Secularizing the “sacred”

In his 2010 book, Spiritual Bankruptcy, John Cobb discusses the process of secularizing. He wrote: Some secularizers are liberal, some conservative, some orthodox, some neoorthodox, some liberationist, and some progressive. I employ for myself the last of these labels. But if the best possibilities for secularization are now with progressives, it is only when progressives are defined as those who draw upon the best of liberalism, the best of conservatism, the best of orthodoxy, the best of neoorthodoxy, and, especially at present, the best of liberation theologies.

In my view, that’s an important paragraph because it seeks to affirm the best of these various traditions and it may help us get past today’s rampant polarization and tribalism. Like Cobb, I identify with the progressive “label,” but (like him), I try to avoid doing so in an us versus them kind of way.

Cobb says the word religion is problematic because it means many different things in different contexts. Cobb sees the process of secularizing as a way to highlight the best and most practical attributes of “the great traditions that have shaped the world in the past two or three millennia, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.” Then, Cobb suggests that “instead of religions, we call these, and other smaller movements, Ways, or the traditional Ways of humankind.”

To begin to unpack some of Cobb’s points, I invite you to ask whether you self-identify as more secular or more religious. I grew up in a secular world and while matters of faith and theology are important to me, I served as a pastor for much of five decades with a secular self-consciousness. So, I’m very much at home with Cobb’s advocacy of the process of secularizing. Even as we respect the broad dimensions of the sacred, I agree with Cobb that one of our healthiest spiritual actions is to secularize (and thereby de-sacralize) aspects of religion that are today (as Cobb asserts) spiritually bankrupt.

Old Testament prophets did this in their day. Hence, Cobb’s subtitle: “A Prophetic Call to Action.”

From “John Cobb,” The Work of the People: Films for Discovery & Transformation,

Faith in practical process

An old friend had two sons, an attorney and a pastor. He liked to say that one practiced and the other preached. He knew, of course, that both his sons practiced their faith through the processes of their vocations every day. Like law, faith is an evolving process. The Ten Commandments were said to have been written in stone, but the application and interpretation of those “Ten Words” are more fluid.

John Cobb, in his 2010 book, Spiritual Bankruptcy, calls one of Protestant Christianity’s contributions to the world the process of secularizing. From the book’s Preface: There is a strong tendency among people everywhere to divide the world into “us” and “them.” This division has proper and necessary secular functions. …

In the actual course of human affairs, however, the we/they distinction has not been so innocuous because it takes on a religious character. “We” have the right ideals, the right practices, the right traditions. “They,” by their errors in all these respects, are inferior to “us” and are often experienced as a threat. To secularize is to break down this absolute distinction, to understand both “us” and “them” in a broader perspective.

Today, I read Cobb’s words with an awareness of bitter divisions in numerous religious tribes as I watch them break into smaller tribes. Secular, more objective and less parochial “outsiders” might help wise leaders in every camp understand how outsiders may view our internal divisions as a sign of pettiness, not greatness. Cobb wrote: ...the rigid distinction of “us” and “them” … is particularly dangerous in a pluralistic world (so) it is important to secularize the sacred. That does not mean that we should disparage or belittle what has been experienced as sacred, but does mean that we should subject it to critical evaluation.

From Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Prophetic Call to Action, by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Embracing the secular

My friend Don named John B. Cobb, Jr. (born 1925) as a person who has helped shape his thought and life. Cobb is a “process theologian.” His website is Process & Faith. Building on the thought of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000), Cobb believes God is intimately involved in, or engaged with, human life, including its structures and processes.

This is an extension of the idea of incarnation, (personified in the Christian tradition by Jesus) that God has become (and is becoming) flesh and lives among us. I think of it as God being continuously engaged with every aspect of creation, including humanity as a whole and humans as individuals. Cobb helps me think of God as not a static reality “out there” somewhere, but as dynamically, fully engaged with us.

In the next few posts, I plan to reflect on Cobb’s 2010 book, Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Prophetic Call to Action. His theme is nuanced–a rejection of secularism while affirming the process of secularizing, about which faith has made many positive impacts. Cobb defines secular as “this world and its real values and its real problems.” The secular is where the action is–and Cobb sees God in that action.

From “About Us,” by John Cobb, Process & Faith

Russian moms

Today, the Sabbath in Jewish tradition, I’m reflecting with gratitude on the role of the Old Testament in my life. Like everyone in the Christian faith, I inherited the Jewish tradition, so I view it through a “Jesus lens.” However, the Jewish tradition belongs to every human being who welcomes its wisdom.

Judaism has a strong, though painful, history in Russia, powerfully revealed in the classic play/movie, Fiddler on the Roof. As the Russian czar cracked down on Jews, Tevye wryly asks/prays, “So we’re the chosen people? Once in a while, couldn’t you choose somebody else?”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is tragic and obscene at so many levels, including the division it has caused between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Orthodox, Jewish and secular moms, wives and girlfriends may be among Putin’s greatest problems now.

Russia is experiencing its most dramatic mobilization and forced military service since World War II. The Sabbath is a day to break away from worldly brokenness to experience (or imagine) harmony among persons, nations, and all creation. Today, I stand in harmony with the babuskas.

From “The Russian Orthodox Leader at the Core of Putin’s Ambitions,” by Jason Horowitz, New York Times, May 22, 2022

OT and prayer

This concludes several posts about the Old Testament as a resource. As more people submit their DNA to groups like Ancestry.com, I keep hoping my DNA results will show some semitic origins. Whether by birth or by adoption, I’ve always felt at home in Jewish synagogues.

At a long-ago luncheon for Christian clergy at a synagogue, I heard this Jewish prayer for the meal that we were served: Blessed are you, Lord God, creator of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. This was the mealtime prayer we taught our young son.

A rabbi helped us with the key Hebrew phrase from young King Solomon’s prayer for wisdom, which found its way inside our wedding bands: “give your servant lebh shomea (a listening heart).”

This phrase (a listening heart/mind) is part of my evolving breath prayer: Abba/Amma, lebh shomea. I’ve never spoken in tongues and I can write all the Hebrew I know on a popsicle stick, but my heart is being shaped by these ancient words for “father/mother” and for the essence of prayer–listening.

From “Let Me Hear Silence,” by Jan Jarboe Russell, Texas Monthly, August, 1991

OT and WOW

The Old Testament, according to a Jewish rabbi I heard speak long ago, maintains that the benchmark for an ethical community is how well it treats those without rights. In ancient Jewish society, the three major groups without rights were widows, orphans and wanderers (aka homeless, refugees).

Empires consolidate power by taking away rights, as in Putin’s Russia and his war against Ukraine. Who are the “widows, orphans and wanderers” in American society today? An era of rights-expansion begun by Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954) is being reversed by today’s US Supreme Court, by various state legislatures and by leaders of the national Republican Party.

I’m grateful to the Christian communities who have touched my life by keeping this OT quest for justice alive. I’m grateful for the exposure I’ve had to Judaism through the OT, through several synagogues over the years, and through numerous Jewish rabbis, Jewish scholars and Jewish friends.

From The Home for Little Wanderers

OT in evolution of theism

A discussion topic among theologians today is theism. It’s part of the evolution of faith. Our understanding of deity has progressed from ancient, fear-based understandings that led to attempts to appease or placate the gods, to a more intimate, love-based, relational understanding of the divine.

The Old Testament was, and is, an vital part of this history. A key OT story is Moses’ breakthrough understanding in his call to return to Egypt to lead the enslaved Israelites to freedom. Moses’ dialogue with the divine Voice is both quaintly charming and profoundly revolutionary.

Moses asks, “What is your name?” Or, “Who shall I say sent me?” In a time when many gods were worshipped, it was important to invoke the correct name. The Voice responds, in essence, “I am nameless.” The deity of Israel could not be so easily described and was without a “handle.”

The divine Voice in the Moses story was more verb than noun–no idol to be adored, but rather the creator of the universe, to be experienced in the relationships and in human history: Say to them, “the God of your ancestors has sent me.” This was a pivotal step from local gods to a universal God.

The challenge today is to retain a divine objectivity that exposes the moral bankruptcy of prejudice, tribalism, injustice, and every form of discrimination, while not objectifying the Voice, which is inherently relational and made known through the dynamic process of creation and human history.

From “What is Theism,” by the Marcus J. Borg Foundation, March 20, 2018

Pilgrim people

Pilgrimage is a significant Old Testament theme. Abraham and Sarah, first generation migrants, moved (at age 75 for Abraham) from Ur to Canaan. This was the first of many migrations that took place for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they were welcomed, sometimes they were viewed as illegal immigrants. To think biblically includes put oneself in the situation of a migrant–or to at least having empathy for those who journey from one place to another.

Some pilgrimages were permanent life resettlements. Some were occasional or annual, such as journeys to Jerusalem for Passover. In the OT, Psalms 120-134 were sung as pilgrims made their way to the Temple mount in Jerusalem. The one biblical story of Jesus’ youth was about his separation from parents during a pilgrimage of Nazareth folks to the Jerusalem Temple. Pilgrimage can be a way of remembering our roots and i can be a journey to new and better days.

As part of a month-long camping trip, much of yesterday was spent at the Roosevelt Campobello International Park, just across the Maine border in Canada. Unexpectedly, I became emotional. The park’s spirit of international cooperation, the leadership role played by the US, and the extraordinary leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt reminded me of the America I remember before our detour into lesser things with the rise of Trumpism. Campobello was a healing pilgrimage, a homecoming.

Friar and a piltrim

OT as resource

In 1991, I was part of a team that introduced Disciple Bible Study to a large suburban congregation. DBS is a small group, 34-week Bible study with reading assignments equivalent to a seminary class. Seventeen of the weeks were devoted to the Old Testament. The OT may seem long ago and far away, which it is, but that’s not all it is. The OT is a life resource for anyone, regardless of one’s faith tradition.

The next few posts will be about the Old Testament as resource. As one gets into this material, it becomes clear that OT stories form a significant part of the foundation of the western world. These stories are relevant for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, three monotheistic faiths that sprang from the OT, as well as other faiths and secular persons who identify with no particular tradition.

The OT drops a plumb line into our midst (an image used by the OT prophet Amos), an objective voice that calls for impartial justice and fair treatment of all persons, regardless of their status or wealth. In these times, when political ideology prioritizes the end (election victory) over means (or any ethical consideration), the OT is a much-needed resource to help society find its bearings.

The recent exercise of political power by a US governor to send immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard is the kind of thing that the OT plumb line exposes as abuse. In ancient days, poor people were considered pawns to be used at will by people, as in King Ahab’s seizure of Naboth’s vineyard. The OT says, “No.”

From “DeSantis criticized for sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard: ‘It’s un-American’,” by Richard Luscomb and Nina Lakhani, The Guardian, September 16, 2022

Sabbath justice

My friend Kathy asked about Friday’s post, “What do you mean by relational justice?” I replied that I see all justice as relational. I added the word “relational” because sometimes we think of a transgression as a violation of an arbitrary rule that has been established by a hierarchical power (civil or religious). Some religions believe in after-life punishment for violations of religious law or purity codes.

Many people carry a load of guilt around because they have internalized a parental voice, a teacher’s voice, or a “divine” voice that has accused them of having “gone wrong.” Many times it’s false guilt that we carry around needlessly. While some religions focus on individual transgressions or sins, with faith a matter of individual repentance, much of the focus of biblical faith is corporate, or social.

I see justice (regarding both individual and corporate wrongs) as the healing of brokenness. In the Jewish tradition, Sabbath is the weekly celebration of being one with all creation. It’s the one day when every beggar is royalty. It’s a recognition of how things ought to be and one day will be. Sabbath justice and all forms of healing restore and reconcile our brokenness. It’s the process of wholeness or salvation.

From “Sabbath Justice and Community: A Global Southern Perspective,” by Jonny Ramírez-Johnson, Fuller Theological Seminary