today has been spent resting, recovering from a tiring week, preparing for one that will likely be just as busy if not more so. but that's the life of those whose lives are heavily influenced by semester schedules, and i don't mind it all that much. the important thing is that i like what i'm doing, and i do (though it's not the only important thing - another is having enough time to rest, that sort of thing).
friday i drove up to duluth to work on ecology research again, and i don't particularly enjoy driving, but it's fine really. and the ecology research went really well - we made a lot of great progress, and we're getting much closer to fine on the model. and when i was writing this at 2am, i had been up for about 21 hours (four and a half driving, ten working, i guess the rest hanging out with my housemates). so i didn't post it then because i needed to finish the godthoughts today. i'll probably be writing my thesis with most of my time this weekend.
thursday i met with some of my students, and i thought that the conferences went pretty well - most of my students can write and communicate pretty well, at least if they have a chance to write and revise their papers, and now we're working on final revisions of papers so it's fun and interesting to work with them on something that they haven't devoted as much time to in the past. and i think they'll end up writing papers that they think are good. i'm confident of that much at least.
okay, i have mentioned religion thoughts recently, and i guess i'll talk about that for a little bit. i've benefited greatly from a theology class in college with a great professor, conversations with my brother and with a some best friends, including all the ones i've lived with who have thought of going to seminary and/or studied religion in college and beyond. some conversations with my best friend have been spread out over the last four years because we talk about this sort of thing sometimes. the conversation with my brother took place a week ago, and for the first time i felt like most of my thoughts all fit together - before i felt like i knew what i thought, but i really couldn't put it into context or make as much sense of it in the larger scope of things.
then today i talked to a best friend who is studying religion out in california, and soon to be taking a course from my favorite religion scholars (rosemary radford ruether), along with being in the very place where i think the most interesting theology work is going on (getting to interact with john b. cobb and marjorie suchocki, among others).
so at any rate, there was a time when i thought i might become a pastor (i was raised as an elca lutheran and was involved with my church through music, worship, and church boards). there was another time when i thought that i would become a professor of religion (quite recently even). who knows - maybe it will still happen, but i feel like i can do interesting stuff no matter what i do so i'll probably just continue working on what i'm doing, just as long as i know and can talk to people in other interesting areas. one thing to note here i guess is that i recognize that i'm speaking from my perspective, i'm using words that come from my perspective, and i'm talking about what matters to me. i'm not as able to talk about other religions quite as well, use other words, that sort of thing, even though i have done some minimal learning about other religions. i've grown up and lived on the plains of north america, around people that are generally white christian people.
so i've thought about religious issues for a while, and there are some practical reasons for thinking about them, related to what i should believe, what activities i choose to be involved in when i start to make a home, a community. and i guess it also comes up concerning whether or not to have my kids go to church at some point. and to figure that sort of thing out, i have to figure out what i mean by, and what i think of, such things as religion, theology, church, and spirituality. for me, ethics and morality may be based on religious views, but they don't have to be.
i think that religion kind of serves as the umbrella term that protects theology, church, spirituality, and maybe even values and ethics from the rain (not sure why we use the word umbrella in ways like this - that's why i threw in the rain part). theology relates to the more thought-based way of understanding religion, talking about god mostly. church is the institutional element of religion, the communities and groups that people join to share their religious lives with others. and spirituality is the more feeling-based way of understanding religion, often the parts that we live and embody, but can't explain quite as easily, the way we live in the world, and it doesn't have to have anything to do with god, theology, or institutions/churches. i think that if religion encompasses theology, church, and spirituality, that's not a bad thing. but i could probably also use words like thoughts, community, and feelings for those three words.
maybe i should step back here and say something about why we might have religion right now, why it exists. or maybe the more specific question concerning judeo-christian religions is why do we have worship? first religion generally, i think that religion is a way for people to understand the world, and for many people, especially historically, it probably was the main way people understood the world. religion also existed to help people deal with mystery, the unknown, the things that we don't know or can't understand - afterlife issues, how the world and all the things we find on it came to be the way they are. some of these issues have become things that science has tried to address - especially how the world came to be the way it is. there are of course gaps, like what happens when we die, things that science probably will never address. i also think that religion helps people deal with things, live life, in ways that philosophy and ethics cannot, or maybe just do/have not. religion is more able to deal with uncertainty, in fact one of its basic premises is that we cannot know everything about the world, more than the world, including what we might call god. that gives it some basic freedom to deal with anxiety and relationships in ways that ethics and philosophy sometimes do not.
in the practical world, i think that religion, particularly church institutions can serve to preserve power structures, sanction the status quo as some of my favorite theologians say. at base, churches should be places that embody and allow for community among those who share similar theologies and spiritualities, which is not to say the communities shouldn't interact among themselves. they do not need to be dictatorial organizations that tell people what to believe, tell them how to vote or act, nor give credence to biases and stereotypes. churches can and should be focusing on issues of justice, and lending greater consideration and kindness regarding other people and non-humans. i'll return to this practical area a little later.
now that i've gotten all that out of the way--maybe not out of the way, but at least there's some room on the floor so i don't have to be walking on clothes, guitars, and books on my way from the door to bed--now that i've said a little about those things, i can say a little bit about god. what is my theology? i almost wrote mythology, which probably isn't that far off, but humor me for a little bit. do i believe in god? yes. is it clear what i mean by that? no, i don't think so. there are a number of ways that one could understand god, and i'm quite sure that even christian theologians aren't in agreement, and even the more specific groups of catholics or lutherans don't have a clear and simple view, and i don't think they should. they probably try to simplify too much as a general rule, and their language is often vague, while simultaneously not acknowledging that very quality.
god in ordinary language might mean someone who is amazing and great and perfect. god could also be used to mean something that embodies an ultimate - goodness, control, power, something like that. so i could believe in a personal god that is like a human, only all powerful, all good, and all controlling of what goes on in the universe. this doesn't seem like a bad fiction to me - it helps me to understand and relate to god to think of god as a person with those ultimate qualities. and certain christian stories (old testament creation stories for instance) certainly want me to think of us humans as being created in the image, or likeness of god, which means that we look like god, or god looks like us, depending on how you construct the analogy. but i'm not inclined to put much stock in creation stories as being "true" really.
so just to use a few theology words, i could consider to be one of the following possibilities: a deist (someone who believes in a god/creator, but one that doesn't interact with creation any more), a theist (someone who believes in a god/creator that can interact with the world, and that individuals can have a relationship with), a pantheist (someone who believes that the universe is god), a panentheist (someone who believes that god is the universe and more), an atheist (someone who doesn't believe in any god or supranatural existence), or an agnostic (someone who stays out of the whole question and says they don't hold any of these beliefs). none of these quite capture the complexity of what i think of when i think of god. and i'm not going to try defining myself negatively because it just takes too long. but to put it simply, i believe not that god is some perfect human-type being. i am most closely attuned to the panentheistic view, that god is both a creative force in the universe and something with which i can have a personal relationship with, though god may not take always take an active role in shaping the world. in this way, god is both the world (all the people and non-people that i interact with), but also more than the world (in a way that basically says i can't conceive of ultimate anything, or universal anything).
so how do i understand the issues of god's power, control, and inherent goodness in the world? this gets at one of the fundamental questions that theologians deal with, and most people try to work out in their own minds how they conceive of a god that is good, powerful, and active in the world while there still exists things that we consider to be bad, or to use stronger and in some cases more problematic language, there exist things that we consider to be evil. if god controls everything, then there not only isn't much room for free will, which is basically people's ability to do what they want. if god controls our actions, then it becomes somewhat pointless to punish people who do wrong, and it makes even less sense for people to try to be anything, to act the way they want to act (be good, ethical, etc). one response here is that only those people who bring a personal god into their lives give the control to god and act in ways that god controls. the problems with this view are that it means god really isn't all controlling, and it seems slightly off base if people who think they've brought god into their lives still act in less desirable ways. stated slightly differently, if god controls everything and is the ultimate good, then how can their be these evils in the world?
there are number of ways of dealing with this sort of thing, and many of them may offer a consistent view of the world, and some of them may be backed up by certain religious documents or thoughts, but often there may be internal conflict within those documents, or at the very least ambiguity. in these cases, i think it's fair for me, and anyone else for that matter, to ask whether we want to understand god to be a certain way based on all these issues. the first response might be to say that bad things that happen in the world serve the greater good, a good that we might not be able to understand here and now. this answer just isn't good enough for me - it's hard for me to say that the worst things that happen in our society, in our history, that they serve some greater good, follow some plan given by an all good and all controlling god.
here's where i come down i guess. i think that god is all good. god is the ultimate good influence on everything in the world, an influence that is creative, but also inherently good, however it is that we make sense of that word. i think that god is all powerful, in that god could do anything. but i don't think that god is all controlling. and here's where i make a key distinction between controlling and influencing. i see god as working to influence everything in the world to be good, to be creative, to be caring, to be kind, to be helpful. but god does not act in the world to control what we do, and we do not always act in good ways, even though god is acting in our lives (through whatever ways) to influence us to be good.
in this way, god has given up a certain amount of control to allow for there to be more good in the world. all of our good actions everyday, all of them are our own, that we can be responsible for, where we are the ones acting, not good. and yes, people do bad things, and sometimes things that we call evil happen--genocides, murders, rapes, other violent acts, other violent feelings. but the amazing goodness of the world exists in the overall good things that happen between people and others, and between non-people. and this all comes back to what religion is, something that i consider how we relate to god through all the other things in the world, and within ourselves. and that basically addresses how i conceive of the word sin. in some people's views, sin is what happens when someone does those things that are forbidden by god. in my view, sin is what happens when we hurt our relationship with god, hurt our relationship with others. the things we might generally recognize as sins, they're just examples on which to get us going, things that are probably going to mess up our relationships with others if we think of them in the abstract. but it could be that they wouldn't actually hurt our relationships with ourselves or anyone, or anything, and therefore wouldn't be sin because they don't hurt our relationship with god. and as i'm saying this, i really don't think that this view is all that inconsistent with certain readings of the christian bible - i'm at least willing to talk about the places where it might not be so clear.
well, if that's what god and sin mean to me, then how do i understand heaven and hell, or afterlife issues more generally? i think that a lot of people's views of heaven and hell are based much more on strange ideas brought up in literature and popular culture. i don't believe that there is all that much of a basis for thinking that heaven and hell "really are" places in the normal sense of the word place, in much the same way that god is not some kind looking old gentleman kingly type guy. these are just images that help us understand these ideas in ways that relate to our experiential way of understanding the world. we use these sorts of words and images to help us understand the terribly complex, necessarily imcomprehensible topics that we're talking about and thinking about. i therefore don't think that hell is a hot, flame-filled place where a guy with horns resides and tortures people. i merely think of the christian afterlife as being based on a continuation of a relationship with god, that is, with all the good things we care about and the inherent goodness in the world. hell is an eternal loss of relationship with god, which in practical terms means dying in the simple sense of the word. you're dead, and that's that. with a view in the christian afterlife, i need to have a good relationship with god during my life, and then that relationship (and with all those others that help embody god in a more concrete sense), that relationship will continue after i've died in the simple sense of the word. my relationship with god will continue, and whatever that means.
i feel like this view helps deal with some of the anxiety someone might feel about dying, about an afterlife. it works well enough for me to think that when i die, i'll be able to keep the relationships with god (myself and others) rather than just ceasing to exist. for me, it works to think of sin as the absence of a relationship with god, or as a bad relationship with god. for me, it works to think of hell as ceasing to exist. i would have a problem thinking that someone who didn't encounter some religion or theology to be sent to a burning, torturous place by an all-good god, or even allowed to go there. i'd much prefer that at worst, that person just dies and is dead. and it's quite possible that they can have a good relationship with god without encountering some particular religion or theology.
i personally don't see this as being a problematic way of understanding the world, god, goodness, sin, death, and everything else. and i know that my views will likely continue to change as i get older, but i also don't see a marked change from the path that i'm following now. but who knows really.
here it makes sense to come back to institutional religion, and since i've already said a little about what i think of it. given all this, it could very well be that i don't agree with institutional theology of my particular home church (elca lutheran let's say). and it could be that there isn't a clear choice for a church that understands god, sin, heaven, hell, and all the rest in the same way. and i suppose this presents a problem. but as i described earlier, i think that there are three parts to religion, and people who want to be religious should include three things in their lives: theology, spirituality, and community. they should try to think about what they think about god or religion so that they could describe their thoughts to themselves, and maybe to others. i think that people should give thought to spirituality, the religious feelings and experiences one can have. this means that if you find yourself praying or having a spiritual moment before you eat or travel or every night at 11:11, that's fine. it could be that you feel the most whole, or grounded, or spiritual while spending time around your family or while out walking in the woods (two places in which i have feelings of spirituality), then you should seek out those times when you can. last, i think that part of religion relates to community, sharing one's beliefs and spirituality with others, whether it is with the non-human animals in your life, your life partner and family, your church community, or your friends. i don't think it's necessary to have a church to find people to share religion, but i do think that it helps, and i would go so far as to say that sometimes people are too lazy to find it elsewhere, so it's good to have an easy place to go and a community to share these things with.
i have one issue that i've kind of been avoiding up until this point, and that is worship. i don't know why worship is an essential of christian institutions and beliefs. i think that having a good relationship with god and others is essential. i think that worship can be superfluous, except that it might be a way to get people together, sharing time, space, and energy in a community event. i really don't think that i've thought enough about worship, but i think that it has something to do with it not making sense to me in the first place. i even sing the songs and say the prayers, but i don't think that i'm necessarily doing these things for the reasons that some people think i should be.
i guess the only reason i might is because i enjoy the feeling, the spiritual nature of it, and also the social nature of it - sharing in community experiences related to religion. but i agree with my brother that the non-worship aspects of church (getting together to do good things for the larger community or for others further removed), these aspects seem to be a more interesting and better use of time. and i'd probably find more value in getting together with people in community, and going out and walking and talking and experiencing the world rather than getting together in a building and worshipping a god by using metaphors that i find problematic (king, lord, father as opposed to parent, friend, lover when thinking about god).
so i don't think that i'd have an easy time concluding anything from this, and i'm not sure i want to, but i hope that it makes sense, and i hope that if it doesn't, you'll talk to me about it. that sort of confusion provides us with the perfect opportunity to have a clarifying and interesting conversation, something that i think that god would approve of, whatever the case.
if you want to get more background for what i've been talking about, at least in part, some of it more clearly influential on my thoughts than the rest, i'd recommend looking into the following books: models of god by sallie mcfague; process theology, an introductory exposition by john b. cobb and david ray griffin; the fall to violence, original sin in a relational ontology by marjorie suchocki; sexism and god-talk by rosemary radford ruether; and, the nature and destiny of man by reinhold niebuhr.
after spending quite a bit of time writing my thoughts on religion, i hope that i haven't totally alienated (with my ideas) or frustrated (with my lengthy writing) those who read my thoughts here. it's not going to be every day that i write this much, about this sort of topic (unless of course everyone tells me that i should). look forward to a return to shorter writings, with more short stories and memories, but still with song lyrics and recommendations. that's been the core of this throughout, and while i might deviate sometimes, i won't make it too much of a habit. i have been asked to write a little bit more on a few of my crazier ideas, like the pro-death position. maybe i'll do that sometime soon.
the following song is amazing, and i guess it's been available for eleven months now. if you haven't listened to it, and loved it, by now, then this is my active encouragement for you to do so. i admit that bright eyes can be somewhat sad sometimes, but i'd much prefer to think of his music, and this song especially so, as being winter music. it's quiet, beautiful, and keeps me going when things are cold and hibernating for the season. i also chose this song because of the element of simplicity, which i think that is warranted after a long discussion of my religious views. oh, and one more thing, i'd really appreciate people emailing me their thoughts on religion: theology, spirituality, and community. i think it's an important part of our lives, and i love learning about others' thoughts and feelings on their lives. post a response, or send me an email: email@example.com
lua by bright eyes
I know that it is freezing, but I think we have to walk
I keep waving at the taxis, they keep turning their lights off
But Julie knows a party at some actor's West side loft
Supplies are endless in the evening by the morning they'll be gone
When everything is lonely I can be my own best friend
I'll get a coffee and the paper, have my own conversations
with the sidewalk and the pigeons and my window reflection
The mask I polish in the evening by the morning looks like shit
And I know you have a heavy heart, I can feel it when we kiss
So many men stronger than me have thrown their backs out trying to lift it
But me I'm not a gamble, you can count on me to split
The love I sell you in the evening by the morning won't exist
You're looking skinny like a model with your eyes all painted black
Just keep going to the bathroom, always say you'll be right back
Well, it takes one to know one, kid, I think you've got it bad
But what's so easy in the evening by the morning's such a drag
I got a flask inside my pocket, we can share it on the train
And if you promise to stay conscious I will try and do the same
We might die from medication, but we sure killed all the pain
But what was normal in the evening by the morning seems insane
And I'm not sure what the trouble was that started all of this
The reasons all have run away, but the feeling never did
It's not something I would recommend, but it is one way to live
Cause what is simple in the moonlight by the morning never is
And what's so simple in the moonlight now it's so complicated
And what's so simple in the moonlight, so simple in the moonlight
So simple in the moonlight