Religion as Pearls and Ashes

Finding the truly transformative aspects of religion isn’t this hard, but it does take a significant effort!

We humans have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize parts of our lives: to simultaneously hold conflicting sets of worldviews or perspectives.  This is useful because the world Is a complex place.  We need multiple tools and approaches for coping with life and pursuing wholeness.  But this kind of compartmentalization can be extremely frustrating when it comes to discussing and analyzing the relationship between, say, science and religion.  One example is Francis Collins, an atheist/agnostic turned Christian apologist, head of the National Institutes for Health, and a highly regarded scientist in the human genome project.

Collins is a prolific writer on science and religion, with titles like The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.  But according to his own words, what ultimately resolved his search is that he was hiking and saw a really striking three-part waterfall.  It reminded him of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (God = God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit).  Boom, his searching, wondering, and struggle was done.  He was a Christian.

I’d never knock this story as forming part of someone’s spiritual journey.  I recognize he went through a long process of figuring out what he believes and why.  But if you’re then going to become an apologist and make it your point to argue in the public sphere why Christianity is right (and for him, implicitly why other religions are “wrong”) then that story really doesn’t cut it, especially running with the scientist angle!  I completely sympathize when atheists get flummoxed by such a subjective explanation of religious belief.

Some of my own views on religion align with those of two prominent personalities: Leo Tolstoy (not many seem to know he wrote extensively on religion!), and the American physicist Richard Feynman.  Tolstoy described religions using a metaphor – they are each like a sack containing pearls of infinite worth mixed up with and often hidden by a lot of ashes.  In other words, religion comes with its own baggage: all sorts of corruption, in-fighting, violence in the process of creating doctrine, hypocrisy, and forms of “idolatry” that infiltrate scriptures, such as nationalism, tribalism, and sexism.

My own journey resonates with this.  When I read that Jesus says to “knock and the door shall be opened to you” and “search and you shall find” I think of this metaphor.  It makes sense that there’s a lot of sifting and sorting to do.  There are pearls to find, but it’s an ongoing process, not a quick journey that’s over all at once.  Through a lot of searching over a decade or so (questioning my beliefs, exploring contemplative Christianity, living in a couple of monasteries, learning about other religions, being involved in interfaith groups), I came to see some of the pearls within Christianity, and to understand its limitations and the problem areas: the ashes.

During part of Richard Feynman’s career, he was a professor and mentor of graduate students.  Some of his students struggled the conflicts between their religious Christian upbringing and the science they were learning.  Feynman ultimately came to describe the challenge of the science vs. religion debate as one of being able to distinguish and preserve the wonderful moral teachings and inspiration of religion while being able to challenge specific worldviews or claims about objective, scientific reality that they make.  I think this is an especially important point for prominent atheists to engage in.  I think much more progress will be made extending the conversation to the pearls of religion and the many internal tools and teachings they contain to weed out the good from the bad and point to the dangers of hypocrisy and power.  Many atheists are motivated by a humanist desire to decrease suffering related to religious belief, so this could be a fertile ground of exploration.

I believe Sam Harris, despite my disagreements with him on some topics, is one of these.  I love his metaphor of the Moral Landscape, in which he envisions a 3-D map with many different peaks and valleys, where the peaks correspond to different ways of human flourishing and the valleys correspond to the many ways we can make ourselves and others suffer.  He could contribute to the transformation of religion by focusing more on the peaks of well-being specifically within religious traditions.

As Feynman’s viewpoint alludes to, religion often makes claims about the world or universe that it isn’t qualified to and doesn’t need to make such as the idea that Earth is the center of universe, back in Galileo’s day.  That was (taken to be) an important theological idea then, but come on, it’s not actually essential to Christianity.  Something similar today happens over topics like evolution.

My own experience in the interfaith group Religions for Peace, exposure to monastic interfaith religious dialogue, and love for food has led me to my own metaphor.  Each religion (with exceptions like Scientism) is like a culinary tradition from a nation or region of the world.  Each has many things beautiful, tasty, and wonderful to offer.  While foods are clearly different across the world, they are also the same in many fundamental ways (nutrition, chemistry, aesthetics and creative pursuits, etc) as well.

Each cuisine of the world also has its own types of junk food.  I think the discourse on religion, science, atheism, and ethics will improve as we increasingly recognize that the world’s religions have tremendous and wonderful commonalities, and when we are also keenly aware of and open to talking about their limitations – most especially the ways that they can be and are used (or abused/warped) in ways that cause tremendous pain and suffering.  It’s especially important to have a deep understanding of a religion in order to understand if negative actions or beliefs ascribed to the religion are an integral part of it or are instead a parasite, addition, or perversion of the original teachings and spirit of the religion.

On its own, I recognize that many people will find my food metaphor too simple.  I look forward to getting into more depth on all of this!

As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions!

Learning from our “enemies”

This is an article I wrote that was just published in The Mennonite magazine, about the need for Mennonites – and Christians in general – to engage and be open to the messages of the New Atheists.

Writing for different audiences is an interesting process for me.  This article is specifically written for a religious audience and so my language reflects that.  Even though I don’t believe in any literal sort of God or a personified God, I still find the concept of God and all the good things it can represent to be useful, powerful, and inspiring.  So I hope you enjoy the article, and I think it’s a good example of the kind of approach I take when trying to gently nudge religious people to question their tradition and doctrines a bit more.  After this I will resume the “M&M” series I previously started, wrapping up with the third “M” about Mennonites (aka Anabaptists) since I do mention them a lot!


Over the last ten years there has been a resurgence of atheist critique of Christianity and religion in general spurred by the “New Atheists.” This refers especially to four prominent and bestselling authors: Sam Harris (End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation), Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great), and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon).

I first heard about them in 2007 when I picked up Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation. It’s a strong critique of American Christianity that highlights its inconsistencies and moral shortcomings.  I was impressed and moved by his obvious passion for ethics, morals, and his willingness to engage the scriptures and topics of spirituality.

Here’s a passage of his that stood out to me as very reasonable and inviting of dialogue:

“It is important to realize that the distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and spiritual experiences from our conversation about the world; it is a matter of our being honest about what we can reasonably conclude on their basis. There are good reasons to believe that people like Jesus and the Buddha weren’t talking nonsense when they spoke about our capacity as human beings to transform our lives in rare and beautiful ways. But any genuine exploration of ethics or the contemplative life demands the same standards of reasonableness and self-criticism that animate all intellectual discourse.” (Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

I’ve personally experienced the frustration of arguments that rely purely on dogma or a particular teaching lacking any apparent understanding or context, so I empathize with Harris and also desire a straightforward conversation about religion, its strengths, and its flaws.

In other parts of his book, Harris quoted and interpreted some of Jesus’ words as support for the violence of the Old Testament, something that went against my own understanding of Jesus, the scriptures, and Anabaptist understandings of the gospel.  From this, I saw the possibility for an exchange between atheists and religious people in which each could learn from the other and recognize validity in the other’s viewpoints.

As I read more of the New Atheists, I had to recognize that some of their points were correct. I was inclined to learn from them and engage their ideas instead of just fight or oppose them.

Isn’t this what Jesus did? He intentionally spent time with people different from himself, both the religious leaders and those considered outcasts or heathens by traditional religion (like atheists today).

Anabaptists emphasize loving one’s enemies, and one good way to do this is to deeply understand them and be open to the possibility that they bring something important to the table. Many atheists have good, noble motivations even though some can be angry or inflammatory.

And it goes the other way, too: Harris has certainly gotten his fair share of angry and unloving responses from Christians. We need to be honest and admit there’s a lot to be angry about when it comes to the violence, hypocrisy, judgment, and worldliness of religion.

Anabaptists are used to having minority views that challenge the status quo of the Christian majority. As a result, perhaps it can be a bit easier for us to engage in dialog with atheists.

It’s important to show outsiders that there are people within religion who care about the practical effects of their beliefs and are able to critically and rationally analyze those beliefs. Atheists are doing a good job critiquing religion, and unless religious people step up and synthesize their critiques then nothing will move forward.

The spirit blows where it will and we often see it blowing free from human rules and sin that creep into religious institutions. Certainly the spirit is active in many of the atheists who critique religion for the right reasons, and it’s interesting to think of God using atheists to correct and edify Christians.

The late Christopher Hitchens was sometimes known as one of the angrier voices of the New Atheists, but he could also write very beautifully about the bible and praise those who have sought reform from within Christianity.

In his article When the King Saved God, Hitchens expressed praise and respect for the reformers and scholars who created the King James Bible, the first bible in the English language. It was a monumental development as it let the masses finally read the bible in their own language. Previously all services and bibles were in Latin, keeping the powers of the church and interpretation in the hands of the clergy.

Perhaps surprisingly, Hitchens (as well as other atheists like Dawkins) support the teaching of the bible in public schools because they want people to read and think critically about the bible and not merely be told what it means in church.

In the article, Hitchens also gave some examples of how translating between languages can inherently involve interpretation; a specific translation could have a big impact on meaning. One of these was the Greek word ecclesia, which best translated means an independent church body, or one that can make its own rules and interpretations.  This translation was favored by some in the King James commission as opposed to an interpretation of “The Church,” a single or at least highly centralized authoritative body that hands down and enforces its rules.

The latter won out, but Anabaptists have a history of the decentralized approach, following their own consciences, and searching the bible for its teachings and application in daily life and culture.

Most strikingly, at his father’s funeral, Hitchens chose to use what he called a “non-sermonizing” verse from Paul in the New Testament: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

He was struck by the beauty and universality of this verse, as well as the critical thinking implied by it. He felt that there have been Christians including Paul who think seriously about what is truly good and bad, beautiful and virtuous, and base their approach on that.

In his view, many Christian doctrines are not true to this, and I would point out that many were formed for political reasons supporting control, violence, and empire building. As Jesus-centered Anabaptists we should be able to ask if some parts of Christian doctrinal formation were carried out against Jesus’ command and example not to rule with power and coercion, but to lead by humble service and example.

Since some prominent atheists are willing to learn from and even be inspired by elements of Chrristianity, should we not be open to learning more about their insights, wisdom, concern for justice, and the beauty they find in life, the universe, and in their fellow human beings?

To be sure we’re not missing out on how the spirit is moving today, we need to be in touch with and understand our “enemies,” getting past rhetoric or argument by engaging in serious self-reflection and by listening to their finer points and critiques.

So perhaps you have a friend who’s an atheist. You could ask them what they really think about Christianity and why. What good do they see and what troubles them about it? Make a special effort to understand an outside viewpoint and a fresh perspective. Or, pick up one of the books by the New Atheists from the library and give it a shot.

Ultimately, we want to be informed about current thought on religion because many people rightfully have beef against it. It’s better to be engaged in the process of understanding, growing, and transformation this can bring rather than be passive bystanders oblivious to the possibility of prophetic voices coming from outside of Christianity.

Hello world!

Welcome to my blog!  This is my first post, the traditional “Hello, World!” message.  I hope to be saying hello to people all over the world through this website and the discussions it will foster, taking a “big picture” perspective on topics of religion, science, and spirituality.

I chose the banner at the top of this site because it reflects different perspectives that I bring and hold together in tension – ones that are not often brought forward in public discourse about science and religion.  I recognize something valuable in atheism and its critique of religion, as well as Jesus, Buddha, and interspiritual approaches.  Forward progress will be made as topics such as these are synthesized and integrated.

I am critical of much of religion but see its potential for spirituality and know that its strong mark on culture, art, and daily life cannot simply be erased.  The trick is to keep the baby while throwing out the bathwater.  The transformation will seem like a destruction for those within it who cling to rules, dogma, and the comfort of the status quo.  Others are ready to push religion forward, to deal responsibly with its flaws and to ask the questions we are afraid or at least hesitant to ask.

Prometheus is the center of the site’s banner – a very interesting and multi-faceted figure.  He is known for bringing fire to the earth when the gods withheld it out of fear that humans could come to rival them.  Prometheus is also a symbol of the danger and recklessness of humankind when tempted by power and the urge to shape the world to our every whim.  He represents an adversarial attitude toward God or the gods, one in which the gods are remarkably petty like we can be.


Although I recognize the validity of critiques about God and religion – even religion as an opiate of the people – I understand and experience someone like Jesus as instead bringing fire to the earth through peoples’ hearts – a passion, joy, spontaneity, and joyfully rebellious nature.  Christianity usually stifles this as well as his questioning, critiquing nature and his emphasis on God as spirit that cannot be contained, controlled, or limited to one practice or idea.  I admire and respect those like Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi, Bede Griffiths, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and Martin Luther King, Jr. who have come to similar understandings of Jesus and spirituality that cross the boundaries of religion and led them to simultaneously challenge and broaden religion.

So much of religion hinges on what we make God out to be.  Do we think of God as vengeful, jealous, and irrational as we often are, or accept it when we’re told this by our religion or scriptures?  Or does God represent the very best of what humanity can be, something and some spirit that we can always aspire to, recognize, and access within ourselves?

Check out other parts of my website detailing more about my background, perspective, and a couple of other interests.  I welcome your comments and questions as we delve into the strengths and weaknesses of religion, atheist critiques and voices, interspirituality, contemplation, and science.  It’s time to move beyond a narrow, divisive view and practice of religion and to recognize the spiritual truths and practices at the core of many world religions and secular philosophies.  With these, we can move forward beyond religion to a spirituality and science that are aligned.