Perhaps Not a Post-Theistic Christian

Since the very end of 2013 I’ve known I’m an atheist. A few days later I discovered that ‘Humanist’ describes my outlook very well. This after having been raised Roman Catholic and then spending over 20 years in evangelical circles, some of that in ministry. More recently I’ve been thinking that perhaps I could also be described as a post-theistic Christian. Now, I’m backing away from that idea.

Attending St. Lydia’s, reading Tripp Fuller’s book on Jesus and then attending a Pub Theology meetup, it seemed entirely possible that I could identify as both post-theistic and Christian. After all, I still find what I think I discern of the historical Jesus both fascinating and compelling, and I enjoy the company of others to discuss theology and other ‘ultimate concerns.’ This isn’t really very new, as earlier this year I sought out Fourth Universalist Society on Easter Sunday. Somehow, it felt right.

My son, currently in his early teens, attends church with me on Sunday. We’ve been visiting around, but have gravitated more and more towards The Unitarian Church in Summit. Since my wife still identifies as Christian but is not currently attending church, I thought it might be a good idea to seek out one closer to her outlook, as a sort of compromise. So, this past Sunday morning my son and I got up earlier than usual for a Sunday to attend Christ Church in Summit. It just happened to be the first Sunday in Advent.

Though it is a very progressive Christian church, affiliated with the United Church of Christ and American Baptist Church, it is definitely solidly in the realm of Christianity. They are also apparently pretty successful in reaching people as well, given the range of generations present at the service we attended. From elderly people to families with small children, ever age and phase of life was represented. The pews were all full, and this was only the first of two services that morning.

That said, neither my son nor I felt entirely at home at Christ Church. Yes, we were warmly welcomed, and yes I was impressed by the stained glass windows and high quality of the service in general. I think we both felt a bit like outsiders, though through no fault of the church. Speaking only for myself, I discovered that I’m really not comfortable with that amount of God-language, and I already knew I don’t like reinterpreting it as somehow metaphorical.

Leaving the service, I knew we hadn’t found our place. It’s looking more and more like the destination will be The Unitarian Church in Summit. At least we gave a more distinctively Christian church a try, and also I’ve had something reconfirmed about myself: I am most definitely a Humanist. 

I may also be a Unitarian Universalist in not too long.

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Via his very first tweet, Jeff Bezos announced that his spaceflight company has accomplished a historic first. It sent a rocket to the edge of space and then landed that rocket’s main fuselage gently on dry land.

Most things humans have sent into space are pushed up there by a disposable rocket. Once the rockets do their job, they fall back to earth, usually worse for wear. They have to be rebuilt each time (though sometimes their parts can be reused). That’s an expensive process, especially if you are a private company hoping to bring tourists to space. Virgin Atlantic, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX and Bezos’ Blue Origin all want to do just that. 

And now Blue Origin has paved the way, landing its rocket on its second attempt (the propulsion module was destroyed when they first tried). Here’s the video in full:

Elon Musk responded to the news on Twitter. He pointed out that it requires much greater speed to actually reach orbit than it does to reach the edge of space. (Phil Plait has some good analysis of the exchange over on his Bad Astronomy blog.)

Still, it’s a pretty amazing accomplishment. 

It should be kept in mind, though, that New Shepard is a suborbital rocket whereas SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is an orbital rocket. It’s much more difficult to safely land a vehicle returning from orbital velocities than it is a short hop to high altitude.

In this regard, New Shepard is the world’s first reusable suborbital rocket, and that’s an astonishing achievement!

When the NASA space shuttle program ended a few years ago, some howled about the ‘setback’ this represented to the U.S. space program, and to space exploration in general. They said it made no sense to depend on Russia (really, it doesn’t). What has happened since then is amazing. On the one hand, we have amazing images and really great data coming back from probes, and more are in the works to be sent up. Another is the development of the private space industry. Though there is far to go in terms of the private sector becoming the reliable conveyor of freight and personnel that we need, the progress is encouraging.

As long as we can avoid an extinction level event, or even one that sets us back to the dark ages, we’re on our way. Truly this could be the space age I heard about so often as a kid in the 80s.

Pub Theology: The First Preacher

What was a Humanist doing at a Pub Theology meetup? Well, discussing theology and drinking beer, for starters. I’d heard of Pub Theology for some years, as an informal way for people to discuss religion and spirituality in a non-threatening environment (some people, even many who consider themselves Christians, are really turned off by churches). As a Humanist, though, what could possibly interest me in this type of gathering?

It was, in fact, a comination of recent experiences that brought me around to the idea of participating. The two most noteworthy were visiting St. Lydia’s and reading Tripp Fuller’s new book on Jesus. At St. Lydia’s I felt an unqualified welcome despite the fact that it’s a Lutheran church. I didn’t need to say under my breath that I’m non-theistic, and at no time did anyone attempt to evangelize me. As for Tripp Fuller’s book, it was reading his comment that if the Gospel of Mark could be included in the canon, many of his skeptical friends should be welcomed in the church. Those factors, along with my academic training (BMin) and continued interest in some aspects of biblical theology, drew me in.

Oddly, I was apparently the only one to bring a Bible to the meetup. At one point a question came up and I, hesitantly, pulled out my trusty NRSV (with Apocrypha). The meetup itself followed along readings included in a handout. Some of the readings were from the Bible, and others were contemporary commentary.

This was not an in-depth study, by any means. Pub Theology, at least as presented by Jim Kast-Keat on behalf of Middle Collegiate Church, is a mildly boozy, friendly, structured chat about Christian beliefs. There was no deep-dive into historical, cultural or even textual context. The real focus seemed to be on people’s experiences with the topic in question, and how they felt about it. On this evening in particular the topic could be boiled down to ‘women in ministry’, with ‘The First Preacher’ referring to Mary Magdalenebeing first to see the resurrected Jesus and then going to tell others about it.

Frankly, it surprises me that this is still an issue in progressive Christian churches. When I left the Catholic Church and joined a Presbyterian parish at 17, I had no problem with women in ministerial roles. That was in 1993. Later I took a strictly complementarian role and held on to it for well over a decade, despite some underlying discomfort with the doctrine.

This brings me to the part that makes me wonder the most about progressive Christian beliefs. They have the canon of Scripture, consisting of the same 66 biblical books that all Protestants and Catholics accept (the latter with several additional texts in their canon), yet don’t seem to hold it all equally. Of course, no Christians hold all parts of their Bible in equal regard. The Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, of which I was a part, makes a strict distinction between Old and New Testaments, favoring the latter as ‘in effect’ for our age. Fundamentalists who quote Old Testament against homosexuality conveniently ignore prohibitions on garments made of mixed types of fabrics. Matthew 25:31-46 is profoundly unsettling for faith-only evangelicals (I know, based on feedback I’ve received after preaching on it). Christians in general prefer to look the other way on YHWH’s promotion of genocide and rape in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Still, picking and choosing which passages are acceptable and continuing to consider oneself ‘Christian’ feels terribly convenient. It seems to confirm the longstanding criticism leveled by atheists at believers that their religion will always conform to whatever views become embraced by the majority, adapting and surviving in a new form. When I was Roman Catholic a parish priest where I attended often spoke against this approach as ‘smorgasbord Christianity.’

Having said all that, let me backtrack a bit and be a bit less critical. Progressive Christians would likely argue that Jesus of Nazareth is the true ‘Word of God,’ and the Bible simply points to him. They accept the 66+ books as canonical, but are ‘accurate’ only insofar as they faithfully testify to and promote the love of God revealed in Christ. Even those Christians who are non-theistic, either overtly as atheists or more discretely in holding to god-language in a metaphorical sense, see value in the Bible as a shared narrative. The stories told and lessons passed along provide a core resource and common language for people to gather around. Even as they wrestle with the text, they are interacting with it and with one another.

Groups like Sunday Assembly, Ethical Culture, the Unitarian Universalist Association and Oasis do not have anything like the Bible, leaving them without a compelling shared story. Then again, all of these groups have their own organizational history as well as human and cosmic history to discuss and reflect upon. Not having it all within a single book poses a challenge, but I’d say it’s better to have evidence-based information to work with than creative fictions. Perhaps we simply need better storytellers to work with the source material.

It was great seeing Rev. Emily Scott from St Lydia’s there, sharing about her experience as a woman in ministry. Rev. Adriene Thorne from Middle Collegiate Church was also there to do the same, and both had a lot to contribute to the discussion. Most fun was watching them play ‘My Friend You See, I Disagree’ at the end, and Rev. Thorne was wise to prefer taking the contrarian positions (hilarious). Jim did very well as host and discussion leader, despite being a bit frazzled that we weren’t able to use the usual space.

Ah, and that brings me to Jimmy’s No. 43. I’ve been to this bar before, for The Greenwich Series. I was unimpressed with the venue for that event, and attending this event there confirmed those negative impressions. The service is terribly slow. The place smells bad and the stink got into my clothing and skin. For Pub Theology, the worst part was getting to the bar to find that the back room where the group usually meets was given to another event, with no prior notice. We were put in a noisy side room right next to a speaker playing what sounded like side B tunes from some folksy 70s album. We crowded around a table on stools, and were prevented from bringing in more stools from the bar area to seat latecomers.

Despite it all, I actually look forward to the next Pub Theology meetup. It will take place on December 15 and is themed ‘Queering Christmas.’ Jes Kast-Keat and John Russell Stanger will be guests for that gathering.

See Also:

A Level Head to Address the So-Called ‘War on Christmas’

It was only this year that I met Chris Stedman at a conference, and the video above is from 2013, in which he talked to Bill O’Reilly about ‘The War on Christmas.’ His calm demeanor in the face of such blustering only reinforces my appreciation for Chris and the work he does.

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Sunday Assembly Stats – October 2015

These cool updates about how Sunday Assembly is doing around the world come out once a month. The one above just became available this week.

What is Sunday Assembly? In short, we’re a global secular community that began in London in January 2013. Our motto is simple: Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.

To learn more and get involved, check out the Sunday Assembly website and have a look at the following posts:

If you are ever going to be in New York City, where I’m an organizer, be sure to attend one of our events

First Canadian ‘dinosaur’ actually a Dimetrodon


One hundred and seventy years after its initial discovery, scientists have finally solved the puzzling identity of Canada’s earliest “dinosaur” – and it’s actually a Dimetrodon.

In a study released earlier this week, Canadian researchers revealed that the fossil, previously branded a Bathygnathus borealis, has been renamed Dimetrodon borealis.

Dimetrodons were mammal-like reptiles that walked on four legs and were known primarily for their large “sails,” which arced along their spines.

The creatures were top predators in the early Premian era, between 295 and 272 million years ago, and went extinct some 40 million years before the dinosaurs.

Dimetrodons are often mistaken for dinosaurs but are actually more closely related to mammals.

This week’s findings make the Canadian fossil the first Dimetrodon find in Canada.

Continue Reading.

First Canadian ‘dinosaur’ actually a Dimetrodon


Surviving Off Trash

This video from Al Jazeera highlights the extreme poverty in Kenya that leads people find their ‘hope’ in a garbage dump. This is a topic I’ve been following for over a decade now, and which continues to sadden me. If people are willing to work in filth to scratch out a living, they are by no means freeloaders and are entirely worthy of better lives. It isn’t right to simply shut down such dumps or shut people out from them. What is needed are means for people to seek better lives and flourish.

For more on what I’ve blogged about this over the years, including some videos, see the following. It isn’t all sadness and misery. There’s some good news and solid hope in there as well.