Is Religion JUST a response to fear?

Beware of generalizations that start with "every" or "all", as they are almost always wrong.

A recent article on io9 stated that climate change may make the human population more religious. Why? Because when droughts and famines begin to affect global society, people will turn to propitiate their "gods" to make the suffering and privation go away. This article was greeted by usual comments from folks who are non-religious or post-religious that this trend was a bad thing, that the world needs less religion (not more), and that hopefully the suffering allowed by their "gods" would turn more people away from religion until there was no more religion, and we finally enter into the secular utopia long prophesied by the secular prophets of the Western Enlightenment.

OK, I may have added a little flourish there. But that was the gist. And if you dig past the veneer of "just the facts ma'am" on the surface of anti-religious claims about the good that can be brought about by secularism, you soon find a robust religious faith in an ideology that has borne little fruit in making the world a better moral place, despite all our technological advances. For instance, John Lennon wrote the secular Hymn "Imagine" which prophesied secular world peace and prosperity at a time when various secular regimes that "imagined no heaven" (such as China, Russia, Vietnam and Cambodia) were also engaged in various atrocities.

But my real problem is that this article assumes that the major (or only) reason to be religious is out of fear: To get a divine being to protect you from something you are afraid of, or to change something that is threatening you.


Neuroscience, Philosophy, God and Jackson Pollock

A Pollock painting or random paint splatters? You decide.

A friend of mine who is a librarian recently sent me a link to an interesting video by a neuroscientist and neurosurgeon named Robert Sapolsky (who also happens to have an awesome beard!). In this video Sapolsky brings together key findings on brain structure and function to "explain the Biological Basis of Religiosity, and What It Shares in Common with OCD, Schizophrenia & Epilepsy".

Although Sapolsky was raised as an Orthodox Jew, he has since left his childhood faith and describes himself as an atheist. However, he says, "I’m not saying ‘you gotta be crazy to be religious. That would be nonsense. Nor am I saying, even, that most people who are, are psychiatrically suspect." Sapolsky is fascinated by the underlying biology of these traits common to to both certain kinds of abnormal psychology and extreme religious experience. And he confesses that his atheism seems to be something he "appears to be unable to change".


Christianity in Two Hours or less

I have spent the last five years working with students from all kinds of Christian traditions, and from non-Christian religions and secular families as well. Multiple times each year, I have the opportunity to introduce them to Christianity, in all its various versions and sects and denominations. Whether it is talking in chapel, teaching New Testament, or discussing world religions, I often have to help students find a "road map" to understand the diversity and variety of spiritual viewpoints and practices we call "Christian".

As a result of this experience, I have developed a curriculum of key ideas, charts, and videos designed to introduce teens and adults to the vast family of Christian traditions in around two hours. This assumes that the audience already is introduced to the basics of what the Bible is all about, and what basic ideas are shared across Christian traditions (such as Trinity, Incarnation, Revelation, Salvation, etc.).


Realizing God's Glory in Human Institutions: The WAFSHEC Manifesto

This Thanksgiving, as we stop to ponder the material, social, and spiritual abundance that we are immersed in and give thanks for it, I have been thinking about what makes for a good social system. At a time when right and left wing politics across Western civilization have imploded into intractable debates between oligarchs, when every system seems to enslave and oppress others in the service of the few, it makes me wonder: What should our public institutions-- political and religious, educational and economic-- be striving for.

In looking at this situation, I propose that the dictum of Irenaeus must be applied to God's children and all their works. When Irenaeus said "The Glory of God is humanity fully alive" he was absolutely correct. God's glory is not in rote obedience, nor fearful worship, nor abject compliments (although clearly God wants us to recognize his gifts in thanksgiving, for honest recognition of another's generosity is good for the health of our own soul). God's glory is not primarily found in what we do for or to God, but in who we become as we live in the world God has given us. The analogy of parenthood is apt here, for the primary goal and final glory of parenthood is NOT merely obedient children. The goal and glory of parenthood is healthy, vibrant, virtuous, self-actualized children. Thus God's glory is the full flourishing of his children.


On the Ecology of Progress

Most people are not aware of how delicate of an ecology is involved in the formation of the psychology of progress and discovery. We tend to think that our progress in science and technology is something that comes natural to us, an ineradicable drive that most humans possess. They forget that radical change is an anomaly only a couple of centuries old, and that it is a crescendo of moral and metaphysical assumptions that took thousands of years to put in place.

On the meaning of the Cross

Recently a friend of mine who teaches theology asked me a question about the cross and atonement. His is the Catholic Theologian Jacob Friesenhahn who wrote a book that has deeply influenced me called "Trinity and Theodicy". His question was this:

"My [students usually affirm] the idea of an all-loving God who desires our salvation, but many struggle with "but why the cross?" questions.  Do you know of any (short) book chapters or articles that offer a good apologetic on this topic?"

What kind of religious believer are you?

Recently an reporter on Religion and American Culture-- Mr. Kevin Eckstrom-- did an insightful piece on how he deals with his own religious affiliation when he is asked by those who he is interviewing. The essay delves into what we are asking when we ask a person's religion. His interpretation-- which I agree with-- is that our REAL question is not "WHAT religion are you?" but "WHAT KIND of religious person are you?"

Why Antichrist Fever waxes and wanes

Recently, the online zine "The Appendix" did a nice, short form essay about the function of the "End Times" in American Culture, and why certain kinds of conservative Protestant religiosity tend to be obsessed with predicting the end of the world and the second coming of Christ.

Many of the commenters a linked website (io9.com) were amazed at why these Christians would keep on trying to predict the end times after the Millerite "Great Disappointment" of 1844, and all the lesser disappointments that have followed, from the 1970's and 80's "Late Great Planet Earth", to Harold Camping's abortive and costly attempt to predict divine history in 2011. Why keep on betting if the odds are literally 100% that you will be wrong? And I use the word literally in a literal way here: 100% of the attempts to predict the end of the universe, at all times, in all cultures, across the whole world, have been completely wrong.

But what the commenters, in my estimation, got wrong was the motive for WHY certain kinds of religious people become convinced they are living in the "end times". So I wrote this:


Shoveling Snow With Reality

A friend of mine, who teaches science, and who I might describe as a "Mystical Materialist", sent me the following poem by Billy Collins. It is entitled "Shoveling Snow With Buddha", and I think it says volumes about how to be present to the experience of Ultimate Reality in the midst of the reality we experience every day:


How should we prepare to partake in Eucharist?

Some years ago, I wrote a short essay explaining different views of what is happening in the Eucharist, and what it means for Anglican Christians. Judging by statistics, it is the most popularly read article on my blog, and you can find it here.

Today, a friend of the blog sent me the following email:

"I sincerely thank you for this. It is by far the best instruction I've ever received on this subject. You have outlined all these interpretations of the Eucharist in a clear, non-judgmental way that stimulates the reader to think about his conclusion rather than attempt to force one upon him.

I am a convert to Roman Catholicism but am seriously thinking of returning to the Church of England due mainly to my skepticism about transubstantiation, which was rather badly explained to me by a priest at my initial instruction several years ago. For this reason I haven't taken communion for three or so years, during which time I have been reading, thinking, praying in an effort to find answers. Reading your explanations was almost like receiving manna from heaven!"

So, this very kind email-- which is much kinder than the blog deserves-- raises the pastoral question:

How should we prepare to receive the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood through the elements of duly consecrated bread and wine?


The Truth: Knowing Who is at the Center

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” [From John 14.6-7]

This is an edited re-post of an earlier sermon, that has been enlarged and explained. It was occasioned by one of my friends encountering a particularly poor sermon done on the text of John 14.6. It is this text which most directly confronts one of the touchiest subjects in academic culture: What the "Truth" is, who has access to "Truth", and who doesn't.


Subscripts and Superscripts for iPad

This is very different from nearly all of my other spiritual/philosophical blog posts. It's semi-complex, kinda techie, and intended to help make iPad use easier. So if you don't care about entering math or chemistry into an iPad, PLEASE IGNORE.

However, if you use an iPad and type chemical formulae or math equations on a regular basis, or other text that requires numerical subscripts or superscripts (such as H₂O or A² + B² = C²), this may be of interest to you.


Working out my Theology

Lately I have been working out, and getting some really good results (if only I could combine it with greater weight loss!). My wife, and some of my friends, have asked me to help them with designing a workout. Rather than explain the same routine over and over, I thought I would put all my thoughts in one place so anyone can benefit.


Metaphysics and Moral Value

Thus spake Nietzsche: Courageous enough to admit what morality without metaphysics entails.

One of the fundamental claims of most forms of religion is that Metaphysics-- the Ultimate Reality that grounds and upholds physical reality-- is somehow necessary for moral values to really exist. The claim is often made that without Metaphysics, moral statements become mere statements of personal preference. This is a hard claim for many to understand, so I wrote this to help.


Christ, Consumerism and the State of the Church

A Comic Strip illustrating the Church in Consumer Culture. It helps that Jesus is talking to Kevin.

My friend and mentor Kevin Martin recently wrote a "State of the Church" address in which he painted a dichotomous picture of the health of The Episcopal Church (hereafter TEC). His "macro" analysis is basically that TEC, as a national organization, is crumbling under the weight of its outmoded institutional structures and oversized financial obligations, in light of its dwindling membership base. His "micro" analysis is that there are "a thousand points of light" (to quote the elder President Bush) in countless individual parishes and faith communities, regardless of the overall implosion of TEC.

While I largely agree with Kevin's macro/micro analysis of Church health, I think we also must expand our scope and have a "meta" analysis of the TEC in Western Culture as well. And the metadata seems to show that our culture is in the midst of a turn toward the secular. Tobin Grant recently did a good summary of dozens of studies on the sociology of religion which be found here.


My Moses Year Begins

Moses wonders what he has gotten himself into, and if there is a return policy on stone tablets.

Today marks my entrance into the "Moses year": 40 years of journeying through the wilderness that is human existence. Although I can quickly count a dozen things I really should be doing instead of this, I think I would be remiss to let this day pass without some written reflection.


Eucharist, Epiphany, and Richard Feynman

Today I celebrated Eucharist for Epiphany at TMI - The Episcopal School of Texas. Since our chapel service on Monday was our actual reading of the Epiphany narrative, I chose to talk about the Epiphany that happens within Eucharist, where the Risen Jesus is "known to us in the breaking of the bread". Of course, I used the Gospel text of Luke 24, where Jesus talks with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, but they do not recognize him as Jesus until he breaks bread.

And then suddenly the Epiphany dawns on them: It is the Risen Lord!

And as I was thinking about how the deep mysteries of the Universe can be revealed to us in something as simple as a meal that remembers a man, I remembered a toast given by Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. He spoke of seeing the interconnections of all things in a glass of wine:

Fr. Thomas Hopko: 55 Maxims for Christian Living

I just found a great list posted by Bryan Owen at "Creedal Christian". It's not very often that I read a list of things and say to myself "I think I agree with everything on that list!" I almost said that to this list, although I have appended addendums on two items I feel need elaboration.

Nevertheless, this 55 item "rule of life" by Orthodox priest Fr. Thomas Hopko is worthy of meditation and integration into one's own spiritual journey. Enjoy!


The Most Common Objection to Prayer

There are several objections to prayer. I read them all the time on blogs, websites, and comments sections. I hear them from students and parishioners. Many people experience a profound discomfort with what prayer DOES, even if they pray all the time.
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.