Sunday, November 1, 2015

Halloween, All Saints, and All Soul's Day

This is the second year I've celebrated All Saint's and all Soul's day along with Halloween.  The first time around I was just happy that my older kid lost his candle phobia, but this year I had more chance to think about the celebrations themselves.  I've appreciated not only the additional celebrations, but also the reminder that there is something more to Halloween than just a fun romp into materialism and silliness.  Perhaps this is meaningful to me since for a substantial portion of my growing up years my family did not celebrate Halloween at all and now as a parent the celebration is oriented around my children instead of me.  So celebrating All Saint's and All Soul's day contextualizes Halloween in a more meaningful way for me.

Growing up, my family early on celebrated Halloween like most any American family- with carved pumpkins, costumes, trick or treating, and a zany family dinner where all the foods were renamed with disturbing names.  Later on, we stopped celebrating Halloween on the basis that it was a pagan celebration.  It became such a non event that one year I remember even being left home by myself not even knowing it was a holiday and being totally surprised when trick or treaters came to the door.  I had to offer the youngsters candy from my personal stash since nothing else was available.

It is easy to make the argument that Halloween has pre Christian origins, particularly with the celebration of Samhain.  Similar claims could be made about Christmas and Easter, where the celebration of the the winter solstice and the fertility celebrations of Spring can be traced.  It is also easy to make the argument that Halloween has Christian origins.  I believe Halloween gets labeled as pagan because it is so easy for Protestant's to ignore the Christian aspects of this sequence of holiday's that are rooted in Catholicism's concepts of purgatory and saints.  However, imagine what would happen to Christmas if the same happened.  If you belonged to a Christian church that rejected the celebration of Christmas as a religious event but observed it as a secular one the giving of gifts would have no remembrance of the wise men and the trees, wreaths, and yule logs would have meaning only in reference to pre christian practices.  It would be easy to view it as a travesty of materialism, wild partying, and paganism.  You might or might not justify it as harmless fun but it would an empty shell.  Similarly, Halloween is made more empty by a rejection of its Christian aspects.

But what are All Saint's and All Soul's day?  In the Episcopal Church All Saint's day is a special memorial to remember people whose example of devout living or contribution to Christianity was somehow remarkable.  The Saints are remembered as examples and most days of the year are set aside to remember someone if you care to look it up.  All Soul's day is set aside for the remembering of those who have died, for example by lighting memorial candles.  Despite being one of the major holiday's of the church year, a traditional vigil is not kept the evening before All Saint's day.  As a result there isn't any particular religious observance made on Halloween itself.  But simply by observing All Saint's and All Soul's day in the first place, Halloween can be appreciated more fully in all its complexities.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Religion Needs Atheists

When a group of people become fanatically certain about anything, it seems as if their certainty somehow subconsciously endorses emotional and physical violence to reinforce that certainty.  Religious belief or the lack thereof are not very different in this respect.  I see no fundamental difference between the violence of the crusades and the deaths caused by totalitarian communism.  They are perhaps mirror images of each other- justified in the minds of those who did them either in the context of belief in God or the lack of belief in God although in each case a belief or lack of belief in God wasn't enough to generate the violence.  The main difference between belief and non belief is that believers tend to organize themselves into groups, whereas much of the time atheists organize like a herd of cats.  People who organize like a herd of cats aren't likely to participate in organized violence

In the USA, atheists and agnostics form a clear minority, liable to be targeted by the violence (physical, emotional, etc) of religious certainty.  While this is a depressing thought, I believe it should be taken as a challenge in searching out how we can best love everyone.  It has been said that a society can be judged by how it behaves towards those it dislikes.  In a society where atheism is a minority and somewhat estranged from the dominant culture, we are morally obligated to show hospitality and social accommodation and can judge ourselves wanting if we fail to do so.

But there is a more pressing way in which I think society and religion need atheists.  Le Guin, writing in the novel The Telling has a character state, speaking of fanaticism, "Belief is a wound that is healed by knowledge."  Certainty creates mental and moral blind spots which wound our ability to care about other people at all if they don't fall within the "morally approved" categories.  Atheism is in a powerful position to call out believers when their ideas are ridiculous or unethical.  If religions can't grow and accept when they are wrong, they become morally stagnant and are a barrier between the people who believe in them and God- both a barrier to understanding and a barrier to moral growth.

But what about the souls of those who don't believe?  If God is as full of love and forgiveness as I believe I have experienced, I don't believe God's redemptive power to heal people's soul's somehow has an expiration date at death.  I once heard my Bishop say that who knows if God doesn't work anonymously through other cultures and religions.  I'd say that when the world is morally advanced by atheism providing a strong moral counter point to religious fanaticism that maybe we should be looking to the face and hand of God being revealed in those that don't believe.  If God was so offended by people missing the point of their existence, God would have made things more clear.  On the flip side, I believe that religion and Christianity as a whole are just as capable of having missed the point about any number of things incorrectly assumed to be basic to their entire sense of purpose and theology.  It is more important to be seeking a path to further enlightenment and moral advancement than it is to be battling over who is right or who gets control.

So as both a reminder of needing to love those who we disagree with and as a fresh moral perspective that can lead us closer to each other and to God, I believe religion and society needs atheists.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The General Convention

My wife and I managed to attend the Sunday Eucharist service of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  You might think of it as somehow a cross between LDS General Conference where very high up leaders have a lot of time to give speeches on the big issues in society and religion and the US Congress- since democratically elected representatives of a bicameral legislature try to figure out the rules by which the organization runs.  I haven't managed to follow much of the legislation, although some of it actually is making it into the newspaper.  It was an interesting experience, especially since all of my cultural expectations come from the LDS General Conference.

It can be hard to realize how thoroughly your cultural expectations of a top tier religious meeting can be until they are thoroughly violated.  For example- LDS meetings never have clapping.  They never have any shouting, there are very specific cultural expectations for what tones of voice and emotional speaking techniques are permissible because they support the LDS brand of what a spiritual experience is supposed to be.  The music in LDS meetings rarely strays from organ and choral.  Political social justice messages might be discussed in sermons, but almost always from very socially conservative slants wherein social justice crusaders are typically reprimanded for not truly representing Christ.  Social justice messages are never worn on clothing in any manner.  I could go on.

By contrast- the Sunday Eucharist service included choral pieces, orchestra music, and chant music.  Most of which was played so loud that my front row seat left me feeling my ears assaulted (the people in the back might have felt it was just right for all I know).  There was frequent clapping and laughing- I lost count of how many puns could be made about the health of the "mother church" and the presiding Bishop being a woman.  Oh, did I mention that the top leader of the church, the "focus of the church's prophetic voice" as I've heard it referred to, is a woman?  Did I mention a democratic process was used to select the next leader?  The people sitting around me and on the stand included a goodly number of African Americans.  Did I mention the presiding bishop elect is black?  A number of the blacks I saw were wearing "Black Lives Matter" logos.  I'm coming at this from a perspective of being raised in the LDS church where the culture and the official lesson manuals are still to this day sorting out whether to discourage mixed race marriages.  People stood up, raised there arms, and swayed ecstatically.  The sermon was heavily focused on how to pursue a renewing of the world in Christ through social justice.  There was only one sermon.  We took Eucharist from a ceremony presided over by a woman, and accepted the bread and wine from a woman.

Afterwards, I listened to part of a sermon from the last General Convention where the Presiding Bishop Elect preached.  Micheal Curry blended a mix of humor, biblical focus, contemporary culture and passion that I don't think I've ever seen before- swinging freely from quoting the bible to talking about Jimi Hendrix to shouting the message and praise of God's love.  And I mean shouting- while walking quickly back and forth across a stage and gesturing with his hands.  Mormonism expects a fairly constrained range of emotions to be experienced spiritually.  Bishop Curry's sermon blasted through those expectations pretty thoroughly.

The experience as a whole was very positive and I was actually moved to tears at times, which is a pretty rare thing for me.  But it was also in some ways very foreign despite more than a year of worshiping at Episcopalian services regularly.  After a life time of having spiritual experiences only really mean certain things in certain contexts with certain types of people, I don't always know exactly what to do with the fact that there is so much variety and diversity in how a spiritually experience can be contextualized.  Mostly I was left passionately feeling that I was in a church that expressed Christ's gospel in a way that I could understand it and agree with it.  At other moments, the entire atmosphere simply felt very strange and foreign. 

In the end I'm glad I was able to go.  Since the General Convention is only held once every nine years and its held in different parts of the country over time, I'll probably never have another chance.  I'm looking forwards to seeing more of Bishop Curry's preaching.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015


No Mormon can grow up without knowing at some level what the appropriate Mormon attitude towards creeds are.  In the version of the First Vision account that the church prefers to use, God says all the church creeds are an abomination.  Its a pretty direct statement.  At least in my growing up experience, the only creed I knew by name was the Nicene Creed.  The only things I knew about it was that it got its authority from a vote instead of by revelation and that it was full of contradictory nonsense about God being three persons but not three persons, everywhere and nowhere, material and immaterial etc all at once.  So I was very surprised when I first attended an Episcopal Church service and discovered that I didn't know very much about what I was talking about.

I won't say that the creeds of Christianity are somehow perfect or an unassailable version of truth with a clean history.  Frankly, the amount of human conflict that the creeds formed an excuse for is embarrassing.  The amount of debate over the nature of God and truth embodied in Christian history can make it almost impossible to discuss what God is as opposed to what God isn't without accidentally falling into some traditional category of heretic, leading to amusing memes such as: 

I've even once read someone suggest that one of the problems in Christian history is that once Christianity had power, it obsessed on defining itself and deciding what to do with those who disagreed rather than on how better to live a Christian life.  Of course, that summary is problematic, but it summarizes simply the historical moral tension between setting up enforceable definitions and expressing love to those who disagree with you.  For all that, the creeds deserve respect if for no other reason than that they often represent the best agreements that people could achieve after enormous amounts of effort expended and unfortunately at times blood spilled over trying to define concepts that are fundamentally important to all Christians and yet so difficult to define in any kind of testable way.  In the Episcopal tradition, the creeds generally are not always discussed as absolute truths, but sometimes as sources of tradition reminding people of what Christianity has meant over time, even if individuals may disagree with them.

But what are these creeds?  According to Wikipedia, there are more than 100 statements of faith which could be considered as creeds by different Christian religions at different times in history.  However, Wikipedia presents only six main creeds which might be considered central to the understanding of most of Western Christian Churches.  Below I explore a few of these.

Of course, you might ask why go over any of the creeds in particular?  Aren't they simply points of disagreement which can't be resolved and so shouldn't be discussed?  And at some point isn't it more important to experience God and participate in the Love of God than it is to define God?  Well, in some ways of course.  But on the other hand, a lack of familiarity of each others beliefs can create disrespect.  If all that LDS people really know about the creeds are that Joseph Smith taught that they were "all abominations" and that all of the teachers of religion who taught them were or are all denying the power of God, LDS people will have very little ability to fundamentally respect the beliefs of those around them, similar to how many Christians may have difficulty respecting the LDS tradition if they only experience it through caricatures based on fear.  Mutual respect must be based on knowledge.

The Apostles Creed, which is used in Episcopalian Baptismal, Confirmation, and Morning Prayer services, reads:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
    creator of heaven and earth;
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
    He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
        and born of the Virgin Mary.
    He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
        was crucified, died, and was buried.
    He descended to the dead.
    On the third day he rose again.
    He ascended into heaven,
        and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
    He will come again 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.

I'm honestly not sure what exactly LDS people would find abominable about this particular creed.  The word catholic is here used to mean "universal," rather than the Catholic Church which Episcopalians don't "believe in" despite reciting these words as part of worship.  In Mormon speak, you might say that you believed in "The Church of the Firstborn" as discussed in D&C 76, meaning the church of all those who are saved, or that the true church is universally true.  The communion of Saints, as quoted from Wikipedia, is "is the spiritual union of the members of the Christian Church, living and the dead, those on earth, in heaven, and, for those who believe in purgatory, those also who are in that state of purification."  Again this is not a foreign concept to the LDS religion, which baptizes both the living and the dead into membership of the same church.  Unless you want to split hairs and discuss how some early LDS church leaders talked as if they didn't believe in Virgin Birth even though most assuredly the overwhelming majority of members and leaders do, it would be a safe bet to say that practically all Mormons actually believe in the essentials of the Apostles Creed.  They just use different vocabulary to discuss it and have a different vision the concepts involved.

Even less abominable is the Creed of Jerusalem, which, quoting from wikipedia, states:

I believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and in one Baptism of repentance. 

The Nicene creed has historically gone through a variety of edits, both in the original text and in how it has been translated.  The modernized text version used in many Episcopal Sunday worship services is the following:

We believe in one God,
    the Father, the Almighty,
    maker of heaven and earth,
    of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, Light from Light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being with the Father.
    Through him all things were made.
    For us and for our salvation
        he came down from heaven:
    by the power of the Holy Spirit
        he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
        and was made man.
    For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
        he suffered death and was buried.
        On the third day he rose again
            in accordance with the Scriptures;
        he ascended into heaven
            and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

    He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
        and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
    who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
    With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
    He has spoken through the Prophets.

    We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
    We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
    We look for the resurrection of the dead,
        and the life of the world to come. Amen.

You really have to stop and think to figure out which parts of this the LDS church fundamentally disagrees with.  The typical idea of the LDS church is that the godhead is united in purpose and in love, not in "being."   However, given that the Lectures on Faith  taught that God the Father and Jesus Christ were the only two individuals in the Godhead, united by a shared mind which was the Holy Ghost, this concept actually fits right into an earlier version of Mormon theology that simply was replaced in the ongoing evolution of doctrine.  As such I don't see how it could be viewed as abominable as opposed to simply a disagreement.  Also, the LDS church wouldn't normally think of the Holy Ghost as being a "giver of life," viewing the essence of identity and life as being something uncreated which is added upon by different acts of creation and sanctification in which all the members of the godhead hold a part.  But again, this doesn't rise to the level of abomination.

When the LDS people I grew up around criticized the Nicene Creed, I think they were really thinking of the Athanasian Creed.  It has the classic linguistic mysteries that the Mormon's I grew up around loved to criticize, such as "That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence." and "And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord."  This creed can be found in the "Historical Documents" section of the Book of Common Prayer, to show that it is not rejected, but on the other hand it is not accepted enough or viewed as vital enough to be included in any act of worship.  Of all the central creeds that define virtually all of Western Christianity, this is the only one that I can think of that the LDS church vehemently and passionately disagrees with in the whole.  The Athanasian Creed probably best sums up why many denominations of Christians can't find a way to accept Mormons as fellow believers in Christ.  Its opening lines read:

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.
The creed sets up a new requirement for salvation in which correct opinions about the trinity are absolutely vital to not being sent to Hell.  It is difficult to see how denominations that take that injunction seriously and believe in Hell literally could possibly view anyone who disagrees about the trinity as being truly Christian It would be no more likely than Mormon's could stop believing that all other Christians are apostates.  The core idea that having wrong opinions is a damnable sin is familiar in Mormonism, leading Bruce R. McConkie to say "Truth, diamond truth, truth unmixed with error, truth alone leads to salvation."  This concept that salvation is based in part on having right opinions is deeply unfortunate, since I am unable to think of anything in particular in Christ's teachings which suggest such a prime importance of someone's opinions on a subject which Christ himself left so obscure as to create controversy lasting for centuries.  I simply don't believe the idea that correct belief in the trinity is a core matter of salvation.  Christ's teachings suggest that such surface issues of worship and belief are of secondary importance.  In Matthew chapter 7, we read:
 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 

If saying "Lord, Lord" doesn't count for much, having an exact idea of who is meant by "Lord, Lord" shouldn't count for as much either.  Also, in Matthew chapter 25 we read:

‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

I can't imagine Jesus saying those things, and then at the pearly gates telling someone that they didn't make the cut because they had their ideas about the trinity wrong.  It is simply absurd.  When Christ said "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith." regarding the Centurion whose daughter he healed, Christ wasn't talking the correctness of the Centurion's Trinitarian theology.  He was simply praising the Centurion's confidence in God's love and power as witnessed in Christ, regardless of the probability that the Roman Centurion was a polytheist who almost certainly participated in Roman worship.
I find the concept of the Trinity to be a useful way to contemplate the mystery and manifestation of God, rather than as a way to define God.  The creeds are a useful way of focusing that contemplation.  Looking back, I am embarrassed by my youthful antagonism towards the creeds.  They may not be perfect, but what product of the human mind is?