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Join me on the “Joy Luke Club” Blog

Posted by theologyontapomaha on October 29, 2009

Hey folks,

I am now blogging at a new site at from until Easter 2010.   The Asphalt Jesus will be dormant until then.  Thanks for following the conversation!

Grace and peace,



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Quotes and other wisdom on faith and doubt

Posted by theologyontapomaha on September 16, 2009

Many people have asked for copies of various poems, prayers and other pieces of wisdom on faith and doubt that were featured in last Sunday’s worship service on Affirmation 10 (which affirms that doubt can be a productive part of faith).  All of these are reproduced below, along with a few extras that we couldn’t fit into the worship but are dynamite nonetheless.

Sorry about the non-uniform type size and spacing (some titles and spaces between lines are larger than others).  There was a technical issue importing these which I am not expert enough to solve!

Excerpt from “Moving Waters” by Rumi (from The Soul of Rumi)

When you do things

from your soul,  you feel

a river moving you


When actions come from another

section, the feeling

disappears.    Don’t let

others lead you.  They

may be blind or, worse,

vultures.  Reach for the


of God.

“Faith” by Ruth Gendler

Faith lives in the same apartment building as Doubt.  When Faith was out of town visiting her uncle in the hospital, Doubt fed the cat and watered the asparagus fern.  Faith is comfortable with Doubt because she grew up with him.  Their mothers are cousins.  Faith is not dogmatic about her beliefs like some of her relatives.  Her friends fear that Faith is a bit stupid.  They whisper that she is naïve and she depends on Doubt to protect her from the meanness of life.  In fact, it is the other way around.  It is Faith who protects Doubt from Cynicism.


by David Whyte

I want to write about faith,

about the way the moon rises

over cold snow, night after night,

faithful even as it fades from fullness,

slowly becoming that last curving and impossible

sliver of light before the final darkness.

But I have no faith myself

I refuse it the smallest entry.

Let this then, my small poem,

like a new moon, slender and barely open,

be the first prayer that opens me to faith.

Excerpt from “Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith” by Ann Lamott (originally appeared in 2003 article on Advent at

The thing is, I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something my Jesuit friend Tom told me — that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, and emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns. Faith also means reaching deeply within for the sense one was born with, the sense to go for a walk.

Prayer of Thomas Merton

“My Lord, God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead

of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know

myself, and the fact that I think that I am following Your will does not mean

that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please You

does in fact please You.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am

doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I

know that if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I know

nothing about it.  Therefore, I will trust You always though I may seem to be

lost in the shadow of death.  I will not fear for You are ever with me, and

Various Quotes on Faith and Doubt

With great doubts come great understanding; with little doubts come little understanding. – Chinese Proverb

Only the one who knows nothing doubts nothing. – French proverb

One must know when it is right to doubt, to affirm, to submit. Anyone who does otherwise does not understand the force of reason. – Blaise Pascal

If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties. – Francis Bacon

Knowledge and doubt are inseparable to man. The sole alternative to “knowledge-with-doubt” is no knowledge at all. Only God and certain madmen have no doubts! – Martin Luther

There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds. – Alfred Lord Tennyson

Doubt can be a tool in God’s hand wielded, in the lives of those who allow it, for the strengthening, not the destruction of faith. – George MacDonald

If ours is an examined faith, we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, we were believing what clearly was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger. It knows God more certainly and it can enjoy God more deeply. – C. S. Lewis

Believe nothing just because a so-called wise person said it. Believe nothing just because a belief is generally held. Believe nothing just because it is said in ancient books. Believe nothing just because it is said to be of divine origin. Believe nothing just because someone else believes it. Believe only what you yourself test and judge to be true.: Buddha – Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta

Faith isn’t believing without proof – it’s trusting without reservation. William Sloane Coffin

It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.– Fyodor Dostoyevski

The problem with the wise is they are so filled with doubts while the dull are so certain.– Bertrand Russell

Christianity is not a message which has to be believed, but an experience of faith that becomes a message. –Edward Schillebeeckx

Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery. – Annie Dillard

Other Relevant Quotes

You will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

“Jesus came to take away your sins – not your mind.” – Church Ad Project

“Faith is believing in stuff you know ain’t true.” – Mark Twain (paraphrased)

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has noted, confronting God “…requires not only deep faith but new faith.  It takes not only nerve but a fresh hunch about this God.  The hunch is that this God does not want to be an unchallenged structure but one who can be frontally addressed” [From The Message of the Psalms (Augsburg, 1984)].

Don’t tell God how big your storm is, tell the storm how big your God is. – unknown

Posted in Affirmation 10 - Sacredness of Mind and Heart, Ch12 - Faithful Doubting | Leave a Comment »

A sad loss

Posted by theologyontapomaha on September 4, 2009

My apologies to regular readers who may be confused by the sudden appearance of another blogger and mentions of a transfer of CrossWalk America posts.  This “other blogger” is my friend, Merrill Davison, who you will recognize from the Asphalt Jesus book as one of the core walkers on CrossWalk America’s 2006 walk across America.

Unfortunately, there will be no transfer of 2006-2009 CrossWalk America blog entries (besides Merrill’s 2009 posts), though I was very much hoping there would be.  Here’s the background for those who are interested:  In 2008, CWA merged with The Center for Progressive Christianity (TCPC).  Since then, TCPC has been maintaining CWA’s old web pages/blog, but this is coming to an end as it doesn’t mesh with their system and integration would be cost prohibitive.  Thus, I received notice that the CWA blog, which contains hundreds of entries from the entire walk team and several others, from before, during, and after the walk, was going to be taken down.  I hated to see this happen, as it would mean the loss of a distinctive resource and historical record.  Most importantly (to me, anyway), the blog contains hundreds of posts made by other people besides myself and our documentary film maker Scott Griessel.  Since Scott and I respectively have a film and a book that tells the story of the walk in our voices, it didn’t really concern me terribly that our particular blog posts would no longer be available to the public, though there is much written in them that never made it into the book or film.  What really concerned me (and continues to do so) is losing the other people’s posts.  These are voices of the other walkers and special people associated with CrossWalk America that aren’t contained in any other public source.  Thus, I asked if there was a chance that I could transfer the CWA blog onto my Asphalt Jesus blog.

Up until a few days ago, the word was “Yes, as long as you pay the $200 estimated fee for transferring the material.”  I was more than happy to pay this and was very excited about adding these posts as an archive here for the future. However, once the web developers started looking into the matter more closely, they realized that the CWA blog uses such an outdated web platform that no simple transfer exists.  They were going to have to hand cut-and-paste hundreds upon hundreds of entries, and hand-create folders in which to place them … a very expensive process.

Thus, just today we had to pull the plug on the project.  😦  Before the plug was pulled, however, they’d already cut-and-pasted around 50 of Merrill Davison’s blog posts, which is why you find them here.

Sorry for any confusion this created.  I wish we could have that archive, but I guess sometimes things are just meant to fade over time.

Posted in Phoenix Affirmations | Leave a Comment »

How I got here

Posted by theologyontapomaha on August 29, 2009

@ Duck and Decanter

I have a CD set, Masters 1949-1976, of music by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Last week when I was playing it I was reminded of my theology when I was a teenager. The song that brought it to mind was That’s all. The lyrics pretty much sums up my theology of those days. I am a United Methodist now but started out in my religious life rather more evangelical. Sometimes refer to myself as a “recovering fundamentalist”. I have in turns been an ‘independent’ Baptist, Lutheran, Southern Baptist, Pentecostal, Episcopalian and finally a Methodist. I was 12 when “I gave my life to Jesus” in the lingo of my first church. From the list of churches I have attended you might be fooled into thinking that I was deeply religious and spent most of my time contemplating spiritual matters. Or you might think that I changed denominations and churches out of deeply held beliefs. Nothing could be further from actuality.


I went to Goodyear Heights Community church in Akron Ohio because my mother wanted me and my brother out of the house for a week. The church had a summer camp that a neighbor knew about. There were many churches closer to where I lived including the Lutheran one in which I was later married. And that is how I became a Lutheran. The Pentecostal and Episcopalian phases were equally life driven. All through the many churches (there were several from each denomination) I kept the basic fundamentalism that I learned as a preteen. It wasn’t that I didn’t think about God and faith; I did. It was just that I couldn’t see anything other than the basic ‘truths’ I had heard when I first started attending a church. I also never heard anything in the churches I went to that contradicted what I had been told was the teachings of the bible or of God. And of course I never really thought about any of it in relation to the real world.


It is almost as if I was schizophrenic. When I was in school learning about evolution, the age of the earth or any other subject that contradicted what I believed was the inerrant word of God I placed that data in the real world part of my brain. What I heard on Sunday went into the church side. Occasionally, I did have questions when the two parts were in disagreement but under the pressures of hormones at first and then the need to support a growing family I managed to stuff the tensions. That lasted until the early 1990s. Then life bumped up against my fundamentalist beliefs. Strangely enough it was my beliefs about homosexuality that caused the problem. This was really strange because other than believing that homosexuality was a mortal sin I had no beliefs about it. Nor did I have any real world knowledge because that subject wasn’t taught in any school I ever attended. The only thing life had ever taught me about it was that “queers” wore green on Thursdays. This, despite my high school Trigonometry teacher. He always wore green on Thursdays. He did this specifically to refute that bit of street wisdom. God bless him!


But when I was in my 50s life came in the form of Gail who I met at work. Gail is a lesbian which in itself wasn’t a problem. I knew a lot of people that I believed were destined for hell. The problems came as I found out that Gail and I were very much alike. We certainly shared a work ethic and as we worked together I found myself liking her. Eventually I came to the conclusion that there was something wrong in my thinking. How could someone that I had so much in common with be destined for eternal punishment? If she was, why wouldn’t I be? It took me a long time to understand that in not believing Gail was evil (or an abomination) had put a crack in my fundamentalist belief system. It was then that I started to think about what I believed.


I was aided in the thinking part by starting to attend Asbury UMC. How could it not help to have Jeff Proctor-Murphy as a pastor? Having Tex Sample around was another goad for thinking. It would be nice to be able to say that I first went to Asbury because of the theology. I can’t. I went there because it was #10 on the list of United Methodist Churches closest to where I live and I tried it first. But maybe the reason I went back the next Sunday is better. I was so overcome with emotion on seeing all the gay and lesbian couples going to the communion table holding hands that I knew Asbury was THE place. It was a short distance from there to CrossWalk America, the Phoenix Affirmations and walking to Washington DC from Phoenix. All of which is what started me blogging.


I am completely surprised that I have been doing this for three years now (archived on Asphalt Jesus with all other CrossWalk America posts after 15 September 2009). I have finally figured out why I blog. You may have noticed that I am not the quickest thinker around. Writing a blog forces me to think about what I believe and perhaps more importantly why I believe what I do. The discipline of writing about the connection between the world and my theology forces me to think about that connection. My current theology is pretty simple. The Phoenix Affirmations states it much more eloquently than I can.


I wonder what my thoughts on the subject would have been if I had enough courage to talk to my trigonometry teacher about homosexuality.

Don’t forget some things do change as per below!

Posted in Crosswalk America | Leave a Comment »

Lydia Ruffin’s music

Posted by theologyontapomaha on August 27, 2009

Lydia Ruffin’s “Art and Soul Cafe” is highlighted in Ch. 10 of Asphalt Jesus, dealing with Affirmation 4 and reclaiming the arts in worship.  Lydia is an excellent guitarist/vocalist, incidentally.  If you’d like to hear some of her music or order her latest CD, you can find her at

Posted in Affirmation 4 - God's Worship, Ch10 - Art and Soul | Leave a Comment »

Some things do change

Posted by theologyontapomaha on August 26, 2009

@ Duck and Decanter

It is somewhat ironic that after I wrote last week’s post (but before posting it), Somethings never change, that Rebecca Glenn telephoned me with the news that the CrossWalk America website is fading into the cyberspace. I have mixed emotions about this. It has been some time (June 1st 2008) since we moved under the TCPC umbrella and so it is time to move on. Against this is all of the posts that I and others have shared. It started on February 12th 2006 with Walk in the Path of Jesus. That post was Eric Elnes testing the blog. So it is with sadness that I move on.


The archives will be moving to Asphalt Jesus which can be found here sometime before September 15 2009. The links to the CrossWalk website will no longer work.


I will be moving to the TCPC blog located here (or if you need to cut and paste into your browser window). Until that happens I will continue to post here.


This is all scheduled to happen by September 15 2009. With any luck it will. I am too old a techie to have complete faith in predictions depending on computers but I have faith that it will someday.

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Dr. Elnes appears on The God Complex radio show

Posted by theologyontapomaha on August 24, 2009

This morning I had the privilege of speaking with two Christian leaders I value highly, Bruce Reyes-Chow and Carol Howard Merritt, who host The God Complex radio show.  The God Complex is an internet radio show engineered by another leader I respect highly, Landon Wittsitt.

god complex

I thought the interview was going to be recorded for airing at a later date, and thus was waiting until I got that date before alerting you to it.  But the show was actually LIVE this morning!  I think most listeners probably listen later, via podcast or by clicking the audio link on the site, anyway.

We spoke mostly about the state of progressive Christianity, my books, the Phoenix Affirmations, and how the Phoenix Affirmations provide a lens for interpreting and responding to contemporary issues.  It was great fun to be “with” them and an honor to be invited.  You may listen, if you like, by clicking general The God Complex link above or go directly to it by clicking here. [UPDATE 8/25/09: The audio quality on this is pretty sketchy.  They were having technical difficulties for much of the interview, but I thought it was going to sound better than it does.]

On their site you may also find other interviews with people you may want to hear from more than me, like Barbara Brown-Taylor, Diana Butler-Bass and Phyllis Tickle.

Posted in Asphalt Jesus Chapters, Phoenix Affirmations | Leave a Comment »

Some things never change

Posted by theologyontapomaha on August 22, 2009

@ Duck and Decanter

The volunteer office I manage is located in an area that has many small businesses in several dozen business parks. Dispersed among the commercial enterprises are a few churches. I know of an Anglican, Baptist and one, Beth Yachad, I had not heard of before driving past its sign. Being ever curious I checked out the web site,, advertised on the sign. According to the web site Beth Yachad – House of Unity – is a Community of Messianic Synagogues. Huh…They also have an association with the Assemblies of God which makes me believe that they are of a Pentecostal persuasion. So, it is a synagogue – and an Assembly of God church – which welcomes gentiles. Interesting. I have been thinking about attending a service at Beth Yachad ever since I noticed the signs several months ago.

Last month I read an article, Starvation mum on home arrest, in the Straits Times which started me thinking about Beth Yachad in a different context. The article was about the member of an obscure (at least obscure to me) Jewish sect that became the focus of riots in Israel. The sect, Toldot Aaron, is one of several very conservative anti-Zionist sects in Jerusalem. Who knew that there were Jewish sects that were anti-Zionist? In researching the various branches and sects of Judaism I have come to the conclusion that Judaism is as splintered and divided as Christianity is. And always has been. The New Testament records the Sadducees, Pharisees and Zealots with maybe the Herodians thrown in for good measure. From other sources we know of the Essenes. Note: The links I have given here are from the online version of the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1901-1906 and so from a Jewish perspective but not necessarily a modern one. Bart Ehrman often mentions Christianities in the plural with respect to the beginnings of our religion and it is understandable how we started out that way with the example of Judaism as a starting point.


I always assumed that all Jews supported the Jewish state of Israel but there sects -loosely associated and called Eda Haredit – living in Israel that believe that a secular Jewish state is heretical and evil incarnate. Knowing of and recognizing the divergence of Jewish sects, in the past as well as in the present, enables me to understand the arguments that took place in the synagogues during New Testament times. Apparently they are still going on.

We believe in Messiah Yeshua’s life, his miracles yesterday and today. His vicarious and sacrificial death as our atonement [my emphasis added], His bodily resurrection, His personal future return for His followers, both living and dead, and His future establishment of His kingdom on Earth. Isaiah 53:8; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Isaiah 9:6-7; 1 Corinthians 11:26; Zechariah 12:6-10; Zechariah 14:16-21

From We believe section of

…, I have explained that contrary to the missionary claim that blood sacrifice is the only method of atonement [my emphasis added] in the Bible, there are three methods of atonement [my emphasis added] clearly defined in the Jewish scriptures: the sin sacrifice, repentance, and charity. Moreover, the sin sacrifice (known in the Jewish scriptures as korban chatat) did not atone for all types of sin, but rather, only for man’s most insignificant iniquity: unintentional sins. The sin sacrifice was inadequate to atone for a transgression committed intentionally.

Rabbi Tovia Singer, Could Jesus’ Death Atone For Any Kind of Sin?, Outreach Judaism website

Rabbi Singer also quotes the Tanakh –what we Christians call the Old Testament. Notably, Leviticus 17:11, Numbers 15:27-31, Hosea 3:4-5, Hosea 14:2-3, I Kings 8:46-50. Outreach Judaism, where I found Rabbi Singer, is “Judaism’s response to Christian Missionaries”.


I find the disagreement on atonement historically interesting but I believe that other issues are more pressing at present. The Assemblies of God believe that homosexuality is a sin (here); I wondered what Rabbi Singer’s position is on that issue. I asked him that question and submitted it through the Outreach Judaism website. This was his answer:

Male homosexuality is a mortal sin.

With love of Zion,


Isn’t it nice that they can agree on some things?

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Bass, with Ripples

Posted by theologyontapomaha on August 21, 2009

Affirmation 4 of the Phoenix Affirmations affirms that worship needs to be as vibrant, sincere, and artful as it is scriptural.   What gave rise originally to this Affirmation – as well as several aspects of Countryside’s worship that you may consider to be “new and different” since I’ve been on the scene – was an experience I had in 1999 at our lakeside cabin in Bandon, Oregon (Are you beginning to sense that Bandon is a very special place for my family?).  I write about that experience in the introductory chapter of my book Igniting Worship: The Seven Deadly Sins (Abingdon Press, 2004).  I don’t think Abingdon Press will mind if I cut and paste that introduction here.  As you read it, bear in mind that this was written from a particular context which is not Countryside, and reflects experiences I had there, some of which translate directly to Countryside’s context and some of which do not (For instance, I don’t find many people at Countryside sitting blankly, looking bored out of their minds in worship at either service).  I also no longer feel comfortable referring  to myself as a “liberal” minister, and more often than not use the word “progressive” (not that I’m entirely comfortable with that, either.  Basically, I’m just plain uncomfortable with any labels).  Anyway, reading what’s below may help you understand why we do some of the things we do in worship, both at 9 and 11 am.

Bass, with Ripples

Why are people totally bored in church? Why do they sit there staring blankly, looking like they’re just waiting to be released from bondage? There doesn’t seem to be any connection between worship and everyday life.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m a minister—a mainline, liberal, Protestant minister of the United Church of Christ, in Scottsdale, Arizona. I’m also a renegade. In the summer of 1999, I and a handful of others were trying to start a revolution. We felt worship had drifted away from its moorings and become too tame, too pre-packaged. We wanted to start with a blank sheet of paper, so we asked, “What is worship?” We then began the task of refashioning it according to that vision, endeavoring to create worship for the Twenty-First century.

While on study-leave that summer, I found myself sitting at the edge of a weathered dock on a small lake on the southern Oregon Coast. I’d been staring at the surface for a long time, not knowing why I was looking at anything at all, given my normal routine of meditating with eyes shut. I guess I had been inspired by the book I’d been reading, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, an incredible exposition of God’s mysterious hand in Nature. Dillard’s words turned my soul’s gaze from the heavens toward the earth, where it was asking, “What is the basis of worship?”

As I gazed into the water, I suddenly sensed motion at the periphery of my vision: the largest bass I have ever seen! It was so big that, though it was swimming next to the sand three feet below the surface, it was causing ripples on top. It shot right past me and I gasped.

Now, I’m not claiming that God spoke to me in the bass. But, in the moment after I gasped, “a plum” seemed to “drop from heaven,” as the Buddhists say.

“This is the foundation of worship. If you can take that hour or so you have on Sunday morning and open people to experiencing just a quarter second of the awe and wonder you just experienced, it is accomplished. You can pack up and go home. You have an hour or so for a quarter second.”

Something felt intuitively right about this insight, like I’d lived my entire life and entered the ministry just to “hear” it and do something with it. Yet I wondered, “How does one organize an entire worship service around an experience of the Divine, whether the experience lasts a quarter second or an hour? It’s not like one can simply say, ‘Okay, now we’re all going to have a God experience.’”

At the end of my study-leave, I returned to my church, Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ (SCUCC), where we explored the experience and the questions surrounding it from many different angles. Together we realized that, although we can’t create or manufacture an experience of God in worship (and wouldn’t want to if we could), we can create a context of openness to God’s Spirit at work in our midst. A rock-solid theological premise at SCUCC is that the Spirit of the Living Christ (the Holy Spirit) is really present in worship. Not only is the Spirit present, but it is waiting for us to open even the smallest crack in our hearts so that it may enter within us, stirring the deepest waters of our souls. Thus, we concluded, our job as worship leaders is to organize worship in such a way that it’s kind of like sitting at the edge of that weathered Oregon dock: You can’t predict when, or even if, a bass is going to swim by, but you can set yourself up to be awake and attentive, with eyes wide open, so if it does swim by you don’t miss it.

We started a second service based on this premise and called it The Studio, which is built on an experience-based platform. The Studio is a multi-sensory worship service drawing upon a wide variety of artistic resources, including music, painting, poetry, dance, drama, sculpture, multimedia, film, literature, as well as other “sacred” and “secular” elements, both ancient and modern. The aim is not so much to teach people about God as to open us all to experiencing God in a way that resonates with, and transforms, our everyday lives.

The experiential platform of The Studio makes it different from most “traditional” and even “contemporary” services in the United States today, which are commonly built on a message-based platform. By comparison, most services present a relatively fixed liturgy in which the sermon stands at the apex.

At The Studio, the liturgy changes each week and is organized around the kind of experience to which we are trying to open people. Thus, if the theme is “God as Creator,” the worship team does not ask, “How can we teach people about how God is Creator,” but asks instead, “How can we help open people to experiencing the Creator God during the time we have together, or at least model what an experience of the Creator might be like?” We understand that the resources of the entire world are at our disposal for doing this.

Furthermore, preaching takes a different form at The Studio. Instead of a pastor standing up and delivering a sermon for twenty minutes or so at a fixed point in the service, the pastor acts more as an interpretive guide throughout the service, reflecting briefly at various points on what has just happened to us, or providing an intellectual bridge between elements. Strong use is made of laypeople as well, who provide reflections (often in dialog with a pastor) and prepare or lead the congregation through various segments. Laypeople also play a critical role in helping plan The Studio.

Since The Studio was introduced in September 2000, our church has changed in wonderful ways we could scarcely have imagined. I can hardly wait to get to church on Sunday morning! Worship has become an expression of our entire community. Lives are being transformed on broader and deeper levels. Many people who had “given up” and left whatever church they were attending long ago have made their way to The Studio, are becoming breathtaking disciples of Christ.[1] Even our “traditional” service has been enhanced through worship insights gleaned from The Studio. Most importantly, we have found that by bringing elements from everyday life into worship, we begin taking worship with us into our everyday lives. All of life has become worship, just as worship has become all of life.

[1] Worship attendance has nearly doubled in the last four years, with approximately 80% of those new to us being from the “unchurched” population.

Posted in Affirmation 4 - God's Worship, Ch10 - Art and Soul, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Gay Marriage and the Separation of Church and State

Posted by theologyontapomaha on August 17, 2009

It’s good to be back from vacation, friends!  My family and I had a great time in Bandon, OR.  Sorry for not posting during that time, but I’ve gotten a lot better about making vacation a true vacation over the years …

Since the last subject I preached a (full) sermon on was homosexuality and the Bible, and the subject while I was away was Affirmation 7 and the separation of church and state, I thought it might be appropriate to post the article that Dr. Jim Keck (First Plymouth, Lincoln) and I wrote in the editorial section of the Omaha World-Herald last April concerning the Iowa Supreme Court decision on gay marriage.  It speaks to both topics!  By the way, I’ll be teaching a class on the Bible and homosexuality in September – one version on Sunday evenings at the church and another version theology-on-tap-style at Myth Lounge in the Old Market on Wednesday evenings.  Sign up at the Information Station on Sundays or call the church office (402-391-0350).  Now here’s the article:

An April 8 World Herald editorial regarding the recent ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court concerning gay marriage urged readers not to let debate on the issue “devolve into … ugliness and angry stereotyping.”  It also asked some important questions of Omaha’s clergy: “How will clergy advise their membership on how to deal with this? Will they be accepting of gay couples, or will those church or synagogue members need to go elsewhere to worship?”

As the pastors of large churches in Omaha and Lincoln, we thought we would take this newspaper up on its query.  This is how we would advise not only our congregations but any student of the Bible and the US Constitution:

According to the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Contrary to popular assumption, Christians overwhelmingly supported the adoption of this amendment, as they believed it to be vital for the protection of religion even more so than protection of the state.  By and large, we in the US have tried to hold true to this principle in all areas except one: marriage.

As opposed to certain European countries, where marriage is kept strictly separated into a civil function and a religious one, we combine them in the US without batting an eye.  For many couples in Europe, if they wish their marriage to be recognized by both the church and the state, they must receive a certificate of civil union issued by the state alone, and undergo a service of “holy matrimony” performed by the church alone.  For those with no desire for church or other religious recognition, the civil union certificate is all they need.  This arrangement recognizes that the state has an interest in marriage only in so far as it furthers civic interests, and that the church has an interest in marriage only in so far as it furthers theological interests.

In the US, where no legal differentiation exists between a civil marriage and holy matrimony, we place our clergy in the odd (and dare we say, unconstitutional) role of determining which relationships are in the state’s interest and which are not.  Similarly, the state is given implied authority to determine which relationships are blessed by God and which are not.

Consider the problem posed by Cal Thomas, whose column appeared on the same day as the World-Herald editorial.  In making his case that gay marriage is a “dangerous precedent,” he states that “the problem with the Iowa Court ruling is that it vitiates a standard that defined marriage as between two people of the opposite sex, which was God’s idea, not government’s (see Genesis 2:24), while failing to substitute a new standard.”

The fact that Genesis 2:24 makes no comment on the legal institution of marriage, and the fact that many God-honoring churches and synagogues in the US are in favor of gay marriage, are minor problems raised by his assertion, compared to the problem it raises for government.  Is it the government’s role to discern the mind of God?  And shall it pass laws based on its discernment?

The reason why debate on gay marriage tends to break down so quickly is because by failing to distinguish between the civic and religious functions of marriage, we give religious institutions and the state powers that do not properly reside with them, which they do not have the means to adequately arbitrate.

Realizing this Catch-22, some have suggested that gay people receive “civil unions,” reserving “marriage” to heterosexuals.  Yet while this solution at least recognizes the problem of mixing the functions of religion and government, it actually reinforces the problem.  The reasons for separating gay and straight relationships into civil unions and marriage remain strongly theologically based.

Until or unless the US adopts a stricter separation between civil and religious marriages that apply to all couples across the board, the best route through this issue is to allow states the ability to marry gays and religious institutions the right to marry or not marry them depending on their theological commitments.

This arrangement at least respects the fact that the First Amendment’ requires the free exercise of religion.   It recognizes that, assured of this freedom, some religious institutions will marry gay people and some won’t.  And by granting marriage licenses to both gay and straight couples alike, the state is protected from having to determine which marriages are blessed by God and which are not.

We feel the Iowa decision should be applauded by all religious people, regardless of their theological views on marriage, for it at least rebuilds a section of the wall that protects not only the state from religion, but religion from the state.

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