Ok, so there’s no money in it. But anyone with an interest in writing for A Collection of Selves, please contact me at unfinishedscript @ gmail.com.
I’m looking for a Christian liberal blogger, preferably one who’s influence is similar to mine, i.e. political/business/social commentary in the vein of David v. Goliath. If you been keeping up with the blog or if you just peer around here a bit and you’re a thinker like I am you’ll notice a few things, particularly: a) the Christian category is severely lopsided by commentary about radicalized Christian groups from a non-Christian, and b) I’m a social liberal and a fiscal conservative.
Of the former, I’m looking for someone who would like the opportunity to defend their faith against radicalized Christians. Of the latter, I’m looking for someone of similar ideals to keep the theme of the blog.
Q: What do you mean by fiscal conservative?
A: I mean that I think that there are intelligent ways to regulate our economy without throwing all of our social services out to the wolves, i.e., I don’t believe that privatization or a totally free-market is the answer but I do believe there are solutions, i.e., I think there are innovative and resourceful ways to reform our welfare state without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and I think that non-profits and government agency are better suited for the job of taking care of the needs of our citizens that profit-driven corporations.
Q: What do you mean by social liberal?
A: I think that people are guided by similar moral codes and the more in-line we become with the people around us, the more we accept and understand those codes. I have faith that ‘evil’ is a word used to broadly define a good number of fear responses that people exhibit.
Examples: Greed is a response to the fear of not having enough. Hate is a response to the fear of the unknown. Jealousy is a response to the fear of personal insecurity. etc… etc… When you alleviate those fears, the correlating ‘evil’ is still a part of that persons psychological profile but it is no longer as active and can be mitigated. Hence, I don’t believe in evil. I do, however, believe in mental illness, a diagnosis of which could be identified in an number of crazy mass-murderers or any other villain you’d like to portray. Mainly, I believe that psychology and science in general has a better chance of success at diagnosing the riddles of mankind (like evil) than religious dogma. I also believe that they are pathways that have the ability to connect people of all faiths.
Q: If you think mass-murders are not evil and just crazy, do you think millions of people’s lives could have been saved if they just had a psychiatrist?
A: No, not at all. I also believe in nurture vs. nature, meaning: I think both the environment that we live in and our natural genetic make-ups have a deep and continuous impact on our psychology. Layman’s terms – if you can’t change the past sometimes there’s no cure. Some things are just too deeply ingrained… or too naturally wrong.
Q: Do you believe in God?
A: Why, yes, I most certainly do. I have a deeply personal and always growing understanding of what I think that means and I have no intention of delving into the particulars of something that is infinite and all-encompassing. My ability to communicate it is just too limited at this point in my life to feel confident explaining that on the internet. I will tell you that my ‘religious’ influences have been mostly Quaker, Buddhist, and Native American.
Q: If you are so attached to your understanding of the world, then why bring in a Christian writer?
A: This blog is called A Collection of Selves and I am only one person. Since I’ve spent a great deal of energy pointing out that Christian conservatives are out to take away people’s rights, I wanted to find another ‘thinker’ that was not so biased to cover them. I know and have known many amazing, intelligent, wonderful Christian people so far in this life and in no way believe that ALL Christians seek to take away the rights of others, or that ALL Christians are against all these things that the very far (and noisy) right are against.
So, please, bring your beautiful shiny light to us and defend your faith against those which seek to radicalize it!
Thanks for reading and I look forward to reading your posts!
p.s. If you like the Rev. Forrest Church, I invite you to seriously consider my invitation. And for your reading pleasure:
There Is No Hell
When we project an appetite for vengeance on God, we pervert the divine image.
BY: the Rev. Forrest Church, 2006
The difference between Universalists and Unitarians (the old joke has it) is that Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them, whereas Unitarians believe that they’re too good to be damned. I am a Universalist.
For all my many failings, the day I wake up dead I won’t be in a cattle car on the fast train to Satan’s fiery pit. Nor will you. And neither will Old Scratch himself. If he actually exists, the devil too will be saved. In the good news of universalism, God is a loving God who will not rest until the entire creation is redeemed. All creatures will be saved. There is no hell.
It’s easy to understand why hell was invented (if quite late in the biblical record). Eternal damnation solves the sticky part of the problem of evil: Why do good things happen to bad people? Reserving a corner of hell for all who escape well-deserved punishment here on earth balances the moral ledger sheet. Justice is done. Otherwise, not only is life unfair; the afterlife becomes unfair as well.
The problem is, when we project our retributive logic onto a cosmic screen, we pervert the divine image. We predicate hell on the irreverent presumption that God’s appetite for vengeance—an all-voracious version of our own nagging hunger—must be satisfied. “She’ll get hers in hell,” we say. That balances our ledger, but it turns God into a jailer.
The idea of purgatory makes perfectly good sense. I can imagine the utility of corrective punishment. But eternal hellfire demeans everything I believe about God. More important, it eviscerates the heart of Jesus’ gospel.
Jesus was anything but a biblical literalist. He teaches by parable, not by citing chapter and verse, and gets into holy mischief by repeatedly breaking the letter of scripture. Love is the sum and substance of all the law and the prophets, he teaches. He enjoins us to forgive and love our enemies. “Your enemy be damned,” is no part of his gospel.
“Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” Jesus instructs his disciples. That perfection can be summed up in three words, each an expression of divine love: justice, mercy and forgiveness. Standing alone, justice might allow for the creation of hell, but mercy and forgiveness render it morally impossible. We can sift a spoonful of evidence for hell from the scriptures, even as we can ladle out dozens of arguments for slavery. Neither, however, meets the requirements of the biblical Spirit, whose imperative is love.
It’s no wonder that hell is the watchword for religious terror. By tempting the darker angels of our nature, the very idea of it undermines the principles of mercy and forgiveness. You don’t have to be a terrorist to be crippled by the idea of hell, however. Couple “Not to worry, for God will punish her eternally” to the sound adage, “Hate the sin and love the sinner,” and it becomes a noxious bromide.
It is impossible to hate a person and pray for him at the same time. Visualize in your mind someone who causes you profound pain. Remind yourself that your enemy is a child of God. If that doesn’t break the spell, remember (and not with a smirk on your face) that he too will die one day. Then do something truly godlike. Pray that before your enemy dies, he will experience a taste of true peace and happiness.
Loving our enemies demands sacrifice (a word that means, “to make sacred”). We sacrifice self-righteousness, bitterness, and pride, knowing that such an act will cleanse our souls and make our lives right with all that is holy. At our most reverent, having resisted the temptation to damn our enemy to hell, we go one step further and pray for her immortal soul. We try to be perfect, as God in heaven is perfect.
If, following Jesus’ lead, we open ourselves to the workings of grace when we forgive our enemies, how could God imaginably entertain a plan of selective redemption based on a retributive justice system with no possibility for parole? If we, mere humans, can unlock our hearts by praying for someone who has inflicted unforgettable damage on us, would God damn to eternal hellfire every creature who has failed life’s course?
God may not actually be love—the mystery of creation is too deep for human equivalents to approximate—but we know from experience and the spirit of the scriptures that love is divine.
None of us is too good to be damned, but God is too good and too loving to damn us. There is no hell.
One more, just because:
Forrest Church, October 3, 1999
“Hell is oneself,” T. S. Eliot once wrote. To which J. Paul Sartre replied, no, “Hell is other people.” In a perverse sense each of them is right. Hell, at least hell on earth, is often one self or others, especially if the two are estranged. The apostle Paul speaks of one body, many members, but the one body is a foreign body to any member which happens to be severed from it. From an introspective psychological point of view say that of Eliot this sense of separation manifests itself as self-absorption. Each of us knows from times in our own lives how easily the over-examined and under-connected life may pass for a kind of hell. On the other hand, a condescending, judgmental attitude toward others leads to estrangement of a different kind. Call it hubris. When we set ourselves apart from and above the one body, rather than ourselves we may blame others for our plight, but the result is the same. Welcome to hell.
Ironically, heaven on earth works just the same way, but with this important difference. Heaven is oneself and others, but together not apart. For instance suffering can distance us from others through self-pity, or embarrassment, or a sense that we have uniquely and unfairly been singled out by fate. But the same experience of suffering can also unite us with others through a deeper sense of compassion, even empathy. In one case we are cast into hell; in the other we get a taste of heaven. This is one of the points that I make in my book Lifelines: Holding on and Letting Go. At times of trouble, alone we are often lost. But by reaching out to and for others we entertain the possibility of redemption.
A century and a half ago, the Universalists were the fastest growing denomination in America. Their message was universal salvation. A merciful God would have no place in her dispensation for eternal punishment. As the old joke goes, the difference between Unitarians and Universalists now joined into one denomination is that the Universalists believed that God was too good to damn them; the Unitarians believed that they were too good to be damned. By this definition, since I cannot afford to be a Unitarian, I number myself among the Universalists. In either event, in the mid-19th century, by preaching not hellfire and brimstone but against hellfire and brimstone, the Universalists flourished.
So what happened? Why did their success abate? Did their message lose its luster? On the contrary. They won. Every other mainline Protestant faith Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists — dropped hell from its menu like a hot potato. This accomplished, it became safe for people to return to a respectable denomination, which relegated the Universalists to their original gadfly status.
In the mainstream denominations, the Catholic Church was the last to fall in line. But this too has happened. You may have read Gus Niebuhr’s piece in the Times entitled, “Hell is Getting a Makeover from Catholics: Jesuits Call it a Painful State but not a Sulfurous Place.” Not one of the Catholic theologians cited here expressed a view about hell with which I could not in large measure agree. A Vatican spokesman says that
hell “is not a ‘place’ but a ‘state,’ a person’s ‘state of being,’ in which a person suffers from the deprivation of God.” A Catholic nun who teaches at Fordham says of her students that this non-literal approach “makes much more sense to them, that it isn’t literal, but that it’s a powerful metaphor and I would say a needed one to indicate the seriousness of moral choices, that what we do has consequences and eternal ones.” I might not employ precisely the same words, but I have no basic problem with this less literal, more metaphorical view of hell. In a sense, hell is where the heart is, at least when the heart keeps only its own company.
Geographic hell is not everywhere a relic, of course. Today in this country right-wing fundamentalists have rediscovered the old-fashioned hell with a vengeance. A Southern Baptist seminary president said recently that “the dire warnings in Scripture to respond to Christ in faith while there is time make sense only if hell is a very real place of very real torment.” In the spirit of past Southern Baptist president, Bailey Smith that Jonah was a literal man who was swallowed by a literal fish and vomited up on a literal beach this fellow is not speaking in the least bit metaphorically. Here hell is a literal place replete with a literal pit licked by literal tongues of fire.
That this graphic and static image of hell continues to carry credence in some quarters should not seduce us, however, to dismiss the metaphorical power of ideas associated with the notion of hell: separation, estrangement, fragmentation, hopelessness. All of us have been there. In the human soul hell and hell is as good a word as any — is a very real place of very real torment. When we are at war with ourselves, estranged from our loved ones or neighbors, and uprooted from the ground of our being, when we are an antibody in the one body, even, in traditional Catholic language, suffering from a deprivation of God, I certainly consider it hellish..
If less painful, and perhaps for this reason to the soul even more dangerous, I also find haunting and somewhat hellish a life driven first and foremost by personal desires, material comforts, by an avoidance of pain or an unwillingness to wade beyond the shallows where, until a tsunami strikes, we are tempted to splash away our days. I even find a little hellish the all-too-often smug and condescending moralism and self-satisfaction we experience when we look down on others for not being as enlightened as ourselves. This too is a kind of estrangement, for even as a little knowledge veils our ignorance remember, we are far more alike in our cosmic ignorance than we differ in knowledge — so also unwarranted pride masks our deeper need for empathy and humility. Here too hell is oneself. Given that most of us here are not tempted to indulge in fantasies of a literal hell peopled with monsters like Dante’s inferno, we would do better to search our own lives and consciences for hell’s tracings than to dismiss hell altogether on the basis of other’s credulity.
You may have seen that piece on sin and hell by Katherine Kersten that ran in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago. She speaks of how certain modern theologically liberal churches are again thriving by going one step farther than simply eliminating hell: they’ve eliminated sin as well. Her case in point is a very successful liberal United Methodist Church in the mid west. Socially active and politically correct, its billboards adorned with posters for eco-justice rallies and declarations proclaiming the premises a hate-free zone, its minister promising in every worship service to accept people where they and exactly for who they are,” this church bears a superficial resemblance to our own. So, when the author questioned whether it had sufficient theological underpinnings to be worthy of the name, I took special notice. She writes that this church, “largely drained of doctrine . . . strikes the observer as little more than a club for good works, a kind of Red Cross with a steeple on top. What fills the hole at the center, where the Christian moral code used to be?” she asks. “An ethic of conspicuous compassion, where ‘being a nice person’ excuses everything.”
I have no problem, by the way, with conspicuous compassion. Or with being nice people for that matter. Both are, each far preferable to harsh judgment and bigotry, two staples of much old time religion. But in one respect her critique stings nonetheless. She points it most sharply when citing Philip Rieff’s classic work, The Triumph of the Therapeutic. “Traditional Christianity, Mr. Rieff observed, made great moral demands on believers. Its goal was salvation; consequently, it exhorted believers to “die to self,” repent of sin, and cultivate virtue, self-discipline and humility. Today, however, wrote Mr. Rieff, ‘psychological man’ is rapidly shouldering Christian man aside as the dominant character type in our society. For psychological man the offspring of Freud and his ilk life centers not on the soul but on the self.”
Lord Acton once said that every institution finally perishes by an excess of its own first principle. Among the first principles of liberal religion are freedom and individualism . Warning of the dangers associated with conformity and vigilant in their struggle against bondage, religious, cultural and political, our 19th century forbears, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau among them, were articulate champions of individualism and self-reliance. I would not be a minister were it not for the freedom of belief established and defended by those who liberated themselves from Dogma and Biblical Literalism two centuries ago. For this I shall be forever grateful. But I remain conscious of Lord Acton’s dictum. Remember, freedom cuts two ways. It can either be freedom from something or freedom for something. Freedom from bondage is undeniably good, but bondlessness is not. And today, at least among the members of this congregation and others like it, we are far more liable to celebrate our freedom by lapsing into bondlessness than to be stripped of our freedom and taken into bondage.
The problem with sovereign individualism, even in its most psychologically chic manifestations, is that it can easily lead us to follow our bliss into the barrenness of self-absorption. One day we find ourselves wandering in desert places, still doing only the things that please us, even after nothing surely pleasing is left for us to do. Sadly, and pointlessly, what may have begun as the search for individual happiness or personal fulfillment ends in the narcissism of bitterness or self-despite.
Not that those who seek personal salvation from this world are by definition any less self-absorbed than those who seek personal bliss within it. And not that either is any more likely than the other to find what he or she seeks. It’s just that we religious liberals are far more tempted to follow our bliss than to follow the straight and narrow. The search for self may us to stray from the path toward meaning as surely as some joyless quest may block others from opening their minds and hearts.
With this in mind, if placed in a more Universal context, I see nothing wrong with such old fashioned values as dying to self, repenting of sin, and cultivating virtue, self-discipline and humility. Put in less loaded but no less traditional terms, dying to self is emptying ourselves to be filled; repenting of sin is to seek inner wholeness in place of division, reconciliation in place of estrangement, and an active, reciprocal sense of gratitude for the gift of life. Cultivating virtue, self-discipline and humility is to invest our freedom responsibly, to receive by giving, to be a part of not apart from the many-membered body of humankind, to serve and love our neighbor as our self.
This congregation has always struck a balance between bondlessness and bondage, between the celebration of sovereign individualism, or search for self, and the imposition of dogmatic conformity, where one set of rules and guidelines fits all. Going back to Emerson’s time, All Souls was the headquarters for the broad church movement in our denomination. Not only were both radical and traditional religious views honored here, but Henry Whitney Bellows, for 43 years our minister, almost single handedly brought the two wings of our faith together. He founded the Unitarian ministers association, an act of consummate diplomacy, arguing, in Pauline language that the one body needed all its members in order to thrive. And then, even more importantly, during the Civil War he and the lay leaders of All Souls established the American Sanitary Commission. Precursor of the Red Cross, this organization provided medical care to the wounded on both sides. Bellows and his All Souls colleagues raised a staggering 6 million dollars around the country to fund this effort. Translated into today’s currency that is hundreds of millions of dollars raised within a span of three years.
Bellows also named this church All Souls. Not all Saints. Not all Unitarians, but All Souls. I can think of no finer moniker for a free, unfettered faith, but only if we continue to remember how intimately we are connected one to another. Not only does the mortar of mortality bind us fast, but we are children of one earth, honest to God and hope to die kith and kin. If someone whose goal is to escape from this earth to a better place accuses us of conspicuous compassion, I’ll take that as a compliment. On the other hand, in my own spiritual life and as your religious leader, I shall strive to remain vigilant with respect to the temptations inherent in a liberal faith. Lacking a set of final theological answers to what I believe are ultimately unanswerable questions does not liberate us from either moral duties or spiritual challenge. With respect to both our moral and our spiritual quest we no different really, at least in this respect, from anyone else who aspires to some form of redemption. Here too, hell is one self; hell is oneself set apart from or set above our neighbors. Cynical chic, sophisticated resignation, self-service, self-pleasure, self-centeredness — in fact any form of self-absorption or exculpation– are no less signposts to hell here, where we don’t teach the doctrine of eternal damnation, than in places where they do.
Which brings us full circle, all the way to heaven. Heaven is oneself and others, learning from one another, growing with one another, serving and respecting, playing and suffering and walking together, singing together, pledging together our higher allegiance, seeing our tears in one another’s eye. We are one body, many members. In mystery and wonder, in majesty and in mortality, we are truly one.
As we inaugurate our new Lifelines Center this coming Thursday, this is my dream and vision: to address the crisis of bondlessness; to build redemptive community; to cultivate mutual respect; to foster diversity; to do for a 21st century congregation and its neighbors, both here and around the country, what Bellows and his helpmeets did for All Souls in the 19th century; to create here a refuge in the storm, a beacon on a hill. Copyright AllSouls 1999.