God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Ageby Galen Guengerich
Over the past few decades, the ever-expanding scientific knowledge of the universe and the human condition, combined with the evolution from religion-based to personal morality, has led to a mass crisis of faith. Leaders of most Protestant and Catholic religious traditions, which include nearly 80 percent of Americans, have watched their memberships stagnate or… See more details below
Over the past few decades, the ever-expanding scientific knowledge of the universe and the human condition, combined with the evolution from religion-based to personal morality, has led to a mass crisis of faith. Leaders of most Protestant and Catholic religious traditions, which include nearly 80 percent of Americans, have watched their memberships stagnate or dwindle. Over the years, philosophers and scientists have argued that science has in fact "killed" God, and that if we believe the facts science has presented, we must also accept that God is fiction. Others, holding fast to their long-standing doctrines, attempt to justify their beliefs by using God to explain gaps in scientific knowledge. Having left an upbringing in a family of Mennonite preachers to discover his own experience of God, Galen Guengerich understands the modern American struggle to combine modern world views with outdated religious dogma. Drawing upon his own experiences, he proposes that just as humanity has had to evolve its conception of the universe to coincide with new scientific discoveries, we are long overdue in evolving our concept of God. Gone are the days of the magical, supernatural deity in the sky who visits wrath upon those who have not followed his word. Especially in a scientific age, we need an experience of a God we can believe inan experience that grounds our morality, unites us in community, and engages us with a world that still holds more mystery than answers.
Guengerich articulates an approach to religion that embraces community in its widest, most inclusive sense and does not dig in its heels when religious texts come in conflict with science. A rare and civilized antidote...
…intellectually rich… lucid, compelling, and accessible…
…brilliant synopsis of a big idea from revelation to relativity… In this provocative read, the deity survives the Enlightenment intact enough to remain persuasive in a secular age. God Revised offers God an excellent chance to remain viable.
In God Revised, Galen Guengerich ambitiously, modestly, provocatively and lyrically calls for nothing less than the transformation of religion. Part irresistible memoir, part erudite theological exegesis, part dazzling cultural history, this unique work makes the idea of finding "a god we can believe in" feel necessary, relevant--and most of all, thrilling. God Revised is an adventure that will enrich you, and stay with you.
Guengerich speaks for those of us who reject both the unbelief of atheism and the hyper-belief of traditional religion. He eloquently argues that "the reason religion is necessary, after all, isn't so we can find salvation for the next life, but rather so we can find meaning and purpose in this one." With wit, wisdom and compassion, Guengerich will convince you that this is how to live a godly life in the 21st century.
If you've ever thought of yourself as spiritual but not religious, as so many have, this is the book for you. Galen Guengerich masterfully illuminates what it means to be both, taking on rabid skeptics as readily as entrenched believers. The result is a book that both re-casts the concept of God and restores our faith in the human.
Galen Guengerich has written a book so comprehensive, personal, inquisitive, rational, and emotional that no reader can walk away from it without having to rethink faith, deepen spirituality, affirm science, and live as a better citizen of the world.
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How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age
By Galen Guengerich
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2013 Galen Guengerich
All rights reserved.
Where We Begin From Mennonite to Manhattan
The exquisitely beautiful summer Sunday afternoon brought the typically reclusive Amish out in droves. Buggies of all types — sober black sedans, gleaming courting buggies, and even a few swift sulkies — coursed along the winding roads of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Most moved along smartly, drawn by horses bound for a reward of water and oats. But the Amish passengers took their day of rest to heart. Dressed in colorful shirts and primly elegant dresses, they seemed relaxed, even jovial.
My daughter Zoë, then seventeen, and I had journeyed to Lancaster to visit Franklin & Marshall College (my alma mater) and to deepen her firsthand knowledge of my religious roots. Our route meandered through the lush patchwork farmland east of Lancaster. As our car slowed to a crawl behind a covered, sedan-type buggy, a water balloon all at once flew out of it, only to splash harmlessly against the side of an oncoming buggy. Moments later, the balloon thrower took aim with a more precise weapon. He unleashed his Super Soaker — the AK-47 of water guns — at a young couple in the approaching open-top courting buggy. The water found its unsuspecting marks, eliciting howls of protest from the couple and peals of laughter from inside the sedan buggy.
The idea of Amish people lazing on a Sunday afternoon, having fun with water weapons, seemed almost as incongruous as horse-drawn buggies on a paved road. The Super Soaker seemed incongruous as well, especially since we were just a few miles from the scene of the Nickel Mines Amish School shooting, where in October 2006 a gunman — Charles Carl Roberts IV, who was not Amish — shot ten Amish girls, killing five, before turning his weapon on himself. The Amish responded to that calamity with characteristic acceptance and self-effacing forgiveness. Along with the Mennonites, their somewhat more liberal religious first cousins, the Amish believe God calls them to be "the quiet in the land," set apart from the ways of the world. For most, this belief commits them to a life of austere conformity — except occasionally on a Sunday afternoon.
I was born on a dairy farm in a small Mennonite community in central Delaware. The Mennonites of my upbringing remain as robustly religious as Orthodox Jews and practicing Muslims. From the age of six weeks, Zoë grew up in Manhattan — perhaps as secular an environment as anywhere in the world. Our trip through the Lancaster countryside stemmed from my desire to show her how my journey from Mennonite to Manhattan began.
Present-day Mennonites range from the Amish-like Old Order Mennonites, who shun almost all the insights and conveniences of the modern world, to mainstream Mennonites, whose appearance and lifestyle conform to those of other Bible-centered, pacifist Christians, such as the Quakers and the Brethren. The middle ground is occupied by the Conservative Mennonites, who try to meet the modern world halfway. This was the faith of my upbringing. We had electricity, for example, but no television. We dressed in a manner that was two decades behind the times, not a century behind like the Amish. Our lifestyle was austere without being reactionary.
More than anything else, my life as a Mennonite was defined by a clear sense of the difference between us and them — between our community of faith and the rest of the world. I was first and foremost a Mennonite. Until my family moved to south Arkansas when I was nine years old, I recall no significant ongoing interaction with anyone who was not Mennonite. My friends, our neighbors, and my teachers and classmates at the Mennonite school I attended (two grades per classroom): all were Mennonite. I was also related to almost everyone I knew, or so it seemed to me.
The care and feeding of the Mennonite faith pervaded every aspect of my parents' lives, and mine as well. When I was two years old, my father was ordained to the Mennonite ministry in the red brick church where my maternal grandfather had long served as a minister. My father would not be the last in the ministerial line: six of my eleven uncles are (or were) also Mennonite ministers, along with twenty-five of my fifty-six first cousins or their spouses, at recent count.
When strangers ask me what I do for a living, I sometimes say that I'm in the family business. I too am a minister: now senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, one of the leading churches in the Unitarian Universalist denomination. My journey from Mennonite to Manhattan has taken me far from my roots — hence my interest in taking my daughter on a religious-history tour.
I showed her where I graduated from high school and where the Nickel Mines shooting had taken place. I showed her where the movie Witness had been filmed and where you can get the best shoofly pie on the planet. I showed her the little Mennonite church where, during part of my time as a classics student at F&M, I had served as acting pastor.
"Can you imagine me living here?" I asked.
"Yes," she responded, almost wistfully. "It's so beautiful, and orderly, and peaceful." Then she added, "I can also understand why you left."
Though I didn't press her at the time, my guess is that she sensed how I had reacted to the relentless emphasis on certainty and conformity. I felt claustrophobic. I needed more elbow room, in both my mind and my life. I sought freedom.
Like Orthodox Jews, Conservative Mennonites tend to live in relatively cloistered communities — and with good reason. The Mennonite tradition began in the wake of the Reformation, a brutal conflict in the sixteenth century that split the Christians of Western Europe into two opposing camps: Protestants — initially made up mainly of what became Lutherans and Presbyterians — and Catholics.
Not surprisingly, when Protestants weren't busy fighting Catholics, they were busy disagreeing among themselves. For example, most early Protestants believed a person's eternal fate had been predestined by God before creation. The Mennonites, who derive from a breakaway movement known as the Radical Reformation, believe an individual can choose whether or not to believe. For this reason, Mennonites baptize only adult believers, not infants whose fate has supposedly been sealed by God's predestined plan. The reformers who believed in adult baptism were collectively known as Anabaptists, a term that means to baptize again — an acknowledgment that the earliest Anabaptists had once been baptized as infants. Mennonites also believed in the complete separation of church and state, which for them meant not going to war on behalf of the government.
Adult baptism and pacifism were not popular beliefs in sixteenth-century Europe. In 1525, the Protestant-controlled City Council of Zurich, where the Anabaptist movement began, issued a decree that parents who failed to have their infants baptized within eight days after birth were to be arrested and banished. Within several years, belief in Anabaptism was made a capital crime — punishable by death — throughout much of Europe, in both Catholic and Protestant regions.
When I was a young boy, my grandmother Amelia often read me stories about how Mennonites in Europe had suffered and died for their faith. We'd sit in her living room, she in her rocking chair and me on the hassock alongside. Almost always, we'd each have a butterscotch candy, as if to sweeten the bitter tales.
The survivors of the vendetta against the Anabaptists had kept a chronicle, which eventually became an eleven-hundred-page encyclopedia of persecution titled The Bloody Theatre or Martyrs Mirror. My grandmother's favorite story — she read it often — tells of Dirk Willens, a sixteenth-century Mennonite in Holland, who risked being baptized as an adult believer, and even baptized others, in defiance of the ban.
One day in 1569, Willens learned that the police were about to arrest him in his home. He ran out the back door, but soon the officers came after him in pursuit. When Willens came to a frozen canal, he ventured onto the ice and managed to make his way across. But an officer who attempted to follow him broke through and was about to drown in the icy water. Seeing the officer's plight, Willens obeyed the biblical injunction to love even his enemies. He turned back and assisted the officer to safety.
Willens's reward? To be burned at the stake as an Anabaptist heretic. When Grandma came to the end of the story, she read it slowly, shaking her head: "A strong east wind blowing that day, the kindled fire was much driven away from the upper part of his body, as he stood at the stake; in consequence of which this good man suffered a lingering death" (pp. 741–742).
After she finished, Grandma and I sat in silence for a few minutes. She didn't need to press the point. Willens's example of selfless love was moral enough.
Years later in seminary, I read the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist German pastor and theologian. A leader of the Confessing Church that stood firmly against Hitler, Bonhoeffer became part of a plot to assassinate Hitler, which ultimately cost Bonhoeffer his life. In the midst of the struggle against the terrors of fascism, Bonhoeffer developed a distinction between what he termed cheap and costly grace. Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer explains in his book The Cost of Discipleship, is a trivial form of superficial redemption, one not accompanied by a life of discipleship — grace without a cross to bear. Costly grace, in contrast, comes to individuals whose commitment permeates every aspect of their lives (pp. 41–46).
For early Mennonites, grace came at a high cost. For almost two hundred years, the Mennonites "oftentimes were not permitted to have permanent places of abode, and were driven about and hunted down like wild beasts, compelled to dwell in caves and mountains, and other secluded places, hold their meetings in secret, and suffer every imaginable form of injustice and persecution" (Martyrs Mirror, p. 3). Several countries sent out soldiers and executioners — numbering a thousand strong in one case — whose sole task was to ferret out Anabaptists and put them to death. On the whole, this persecution accomplished its deadly purpose.
Eventually, most of the surviving Mennonites came to the United States or Canada in search of religious liberty. Daniel Guengerich, my great-great-great-grandfather, set sail from Germany with his extended family on May 9, 1833, bound eventually for Iowa. In his diary, he described the final hours of the seventy-two-day trip, which was easier than many — only one passenger died en route — but was nonetheless filled with storms and sickness: "On Sunday August 11th the pilot came, then there was great joy on the ship among the people. At night many stayed on deck. About midnight light towers were sighted on the American coast. In the morning at daybreak we saw land on the right and on the left. There was great rejoicing that we once more saw land" (p. 33).
Like so many others who came to the New World, the Mennonites longed for religious freedom — a place where they could believe in accord with their conscience, worship in accord with their faith, and live in accord with their calling. They arrived with a strong sense of the commitments that defined them and made them unique. These commitments had emerged from generations of living in the religious equivalent of a storm shelter: a tightly controlled environment designed to be impervious to danger. As long as the storm of persecution raged on, everyone understood that rigid constraints were necessary for the community to survive. But once the sun of religious liberty began to shine, some people began to feel restless. These restless souls developed a hankering for freedom to explore the outside world. In most Amish and Conservative Mennonite communities, the austerity has long outlived the siege.
In her novel A Complicated Kindness, the Canadian writer Miriam Toews, also a former Mennonite, describes this hankering for freedom. The novel centers on the experience of Nomi Nickel, a sixteen-year-old Mennonite girl trapped in a small Mennonite town in western Canada called East Village. Nomi yearns to go to the other East Village — the one in New York — where she can hang out with Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull. The problem is that Nomi's church, led by an uncle she calls "The Mouth of Darkness," tries to keep her on the path of righteousness by stifling her.
In a withering reverie, Nomi describes what Mennonite means to her.
We're Mennonites. As far as I know, we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you're a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing. ... Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking, temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock 'n' roll, having sex for fun, swimming, make-up, jewelry, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o'clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno. (p. 5)
Nomi goes on to explain that, by denying themselves the pleasures of this world, Mennonites believe they'll be first in line to enjoy the pleasures of the next world. As a teenager, however, Nomi says her concern isn't what happens after she dies, but rather how to endure the absence of life before death. She quips that "the town office building has a giant filing cabinet full of death certificates that say choked to death on his own anger or suffocated from unexpressed feelings of unhappiness" (p. 4).
As to life after death, Nomi describes a conversation she once had with her typing teacher about eternal life.
He wanted me to define specifically what it was about the world that I wanted to experience. Smoking, drinking, writhing on the dance floor to the Rolling Stones? Not exactly, I told him, although I did think highly of Exile On Main Street. Then what, he kept asking me. Crime, drugs, promiscuity? No, I said, that wasn't it either. I couldn't put my finger on it. I ended up saying stupid stuff like I just want to be myself. I just want to do things without wondering if they're a sin or not. I want to be free. I want to know what it's like to be forgiven by another human being ... and not have to wait around all my life anxiously wondering if I'm an okay person or not and having to die to find out. (p. 48)
For myself, I know the feeling of almost suffocating in the narrow confines of a theological storm cellar. Like Nomi, I was expected to accept the doctrine, conform to the lifestyle, and take on the identity. I struggled mightily to make it work, remaining a Mennonite through my mid-twenties. But I finally realized that I did not fit the Mennonite mold, which is why thirty years ago I left the Mennonite Church and headed out on my own.
I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary at the time, ostensibly preparing to become a Mennonite minister. When I went to Princeton (not a Mennonite seminary), many of my relatives feared I would lose my faith. This did not happen. What I lost was someone else's faith; what I began to seek was a faith of my own. I wanted to be myself. I wanted freedom.
Like most people who have found the right place by leaving the wrong one, I initially thought of freedom in terms of absence: no obligations, no constraints, and no commitments. I imagined the open road and the solitary traveler, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau. I hummed Kris Kristofferson's haunting refrain, Janice Joplin's voice echoing in my ear, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
After I left the Mennonites, however, I discovered that freedom from one way of life leads to a welter of choices about possible alternative ways of life. For me, the issue wasn't one of degree: I didn't leave in search of a religion that would allow me to expand my wardrobe and my music collection, though clothes and music provoked persistent conflict between my parents and me as I was growing up. Rather, I wanted a fundamentally different way of life, one that would make sense in the modern world.
Excerpted from God Revised by Galen Guengerich. Copyright © 2013 Galen Guengerich. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Rev. Galen Guengerich, minister at All Soul's Unitarian Church in NYC, presented a theology of gratitude in a series of talks; it is now available in book form, as God Revised: How Religions Must Evolve in a Scientific Age (New York, 2014). He maintains that the theology of Judaism— clearly thinking of Orthodox Judaism—focuses on Obedience; the theology of Christianity—thinking of Jesus and Paul—focuses on Love; and that of Islam focuses on Submission, but Unitarian Universalism focuses on Gratitude. Two of Guengerich's chapters are "What We Receive: The Discipline of Gratitude" and "What We Owe: An Ethic of Gratitude." Whether or not his distinction between Unitarian Universalism and other spiritual traditions is right, a theology of gratitude is attractive because it fits well with process theology, a perspective popular among Unitarian Universalist ministers that Guengerich weaves into his book. Process theology is compatible with a vision of reality that takes time seriously, and therefore the contributions of past events to the present. It is also compatible with an up-to-date scientific understanding of physical, biological, and social-historical processes. This perspective is open to the discoveries of evolutionary biology and ecology. Moreover, process theologians see the operation of divinity in the nonhuman creation. Finally, process theology emphasizes humanity's debt to, and possible partnership with, other life forms on the Earth.
I could not put it down. So lucid and so on spot. If he writes anything else, I want it.