Thursday, April 24, 2014

We Must Speak -- An Alternative Lectionary for Easter 3 (David Ackerman)

The phrase "we must speak" has a couple of nuances in this set of readings from David Ackerman's Beyond the Lectionary. For Jonathan and David -- it is a difficult conversation about the challenges to their friendship from Jonathan's father.  For Peter and John in the reading from Acts 4, it is a challenging word to the religious authorities -- do we obey you and remain silent?  Or do we follow God's directive and preach the good news?  As for the reading from John, Peter wants to have a conversation with Jesus about the future -- especially the situation regarding the Beloved Disciple.  How often have we heard these words -- "we must speak?"  When we hear them, is the expectation good news or bad news?  The reality is that many conversations must be quite frank -- and we see that in these selections from the Scriptures.


Easter 3

“We Must Speak”

Call to Worship:  Psalm 18:46-50 NRSV

One:  The Lord lives!  Blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation, the God who gave me vengeance and subdued peoples under me; who delivered me from my enemies; indeed, you exalted me above my adversaries; you delivered me from the violent.

Many:  For this I will extol you, O Lord, among the nations, and sing praises to your name.  Great triumphs he gives to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his descendants forever.

Gathering Prayer:  We come before you today, God of grace, inwardly yearning for you.  We pray that our voices might draw out from within us the praise that we feel inside of us.  You have done so many good things for us.  Teach us to truly give thanks to you with our minds, our lips, and our lives.

Confession:  Merciful God, we confess that so many times we should have spoken up when we remained silent.  Our silence has done us more harm than good and has allowed injustice to flourish unchecked.  We confess that for some reason it is hard for us to speak of our love for you even though you mean more to us than words can express.  Forgive us, God, and change us, so that we might have the courage we need to share the news of your love and grace with our world.

Assurance:  Though we may have been silent when we should have spoken, God does not keep silence.  God speaks on our behalf and advocates for us with words of forgiveness, compassion, and new life.  Let us then respond as changed people who know that God’s love breaks through every obstacle and barrier to grace.

Scriptures:      1 Samuel 20:12-23, 35-42 – “David and Jonathan”
Acts 4:13-22 – “We Cannot Keep from Speaking”
John 21:20-25 – “The Conclusion of John”

Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.

Reflection Question

  •  1 Samuel 20 describes the depth of David and Jonathan’s love for each other.  Biblical scholars debate about whether their love was platonic or erotic.  What do you think?
  •  Have you ever had to say goodbye to someone you cared for deeply?  Did you feel free enough to share your true feelings with that person?
  • In Acts 4, the disciples are charged not to speak about Jesus, but they defy the order.  Are there places in your life where it is taboo to speak about your faith?  How do you handle those situations?
  •   In John 21, Jesus says that the “beloved disciple” will be spared.  What do you imagine that he did with his life?  What do you make of the conclusion to John in v 25?  What are your favorite stories about Jesus to share?
Prayer of Thanksgiving:  You have loved us so much, God, and you empower us to show your love in this world even when it is very hard to do.  Thank you for giving us the strength we need to be your people and to declare your praise in this world.

Benediction:  Now let us go and share the joyful message of the God who loves us, sets us free, and empowers us to live as disciples of our Savior, Jesus.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Evidence Enough? (John 20:19-31) -- A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 2A

John 20:19-31 (New Revised Standard Version)

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin[a]), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[b] that Jesus is the Messiah,[c] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

             On this the second Sunday of Easter, the story continues of the resurrection continues.  It’s evening now.  Jesus has already appeared to Mary Magdalene, whom he had told he must first ascend to the Father, from whom he had come.  Now it’s time to make an appearance to the rest of the disciples, who we’re told are hiding out due to their fear of the religious authorities (who work for the Roman overseers).  Peter and the beloved disciple had seen the empty tomb, but it’s not clear what they took from that moment.  Perhaps, as Mary first thought, someone had taken the body.  

                Can we assume that Mary reported her encounter with Jesus?  If so, that doesn’t seem to have been   sufficient.  After all, in that day, a woman could not testify in court.  Her testimony was not considered reliable.  I wish I could say that we’ve gotten completely beyond such beliefs, but unfortunately in some quarters a woman’s voice remains suspect.  They are, we’re told, overly emotional.  Perhaps that is the way that the group felt about her testimony.    

                Now they can have evidence that will meet their needs.  Jesus shows the disciples his hands and his side – where the wounds of the cross still reside.  When they see these wounds, they rejoice.  They had thought that the cross ended things for them.  There is a certain finality in death, but apparently not in this case.  They were back in business!

It’s at this moment that Jesus gives commissions his disciples to continue the ministry that the Father had committed to him.  So, even as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus will send them.  And in order to prepare and empower them for this work, Jesus breathes on them the Holy Spirit.  He also empowers them to forgive and retain sins – just as Jesus had been doing. 

             We will return to this story on Pentecost Sunday, when we will focus in on this act of empowerment and commissioning. But that needs to wait for a few weeks.  The point is – the no longer needed to live in fear, for they were filled with the Spirit of the one who had been resurrected. 

           Mary was the first person to encounter the risen Christ.  Then the disciples as a whole received a visit.  That is, everyone except for Thomas.  For some reason he had been absent when Jesus appeared that first night of resurrection.  He heard their testimony, but he wasn’t sure he could accept it.  Like many of us, he asked tough questions.  He was an empiricist at heart.  It’s not that he was a perennial doubter.  After all, he had committed his life to following Jesus.  He signed on to the team, and even in the face of Jesus’ death, he remained connected to the community.  He was a believer, but he did have his questions.  He needed more evidence.  He needed to touch Jesus’ hands and his side – not just see with his eyes, but touch with his hands.  Thomas gets a bad rap for his doubts, but we should be glad to have a Thomas in the story.  It’s good to ask questions and simply believe because someone else tells us a story. 

             While Jesus told Mary that she couldn’t touch him because he hadn’t yet ascended to the Father (John 20:17), Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds.  Thus, it appears that Jesus has ascended to the Father.  He has completed his resurrection (how very different from the ascension stories in Luke and in Acts).  John doesn’t have a final ascension. 

As for Thomas, who has arrived a week late for the Easter service (the second Sunday of Easter?), when all the lilies have been removed, he needs some reassurance.  And so Jesus offers him the opportunity to see and possibly even touch his wounds.  In response, Thomas declares:  “My Lord and My God.”   Jesus commends him for making this profession of faith.  He has had enough evidence to overcome his concerns.  But, John has an audience that may not have had the same kind of encounter.  And therefore, in John’s account, Jesus also commends those who believe though they don’t see. 

As a teen, I purchased a book with the title Evidence that Demands a Verdict.  In that book Josh McDowell did his best to marshal all the evidence he could to prove that Jesus had risen from the dead.  He tried to answer all the questions and turn aside every attempted challenge.  But is that what we need to believe?  Or, can we take Jesus at his word, and receive the blessing of believing while not seeing.  I’ve seen many attempts to prove that the resurrection occurred, but rarely does one succeed in converting the true skeptic. 

So, on this Second Sunday of Easter, do we have enough evidence to receive the gift of resurrection?  Are we ready to be transformed by our encounter with the risen Christ?   As we contemplate these questions, perhaps we might find helpful this observation by Bruce Epperly.
Something dramatic happened that can’t be reduced to a tall tale, repetition of myths of death and rebirth, or a rotting corpse. Something mysterious and amazing occurred that can’t be confined by a literalist understanding of the biblical stories. As the gospel of John proclaims, there is always more to Jesus than our own fabrications or the written text: his life, death, and resurrection will always transcend and sometimes transform the rational mind, opening the mind to a deeper rationalism in which all is wonder and miracle. Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe* that Jesus is the Messiah,* the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)
The experiences of Mary, of the ten, and of Thomas, offer testimony to the transformative nature of Christ’s resurrection.  Something happened that our attempts at providing rationalist answers fall short of.   

                Many other stories could be told, but for John, these are sufficient to encourage our belief that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God, and therefore, as a result – have life.  Turning again to Bruce Epperly:  
This Easter, open to possibility, awaken to wonder, and look for hints of Jesus’ resurrection in your own cells, your spirit, and the world around. Look for miracles and, as Wendell Berry counsels, practice resurrection. You will discover that Christ is Risen in your life – today

 That is the point of Easter, even a week later!  Life conquers death – in all of its mystery. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Peculiar Goings On (Dave Walker) -- Review

PECULIAR GOINGS ON: Even More Dave Walker Guide to the Church Cartoons.  By Dave Walker.  Norwich, UK:  Canterbury Press, 2014.  90 pages.

It is a commonplace myth that religious folks are dour and humorless.  While clearly there are those who are self-righteous prigs, who could use an infusion of humor, many of us do have a sense of humor.  Some of us can even laugh at ourselves.  Yes, even clergy can laugh at themselves.    

This little book of ecclesial cartoons drawn/written by Dave Walker continues Walker's Guide to the Church series.  Walker's cartoons appear in the Church Times ( on a weekly basis.  

The cartoons are reflective of Walker's experiences in the Church of England.  Thus, one might need to brush up on one's British-isms or you might miss some of the humor.  Still, even if you're not familiar with Anglican-speak many of the cartoons will speak directly to our experiences.  So, the book is composed of of black and white line drawings and written content.  We get to laugh at the way hymns are selected, how cell phones can be used (okay to record the preacher's brilliant sermon), not so great if everyone has to tell callers that they're in church (so leave it home).  There are cartoons about Sunday School and writing sermons.  You might not find everything humorous (depends on your taste in humor), but you're sure to find something that hits the funny bone.  If nothing else it serves as a a reminder that we can't take everything in "churchland" (my son's word) too seriously.  

A couple of things to note -- for the American reader -- nappies are diapers and biscuits are cookies.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to describe a cartoons, so this one example that speaks to a common experience in the church office will have to suffice.  This cartoon is found on page 27 of the book, and also on Walker's website (

If you're "religious" and have a sense of humor, you'll enjoy this little book,   especially if you're clergy!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Unbelievable News -- A Sermon for Easter Sunday

Mark 16:9-20

If you were reading along with Cheryl, did you notice the brackets around the morning’s passage?  They’re a signal that these verses are a later addition to the Gospel of Mark.  Because most scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel ends with verse 8 and not verse 20, not too many sermons get preached from this text.  I wouldn’t have preached on it either, except I’ve been following an alternative set of readings during the Lenten season and this is the chosen text for Easter Sunday.    

But even if this reading comes from a Second Century addition, could there still be a word from God present in these verses?  After all, for many centuries this addition to the Gospel was considered sacred scripture – even the verses that talk about snakes and poison! 

Mark 16 begins with a group of women going to the tomb to finish the burial process.  As they walk to the tomb they begin to realize that they might have trouble moving the stone covering the entrance, so when they arrive, they’re rather surprised to find that the stone has already been moved.  When they look inside, they discover that Jesus’ body is missing.  But they do find a young man sitting off to the right side of the tomb.  He tells them not to be afraid, but to go and tell Peter and the others that Jesus has been raised from the dead and will meet them in Galilee.  Instead of going to Peter and telling him the news, they go home and keep this news to themselves.  With that the Gospel of Mark ends.  

If the Gospel of Mark does end in verse 8, as most scholars believe, you can understand why someone might want to add an epilogue to it.  Having the women go home without sharing the news leaves you wanting more, doesn’t it?  It’s like when I went to see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  I found myself unsettled and a bit bewildered by the brevity of the film’s resurrection scene.  We went from the violence of the crucifixion to a passing glance at the empty tomb, and then the credits rolled.  As I sat there, rather numb, I wanted to write a different ending!  And that’s what happened here – someone decided to finish the story by drawing on scenes from the other three gospels.

There is something about this epilogue, however, that is somewhat unsettling.  There are scenes here – like the handling of snakes and drinking of poison – that seem rather unbelievable.  But then isn’t the resurrection itself a bit unbelievable?  After all, people just don’t rise from the dead every day.  For many people, the resurrection sounds like crazy talk.  

Many people have tried to give “proof” that Jesus rose from the dead, but these efforts generally fall short.  There were no cameras to record the event, and even the Gospels don’t say much – they just tell us that he was seen alive by his disciples.  But as a result, their lives seem to have been transformed.  As I shared with a reporter from the Free Press, ultimately we have to take this news about the resurrection by faith.  Not even an empty tomb is sufficient proof.

As we read this epilogue, which was written sometime in the Second Century, to give closure to Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, just like in John 20.  And she goes and tells the disciples, who were mourning and weeping, that Jesus had risen.   But, no one believes her, and why would they?

Then Jesus appears to two disciples who are on a trip into the countryside.  You may notice some similarities to Luke’s story of the encounter on the road to Emmaus.  Jesus doesn’t break bread with them, but he does tell them to go and share the news with the other disciples.  And once again – no one will believe what seems like unbelievable news. 

Finally, Jesus appears to the whole community, and he gives them a good talking-to.  He asks them why they’re being so stubborn in their unbelief.  Why is this such unbelievable news? 

I like the way our friend Bruce Epperly puts it:
The resurrection will always remain a mystery, hidden from rationalists, Enlightenment-thinkers, and literalists. It is always more than we can ask or imagine.
Too often, when we try to explain the resurrection, we end up domesticating it. And when we do this, we miss the deeper message.  Bruce points us back to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  The White Witch thought she had killed Aslan, but there was a deeper magic that she didn’t understand.  And as a result Aslan is resurrected, and the Witch is defeated.  We may not have all the answers, but something happened that first Easter morning that transformed the lives of Jesus’ followers.  There is a power present in the universe deeper than we can truly imagine, and that power is present in the Risen Christ.   
Despite the unbelief of his disciples, Jesus isn’t finished with them quite yet.  They may struggle to make sense of the resurrection, like many of us do, but the message of the resurrection is still good news that needs to be proclaimed to the world.  

Mirroring the message of Matthew 28, Jesus gives the disciples their commission: “Go into all the World and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”  That is the key point in this passage.  We have a message to share with the world.  It might sound unbelievable to some, but it will be life changing for others. William Barclay offers four points of relevance in this passage for us today.   First, “the church has a preaching task.”  We have a duty, he says, “to tell the story of the good news of Jesus to those who have never heard it.”  The second point is that “the church has a healing task.”  Remember that Jesus tells the disciples that they will “lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”  We see this happen on numerous occasions in the Book of Acts.  It’s clear from Scripture that God isn’t just concerned about minds and souls.  God is also concerned about bodies.  Third, the “church has a source of power.”  We can easily get put off by references to snakes and poison and speaking in tongues, but as Barclay puts it – “at the back of this picturesque language is the conviction that the Christian is filled with a power to cope with life that others do not possess.”  Finally, “the church is never left alone to do its work.”  There is a promise here that “the Lord of the church is still in the church and is still the Lord of power.”    [Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (The New Daily Study Bible), pp. 370-371].  Therefore, there is no need to fear!

We began the service with an announcement of the Resurrection.  In that announcement, he heard the promise that “Our story is an invitation to insurrection.”  And  you responded: “Christ has risen!  Christ has risen indeed!”  And the announcement closed with the proclamation: Christ has risen!  Let the resurrection insurrection begin!  You responded: Christ has risen Indeed!  

The news of the resurrection might seem unbelievable, but if we’re willing to take a risk and follow the risen Christ into the heart of God, then we will get to participate in an insurrection that can change the world!
Alleluia – Christ the Lord is Risen!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Jesus: A Pilgrimage (James Martin, SJ) -- A Review

JESUS: A Pilgrimage. By James Martin, S.J.  San Francisco:  Harper One, 2014.  510 pages.

Who is Jesus? Is he a rebel leader?  Savior? Religious teacher?  Community organizer?  Could he be a bit of all of these things?  People have asked this question multitudes of times down through the centuries. One will find numerous television programs, movies, and books that take up the question.  There appears to be a Jesus for everyone – or as Albert Schweitzer famously put it, in the quest for the historical Jesus we look down the well and see the reflection of our own faces.  So take your pick from the Jesus’ offered by the likes of Reza Aslan, Bart Ehrman, Dan Brown, Marcus Borg, Elaine Pagels, and even Bill O’Reilly.   Over the years, I’ve seen many of the Jesus movies, watched those TV programs that tend to dwell on the sensational, and of course I’ve read my share of books.  Some I've enjoyed; others not so much.  This I can say -- I thoroughly enjoyed reading James Martin’s Jesus: A Pilgrimage

James Martin is a Jesuit priest, author, journalist, commentator on matters of church and culture. He even holds his own with Stephen Colbert!  In this book Martin offers us a Roman Catholic-infused portrait of Jesus that weaves in biblical scholarship -- mainstream Catholics such as James Harrington, Raymond Brown, and Luke Timothy Johnson – spirituality, and his own personal narrative.  It is part travelogue, part devotional, part scholarly reflection.  While you may not encounter too many new “facts,” even experienced Jesus folk will find something here that will stir their hearts and minds.
When Fr. Martin decided to write about the life of Jesus, he received encouragement to visit the Holy Land.   Although he'd never had much of an inkling of going there (I can relate), he became convinced that making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land would be valuable.  He makes this journey in the company of another Jesuit – George – who had spent significant time in the region, and therefore had a good sense of the area, its culture, and the important sites.  While in the region they will stay at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem and at a Franciscan Hostel in Galilee.  As we move through the story of Jesus as told by the Gospels, we visit sites that have been deemed sacred by Christians.  As we visit sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Capernaum, we find ourselves drawn into a story that occurred two millennia ago.  Martin takes with him Jerome Murphy O’Connor’s archaeological guide to The Holy Land, which informs him to the likelihood that a site actually is connected to the life of Jesus.  As we take this journey we find ourselves able to envision where Jesus walked and where he died.  This involves both understanding the past and the present, a present that is marked by a dividing wall separating Palestinian territory and Israel.  This becomes clearest in the journey to Bethlehem.  Martin tells us how he and Fr. George were in a curio shop, when his friend showed him a Nativity set.  He writes:
Placed between the Holy Family and the Wise Men was a barrier, a thin block of wood.  The owner explained, “that is the wall that blocks off the Palestinian territories.  Jesus, was a Palestinian, just like us” (pp. 66-67).  
What marks this book as worth spending time with isn’t the historical and archaeological insights, as interesting as they may be, but the distinctly spiritual dimension of the book.  It is important to remember as the book progresses that we are joining Martin on a spiritual pilgrimage.  We take this journey with Martin not merely as tourists, but as persons seeking thin places where God can be encountered in new ways.  We go in search of the risen Christ. 

So, when Martin goes to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to pray, he finds himself overwhelmed by the presence of God.   At sites across the region, he not only stops to take in the view and snap a few pictures, he stops to pray.  As he engages in these reflections he connects them to his own life and ministry.  He goes looking for a place he had heard about – the Bay of Parables.  No one seemed to know about it, but finally he finds someone who does know the spot.  There on the Sea of Galilee was a natural amphitheater that would have lent itself to him preaching to a large crowd from a boat.  As he takes in this site, he finds objects from nature that could have spurred Jesus’ imagination – There, all around him, were the “seeds, rocks, birds, clouds, water” that could have given birth to the “Parable of the Sower. “  He writes:  “It grounded the Gospels, and Jesus, in a way that I never could have imagined.  It made me think more about the way Jesus drew on nature in his parables” (p. 199).   

Each step along the way, as he travels to Galilee, to Nazareth and Capernaum, along the lakeshore to Gerasa, the biblical story comes alive.  A visit to the Sea of Galilee and learning of how storms can brew on the lake helps him to better connect with the fear instilled in the disciples and the calm that Jesus exhibited in its midst.  He takes the road to Jericho and envisions the attack that gives rise to the Good Samaritan.  He goes to Bethany and begins to contemplate the nature of friendship that Jesus had developed with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.  He takes the pathway to Golgotha and out to the Mount of Olives.  He and George even try to find Emmaus, but each of their efforts ends in failure, and perhaps that’s the way it should be.  Some things should be left to the imagination.  So, in the course of his journeys, his faith comes alive and Jesus becomes more real to him.

This isn’t a brief book – as it approaches five hundred pages – but it is a faith affirming book.  If you’re looking for controversy you won’t find it.  It’s not that Martin is unaware of the various radical versions, it’s just that’s not who is.  This is a book written with a great deal of reverence for the person who stands behind the book – Jesus of Nazareth.  While he’s aware of the many attempts to recreate the story in a fashion more “suited” for the modern age, he doesn’t lose sight of his own spiritual connection to the subject of the book.   So, as he takes his journey, he knows that not all sites are genuine, but even in the places that are questionable in their historicity, there might be something faith affirming present.  And, if you, like me, haven't put the Holy Land at the top of your bucket list, you might start to have second thoughts (just don't go with a big tour group)

His spiritual pilgrimage is deepened by his explorations of scholarly inquiries – mostly Roman Catholic.  He brings into the conversation archaeology, intricacies of Greek words, and theological affirmations.  Though at times he seems to show a lack of awareness of the context of the story, it’s clear that he is highly trained as in biblical studies and theology.  So he combines the wide-eyed experiences of a first time visitor with a good understanding of the story itself. 

I heartily recommend the book. If you’re looking for a controversial Jesus, you probably won’t find it here (don't worry, Harper One has a few of those as well).  That is, unless you're seeking to know Jesus in a way that challenges and inspires faith -- that could be controversial in its own right, because that Jesus is also unsettling to many.  Therefore, if you’re looking for a well written, readable, understandable, spiritually relevant look at the life of Jesus that is rooted in rich biblical scholarship then this may be your book.  It’s not written with the scholar or the skeptic in mind.  Martin writes as someone who is personally engaged with the story in a life-transforming way.  It is from that perspective that we encounter one who is both Jesus of History and Christ of Faith.  

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Prayer for Good Friday

O God of grace and mercy,

We have heard the last words spoken by Jesus, your Son and our Savior. 

We have remembered the way your love was expressed to the world on the cross. 

We have heard words of compassion.

We have heard the cry of dereliction.

We have heard that “It is Finished.” 

As we have heard these words, we recognize our complicity in the death of one who knew no sin; who walked in complete faithfulness with you.  We rejected his offer of grace.  We chose the way of violence.  We placed him on the cross.    

But your Son, our Savior, has shown us a different path.  May we have the strength, as we go from this place, walking as we do through the valley of the shadow of death, to take hold of the promise that in Christ you have reconciled us to yourself and to each other. 

May your grace and your peace reign over us this day we call Good. 

In the name of the Crucified One, Jesus the Christ, We pray.


Note:  I wrote this prayer to share at the Troy Clergy's Community Good Friday Service.  This served as the Closing Prayer of the service

Mystical Atheism? Sightings

It is Good Friday, a day that for me has rich theological meaning.  Many Christians around the world will gather to remember the one whose death on a cross serves to reveal to the world the extent of God's love for that world.  Good Friday and Easter can be explored historically, but the ultimate meaning of these events must be understood through faith.  So, perhaps it's with a bit of irony that I would be sharing this essay about atheist Barbara Ehrenreich's recognition of the mystical.  In the essay we learn that one of the things that Ehrenreich lacks is vocabulary to express her experiences.  As a believer, I am thankful that I do have vocabulary, but I think we can learn something from her experiences -- there is more to reality than meets the eye!  

Activist Barbara Ehrenreich on "Living With a 'Wild' God"
Thursday | Apr 17 2014
                                                                                                            Screenshot: Phillips Academy / vimeo
Online, radio, and print news is abuzz about Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Living with a Wild God, with the paradoxical subtitle, A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth about Everything. And, yes, this is the “fourth-generation atheist,” Barbara Ehrenreich, of leftist-labor and feminist-activism fame, whose award-winning journalistic investigations into social, economic, and political issues span decades.

Now in her early seventies, Ehrenreich discloses a narrative running parallel to her life and career since a young age, most significantly a personal experience at seventeen. On a predawn walk in Lone Pine, California, Ehrenreich recalls, she encountered “something alive” which she describes as nothing short of a “cataclysmic experience” when “the world flamed into life.”

No visual hallucination, no prophetic voices; rather, the world opened up and was “rushing out to” her. Ehrenreich writes: “Something poured into me and I poured out into it…. a furious encounter with a living substance.” Looking back on this moment, as recorded by her younger self, Ehrenreich reflects on the want of adequate language to describe what happened, personally, experientially, and as an atheist who continues to describe herself a rational empiricist (though, recently, also as a “mystical rationalist”).

Grasping for words outside of “ineffable,” “transcendence,” “spiritual,” or “religious,” Ehrenreich leans on the word “mystical” to carry her burden of meaning. The lack a vocabulary to express the varieties of the inexpressible leads Ehrenreich to her larger challenge to science: go forth boldly in the study of uncanny experiences.

This challenge also arises from the question Ehrenreich poses, as a young woman writing in her journal, to the woman she would become. “What have you figured out?” her younger self asks her future self. “What’s it all about?” And, the age-old question: “What is actually going on here?” Big questions “hurling across the decades from one’s younger self” pose quite a challenge, not to mention responsibility, reflects Ehrenreich.

The quest to answer these questions has taken her across decades of writing and research, through debate-strewn lands in which she has engaged psychiatric disorders, neuroscience, fiction and non-fiction writers, philosophers, and more.

From the psychologist and philosopher, William James, she draws some insight, especially on mysticism. From the theologian, Rudolph Otto, she draws support from his idea of the encounter with the Other as “beyond all question something quite other than the ‘good.’” Otto’s description of encounters as something like a “consuming fire,” with possible disturbing effects, resonates, says Ehrenreich, with her own experience.

She takes issue with narratives equating encounters with the Other as good, divine, or benevolent. Hers was more akin to what Otto calls mysterium tremendum et fascinans—at once, one trembles and is fascinated. She has sought out others’ stories of encounters, from saints to science fiction writers, such as Philip K. Dick, with an eye to charting these troubled waters of alternative experiences outside of ready understandings of “the religious” or “the spiritual.”

Equally critical, Ehrenreich tills familiar research-terrain in neuroscience and religion to uproot tendencies to reduce mind to brain. Surrendering one to the other imposes limits on vocabularies of subjective experience and curtails new studies of “the uncanny” or alternative forms of consciousness. Here she is not alone, for James and many others have also challenged this kind of medical materialism or reductionism and its implications for an interior life.

If Ehrenreich misses a thing or two in her argument it may be how experiences of the uncanny have set inquiries into motion and changed relations between religion, science and psychology throughout the ages. Witness: early twentieth-century scholars James or Otto, or, today, Anne Harrington.

Also, currently there are a growing number of experts who are reinvigorating not just the age-old questions Ehrenreich raises but age-old questions about the relationship between science and religion (and psychology).

Consider, for example, religious studies scholars (e.g., Rubenstein) interested in philosophy, theology and physics’ “persistent entanglements” often arising from multiple-worlds cosmologies, physicists (e.g., Lightman) pondering our significance and how we make psychological sense of living in an “accidental universe,” and social and political philosophers (e.g., Dupuy) contesting skewed relations between religion, science, and reason in which faith is set over and against reason.

Ehrenreich’s request for a bolder science and neuroscience is a worthy one. While her interests lean to a phenomenological side, her book suggests a call to cultural and social structures and to histories of science, psychology and religion for more, not less, cosmic wandering.


Mary Hynes. “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry.” CBC Radio, April 11, 2014, Tapestry.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. “A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment,” The New York Times, April 5, 2014.

Harrington, Anne. The Cure within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.

Rubenstein, Mary-Jane. Worlds without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (... inwhich are discussed pre-, early-, and postmodern multiple-worlds cosmologies: the sundry arguments for and against them: the striking peculiarities of their adherents and detractors; the shifting boundaries of science, philosophy, and religion; and the stubbornly persistent question of whether creation has been "designed"). New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

Lightman, Alan. The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew. New York: Pantheon Books, 2013.

Dupuy, Jean-Pierre. The Mark of the Sacred. Translated by M. DeBevoise. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2013.

Image Credit: screenshot of Phillips Academy / vimeo

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit:
Author, Betty M. Bayer, is Professor of Women's Studies at Hobart and William Smith College. Recent publications include "Enchantment in an age of occupy" (2012, Women's Studies Quarterly). She is working on a monograph: Revelation orRevolution? Cognitive Dissonance and Persistent Longing in an Age Psychological. Bayer is a 2013-14 Senior Fellow in the Marty Center.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.
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