For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘kingdom of God

An American Gospel: On Family, History and the Kingdom of God, by Erik Reece, Riverhead Books, 2009, 224 pages.

I read this book on the recommendation of a church member currently seeking a new path back to faith after a tragic loss. He said it had spoken to him of a different kind of faith, and I was curious enough to read. Besides, I always love a good spiritual autobiography.

This book was not at all what I expected. There were parts I loved, parts that bored me, parts that intrigued me, parts that moved me, and parts that I found simply amateur and naive. This book is not-quite-equal parts autobiography and American religious history. Reece recounts his religious journey as the son and grandson of a fundamentalist preacher, his grappling with his father’s suicide and his attempts to find a faith beyond fundamentalism. He also traces a line of a particular American faith that runs counter to the Puritan fundamentalism he was raised with, drawing a line from William Byrd to Jefferson to Whitman and Emerson to James and Dewey to Dr. Lynn Margulis. He even finds a way to argue that the Gospel of Thomas is the key to finding a true American gospel.

Here’s what I loved: Reece’s resurrection of and perspective on these great American thinkers and their faith. He points to two key factors among all these American poets and philosophers: their connection to the natural world, and their pragmatism about finding a faith that works to make the world a better place. He made me want to read Emerson and Whitman again, in depth. I agree with his call to panentheism, a faith that sees God at work in everything around us.

Here’s what bored me: Reece offers yet another critique of atonement theology, a harsh critique of Pauline Christianity and fundamentalism. He find Jefferson, Whitman and the Gospel of Thomas scandalous to this Christianity, and argues that the kingdom of God is all around us in this life, not just something we await in the next. Many Christians (and I count myself among them) crossed this bridge a long time ago, and the critique seemed stale. I’ve seen it done much better elsewhere.

Here’s what intrigued me: In addition to creating a desire to reread Emerson and Whitman, Reece introduced me to Dr. Lynn Margulis, and I wrote extensively of my intrigue with her work in another post.

Here’s what moved me: The final chapter brings together all the pieces Reece lays out for an American gospel. He connects naturalism with a new reading of the Genesis creation narrative, which results in a pragmatic demand to build the kingdom of God on earth. He imagines this as an aesthetic experience, where religion is beauty and beauty is religion. It was a beautiful portrait of faith.

Here’s what I found amateur and naive: Reece treats the newly-discovered Gospel of Thomas as proof positive that his version of Christianity is the true faith. Using the argument that the Gospel of Thomas is older than the other gospels, including a huge reliance on the Q hypothesis, Reece draws a distinct line between Pauline Christianity and the faith of Jesus. While Reece’s arguments are plausible, it is his certainty and his need to prove himself in history that I find amateur and naive. Biblical scholars who have devoted their lives to these same studies speak with far less certainty, and put far less personal faith in their conclusions. I want to urge Reece to ground his faith somewhere outside any particular theory of the earliest Gospel or the historical Jesus.

This is where I think Reece’s book got under my skin a bit: he does not realize (or at least does not acknowledge) that there is an entire history of Christianity, even an American Christianity, that already agrees with his conclusions. This fills me with both frustration and pity. Frustration that he did not acknowledge the other stream of American Christianity that is working to build the kingdom of God here and now, that launched the Social Gospel movement and worked for the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and the quest for civil rights, just to name a few examples. In Reece’s book, my kind of Christianity is frustratingly absent as a significant force in American history.

But I also feel pity, because Reece’s journey is highly personal, and it seems like he has never met a Christian from outside the fundamentalist circles. It is a painful and lonely journey to lose one’s faith community while holding on to faith, and I am sad for him that he had to reinvent his own faith without a community of support. I want to invite him to the United Church of Christ, and tell him that he’s not alone.

In the end, the book is a mixed bag. I recommend it for that last chapter alone, which is hard to grasp without reading the whole, and is so rich with faith and perspective. It moved me, frustrated me, bored me, intrigued me, inspired me.  Most of all, it left me wondering about the church member who recommended it to me. What was his experience? What drew him so strongly to this text? I need to ask him.

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I have just encountered the work of Dr. Lynn Margulis for the first time. She is an evolutionary biologist with two revolutionary contributions. First, she grounds her evolutionary theory in microbiological observation rather than observation of animals or fossils. I have no theological quandary with the theory of evolution, but much of evolutionary science seems far too speculative for my tastes. Scientists seem to simply look at the world and draw inferences based on their observations. This is great for theologians and poets, but I want biologists to try to create experiments that can affirm or deny their theories. Dr. Margulis does, because she operates at the level of microbiology.

That is my prologue of opinions about evolution and evolutionary biology. It is background for what follows, but not what is most important. What captivates me is what Margulis has discovered in her experiments. Margulis argues that cooperation and interdependence—rather than violence and competition—are the founding forces of life and evolution.

Single-celled bacteria, Margulis observed, form “bacterial confederacies,” which eventually develop a boundary and begin to act like a single organism. There is a complex process by which these “bacterial confederacies” become organelles as certain bacteria start to specialize,  act as mitochondria and nucleus, and form a cell. This development of a new organism as a result of cooperation and interdependence is called symbiogenesis.

Margulis projects that the entire system of life replicates this process of symbiogenesis. Cells cooperate with one another to form organisms, plant or animal. Imagine a group of cells cooperating and sharing responsibility until they realize that they can specialize to take care of unique tasks. Some become blood cells, others brain cells, others become skin or organs. This evolution is only possible because of the interdependence and mutuality. Trust and cooperation become the foundation of life—not the competition of “survival of the fittest.”

Organisms then continue to develop and specialize with other organisms in an increasingly complex system of interdependence, developing specialized functions to support the whole. We call this an ecosystem, where plants and animals collaborate to form a unique habitat capable of supporting and sustaining each other. The extrapolation continues to humans. We evolved as a species because we cooperated with one another, forming groups to hunt large game, sharing tools and technologies, collaborating for specialized duties for childcare, food gathering and protection.

I am captivated by this concept because it speaks science to my theology. As I said before, I do not believe there is a grand conflict between understanding God as the creator of the universe and recognizing the earth as multi-billion year evolutionary project. Margulis’ scientific theory takes it a step further—her science affirms a theology of creation that mirrors the image of God.

If God created the universe imago Dei, in the image of God, then the universe should be founded on the principle of love, just as God is. Instead, the common conception of evolution as “survival of the fittest,” popularized by Herbert Spencer’s reading of Charles Darwin, paints a picture of creation as brutal competition. Various species and variations fight over limited resources and hostile environments, and only the best and strongest survive. Spencer in particular extrapolated this to human beings, positing that humankind must push ahead its elite specimens and leave behind all “lesser” examples of human being. Spencer’s theories not only affirmed racial profiling and racial prejudices about which varieties of human beings are superior, but it spawned the eugenics movement, which resulted in the neglect of people with disabilities and the sterilization of thousands of women.

I can see nothing of the image of God as love in this version of evolutionary theory. The Bible describes a God who loves and cares for each thing in creation, who knows the hairs on the head of every human being, who forms all of us in our mother’s wombs, who uses the most weak and awkward and unlikely servants to accomplish the salvation of Israel, who seeks lost sheep and lost children with a fervent passion. Jesus preached love for the outcast and the sharing of all our wealth with the poor. He fed those who could not feed themselves and healed those who could not heal themselves. He urged us to build the kingdom of God, like a banquet table where the elites refused to show up and so the banquet was open to anyone off the streets.

However, that kind of God would create the kind of world Margulis describes, where cooperation and collaboration and care for one another is the foundation of everything. In my preaching, I often emphasize our work in the world as co-creators with God, charged with helping build the kingdom of God on earth. I describe that work of building the kingdom as finding ways to unite all people in common cause, living God’s love on earth, welcoming everyone, working for justice and peace, caring for the poor and the sick, reconciling broken relationships and practicing forgiveness.  In Margulis’ universe, this is kind of work really is co-creation. Cooperation and harmony further life on this planet.

Beyond just the imago Dei that is loving and cooperative, Margulis’ theory of evolution also affirms an image of God reflected in creation that is interdependent. All life depends on other life, both for its creation and its continued existence. We Christians believe God’s own self is equally interdependent. Our metaphor for God as Trinity, three-in-one, reflects a Being that does not exist without co-existing. To be created in the image of the Trinitarian God is to exist only in relationship, to exist only interdependently. Just like the universe in Margulis’ theory. If we human beings want to get closer to God (spiritual language), to evolve (scientific language), to mature (Pauline language), to be sanctified (salvation language), we must recognize our interdependence with the earth and each other, and seek to share more fully with one another.

I am captivated by this new idea, and further conversation with science and theology. Microcosmos by Dr. Lynn Margulis is now on my reading list. Stay tuned for a review in the coming months.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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