Woes against the Pharisees

Making 2017 a year of compassion and justice. 

black and white image of hands unitedby Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Woe for you, Pharisees, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and give up justice and mercy and faithfulness. But these one had to do, without giving up those. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you purify the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and dissipation. Purify the inside of the cup, its outside pure. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you love the place of honor at banquets and the front seat in the synagogues and accolades in the markets. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you are like indistinct tombs, and people walking on top are unaware.” (Q 11:39a, 42, 39b, 41, 43-44)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 23:23, 25–27, 6–7: “‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former . . . Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self–indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean . . . [The Pharisees] love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’”

Luke 11:42, 39, 41, 43–44: “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone . . . Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness . . . But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you . . . Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces . . . Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

Gospel of Thomas 89:1-2: “Jesus says: ’Why do you wash the outside of the cup? Do you not understand that the one who created the inside is also the one who created the outside?’”

What a zinger to start off the new year with!

This saying in Sayings Q is Jesus’ rant against some of the Pharisees. I do not believe this rant to be against all the Pharisees. Many of those who comprised the teaching Pharisees were wise, honest, good people, including the apostle Paul who joined the followers of Jesus later, and perhaps also Jesus himself. The Pharisees were made up of two groups: those of the school of Hillel and those of the school of Shammai. I believe it was the school of Shammai, which Judaism ultimately rejected too, that Jesus is railing against in this saying. Jesus taught much of what the school of Hillel taught (except Hillel’s economic protections of the rich and his socially unjust teachings on divorce for women). As Jesus was raised as a poor, working class Jew, he may also have been raised by parents who resonated deeply with the school of Hillel interpreting the Torah through the lens of the golden rule.

Also, there is nothing anti-Jewish in this week’s saying. Jesus is standing in the very long tradition of the Hebrew prophets in calling religious and political leaders to justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Consider the following from Isaiah:

“Stop bringing meaningless offerings!

Your incense is detestable to me.

New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—

I cannot bear your evil assemblies.

Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals

I hate with all my being.

They have become a burden to me;

I am weary of bearing them.

When you spread out your hands in prayer,

I will hide my eyes from you;

even if you offer many prayers,

I will not listen.

Your hands are full of blood;

wash and make yourselves clean.

Take your evil deeds

out of my sight!

Stop doing wrong,

learn to do right!

Seek justice,

liberate the oppressed.

Defend the cause of the fatherless,

plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:13-14)

 

There are also these words from the book of Amos:

 

“Hear this, you who trample the needy

and do away with the poor of the land,

saying,

‘When will the New Moon be over

that we may sell grain,

and the Sabbath be ended

that we may market wheat?’—

skimping on the measure,

boosting the price

and cheating with dishonest scales,

buying the poor with silver

and the needy for a pair of sandals,

selling even the sweepings with the wheat.” (Amos 8:4-6)

In the same book, the prophet speaks for God when he says:

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;

I cannot stand your assemblies.

Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,

I will not accept them.

Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,

I will have no regard for them.

Away with the noise of your songs!

I will not listen to the music of your harps.

But let justice roll on like a river,

righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)

Jesus, like the Jewish prophets before him in Judaism, is prioritizing and centering justice for the oppressed, mercy for the less fortunate and disinherited, and faithfulness to the marginalized and downtrodden over and above religious ritual, worship, and festivals.

Ritual can be done in such a way that shapes us into people who actively work toward justice and compassion for the oppressed of our world. But if it doesn’t shape us into active agents of liberation for the oppressed (see Luke 4:18-19), ritual has very little meaning. I resonate deeply with the priorities found in Isaiah, Amos, and this week’s saying from Jesus.

In these gospels, Jesus contrasts conscientious tithing of the most minute items in the market with neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness toward the poor. He contrasts the external ritual purity rituals (washing hands, etc.) with being generous toward the poor. He then calls to account those who love making a show, receiving accolades, but being inwardly “dead bones.” Remember as we have seen over and over again this year, the reign of Jesus’ God looked like people taking responsibility for taking care of other people.

The Jewish Jesus-followers in the early church preserved a similar statement rooted in Jesus’ teachings:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:27)

As someone who doesn’t have much taste for most things “religious” but who resonates with the values of Jesus, I love this statement. I shared this quotation from Marcus Borg two weeks ago, but it bears repeating here as we begin our new year.

“For Jesus, compassion had a radical sociopolitical meaning. In his teaching and table fellowship, and in the shape of his movement, the purity system was subverted and an alternative social vision affirmed. The politics of purity was replaced by a politics of compassion.” (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 58)

Jesus, much like the Pharisee Hillel a generation before him, taught a politics of compassion, and he taught it very specifically in terms of compassion and justice for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

What If We Did What Jesus Taught?

What would Christianity look like today if we began to filter every religious thing we do, even our ritual and liturgies, through the filter of justice and compassion?

Consider the following from the book of James:

“Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world . . .” (James 2:5)

“If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:16-17)

“But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:18)

I love the book of James because it is the only New Testament commentary we have on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Rather than following Paul’s more cosmic Christ, the author expounds on Jesus’ actual teachings and helps other Jewish Jesus followers to practice them.

An experiment that I have engaged in over the last two years is a practice of making central in my teaching the golden rule, the Sermon on the Mount, and how we relate to one another. I have placed matters of dogma, worship, and less practical theology on the periphery. I firmly believe that you and I are made in the image of the divine. That means that, in this life, the closest I will ever come to the Divine, is YOU! This is what I believe the author of 1 John is trying to get at in this verse:

“If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen.” (1 John 4:20)

This means that my actions toward others is my faith and don’t just reflect it. My actions are what I believe. God-talk can become very theoretical and pointlessly argumentative as well! It is only when we acknowledge that each of us has a piece of the puzzle and we need to respect each person’s piece that God-talk can bear any good fruit. I want my faith to bear fruit and my focus to be right here on Planet Earth with you.

What would happen if we began to prioritize our religious practices according to how those practices express compassion and justice in the lives of others?

As this year begins, let’s contemplate prioritizing matters of justice, compassion, and faithfulness to our fellow humans above all else:

Woe for you, Pharisees, for you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and give up justice and mercy and faithfulness. But these one had to do, without giving up those. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you purify the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and dissipation. Purify the inside of the cup, its outside pure. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you love the place of honor at banquets and the front seat in the synagogues and accolades in the markets. Woe to you, Pharisees, for you are like indistinct tombs, and people walking on top are unaware.” (Q 11:39a, 42, 39b, 41, 43-44)

HeartGroup Application

  1. As we begin a new year, sit down with your HeartGroup and talk about whether your group needs to start centralizing justice and compassion or can simply reaffirm that you are already practicing it.
  2. Discuss what it would look like to make justice and compassion more central for your group and what it looks like to grow your focus on compassion and justice.
  3. Map out a few things you can do this week, to kick off 2017: actions you can take as a group that emphasize and affirm your focus as Jesus followers on justice, compassion, and making our world a safer home for us all.

Happy New Year to each of you.

I’m glad you’re here journeying alongside us.

Let’s make 2017 the year for living in love, resistance, survival, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

We are in this together.

I’ll see you next week.

Not Judging

by Herb Montgomery

Multiracial Group of Friends with Hands in Stack, Teamwork

“Do not pass judgment, so you are not judged. For with what judgment you pass judgment, you will be judged. And with the measurement you use to measure out, it will be measured out to you.” (Q 6:37-38)

Luke 6:37: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

The saying we are looking this week teaches against judging (krino).

The verb translated as “judge” in this saying has a rather broad meaning, so the only way we can only narrow it is by looking at its textual context. Over the past few weeks, we have seen the Jesus of the Sayings Gospel Q emphasizing the Golden Rule and our interconnectedness. In this context, then, we can define krino as “to separate” or “to make a distinction between.” (Mounce’s Greek Dictionary) It can be positive or negative. At its heart, though, is to separate another from one’s self. It means to discriminate.

Discrimination is perfectly acceptable when we have two things to choose from: we should strive to discern which choices are harmful and which are compassionate. But discrimination toward choices is not the same thing as discrimination toward people. It is judgment or discrimination toward people that is opposed in this week’s saying.

It’s also helpful to consider this week’s saying through the lens of our social dynamics. Too often I hear those at the top of social pyramids say, “Don’t judge me! Jesus said not to judge.” They are using this saying as a way to avoid accountability for their actions. At the same time, those at the bottom of certain pyramids are judged by those at the top continually.

As I said in the dialogue film Enough Room At The Table, we’re are not talking about creating communities where there is no mutual accountability among community members. Instead, we’re opposing the kind of judgment that would distinguish and separate us from one another. We are affirming communities where we see ourselves as interconnected with each other, and where we can be accountable to one another. Let me tell you a story that will help make this clear.

I’m in community with two friends that self-identify as belonging to the LGBTQ community. Both are people of color. One identifies as gender-nonconforming, and she prefers the pronouns she and they. The other as a cisgender man, though he is involved in activism for the rights of transgender people. Never have I encountered such accountability as I have from being in relationship with these two. They have continually called me to analyze my blind spots as a white, cisgender, straight male. Being in community with them has never meant that “anything goes” and they do not allow me to live unconsciously when it comes to my position in our society’s social pyramid. Each of us is deeply committed to an expression of strict ethics rooted in compassion, interconnectedness, and the golden rule. Each of us is dedicated to a Shared Table world view, and, just like them, I am called to come to that table in a posture of humility and learn about other people’s experiences in our world.

I wouldn’t for a moment ever say that these friends have ever judged me. Yes, they have called me on the carpet for my ignorance at times, and there have been times when these moments were even painful to my misplaced ego. But their feedback has always been in the spirit of connectedness. My friends make it clear that we are in this together.

The community that Jesus is teaching about in this week’s saying is not a community where we throw out all values, as some today wrongly imagine a judgment-free community would. The community Jesus points to, and the community I have experienced with my friends and others, is a community where I have allowed my own values to be informed by members of the community that my previous values had harmed. There’s a world of difference between throwing out all values, and holding strictly to a new set of values that come from embracing our interconnectedness with each other rather than judging and separating from each other. In this community, there is no us-versus-them. There is only us.

This kind of community centers the voices of oppressed and marginalized people. This is not a community that holds on to domination or subjugation in any form. Religious communities characterized by heterosexism, racism, or sexism sometimes claim to be simply trying to hold to account those who don’t align with their values, and disciplining those others “out of love.” So it is very difficult to get these communities to see that what they are really engaging in is not love, but discrimination. They claim to be, in love, pointing out the self-destructive “sin” of others. But they fail to see that by disconnecting (krino) themselves from those they claim to love, they risk developing a false feeling of moral superiority, and they also risk failing to listen. Listening is a way to allow our values to be shaped by other people, and is essential for people accustomed to harming other people.

By contrast, it is acceptable to for those receiving this type of unjust or prejudicial treatment to respond to would-be judges with Jesus’s teaching “Do not judge.” For those at the bottom of a social pyramid, even one claiming the authority of the Bible, asking for an end to discriminatory judgment is survival. They aren’t crying out for a community without boundaries; rather, they are desperately longing for a community characterized by a posture of listening and not one of judgment, a community that embraces the interconnectedness of humanity rather than sharply drawn lines between kinds of people.

Remember, like the sayings last week, this saying of Jesus was written during a time when the rabbinical school of Shammai was dominant. The school of Shammai drew sharp lines between Jew and Gentile, but didn’t stop there. It never does. Before long, lines were also drawn between what we might call today “fundamentalist” Jews and Jewish people who were more all-embracing.

In his book, Laying Down The Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, Philip Jenkins shows how the conquest narratives of Canaan have fueled and justified Christianity’s violence through history. Jenkins then looks at today’s headlines in Palestine. I believe what we see happening today illustrates the trajectory Jesus challenged in his own social context.

Jenkins writes: “Jewish extremists do not confine their campaigns to attacking Arabs and Muslims. As Rabbi Lamm observed, in trying to show the moral and intellectual perils of the Amalek doctrine, the concept is infinitely expandable . . . Next would come the turn of religious Jews whose faith is not quite what the strictest Orthodox think it should be. Actually, in terms of their condemnations, rather than of actual violence, that is a fair description of how some extremists have escalated the biblical commands. As the ultra-Orthodox have grown, so they have become ever more strident in denouncing mainstream or secular Jews who, they believe, fall short of the theocratic standards that are demanded of the new Israel.”

The entire book is really worth your reading. It is an excellent critique of Bible-based segregation, what we would call “judging” others, and the violence that results from both. In Sayings Gospel Q, Jesus stands in the spirit of Hillel against this human tendency and teaches instead “do not judge.” Do not engage in the game of “us and them.” Ultimately, there is no “them.” There is no “other.” There is only “us.” And our future depends on seeing and embracing this reality.

For the same measures that we use for others will be used for us. We will reap the intrinsic results of what we sow. Jesus lays the choice before us: the way of discrimination, segregation, extirpation, and global annihilation, or the way of compassion, interrelation, integration, cooperation, restoration, and peace. The way of judgment will not stop at your own doorstep. The law of reciprocation will work either for or against all of us.

We have the power to set in motion the kind of world we would like to live in. Choosing to live in harmony with the type of world we desire is choosing to take the first step toward it.

As Jesus says: “Do not pass judgment, so you are not judged. For with what judgment you pass judgment, you will be judged. And with the measurement you use to measure out, it will be measured out to you.” (Q 6:37-38)

HeartGroup

This week,

  1. List the changes you would like to see in your world.
  1. List the values associated with those changes as well as discussing both of your lists (changes and values) with your HeartGroup to help you with any of your potential blindspots within both lists.
  1. Choose to put at least one of those values into practice this week.

Do not judge.

Do not look at others as separate from yourself.

Embrace our interconnectedness with each other, and keep living in love; till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

Ethical Teachings Versus Supernatural Claims


BY HERB MONTGOMERY

IMG_0065“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do as I teach? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built.” (Luke 6:46-49)   

I’m just returning from Phoenix, Arizona, where I conducted a five-day religious re-education series for adults on the revolutionary teachings of Jesus.

A sampling of the teachings we looked at were:

  • Self-affirming, enemy-transforming nonviolence for the oppressed (Matthew 5.39-40)
  • A preferential option for the poor (Matthew 5.42; Luke 4.18-19; 6.30; 11.41)
  • Enemy love (Matthew 5.44; Luke 6.27-28)
  • Forgiveness (Mark 11.25; Matthew 6.14-15; Luke 6.37)
  • Restorative/transformative justice (Matthew 23.23; Luke 11.42; 18.7)
  • Redistribution of wealth (Mark 10.21; Matthew 6.19-34; Luke 12.33-34)
  • The Golden Rule (Matthew 7.12)
  • The modeling of a heterogenous shared table (Mark 2.16; Luke 14.12-14)

(You can listen to this series here.)

What I’ve noticed more and more over the last couple years as I’ve spoken about the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is that the teachings he taught are somehow new thoughts and ideas for many of the Christians I meet. At least where I’ve traveled, Western, American, mostly white* Christians are unfamiliar with Jesus’s actual teachings, and at the same time have very strong ideas about what it means for them to be “Christian.” 

This phenomenon has a long history in the United States, at least as far back as the 1700s. A significant voice for 18th Century American patriotism was Thomas Paine’s. Paine was one of the founding fathers of the American revolution and also among the first to speak out against slavery and in favor of abolition. But what landed Paine in the most trouble was his book, The Age of Reason. In this book, Paine critiques institutional religion as an oppressive force and also questions the supernatural claims contemporary Christianity made about Jesus.

These supernatural claims have historically included:

  • The divinity of Jesus
  • The virgin birth
  • The miracles of Jesus
  • The substitutionary death of Jesus to satisfy the wrath of God
  • The resurrection

What struck me as odd as I wrote the above list is that many of my readers have been conditioned to place greater importance on mentally assenting to this list than on endeavoring to follow the first list of teachings I shared. We have learned to call the second list “faith” and the first list “behaviorism.” The Jesus of the gospels taught that first list himself. And mentally assenting to any item on the second list doesn’t necessarily change the world around us for the better whereas endeavoring to practice even one item on the list of Jesus’s teachings transforms each practitioner into an agent of healing in this world.

Historically, Freethinkers and secularists like Thomas Paine have agreed with and sought to apply the teachings, values, and ethics found in the Jesus story. They’ve seen in those teachings deep intrinsic worth, especially the Golden Rule, which could change our societies if we practiced it.

My concern this week is this: more and more, I see the harm we’re doing as Christians in the world today rather than being the sources of healing our Jesus story calls us to be.

If I had to choose between 1) someone who was highly certain about the supernatural claims of traditional Christianity yet was unfamiliar with or simply disregarded the actually ethical teachings of the Jesus story and 2) someone who questioned or even doubted those supernatural claims yet were dedicated to learning more deeply how to apply and follow Jesus’s  ethical teachings, I would choose the latter and consider them to be a Jesus follower. Again, it is the first list that the Jesus of the gospels taught himself.

We have enough highly certain humans already, in our Christian religion and beyond, and in so many ways the dogmatically certain who will not do as Jesus taught continue to make the world an unsafe and less compassionate place for many. This group is not in a moral position to critique the morality of those they are harming, though they often do. People who may doubt the church’s explanations and yet do as Jesus taught can at least assist with the moral development of humanity as they sit around the table, equals with us, sharing and listening to the stories of those whose life experience differs vastly from their own.

I expect to get a few emails this week from those who feel I have underestimated the traditional supernatural claims of Christianity. What I’m hoping for, nevertheless, is that a few of us will begin to ask why we feel more passionate about defending those claims while we experience comparatively little concern that so many Christians disregard the practical ethics that Jesus taught during his lifetime.  To be fair, many Christians, today, ARE waking up to the imbalance we are looking at, this week.  I’m pushing for more than acknowledgment, more than reformation, what is needed is a revolution.  Christianity is in desperate need of a revolutionary fusion that puts us back in touch with its original Revolutionary—Jesus.

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week, pick one of the values, ethics, or topics from our first list above and do some research on it. As you study it, contemplate the ways in which you could experiment with the teaching in your own life.
  2. Write down what you discover.
  3. Share and discuss your findings within your HeartGroup.

I’ll close this week with a book recommendation. If you would like to understand the long history mentioned in this week’s eSight, you can find a great overview in Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism (Holt Paperbacks; January 7, 2005) 

I believe it’s time to reassess what it means to follow the Jesus of the synoptic gospels. Marcus Borg explains:

“Was Jesus a social revolutionary? In the ordinary sense in which we use the phrase ‘social revolutionary,’ yes. Like the Jewish prophets before him, he was passionate about economic justice and peace, and advocated active non-violent resistance to the domination system of his time. He was a voice of peasant social protest against the economic inequity and violence of the imperial domination system, mediated in the Jewish homeland by client rulers of the Roman Empire – in Galilee, Herod Antipas, and in Judea and Jerusalem, the temple authorities. He spoke of God’s kingdom on earth, as the Lord’s Prayer puts it: Your kingdom come on earth, as it already is in heaven. Heaven is not the problem – earth is.

But he was not a secular social revolutionary. He was God’s revolutionary. And God’s passion – what God is passionate about, according to Jesus – is for an earth in which swords are beaten into plowshares, in which nations do not make war against nations anymore, in which every family shall live under their own vine and fig tree (not just subsistence, but more than subsistence), and no one shall make them afraid (Micah 4.1-4, with close parallel in Isaiah 2.1-4). This was the passion of Jesus, and for Christians, Jesus is the revelation of God’s passion.

Violent revolution? No. Non-violent revolution? Yes.

Of course, Jesus and the Bible are also personal as well as political. Of course. But we have not often seen the political meaning of Jesus and the Bible. It is there – and once one sees it, it is so obvious. Not to see it is the product of habituated patterns of thought, or of willful blindness.

Jesus was (and is) not about endorsing the rule of domination systems that privilege the wealthy and powerful. Jesus was (and is) about God’s passion for a very different kind of world.” — God’s Non-Violent Revolutionary by Marcus J. Borg

Till the only world that remains, is a world where Love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

*This is not true of the non-white congregations I have come in contact with, though I am told of existing non-white congregations that are still very colonial in their thinking, as well.

Jesus and Naturalism

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

science“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life . . . instruct them in the practice of all I have [taught] you” (Matthew 28:17, 18-19, The Message, emphasis added).

Last week, we talked about one of the worldviews that informed the writers of the gospels. We learned about the traits of the ancient apocalyptic worldview and how it differs from the modern Christian focus on the end-times. This week, let’s talk about another worldview that influences how we read the gospels: naturalism. It is important to understand how the beliefs that we take for granted in our time mirror and differ from the worldview of the Jesus of the gospels and the disciples who wrote about him.

What is Naturalism?

Naturalism seeks to explain what happens in this world by natural causes (natural laws) rather than appealing to supernatural explanations. In its purest form, it assumes that this world is a closed system, which means that nothing that isn’t already a part of this world can be looked to as a cause to explain why something in this world is happening.

Not all naturalists are pure naturalists, however. Many people in the West would much rather look for a natural cause and cure for conditions like lupus than assume a person’s lupus is caused by a supernatural demon and they should see the exorcist. They’re not going to the doctor for prayer. They’re going to the doctor for medicine. Yet many of these same naturalists are also theists and still accept the possibility of supernatural intervention. They still believe in the healing Jesus.

Naturalism in its purest form leaves a person with three options when it comes to a Divine being.

  1. No God exists. (Atheism)
  2. God exists but is disconnected from and uninvolved in this world. (Deism)
  3. Nature is God (Pantheism)

The atheist, deist, and pantheist naturalists can also be referred to as metaphysical naturalists: they agree that the supernatural does not exist. But there are other naturalists, like the theists who seek natural medical explanations for illness, who are merely methodological naturalists: they prioritize natural causes, effects, and explanations for things that happen on this planet. Scientific research and discovery is possible whether one is a metaphysical naturalist or a methodological one. Many of my theist friends who are naturalists still maintain a belief in a personal God from whom these natural laws of cause and effect originated. And recent surveys of professional scientists have shown that more than half conduct their research and also believe in a higher power.

Strengths of Naturalism

Discovery of Actual Causation

Naturalism began with the ancient Greek philosophers’ attempts to explain this world without appealing to “the gods.” Naturalism as we know it today made its first significant inroads into Christianity during the 12th Century Renaissance thanks to Christian natural philosophers. It then picked up steam in the 16th Century where Christian scientists referred to the study of nature as the study of God’s secondary causes. Galileo promoted naturalism during this time, and the approach allowed early scientists to discover some of the basic laws of nature.

Prevention and Cure

If one can discover and predict the causes of things that promote human suffering, then one can discover ways to prevent and/or cure human suffering as well. Over the last several centuries, scientific naturalism has significantly lessened human suffering and increased quality of life for the beneficiaries of its discoveries.

Deliverance from Superstition

Using a scientific basis, Christian naturalist scientists like Galileo began noticing the observable and measurable forces that have repeatable results on things in the world. They found causes for the things that were happening around them rather than appealing to the existence of devils or angels behind every bush and event.

This is significant on a religious level. As people began to discover natural reasons for their suffering through science, they lost fear of provoking the anger of the church’s God and fear of varying from the teachings and explanations of church officials. The Black Death, for example, was not the result of God’s wrath; it was the result of germs. Lightning strikes were not the sign of an angry God; they were the product of observable changes in the atmosphere.

Connectedness

Naturalists believe that all of the natural world is connected in a network of causes and effects. This connectedness we share with one another can lead to concern and care for others besides just ourselves or those like us. Ultimately naturalism has empowered human compassion with tangible methods and means to make a difference in the lives of those hurting.

Responsibility and Accountability

Naturalism may have more benefits than what I’ve listed here, but another that is meaningful to me is the emphasis on human responsibility for the things that happen on this planet: the worldview encourages people to embrace accountability toward each another and not excuse themselves by blaming supernatural forces. A pastor friend of mine who is deeply concerned with climate change also lives in the fundamentalist Bible-belt. Each time a natural disaster occurs, he is fond of saying, “When bad things happen, God gets blamed for things God didn’t do. A devil gets blamed for things a devil didn’t do. And people continue to not take responsibility for the things we are setting in motion.”

Weakness of Naturalism

The naturalist worldview has some beautiful strengths and a few weaknesses as well.

Dependence on Rationalism

Science has no explanation for many of the things that happen on this planet. Although my metaphysical naturalist friends would be quick to say, “Science has no explanation, YET…”, time will tell whether everything on this planet can truly be explained by only appealing to nature without accounting for the supernatural. We can’t yet know.

Addiction to Explanations

While we can explain most things, we sometimes have a tendency to have to explain everything. Naturalism can produce an intolerance of mystery. I do agree that many mysteries need solving and some things that become more beautiful as they are explained. I also believe some things become less beautiful once their mystery is removed and they become explainable. Life must not only be explainable, it must also possess enough beauty and mystery that it’s still worth living.

Meaninglessness, Absence of Compassion, Lack of Ethics

There are a number of popular Christian critiques of the naturalistic world view. First, some Christians say that naturalism produces a meaningless existence. I have found this to be untrue: instead life takes on new and different meanings. Second, some Christians say the naturalistic world view robs humanity of any compassion because it doesn’t root service to humans in service to God. I have also found this to be untrue.  Human compassion results from our discovery of our connectedness. Naturalists and supernaturalists differ in the explanation of why we are connected.  Yet they agree with each other that we are all connected.  In many naturalists, that discovery has deepened their compassion and empowered them with the tools to make a difference in others’ lives. Finally, some Christians warn that if the naturalistic world view is embraced it will produce a world devoid of ethics. I have yet to meet an amoral naturalist. Their ethics may have a different basis than an apocalypticist’s, but it is unfair to say naturalism ultimately removes our ethics.

 

Jesus Followers and Naturalism

Although the writers of the early Jesus story were not naturalists, the Jesus we find in the story offered a wisdom teaching that I believe can be relevant even for contemporary naturalists today.

Notice what is said in our feature text this week, Matthew 28:17-19. Jesus invited his disciples to produce other Jesus followers. A Jesus follower is not someone who has embraced the worldview of the 1st Century people who first heard Jesus speak. What it meant to be a Jesus follower then was to be “trained” in a “way of life,” in the “practice” of the ethics and values of the 1st Century, Jewish, revolutionary Jesus.  Many in that era embraced a Jewish Apocalyptic world view, yet they were not followers of Jesus. That worldview and discipleship were not the same thing. The question we must wrestle with today is whether someone must embrace a 1st Century Jewish apocalyptic worldview to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. And I don’t believe they do.

The Jesus of the Jesus story offered alternative wisdom to the social norms of his own day. He valued every human being as a being of inestimable worth, and so he contrasted with the way the culture used purity codes to marginalize some of the people. He taught within his context, and his teachings had a political dimension. Jesus opposed arranging human society according to domination systems. He challenged the Roman domination system and its religious legitimization in the Jewish temple at that time, especially among the priesthood and some of the Jewish leaders. (We can gain much from paying attention to the religious legitimization of political domination in our own time and culture. For more on this aspect of Jesus’ teachings, please see Borg’s and Crossan’s The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem)

In addition, Jesus taught nonviolent noncooperation and nonviolent confrontation in response to unjust domination systems. This nonviolence can be tested, observed, and seen to have tangible and repeatable results in the lives of those such as Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jesus’ teachings had an economic dimension that called to account systems that produce poverty. He offered a preferential option for the poor in our societies, and his stories, like the good Samaritan and the prodigal son, called his audience to look at themselves and others in a different way.

Jesus made original contributions for his own place and time within Jewish culture. He was offering a transformative and restorative justice for all based on a universal and non-discriminatory love for all.

As we said last week, since the 4th Century, Christianity has transitioned away from Earth and begun focusing on how people might enter a post-mortem heaven. This focus was not the focus of the early Jesus’ community. Jesus offered the people teachings on matters directly related to this world, not another. And although the Jesus in the story spoke of supernatural entities, his teachings primarily offer a set of values and ethics that we can test to discern whether they help us find The Way to a safer more compassionate world for us all. As he taught, we can “know by their fruit” whether they have value.

A naturalistic worldview is common in our time. It may remodel our cosmology, and it may adjust our understanding of history, yet I do not believe it requires us to remove our sense of a Heart at the center of the Universe or relegate the 1st Century Jesus to irrelevance.

Science and Jesus can be good neighbors to each other! Again, there is not one Jesus follower I know today who subscribes to a purely apocalyptic or a purely naturalist worldview. We subscribe to a hybrid of both, and I believe there is room in the human family for us all. As we learn to listen to each other, even with our differences, we will together find our way to Jesus’ safer, more compassionate world. (Those of you who are further down the naturalist spectrum than me and are curious to see ways that other naturalists embrace Jesus: check out these four articles—Christian naturalism is possible: Naturalistic Christianity 101, Christian Naturalism, A Christian Naturalism: Developing the Thinking of Gordon Kaufman, and Christianity Without Religion.)

I’ll close this week with a statement by Arthur G Broadhurst, a Christian naturalist:

“Once we get beyond the mythological language [in the gospels], it is clear that the disciples had a life-transforming experience that resulted in a re-ordering of their priorities toward a new way of thinking… and led to their commitment to carry on with Jesus’ teachings… [Being] a Christian does not require a simultaneous belief in gods or theological propositions, in magic or superstition… Anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus should be seen standing with the weak against the powerful and the rich, feeding the hungry, comforting the sick, bandaging the wounded, holding the hand of a child, standing with the oppressed against the oppressor. It means humility rather than arrogance and pride. It means becoming fully human.”

HeartGroup Application

This week we are learning to listen to those who may see things differently than we do. HeartGroups are intended to help us experience what Jesus modeled at his own shared table.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche once wrote, “Some people live closely guarded lives, fearful of encountering someone or something that might shatter their insecure spiritual foundation. This attitude, however, is not the fault of religion but of their own limited understanding.”

The beauty of Jesus’ shared table is that it enables us to begin integrating various and diverse perspectives into a meaningful and consistent whole, each of us discovering our own blind spots as we chose to listen to another. Jesus is calling us to choose love for one another over the fear of one another.

  1. This week, take Matthew chapters 5-7 and list the teachings of Jesus there that you find meaningful and maybe even challenging for you personally.
  2. List the teachings you have questions about or don’t readily understand.
  3. Present both lists to your HeartGroup and then invite anyone who is willing to share from their own perspectives what the teachings in your second list may mean.

I’ve witnessed some amazingly beautiful moments emerge from members of a diverse group following these three simple steps. The purpose is not for everyone to see everything the same. These are moments for us to practice listening: difference is inevitable but division is optional.

Till the only world that remains is Jesus’ safe and compassionate world where Love reigns.

I love each of you, and I’ll see you next week.