early religion involved primitive forms of worship and ritual, the purpose of which was to bridge the gap between humans on Earth and the mysterious, spiritual dimension of life where gods existed. One early feature of worship in many cultures and  religions involved sacrifice. Animals were offered to the gods for a variety of reasons—to bring good weather, to assure a successful hunt or harvest and to help humans in conflicts with enemies—and probably many other everyday challenges of human existence. The act of sacrificing a live animal to appease the gods and bring good fortune was performed by a religious professional, a priest or holy person, and served a secondary purpose of providing food for the tribe or clan. It is not clear when the custom began but certainly it was important in early Judaism and in Greek culture and religion. In some cultures—especially Mesoamerican—human sacrifice was used. It remains a central feature of Christian worship today in a symbolic way through communion since Jesus was considered by the early church to be the symbolic “paschal lamb that takest away the sins of the world.”

But while all religions focus on ultimate meaning of life and most on a god which is believed to be the creator of the universe and our world, there are many differences. These differences have at times led to persecution and war. It has been a mixed bag. A visitor from outer space might observe how religious practices and beliefs work on Earth and ask questions like this: How do you know which god to worship? What happens if you don’t worship the god you are supposed to? Why is your god or gods better than someone else’s? And does belief in one god versus another affect your life and wellbeing? And what about behavior and ethics? How are your religious beliefs supposed to affect how you live? And what about an afterlife? Do you think humans on Earth really go to heaven or to hell? Each religion seems to be different. Which one is right? And why do you religious people fight with one another?

These are the same questions that we who are part of religious communities ask as well.We humans may have the “god gene,” but a good question is what we have done with that.

The next post will focus on Christianity and how that became a major game changer in the history of religion and why. And, I can’t help adding, “for better or for worse.”

Stay tuned.


Human’s Quest For Meaning 1: The Beginning

Having posted my “sermon” on the size of the universe (over 200 billion galaxies/over 100 billion stars per galaxy. Do the arithmetic.), I could not help asking questions about our home planet. How did life begin here and why? How has it evolved? What Big Picture stuff can we take away? It is amazing how much we have learned just over the past several decades and how the mysteries of the Planet Earth are just as awesome as the mysteries of the universe. I have spent the last week rereading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (a terrific book) and surfing the web about life on prehistoric Earth. Here is what I have learned:

It took a long time for life to get started on our blue planet.

Our solar system was formed 4.6 billion years ago about nine billion years after the Big Bang. A star was formed, our Sun, from the cloud of collapsing dust and gas, in an unremarkable corner of the Milky Way galaxy. The material left over after the Sun’s formation coalesced to form planets and everything else in our solar system. It is not certain exactly what happened after the Earth, which in its early years can best be described as a molten, round mass, began to cool and become a solid form. Many scientists now believe a Mars-sized planet (named “Theia”) struck young Earth. Molten debris, streamed out from the collision, and produced the moon. All this activity happened in our solar system’s first half billion years. We also don’t know exactly when life began on Earth. It is possible life came into existence and was wiped out multiple times by giant impacts before taking hold for good. Our earliest direct evidence of life dates to about 3.5 billion years ago, about a billion years after the solar system formed—the arrival of single cell creatures.

For life to form you need four key elements—hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. You also need water, so hydrogen and oxygen must have combined toward the end of this pre life period. And about 2.7 billion years ago a microscopic organism named “cyanobacteria” (Also known as blue-green algae) emerged and began using sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to produce food through photosynthesis. The byproduct of photosynthesis is oxygen.

At first, the oxygen produced by cyanobacteria was sequestered in minerals and seawater. But around 2.5 billion years ago, bacteria were producing enough oxygen to be stored in Earth’s atmosphere.

Meanwhile, microbes began innovating and evolving. Some grouped together, forming the precursors of more complex life. Simple, oxygen-based life began to emerge, such as sponges, but it took a very long time for this to happen—another two billion years.

During this period, land, caused by underwater volcanoes, began to form, rising above the surface of the ocean. Then after a very long period of over another billion years, around 500 million years ago the first sea animals appeared; and  450 million years ago,  fish-like vertebrates crawled their way out of the sea onto the land. Continents came and went over the millennia eventually producing a giant continent called “Pangea,” around 250 million years ago. The Pangea land mass included most of the land on the planet and prevailed for about 25 million years before it started to break apart, forming the continents and oceans we have today.

By this time Earth’s oxygen levels had hit 20%, which is roughly the percentage they are today. Plant life, which produced much more oxygen, also flourished. The stage was set for some legendary animals to appear, like dinosaurs and (eventually) us humans. Dinosaurs evolved and roamed the Earth starting 250 million years ago — an extraordinary run that lasted  almost 200 million years, ending 66 million years ago when a  6.2-mile-wide object struck the planet causing the largest of five mass extinctions of animals and plant life that occurred over several hundred million years. Experts think climate change was the main culprit of most mass extinctions.

We humans—Homo sapiens— are late arrivals.

 The first human-like ancestors appeared between five million and seven million years ago, probably when some apelike creatures in Africa began to walk habitually on two legs. The last common ancestor shared between humans and great apes and chimpanzees lived between seven and 13 million years ago. In 1974 “Lucy,” a skeleton dating back 3.5 million years, was discovered in what is now Ethiopia. These early human-like creatures probably looked more like chimps than they look like us. It was not until 300,000 years ago that Homo habilis, the first “modern” human, evolved, giving birth to the genus Homo. Think about that for a moment. Only 300,000 years ago? My goodness, that is like yesterday in the context of a planet which had been in existence for over 4.5 billion years. Why did it take so long?

Plus, there were several other early “modern” humans. We Homo sapiens were not the first but rather the last to evolve. There used to be agreement among scientists that there were eight species of “modern” humans, but some scientists now believe there were probably dozens, perhaps more. The most prominent besides us Homo sapiens were Homo erectus, who roamed the Earth for 1.8 million years beginning around two million years ago, and Homo Neanderthal, who predated us by about 100,000 years and lasted until about 28,000 years ago for a span of more than 300,000 years, overlapping with us for about half of that time. We sapiens began our journey around 200,000 years ago, probably evolving from Homo erectus. And here we are, still going strong. All the other species have folded, several hanging on as late as 30,000-40,000 years ago.

It is a tough world.

We know so much more now than we did only decades ago. This is what stands out to me:

Life on the planet has never been stable and never will be. The climate change deniers are right when they note that the climate has always been in flux, bouncing around from hot to cold, often with disastrous results for animal and plant life. Oceans have risen and fallen. Ice ages have come and gone. Earthquakes and volcanoes have disturbed the landscape and destroyed habitats. There have been at least five mass extinctions, wiping out millions of species of plants and animals, mostly due to climate change.

 The big difference today is that climate change is happening much faster due mainly to the carbon we Homo        sapiens began releasing into the atmosphere beginning with the Industrial Revolution. This time we are the responsible ones.

We Homo sapiens—the last modern humans standing—may think we are a predetermined product of a progressive evolutionary  process, but it is more complicated than that. That we survived and our cousins, the Neanderthals, didn’t may be due to blind luck. Some would insist it was Divine will. In any event a key to the “success” of all us humans has been attributed to the size of our brain compared to our size. This allowed the early humans some 2.5 million years ago to begin to outfox the competition and slowly move up the food chain.

Note, however, that the human brain today is just a tad larger than that of the first Homo sapiens who evolved about 200,000 years ago. Hey, these cavemen and cavewomen were just as smart as we are! And given their times, they accomplished just as much if not more. Afterall, early humans learned how to tame fire, to make stone tools and weapons without using blueprints,  to band together as families and tribes, to make crude habitats, and even to make enduring art. They invented spoken language and were the first species to imagine things they could not feel, touch, or see. And they survived and flourished in a hostile living environment. Some humans today are challenged by a weekend with their kids at a Boy Scouts’ camp.

What really made an impression on me was this: If you take away the long period of Homo erectus, the guys who were responsible for so many things including hightailing it out of East Africa to Eurasia, India and China and who were around for 1.8 million years, most other human species were around for periods ranging from 200,000 to 400,000 years before they disappeared from the face of the Earth. I note that we Homo sapiens now have been around for about 200,000 years. Maybe our time is up! We certainly have the weapons to wipe everything out, and who knows where climate change will take us?

Our planet, of course, will go on without us Homo sapiens. However, for the historians some hundred thousand (or hundred million) years in the future, we surely will be footnoted as just a tiny blip on the screen.

And if this history could happen on the planet Earth, what about life on other planets which happen to be in the same Goldilocks zone (not too hot and not too cold) from their star, and their planet is rocky with heat below the surface?

I also note that our solar system is now middle-aged. It has about another 4.5 billion years left before the Sun gives out. But our planet’s life in the solar system is more limited because in about one billion years, the Sun will begin its metamorphosis into a Red Giant and then a White Dwarf. As it expands outward encompassing Mercury and eventually Venus, it will make the Earth uninhabitable. We have “only” around a billion years left. The Earth is not middle-aged but old-aged. About 75% of the life of the Planet Earth may have already passed.

There are more questions than answers.

 Some may be asking why I am interested in all this in the first place. And it is not only because when I was eight, my 12 year-old neighbor reported witnessing a flying saucer land in his backyard and saw green creatures hopping out to explore our neighborhood. That got me started thinking about the universe and our place in it. Other than scientists and historians, however, why should anyone be interested in history which happened so long ago and is beyond human comprehension? We will be long gone when the end comes. Plus, it is surely the case that finding answers to the meaning of all this is beyond our pay grade. Our brains may be big for our size but not that big, and we certainly aren’t God.

 And that raises other questions: Where does God fit into this story? We Christians say “we believe God created heaven and Earth.” Does that mean “They” (I am deliberately using non binary language here. I have always had trouble understanding how God could be  a “he.”) started the Big Bang? Did They step aside once it all got going or are They still involved? Is this really the best They could do? Where might heaven be anyway? And what has been the experience of us humans on the Planet Earth as we  try to connect with the Divine?  This will be the subject of my next blog post.

Stay tuned.

13.8 Big Bang
4.5  Our Solar system begins
4 First atom as gas cools 
3.8 First replicating molecule (DNA ancestor)
3.5 First multi cell life (bacteria…oxygen)
1.5 continets start to form / then break up
555 Multi-cellular marine life
500 Fish-like vertebrates
450 Arthropods–scorpions, spiders and mites
420 Land plants begin
360 Four-limbed vertebrets/Large forests,vast  reefs,  one ocean
250 Super continent Pangea forms, reptiles
248 First mass extinction 90% of animals perish,70% plants
225 Pangea starts to break apart/the age of dinosaurs
130 Continets drift to present positions, Dinosaurs rule the planet
65 Asteroid hits Yuccatan, Dinosaurs wiped out, mammals benefit
10 Apes appear
6 last common ancestor of apes, chimps and humans
3.2 “Lucy”
2.3 Homo habilis 
2 Homo erectus
200,000 Homo sapiens









The Trump Saga Continues

Reading a Heather Cox blog post, I learned that a couple of days ago Trump posted on Truth Social a promise that next Monday, August 21, he will present “A Large, Complex, Detailed but Irrefutable REPORT on the Presidential Election Fraud which took place in Georgia,” saying the report “is almost complete.” He went on: “Based on the results of this CONCLUSIVE Report, all charges should be dropped against me & others—There will be a complete EXONERATION!” 

Well, this should be interesting. Trump will use this opportunity, not to prove his innocence, but to “prove” that the election was stolen by Biden and therefore all actions by Trump are justified. Will Trump never stop? And his hold on the Republican Party appears to be iron clad. It seems nothing will change the minds of his loyal base or a lot of formerly respectable Republicans in Congress like Lindsay Graham and many others.

While the polls show the presidential election of 2024 as a toss up if Biden and Trump were the only two candidates, Cornell West, a Progressive Democrat, has already declared his candidacy as a third party candidate. Joe Manchin is seriously considering heading up the No Labels ticket, and Robert Kennedy Jr. could also run. These actions would likely take more votes away from Biden than from Trump, giving the edge to Trump.

But there is a long way to go before the Fat Lady sings in this saga.

The big question is how the timing of the four trials will play out. Will any final verdicts be in and the appeals completed  before the Republican convention and before the national election? My guess is that Trump’s tactics will be delay, delay, delay and if convicted, appeal, appeal, appeal. It seems to me that without an aggressive schedule and pushback against Trump and his cronies, it is possible, if not likely, this will happen. We may not know the final outcome of these trials before election day.

Trump will be convicted. Every indictment in my view is strong. But indictments that have not resulted in convictions and been upheld on appeals before the election raise huge questions. While Trump has already told us what he will do, he can’t pardon himself in Georgia and in New York. That would be up to the governor of New York and would never happen. And in Georgia, a convicted felon cannot be pardoned by the governor but by a special commission and only after five years after serving the full term. Trump would have no options. To the slammer, baby!

But wait. If Trump should run and win, but the verdicts/appeals are not decided, he could be sworn as president, right? And how do you throw a sitting president of the United States in jail? The trials or appeals in progress would probably be delayed until after  Trump serves for four more years.

Aghhh! Our country can’t take it. The world can’t take it.

Bottom line: These four trials must happen soon.  Verdicts must be in and appeals exhausted before election day. Working this all out, however, is likely to be very challenging. And just imagine the chaos that will happen if Trump is running–and wins–and then is convicted before he is sworn in! Oh, my goodness!

Fasten your seat belts!

Interesting times, these times. But make no mistake: Trump is a dangerous man. Robert Reich in a recent blog post makes a good case that Trump is a fascist and that four more years of this narcissist  mob boss could mean the end of democracy in the United States of America.

God help us.

Indictment Number Three

I just finished reading the Jack Smith indictment on Trump’s “Stop the Steal” activities, the third indictment in the last 12 months for Mr. Trump, with one more to go. Three things stand out. First, in 2020/2021 we came a hair’s breadth from losing our democracy. Second, we were saved by brave Republicans, mostly election officials in the contested states who stood up to Trump and refused to act illegally. There were a lot of them, and they deserve awards for bravery. If they had caved, who knows what would have happened? And Pence, not exactly one of the most inspiring political figures, should be ranked high in the next addition of Profiles in Courage. Third, if you read the indictment, there is no way that Trump will be acquitted. The indictment is clear, concise, and loaded with chapter and verse examples of blatant, illegal activity in his efforts to overturn the election. The dude is toast.

But what can happen is that this trial and some of the other trials may not be completed before the election, or, more likely, appeals will be underway. Trump has already told us what he will do if reelected President. He will pardon himself and all involved in the January 6 Insurrection. It is not unthinkable that he would make the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys part of his private security guard.

The polls this week show a head to head matchup between Trump and Biden , each getting 43% of the vote. What? How could this be? How could almost half of the voting public in the United States vote for the Orange Narcissist? To the dismay of his adversaries, now that the indictment is out, Trump’s favorable numbers will probably increase.  He notoriously boasted in 2016 that he could shoot and kill someone in full view on the sidewalk in front of Trump Tower, and it would have not affect his base. Is there nothing he could do that would cause his MAGA base to abandon him?

Yes, I know we are a divided country with racial and class divisions and that there is resentment of “elites” by people who are struggling financially, have trouble adapting to a changing world, and who are offended by Wokeness, political correctness, and gender issues. But still. What is appealing about an arrogant billionaire, born with a silver spoon in his mouth and whose policies during his first presidency did nothing to help the struggling lower middle and white working class? The only way I can explain it is “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But why are we bleeding heart Democrats who support unions and strengthening the safety net the enemy? Far more jobs were created in the first 30 months of the Biden Administration than in four years under Trump. And evangelicals? How could they see Trump as the New Messiah? Good heavens!

In a word, he must be defeated at the ballot box. We can’t count on the legal system to act in time to force Trump to the sidelines before it is too late.  The future of our country as the longest lasting democratic republic on the planet is at stake. The Germans, Italians, and Spanish were not  fascists before World War II. Yet each country abandoned democracy for authoritarianism in the 1930s. Many advanced countries have gone to the dark side of totalitarianism from time immemorial starting with ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. Yes, it could happen here. We can’t let it.

My First (And Probably Last) Sermon

Last Sunday (July 30) All Souls Episcopal Church was in a desperate situation. Our last rector had walked out in a huff some time ago,  our interim rector had recently taken a new job, and no “supply priests” were available. Our Junior Warden bravely stepped up to lead the service and asked me if I would take on the sermon–or “reflection on the Gospel” as he called it. To my surprise, I enthusiastically accepted. It is true that I had received a Masters of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1968. It is also true that Embry and I have hung in as loyal church people for all these years, but no one had ever asked me to preach a sermon. And for good reason. With regard to  theological matters,  I am  something of an outlier. But these were desperate times.

I did not know what the Gospel reading was until two days before the service. It turned out to be  five parables in the Gospel of Matthew, which talk about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. (Matthew 13:24-33) Oh my goodness, I thought, how on earth could I ever talk about that? The Kingdom of Heaven was described by Matthew as a mustard seed, yeast, a treasure hidden in a field, fine pearls, and a fish net with the bad fish thrown into a furnace of fire. 

Here is what I came up with:

This reading is about the “Kingdom of Heaven.” What does Matthew mean by “The Kingdom of Heaven”? He uses the term over 30 times and is the only gospel writer to use that term. Mark and Luke use the term “Kingdom of God.” Are they the same? Matthew also uses the term “Kingdom of God” but only eight times, so there must be a difference in his thinking, and scholars have spent many hours wrestling with this question.

So, here are the questions that pop up…

  • How is the kingdom of heaven a mustard seed?
  • How is it like yeast?
  • Or how is it a treasure hidden in a field?
  • Or a merchant in search of fine pearls?
  • Or a net thrown into the sea with good fish and bad fish with the bad fish thrown out? And if we are bad fish at the end of the age, angels will come and throw us into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth?

Recalling my days as a student at Union Seminary in NYC, I spent a good bit of time preparing for this “reflection” going over commentaries by dozens of Biblical scholars. There does not seem to be any consensus on the meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven parables. The conservative scholars tend to argue that the meaning of the parables is that if we are not true followers of Jesus, we will burn in hell. The more liberal scholars are more nuanced but to me not convincing. These parables of the Kingdom of Heaven—at least for me–remain a mystery.

But there are some clues to making some sense of this.

First, do not make the mistake of thinking that the experience of the writers of what became the New Testament was  like the experience of us 21st Century humans.

Keep in mind that the Gospel of Matthew was written after the fall of the temple in 70 CE. (Mark was written first probably about 10 years earlier. Luke came 10-15 years later and the Gospel of John much later, probably just before the turn of the century.) The Gospel of Matthew is the only synoptic gospel to use parables to describe heaven.

And all the gospels relied on stories and oral history. The vast majority of people could not read or write, no more than between 3% and 5%. There is nothing written by Jesus, and many scholars believe he was illiterate. Except possibly for Mark when he was very young, none of the writers knew Jesus.

In other words, it can be dangerous to think that what was written over 2,000 years ago necessarily applies to our postmodern world in a literal way. Sometimes it is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

And the world at the time of Jesus was a very different place from what it is now. No video games, no smart phones, no computers, no AI. No Kepler, Hubble or Web telescopes.

But the questions of the meaning of life are just as real now, as I suspect they were then—perhaps more so. And the story of Jesus has resonated over the centuries providing clues to the answers.

Ultimately, the religious quest to find answers involves mystery, and this includes Christianity. We humans are hard wired to ask the question “why.” Why are we here on this planet? A small, blue planet in a run-of-the-mill solar system in a nondescript galaxy.

 Astronomers with the help of the Hubble, Kepler and Web telescopes now estimate there are over 100 billion stars in our galaxy and over 200 billion galaxies in the universe. A significant number of scientists now believe our universe is simply one of an infinite number of universes, which they call “the multiverse.” Astronomers estimate that there are in our galaxy alone over six billion rocky planets, about the same size as the planet Earth, which orbit their star in the “Goldilocks zone” where it is not too hot or too cold—the same kind of conditions that allowed our planet to develop life.

If understanding what this all means is impossible for us humans today, it was surely the case 2,000 years ago when everyone believed the Earth was flat and the sun and stars circulated around it, and that all of creation happened in six days. Trying to understand the world and the universe and our place in it and what it all means, I believe, is where science and religion begin to merge.

 And the big questions we ask today are what humans have been asking from time immemorial– what is the ultimate meaning of our lives? Of life itself? Why does evil exist? And how do we connect with the Divine, the spiritual dimension of life “which passes all understanding”?

So, is there even such a thing as heaven? Christianity seems to be clear on this. The creeds we say tell us that yes, there is eternal life and there is a heaven where  life continues (in some form) in the presence of God. But the skeptics in the room would ask, ok, where is it. Over 2,000 years ago when the New Testament was written, of course, there was no understanding of what all those twinkling lights overhead in a clear sky meant or why they were there. The powerful new telescopes we have now may show us distant galaxies, but no specific place that we could call heaven.

Perhaps we are framing the question wrong when we think of heaven as some kind of specific place where we—or at least some of us—supposedly go after we die. Rather, perhaps it is a dimension of life where we get hints of the Devine  in our Earthly lives– if we pay attention.  This dimension of human experience—the experience of the Divine– is present and accessible in the here and now– something we can experience while we are alive—in a mysterious way. It is a feeling of connectedness with something far greater than we can begin to articulate but deep down know is real.

In other words, heaven can best be described as  connection with the Divine, for some rarely experienced in their lives on Earth but still real, and for others a more central part of their lives. And where faith comes in is the belief—and hope– that in some mysterious way this connection with the Divine will continue even after we die.

And who is to say definitively that in this vast, expanding universe, a relationship with God, the Creator, is not possible? Who is to say that there is no such thing as a spiritual dimension to life? Who is to say that there is no eternal aspect of this spiritual dimension? The fact is no one knows all the answers. How do we explain the Big Bang? How do we make sense out of the over 100 billion stars in our galaxy? How do we make sense out of the over 200 billion galaxies in the universe, and that just maybe our universe is part of a multiverse? These become religious questions alongside the scientific ones.

Could there be room in this vast universe for something we humans call heaven? Could there be room for something we call eternal life? This is where faith comes into the picture. And as long as we are alive on this small, blue planet, the answer will be shrouded  in mystery. But where there is mystery, there is also room for hope.







Advice to Dems: How to Bring Back the White Working Class

The polls tell us the Democrats have lost a large share of what used to be part of our base—white people (a majority being men) with no college degree, in other words the white working class. Many evangelicals, subject of my last blog post, fall into this category. For the reasons noted in my last blog post, a large percentage of the white working class has bolted to Trump and are now MAGAs. While it is unrealistic to think that we will be able to bring a huge number back—especially the evangelicals with their culture war agenda– every vote counts. Plus, other than providing a platform for airing complaints about the world, the country, the economy, Hunter Biden, wokeness, DEI, the President, and all Democrats, the Republicans have no message or platform. There is nothing positive or hopeful in anything they say or do.

Most important, Republicans have done nothing to help working class, lower income people. Their trickle-down economic policies favor the rich and the privileged. The Republican message is a classic bait and switch: vote for us if you hate the liberal elites, the privileged, and the woke agenda, but don’t ask us questions about how the trickle-down policies championed by us Republicans helps you.

We Democrats have done a poor job of promoting how we are for the Little Guy. But despite all the complaining by Republicans, under President Biden the Democrats in Congress have accomplished a lot in Biden’s first 30 months.

Here is what the Dems need to do to recapture the white working class (or at least some of them):

  1. Broadcast the accomplishments under Biden which help the struggling working class:
    • Lowered healthcare and drug costs (part of the Inflation Reduction Act).
    • Job creation in fighting climate change (also in the Inflation Reduction Act). Over nine million new, good paying jobs will be created over the next decade, many blue collar.
    • Huge investments in mental health (part of the Safer Communities Act)
    • Huge investments in American Industry and Manufacturing focusing on high tech manufacturing like microchips, which also produce good paying, blue collar jobs (the CHIPS and Science Act).
    • Massive help to working families during and post covid. (The American Rescue Plan) This act provided $1,400 to most working families and expanded the child tax credit payments plus provided billions for beefed up unemployment benefits, food assistance, subsidies to small businesses, and money for rental and childcare assistance.
    • Creation of construction jobs through new infrastructure projects in every state. Almost 7,000 specific projects will happen this year and beyond, and some Republicans are even bragging about this to their constituents even though they voted against the bill. (The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act). Over the next several years 2,800 bridges will be repaired, 3,000 airports expanded, the power grid modernized, resulting in thousands of new, good paying jobs.
    • Financial assistance to over 15 million households to enable them to get high speed internet. Republicans who voted against this are also taking credit for the subsidies in their rural red states.
    • Reduction in the cost of gas and energy costs for everyone by releasing oil from the National Strategic Reserve. Without this action, gas prices would have gone through the roof.
    • Improved healthcare for veterans affected by Burn Pits. (PACT Act) affecting over 3.5 million veterans.
    • Steps toward making Big Business and Fat Cats pay their fair share by establishing minimum taxes that all profitable, big corporations now must pay.

Most working people either do not know about or have forgotten these accomplishments. And Biden gets poor marks on how he has handled the economy.  A majority of Americans think that the economy is in bad shape, and many say they think a recession is beginning. These attitudes are due to  the negative messages by Republicans and rightwing media. They are deceiving and inaccurate.

We Dems have done a bad job in setting the record straight. Unemployment remains near historic lows, and the incomes of lower paying jobs have increased over 20 percent during the Biden Administration—the first significant increase in 40 years. Yes, inflation has been a factor, but our inflation is lower than the experience of most developed countries, and at last it appears to be going down and getting close to the Fed target.

Come on, Democrats! Get the message out. Let working class Americans know the truth—let all Americans know what has been accomplished. Hey, Joe Biden and the Democrats have done a great job given the hand they were dealt!

Now there are other important things that have been accomplished under Biden like stronger gun safety laws, reforming the US Postal Service, the Respect for Marriage Act protecting same sex and interracial marriages, protecting women from domestic violence (Violence Against Women Act), appointing the first black woman to the Supreme Court, pardoning people from simple marijuana possession charges,  standing firm behind Ukraine, helping unite NATO, and policies to fight global warming. These accomplishments also are important but not the most important message to the alienated, white working class, which is this: “It’s the economy stupid”: jobs, jobs, jobs.

  1. Present a clear and compelling vision of the future and how this vision will help working people.

 Identify the major initiatives that Biden and the Dems hope to accomplish in a second term. Most important in my thinking would be these:

    • Tax Reform reducing income inequality and cutting the deficit. The big hitters must pay their fair share.
    • Continuing initiatives spurring job growth.
    • Support for Education Reform and education equity including free community colleges and expanding trade skills and apprenticeships.
    • Strengthening labor unions.
    • A national minimum wage that makes sense and is a living wage. The current $7.25/hour is so far out of line that it is rarely even used anymore.
    • Breaking up the monopolies and encouraging more competition.
    • Expanding support for working families including affordable childcare and funding more affordable housing.
    • Continued focus on curbing climate change.
    • Fair elections and strengthening the election process—and assuring democracy will survive.
    • Efforts to bring the American people together. (I know, fat chance.)

All these initiatives could benefit from being simplified around themes and “grand ideas,” which I will leave to the experts. (Remember the New Deal, the Square Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society?) Biden has gotten a good start by his expanding the economy “from the middle out and the bottom up.”

  1. Challenge Republicans to Offer Alternatives.

The biggest weakness of the Republicans is that they do not have an economic plan. Traditional conservatives promoted trickle-down economics, but the MAGAs do not appear to have any plan at all. Their focus is all about culture wars. Make them show their hand and tell the American people what they are actually for, other than fighting culture wars.

  1. Go to the mat on culture war issues that Democrats can win and downplay the ones we can’t.

Despite how awful the Trump-packed Supreme Court is today, they have embraced two culture war issues where the Democrats can win white working class votes: unreasonable restrictions on abortions and affirmative action based on class/income rather than race. Now I am not suggesting that we Dems abandon racial equality and civil rights issues or that I agree with the Supreme Court decision, but rather this is an opportunity to expand the issue of justice and fairness to social class and income. This will be tricky, and expert help will be needed to get it right. And as for abortions most Americans are uncomfortable with the draconian restrictions that are now in place in many red states. We can beat the Republicans on the abortion controversy.

We should not retreat from sexuality issues either, just not make a big deal of them at this time if we want to get the white working class vote. The key is to fight hard on the culture war issues we can win and where Republicans are weak.

I am sure focus groups with working class voters will be used a lot and probably are already underway. There may be other areas like gun safety that might have support, especially from working class women. 

  1. Make the election about saving democracy.

I know, it sounds dramatic. I also concede that this may not be a big winner with the working class voter, especially those who are hard core MAGAs, who will never vote for a Democrat anyway. Yet the message of saving democracy is probably the most important of all. On January 6. 2021 and all the failed, stolen election accusations that followed, we came a hair’s breadth from losing it.

Paint the Republicans as extremists, which they are. Their  anti abortion and  anti gender identity initiatives are not popular with a majority of the American people. I know their anti woke and anti DEI issues have more support, but still  I believe the majority of Americans want us to make progress in these areas. They do not want to see extremists from the Left or the Right imposing their values on the rest of us. 

We find ourselves at a time in history where we are dangerously close to losing democracy as we have known it and that we have taken for granted. What if Pence have caved on January 6 and had sent the election results back to conservative state legislatures to decide? What if the mob had hung him and Nancy Pelosi as some say they intended?

We do not know who the Republican candidate will be, but even if it is not Trump, DeSantis and most of the others could be as bad or worse. It certainly will be the highest stakes election in my lifetime.

And there is one more thing, which applies to all target audiences not just the white working class: Give Kamala Harris more exposure to the American public. Biden is old, and age is an issue for many, like it or not. If DeSantis or another younger person is the Republican candidate, it will be a huge issue. People will be quietly wondering who Kamala Harris really is; and if the worst happens, does she have what it takes to take over should Biden not make it.

However, despite the ominous clouds on the horizon, as one who tends to be pessimistic from time to time, I am leaning optimistic on the next election and on the future of our country. I believe that if Biden and the Democrats can mount effective campaigns, the Democrats will win the Presidency, and we have a good shot at taking both Houses. I believe we will move forward as a country and as a planet, despite the grave threats of global warming.

Of course, nothing is a given, and all kinds of things could happen before the election (and after). What if Biden has a serious health issue? What if the Ukraine War widens into involving NATO, or if the Russians take over Ukraine? Or in desperation Putin pulls the nuclear trigger? What if the adversarial posture with China worsens? What if natural disasters due to global warming become far worse than expected? What if another pandemic arrives? What if the extremist, hate groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers grow and become more violent? And what about AI and how that will affect our lives? What if? What if…?

Yes, we face big challenges, but I am optimistic we will come through them. The future generations of Americans who will be taking the baton from the Silent Generation and the Boomers offer great hope. We humans are resourceful when we put ourselves into tackling tough challenges, have good leadership, and work together. And Lord have mercy, there are plenty of problems to solve.

Some years ago, I remember talking to a good friend, a classmate from Union Seminary and a famous civil liberties lawyer, now retired, who said this: “The thing that I fear most about dying is not being around to see what happens next.” Now as an octogenarian I know exactly what he meant.