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Posts tagged as “Jesus and Godel”

Focus on Holy Week

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good friday vigil drawing Our journey through Lent nears its conclusion: we have entered Holy Week, which commemorates the events of Jesus's last days, from His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through Maundy Thursday and the Last Supper, Good Friday and the Crucifixion, and Easter for the Resurrection. This means more in a liturgical traditions like the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Episcopal churches - among many others - where these events are commemorated in specific rites and masses, such as the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday or the Easter Vigil on Saturday night. Saint Stephens in-the-Field also did a Good Friday vigil, in which a rotation of people stayed up in the church all nights praying. I've done that a number of years, and always found it to be transformative. That's where I discovered The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives book, for example. If you're not Christian, all this rigmarole may seem a bit overdone. If you're not following something,  focus on it can seem a bit out of place. I recall an agnostic friend who went to see the Pope once, to see what all the fuss was, and was unimpressed to find that the Pope was just an old guy in a bubble car. Trying to understand what the Pope means to someone who isn't a believer in the Apostolic succession is like someone who's never seen Star Wars trying to understand what's awesome about a new Star Wars movie, or a signed photo of Mark Hamill: the context is lost. But if you believe that the Pope is who Catholics say he is - that the Pope is the inheritor of the Apostolic Succession, that he's the successor of Peter, who was given charge of the Church by Jesus Himself, who had the authority to do so because Jesus was God - then it doesn't matter what he looks like. If you believe, then Holy Week is a chance to relive the key story of the Christian faith - the Crucifixion and the Resurrection - from start to finish, which gives you the opportunity to reflect on and deepen your understanding of Jesus's sacrifice. According to orthodox Christian theology, this isn't something we can ever completely understand, but frankly, I've never found the mystery part of Christian theology to be particularly mysterious. Perhaps after quantum mechanics and general relativity breaks the part of your brain offended by strangeness. God created the world to fill it with creatures who could come to know, love and serve Him - freely, but that free choice means that His creatures can inevitably screw up by departing from His plan. This "sin" isn't merely a mistake, but a crime in that it departs from God's plan, and is deserving of punishment. But God's not evil, and hasn't set up a system which inherently allows creatures in it to fall into mistakes which would inexorably lead to punishment. He provided an out, by sending an example of how to behave in the person of His own Son, who sacrificed Himself to take on our punishment. This sacrifice was particularly potent because the trial was fixed - it's a perfect example of an unjust trial, and I've always felt that doing the opposite of what happened in His trial is a great inspiration for the American legal system - and because Jesus was not only a perfect innocent, but also God. Holy Week takes us through all the events that led up to this: the obvious signs that Jesus was acting in God's name, the compassion He had for his followers at the Last Supper, which instituted the Eucharist, the unjust trial, the difficult and torturous Crucifixion, the strange and wonderful Resurrection. Learning more about the events of Holy Week is a great opportunity to learn more about Jesus, and helps us understand why we should follow Him - even if following Him is difficult and sometimes torturous, there is something strange and wonderful at the end of that path. -the Centaur Pictured: Saint Stephen's in-the-Field, set up for Good Friday Vigil.

Six Days You Shall Labor

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six days you shall labor

So for today's "let's actually treat the Sabbath like a Sabbath" graphic illustration, I had the brainflash to illustrate this graphically - and since in English the Sabbath is a seven-letter word, it is easy to show six days of work and one day of rest using those letters themselves. Looked at this way, that one day of holy rest isn't such a big ask of our time. Strange it's so hard sometimes to make space for it.

-the Centaur

Don’t Respect Their Authority …

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tiberius drawing

... but do allow yourself to be influenced by their teaching.

The Bible is filled with authoritarian language. The so-called "divine right of kings," which authoritarian thugs used for over a thousand years to justify their aggression, may have gotten its start in the book of 1 Samuel, in which the people of Israel ask for a king, despite the prophet Samuel's warnings:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights ... He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses ... he will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers... he will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves."

I left out a lot there, but it draws a pretty complete picture of a pretty ugly king. But Samuel promises no salvation for the people who have asked for this ruler: "When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Similarly, Jesus doesn't offer relief from the Roman persecutors when asked by the Pharisees if it is legal to pay taxes to the emperor - Jesus pointed out that the coin to pay the tax had Caesar's image on it: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Kings used to let this get to their glitter-crowned heads. King James (yes, that King James) once said: "The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth, for kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God's throne, but even by God himself, they are called gods."

Whoa, James! That's basically calling yourself a god. Remember the Ten Commandments, specifically #1 "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Pretty blasphemous for the guy who commissioned a translation of the Bible ... wait, the King James Bible ... and you even put your name on it?

Well now, it seems clearer why a king grabbing at power - for James was originally just king of Scotland, which did not recognize absolute monarchs - would commission a religious text in their new country's language justifying that rule, along with manuals for interpreting it which gave him absolute power.

Those manuals, the awesomely titled Baskilon Doron (meaning "royal gift") and The True Law of Free Monarchies both laid out the divine right of kings as an extension of the apostolic succession - relying on arguments from a Bible which James worked to make available to his whole kingdom.

Now, James was wrong about the divine right of kings being an absolute grant of authority ... but he wasn't wrong to see a role for authorities in our life. Let's go back to what Jesus said about Caesar:
“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Contra James's self-serving arguments, this isn't a call for kings to receive absolute obedience: right there on the tin, Jesus distinguishes between the respect leaders should receive and the worship God should receive. We can get a little more insight into this by looking at the context of the question.

In Jesus's time, Israel was occupied by the Romans, and the Jewish leaders were trying to trap Jesus between two bad choices: on the one hand, he could deny the poll tax, and be condemned as a traitor to Rome, and on the other, he could approve the poll tax, and be condemned as a traitor to Israel.

But you can't put Jesus in a box, hence his wonderful answer which not only splits the difference in a creative third alternative, but also provides new ways about thinking about the problem. But hidden in this answer is the rejection of the demands of the Zealot to throw off the poll tax and to overthrow Rome.

The Roman occupation of Israel was wrong, full stop. They conquered it, they taxed it, they drove it to the edge of rebellion through oppression, and after the rebellion boiled over thirty years after Jesus's death, they put down the rebellion by siege, slaughter and the destruction of the Second Temple.

But, as sad as all that was, to God, the Roman oppressors were people too. A Zealot rebellion led by Jesus would have been successful - some theologians think Jesus was the "commander of the armies of the Lord" from Joshua 5:14 - but would have led to the deaths of countless people on both sides.

Orchestrating wholesale slaughter is not what Jesus came to do. Treating every single human being with respect means that sometimes we must put aside the desire to fight injustice if that fight means bringing harm to people that can be avoided. Whenever possible, Jesus argues we should turn the other cheek.

Jesus goes beyond that. He criticizes the Jewish religious leaders throughout the Gospels, but He also acknowledges their authority: "The scribes and the Pharisees administer the authority of Moses, so do whatever they tell you and follow it, but stop doing what they do, because they don't do what they say."

Jesus is both saying we should follow legitimate authority AND saying blind exercise of authority is wrong. In Hebrews, Paul argues church leaders are on the hook for their flocks "Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account."

Jesus asks leaders to follow him to model servant leadership, saying that Gentile "high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all."

Rather than the divine right of kings, Jesus preaches that leaders should act as servants, looking out for the welfare of their flocks (and Paul argues, even their souls). These leaders may sin, but they have the responsibility to pass the law on to us, so we need to be open to their guidance.

Jesus asks us to follow Him, but He doesn't ask us to blindly follow authority: He asks us to reserve for God what belongs to God, which may mean parting ways with leaders who don't put God first. But He does ask us to follow leaders who are sincerely trying to pass on what God has given them.

It's a delicate dance. It's all too easy for rulers to fall in the trap of demanding absolute obedience, as many Catholic leaders believe about the authority of the Pope, and as many Protestant leaders believe about their own doctrines, even as they claim to be rejecting the authority of Catholic Dogma.

These are self-serving lies. Following Jesus does not mean regurgitating a catechism or swallowing a doctrine: it's a living act of belief in a real person who actually lived and actually came back from the dead, and a living choice to follow in His footsteps as we guide our lives.

The rulings of our church leaders are designed to help us; when done properly, it's done with care for our souls. Since we, too, are self-serving, it's really tricky to know whether your leadership has gotten off the path, or whether you've gotten yourself so lost that it just seems that they are.

Regardless, there's one thing we can always do to get back on track: repent and turn to follow Jesus.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Tiberius, who was likely on that coin.

Righteous Anger and Godly Love

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Mr. Rogers Headshot

"What do you do with the mad you feel?" That's the question Mister Rogers - perhaps the embodiment of the idea of not getting mad - famously asked in a song he read aloud at the congressional committee hearing in which he convinced a skeptical audience to continue funding public television.

Christianity seems to have two public faces: God as love ... and God as the angry judge. Sometimes people break this down into the "Angry, Vengeful Old Testament God" and the "Loving Jesus of the New Testament", but Jesus, as much as he taught us to love one another, was not shy about being angry.

The most notable incident is the Cleansing of the Temple, in which Jesus does a literal table flip - yes! - as part of trying to re-sanctify the Temple for worship, rather than commerce. "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

Anger, according to many emotion theorists from antiquity to the modern day, is the unconditioned response to being restrained in animals - and the reaction against the violation of a norm in human beings. We get angry when we feel unfree, and more angry when we think that unfreedom is unjust.

Jesus's anger is generally what we might call righteous anger: outrage at violation of religious norms - the desecration of the Temple by selling animals for sacrifice is one example, part of Jesus's anger elsewhere at people who put up barriers, like complex rules, between others and God.

Other things that warrant a rebuke from Jesus include hypocrisy, mistreating children, or turning to the law to solve problems that could be solved by talking honestly. Jesus also rebukes demons, the wind, even a fig tree - though that last may have been a physical metaphor for the Temple.

But - BUT - this is Jesus, who taught with authority, because He was sent by God, as the Son of God, who is God. So He had the authority to pronounce judgment on God's law - and as much as I think we should emulate His style of thinking, our decisions, no matter how good, do not have Jesus's authority.

Fortunately, even though He asks us to follow him, and He gets angry, He also gives us an out by telling us: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven."

Forgiveness is what Jesus preaches, and the way He wants us to live. As we mentioned earlier, this even extends to evangelism: "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town." Jesus does not force anyone to follow.

This ultimately comes back to the Golden Rule: "Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets." This rule appears many, many times in the Old and New Testaments. It's almost like it's important.

Jesus sums this up various times, but one of the most striking is a summary He elicits from a young lawyer seeking the path to eternal life: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself."

Love is a complex emotion, a suitcase word with many meanings. Romantic love alone is broken up into at least attraction, infatuation, and long-term attachment, each with its own formal characteristics, brain areas, neurotransmitters, and time profiles.

But God's love is selfless love, the word agape in the Greek, perhaps embodied best in the famous "Christianity in One Sentence" verse, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."

The reason that God shows both love and anger is more than just Jesus being both divine and human and experiencing the full range of human nature. It's because God Himself will not fit in a neat box: He is not limited to the emotions of love, or anger, or to the reactions we expect of love or anger.

God expresses the whole range of human emotions and goes beyond it. And He takes on Himself the need to judge, and furthermore, sent his Son to eliminate the need for punishment, for all who are willing to believe and to take up their crosses.

Righteous anger can feel good: there are important norms in the world, and when people violate them, it's easy to get angry. But we're not God, and we don't teach with the authority of Jesus, and even if we emulate His behavior and try to adopt His beliefs, we can't have the absolute certainty that Jesus had.

God created a world where all people can choose to turn to Him. That's why "... I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."

So righteous anger, while it can seem justified, is something we really don't need. It's not to say we shouldn't make ethical or moral judgments, but when things really go awry, it's okay to turn the other cheek, to remember to love our enemies, and if all else fails, shake the dust off our feet and move on.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Fred Rogers.

Give to All Those Who Beg From You

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gandhi headshot

Jesus once said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven - and while it's impossible for man, it's possible for God. Jesus wasn't telling us to become poor per se, but warning against attachment to things, and reminding us we need God's help.

The Kingdom of Heaven has at least two meanings in Christian thought: literal heaven, of course, but also, following the ways of Jesus here on Earth. Things aren't important to God: He can make as much stuff as He wants. But each person is unique. God cares, and Jesus asks us to care for each other.

Worrying about making sure we have enough stuff is practically important, and Jesus doesn't ask us to forget about it: in the Parable of the Talents, He suggests that we need to take care of the resources that we are given, and that those who invest their talents wisely will be rewarded many times over.

But for every verse which praises responsibility, three exhort us not to worry about possessions. When a young rich man asked what he should do to inherit eternal life, Jesus said: "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

Perhaps following was more literal during Jesus's ministry, but many verses in the Gospels take a similar tack: "Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles strive after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them."

Jesus is doing more than just telling us not to worry. The Parable of the Rich Fool portrays a man who builds bigger storehouses to hold all his wealth, only for God to say to him: "You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?"

This story isn't about God being a jerk to a rich guy: it's about the very real possibility that we won't live to take advantage of what we've saved up for tomorrow - and questioning our priorities. The Rich Fool's wealth was grain, stored in warehouses - and rather than share it, the man built bigger storehouses.

I feel the man's pain - I've worked a number of years to try to provide for I and my wife's retirement, and we ended up buying a bigger house to better house my vast library and her equally bulky art studio. But is that the best use of our wealth? What would happen to all this if something were to happen to me?

There's a story about the house in which I'm writing this blogpost: supposedly, the man who owned it died just three years after renovating it - on the back porch added during the renovation, I might add. A good friend tells a similar story about his father, who fell ill before he could ever enjoy retirement.

Our wealth is transient - and provided by God. A friend told a story once about getting a surprise bonus - I don't recall the precise story, but let's say he found a twenty. He gave the twenty away in the collection plate, and ended up getting forty bucks from someone who remembered they owed him something.

He donated the forty, and got eighty or a hundred bucks in a gift card. He continued giving away this windfall over and over again, and the rough doubling continued, until finally at several hundred dollars, he said, "Alright, God, I get the point - I don't need any more."

Similarly, I can confidently say that I've "earned" far more money from following my Christian values and treating people the way that I wish I was treated than I've ever earned from just hard work. Putting your nose to the grindstone sometimes just throws sparks; treating people with respect wins you far more.

Jesus sent His disciples out with minimal provisions. Now, He could have provided them with mana from heaven - paraphrasing Dennis Leary, God has the budget - but He sent them out as mendicants, living off the largesse of the people they preached to - because the Kingdom of Heaven is also here on Earth.

For each story in which Jesus exhorts us not to worry about possessions, there's another about us taking care of each other - and not just the overt "give to all those who beg of you"; the feature implicit in the story of the Rich Fool is that he is not sharing his abundance - and yet, he should.

This goes back to Leviticus: "When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest." Many passages in the New and Old Testament teach us our society should not be structured to maximize exploitation, but to leave space at the margins.

Jesus spoke in parable, hyperbole and metaphor. When Jesus says to forgive someone not seven times, but seventy times seven times, He doesn't mean 490 times: He means to forgive endlessly. Similarly, when Jesus says "give to all those who beg from you," this is a general principle, not a strict rule.

Once, a Christian girl I dated - named Christian, interestingly - and I were waiting for a table for dinner when a thin, trembling woman in a knitted cap came up and asked us for money. Even before I could speak, Christian politely but firmly gave her directions to the nearest shelter, just a few blocks away.

The woman left, and just as she did, the server ran out to us. "Did you give her any money? No? Good. She's a recovering heroin addict with an assigned social worker. Please don't give her anything. What she really needs is not to get any money." Christian's take on this was, "Jesus is not an enabler."

In trying to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to life here on Earth, we are bound to make mistakes. Trying to use our talents wisely can distract us from the needs of others. Creating the standard where we give to everyone without discretion can lead to people taking advantage of the system to their own detriment.

But that doesn't mean we can't try. If you're down on your luck, of course, maybe you don't have anything to give - but that just means God appreciates what you do even more than someone who has it all. And if you have it all, it's worth asking ... do you really need all that, or can you pass some of that forward?

-the Centaur

Pictured: Gandhi.

Nothing Man Can Do Is Just Enough

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architect sketch

I disagree with traditional religion about a lot, and I try to be up front about it. Contra Catholicism, I teach that women should be ordained priests and homosexuality is not a sin; contra fundamentalism, I teach the Bible is not literally true, but that the transubstantiation of the Eucharist is spiritually true.

But since we're all inspired by the same one God, and since we're all trying to follow Jesus, then in some sense, no matter where we are on our faith journeys, we're all trying to look in the same direction. So if you extend Christian charity to your Christian opponents, you can usually find a nugget of truth.

While I disagree with the Catholic Church's teaching on women priests and gay relationships, that is their consistent teaching and has some Biblical basis, so it's right to say the Catholic Church can't simply toss those rules out to match current social mores without developing a more mature understanding.

This seems disappointing if you're a proponent of women priests or respecting individual sexuality, but unless decisions are made on principles that we can defend, then the Church can be swayed back and forth by any social movement, even a recidivist one that rolls the clock backward.

Similarly, while I disagree with fundamentalists who see the Bible as literally true - and in fact think that the way traditional "Bible-believing" Christians view the Bible approaches idolatry - nevertheless, I agree we must return to the Bible to understand Jesus because the Bible is our sole primary source.

On that note, I've got theological differences with Jehovah's Witnesses - for example, they reject the Trinity and Jesus's divinity in favor of their own decontextualized interpretation of the Bible that doesn't build on the traditions and theology passed on to us from Jesus through His Church.

My sister-in-law is a Witness, and we've had many vigorous discussions over points of theology and even whether to call it theology or philosophy. But when I attended the wedding of her son, they mentioned Jesus and pulled out their Bibles far more often than other churches.

The Holy Spirit was moving with them: Jehovah's Witnesses do not deny the Spirit's influence, even though they do deny the Spirit's divinity or its unity with God as one Person of the Trinity. Wherever two or three are together, Jesus is there with them; and He was there, helping them to follow Him.

It's good for Christians to talk to one another, even if they disagree on doctrine. Once Jesus said that He came not to unite but divide, as part of his mission to set the world on fire with His teaching. His speech references Micah, an Old Testament book decrying dishonesty, even within households.

Both the author of Micah and Jesus aren't asking us to fight with each other, but to be honest with each other and ourselves. Micah asks us for God's help to get back on the right path. Jesus turns to us and asks us, why we can't decide what is right amongst ourselves?

Explicitly, He was speaking about believers solving problems between each other without turning to a judge, but the broader message for the rest of us is that we should talk through our problems with each other, even if we disagree, trying to focus on what is right using honest reasoning with each other.

Christians should engage with each other, even if we disagree, and attempt to find out what's right. It was in one of those conversations with a friend in high school, a fundamentalist, that I first heard the phrase that's the title of this article: "Sometimes it seems that nothing man can do is just enough."

We were discussing the death penalty. While I was a Catholic at the time, and was representing the Church's teaching against capital punishment, even at the time in that conversation, I wasn't certain I agreed with it. My friend was in favor of capital punishment, but wasn't too happy with it either.

"You know, if you do nothing, then a criminal who killed someone gets away without punishment. Life in prison is like torturing them for the rest of their life. Killing them seems just for the victims, but it means that our society has taken a life. Sometimes it seems that nothing man can do is just enough."

My friend was arguing that humans don't need to be in the business of judging each other in this life. We can forgive each other and move on, confident that God will judge everyone at the Last Judgment, and that his decision will be the correct and just one.

This doesn't mean that our society shouldn't have a policy for dealing with people who hurt other people, but it does mean we'll fall short. While this idea is qualitative, it's like a theorem like the Halting Problem: no matter what we try to do, humankind isn't going to get the problem of justice perfectly right.

This strongly argues for forgiveness on a personal level. When my Uncle Sam was murdered by gunshot by (as I recall) an employee he'd caught embezzling, I had a lot of emotions: Sam had been one of my favorite relatives, a kindly old man who did a lot for Saint Mary's Church, who was now gone.

But it's important to forgive. Perhaps it was easier for me to forgive his killer given that I had already left for college and hadn't seen him in a while, but still, people have become enraged over far simpler things and held onto them for far longer. Better to let it go.

And when I do feel it difficult to forgive, when thoughts of vengeance consume me, I remember what my friend said: "Sometimes it seems that nothing that man can do is just enough." And if I remember that no human action will be enough, that can help me turn the other cheek, and get back to following Jesus.

-the Centaur

Pictured: My friend from high school, who moved north and apparently followed his father's footsteps, becoming an architect.

The Sabbath was Made for Man

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the sabbath was made for man

Welp, I forgot to treat the Sabbath like the Sabbath yesterday, even though I attended a church meeting with the bishop, and ended up doing a full essay and illustration instead. So, I'm going to call a mulligan on today's entry and take it as a retroactive Sabbath, to give myself that bit of extra rest - because the Sabbath was made for humanity, not the other way around.

-the Centaur

Pictured: As quick as an illustration in Illustrator + Photoshop as I could manage.

Episcopal Means Governed by Bishops

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bishop headshot

Jesus is the focus of the Episcopal Church, so why not call us just Christian? Well, with a lot of Christian churches, we need qualifiers, usually theological: the Catholic Church is catholic, for all; the Presbyterian Church is governed by elders, or presbyters; and the Episcopal Church follows the Anglican tradition.

Wait, what? Well, Anglican is just a funny word for English, taken from a Latin phrase in the Magna Carta meaning The Church of England. But after the American Revolution, we wanted a church that retained the theology we believed in, but was independent from England, leading to the Episcopal Church.

Anglicanism has three key features. The most important theologically is the "three-legged stool" principle: the idea that decisions about the faith must be discerned using the three sources of Scripture (the Bible), Tradition (history and decisions of the Church) and Reason (an honest inquiry into the actual facts).

The most important pastorally is the Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican Church united Protestants ("low church", light on ritual) and ex-Catholics ("high church", very sacramental) using worship from the same book. You don't have to agree on doctrine if you can agree to pray together out of the same book.

The most important spiritually is the Apostolic Succession. When lay people think of bishops, we typically think of big league church people with funny hats - like Vice Presidents in Charge of Worship in Religion Incorporated. But bishops have their origin in Jesus's time: they're the successors of the Apostles.

Jesus picked twelve Apostles to fulfill his mission, and handpicked Peter to lead the Church after He was gone. But almost immediately after Jesus's death, the Apostles lost one of their own to betrayal: Judas. Saint Matthias was the first new Apostle, picked to fill Judas's role in the leadership of the Church.

This process continued with Paul, who was selected to be the Apostle to the Gentiles by Jesus himself during his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, and Barnabas, Paul's apprentice. After Paul and Barnabas, the term apostle starts to get fuzzy, starting to evolve into the term overseer, or bishop.

Bishops, as I mentioned earlier in the series, were intended to be upstanding: "A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous ..."

This was important because bishops guided the Church. Since the Church lived under the Roman Empire, the Bishop of Rome was centrally important. Three early Church leaders - Peter, Linus and Clement - are mentioned in the Bible, and early Church tradition names them as Bishops of Rome.

Which, of course, we now call the Pope. From a historical perspective - that is, what we can justify based on written documents - the evidence for the early Popes is a bit thin, but from a realistic, scientific perspective - that is, making a best guess based on the evidence - they very probably existed.

Peter may have written at least one letter which is genuine; Clement also wrote a letter which is very likely genuine. Linus left us nothing, but as early as the mid-100's, Saint Irenaeus's writings identified Linus as the first Bishop of Rome.

Irenaeus, who also helped us define the early books of the Bible, was a bishop himself, so it's likely he knew what he was talking about. Sometimes skeptical people get confused about this, so it's important to distinguish between what we can historically and scientifically prove and what is actually true.

There are oak trees on the grounds of Saint Stephens in-the-Field, the Episcopal Church I attend in San Jose. Some are clearly very old, but others are newer. To my knowledge, there is no written record of how those trees got planted on the property.

But if you attend the Saint Stephen's Vestry meetings or coffee hours, you may hear the story of how Dan, one of the founding members of the parish. He and his wife had a very prolific oak tree, and for years they sowed the property with acorns, eventually leading to the trees we have decades later.

I heard this story from Dan himself in a Zoom "coffee hour" celebrating the "visit" of our bishop, Lucinda. After a few more decades, Dan may likely be gone, but the people who attended that Zoom meeting can continue to tell that story, until the oral tradition that "Dan planted the trees" one day finally disintegrates.

If, fifty years from now, someone connects the dots and says that "Dan the Acorn Man" is likely "Dan Name Withheld for Privacy" among the Church founders and writes it down, that statement isn't wrong just because it wasn't documented in primary source materials contemporary to the event.

We have to be aware that oral traditions are tentative, but that doesn't mean oral traditions aren't real. Scientists not engaged in active religious skepticism are comfortable suggesting that a 37,000 year old volcanic eruption is preserved in oral tradition, so we can trust a very early bishop to get the story right.

What's the point here? There almost certainly weren't monarchial bishops in Rome on the mold of the current Popes, but what we can say is that there are a number of Apostles mentioned in the Bible - some in letters we believe to be authentic - who anointed bishops, who anointed other bishops, and so on.

This process continued, and by a very early stage, bishops anointing bishops became formalized. By the time the Episcopal Church rolled around, each bishop is consecrated by three other bishops. The rationale behind this is even if one bishop isn't valid, the action of the others is likely to be.

This unbroken chain - from the bishops of today, through the early church bishops, to the Apostles being called by Jesus Himself - is called the Apostolic Succession. Churches governed by bishops believe this "episcopate" spiritually inherits the authority Jesus invested in Peter and the Apostles.

Because the Christian Church isn't a self-help scheme that's good for you, or an ethical teaching which is good for other people. Christians believe our faith is a true deposit of revealed information about the world, prompted by the actions of Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit.

And if the important part of that teaching is to learn about, to come to believe in, and to choose to follow Jesus, it's important to know that the people overseeing the organization which teaches us about Him aren't simply spiritually inspired by a 2,000 year old compilation of books and letters.

The contemporary Christian Church is literally the same organization that Jesus founded. Our leaders, the bishops, are the successors of His Apostles. Our religious texts, the Bible, was written and collated and curated by the group of people Jesus entrusted to lead His Church - them, and their successors.

If you want to follow Jesus, you can't do much better than read the Bible that His followers and their successors assembled, to attend worship at one of the churches He founded, and to inquire what the leaders of those churches think about what it means to follow Him.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Lucinda Ashby, Bishop of El Camino Real.

Getting Started with Christianity

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"Jesus is the reason for the season goes" the saying, and getting to know Jesus is the purpose of this Lenten series - and Lent itself is a tool to remind us of Jesus, to reacquaint us with His story, to help us reconsider our lives - dare I say repent - and to choose to follow His path to the Cross.

There's a lot to Christianity, and a lot that people who are into Christianity argue about. And so I've been talking a lot of theology, philosophy, history, science and more; but all that can be overwhelming if you're unfamiliar with it - heck, it can be overwhelming if you ARE familiar with it.

So how can you get started with Christianity?

First off, Jesus saves if you believe in him; so learning about Jesus is a start on the right path. Next, find a Christian church whose creed speaks to you: this list is by church size, so the search [church near me] is likely to find one; I recommend you go to an [episcopal church near me] on the next available Sunday.

Why? Well, these are the first three theological steps on the road to becoming a Christian. First is awareness: you need to know about Jesus first. Second is belief: it's not enough just to know him, but to believe in him. And third is worship - but not just individually; communal worship, worship with others.

This is really important. Jesus didn't just preach on a mountaintop, though He certainly did that. He gathered apostles and sent out disciples who built communities. He once said "For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them," which is why many believe it's important to worship together.

If you're learning about Jesus, and you're gathering with others trying to learn about Jesus, then the Holy Spirit can guide you the right way. I recommend a church you're comfortable with to reduce distractions like disagreements over doctrine, but I also recommend a Christian church focused on Jesus.

"Look, Centaur, can you actually just tell me how to get started without opening my phone book?" "What, you guys still use phone books?" Oh, nevermind - if you want me to summarize, sure, hey, I can do that. I've already told you the three most important practical steps. Now, epistemological, or, what's up?

Surely you've felt at some point a presence larger than yourself, be it the simple recognition that the room or outdoor place that you're in is bigger than you are, or be it a deep internal experience, hard to quantify, of something to the world that's more than what you see and feel.

To Christians, this realization is the first step on the path to realize we exist in a Creation made by God. We don't mean this in the sense of a scientific explanation, as  you have to take it on faith; but we do mean it as a fact: you live in a world where God has to exist, and is the only thing that has to exist.

God is the "ground of being," the logical foundation of existence, and everything else - including you - is something contingent upon God - something He created - a part of "Creation," which God designed to fulfill His purpose. So the fact is, if you want to do well in the world, you should be aligned with His will.

Now, we suck at that. Traditional Christians chalk this up to the Fall of Adam and Original Sin; I think it's a inevitable consequence of God wanting us to choose Him freely, given the limitations of finite agents acting as partially ordered Markov decision processes. But, tl;dr: we depart from his will. We sin.

Traditional Christians think God is infinitely good, and created an just universe; and in a just universe,  sin needs to be punished - departing from God's will should have an inevitable consequence. But it sucks to blame limited finite creatures for failing to follow the perfect designs of an infinite unlimited God.

So it seems like God put Himself in a bind. Greek philosopher Epicurius argued if God is good then evil should not exist, but Christian theology inverts this: arguing about a mythical disembodied "evil" diverts attention from our personal role creating evil through sin, which logically a good God should punish.

Fortunately, God gave Himself an out: Jesus. God, in Christian theology, is one singular "being" existing out of and prior to time and space. But God exists, or is perceived by human beings to exist, in the form of three persons: Father, Son, Holy Ghost, sometimes said: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.

In abstract terms, the Creator made the world, but it could not be made perfect just by a sterile act of creation. The Redeemer fixed the flaws of the world by acting in it to perfect it, and the Sanctifier continues to act in the world to bring people closer to the Creator through the Redeemer.

In concrete terms, God the Father may have made the universe and us, but either we screwed it up or free will requires it to be screwable. To un-screw it, God the Son came to Earth as a human being, providing an example and taking on our punishment, sending the God the Spirit to guide us after.

In religious terms, Jesus is both divine and human - He's the incarnation of God trying to fix the world and take responsibility for our punishments. Jesus not only provided us instructions on how to live in life, and a concrete example of how to live through His life, He took on our punishment on the Cross.

Theologians call this the "superabundant merits" of Jesus's unjust crucifixion: the extralegal, unjust, torturous execution of an innocent man who was actually on a mission from God was not just enough to wipe out the sins of the world, but to wipe out the sins of everyone for all time.

But in practical terms, it means Jesus, acting on behalf of - acting as - God, took on responsibility for the punishment that we might be owed for any sins we committed by not following His will, and further, took on the responsibility of showing us an example of a good life and teaching us how to live that life.

After Jesus returned to the Father, He sent the Holy Spirit - He sent another aspect of Himself - to help guide us. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit woke up Jesus's apostles, turning them from scared followers hiding after the gruesome execution of their leader into bold preachers of His word, unafraid of death.

That transformation is available to all of us. Learn more about Jesus, attend worship at the Christian church of your choice, read a translation of the Bible you understand - I recommend the Oxford Annotated Bible and the Interlinear, but there's also The Message in contemporary language.

But the Bible is long. The short version is John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" and John 13:34: "I am giving a new commandment to you now—love each other just as much as I love you."

Pull on those threads, take a look at the Lord's Prayer, the Nicene Creed, and the Sermon on the Mount, and remember you must combine all three legs of the stool - Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, all of which have equal roles to play building our understanding - and you're well on your way.

Or, put another way, try to follow Jesus.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Allegedly, Epicurus.

If you’re stuck on sin, you’re missing the point

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Jesus frequently calls on His listeners to repent - to stop what they're doing, to undergo a change of heart, and to choose to do things that are better. But He also frequently exhorts His listeners to "Be Not Afraid", because He's there to help us follow Him: "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

That yoke doesn't feel so light if one is struggling with sins of addiction, or challenged by discrepancies between the traditional social mores expressed in the Bible and the truth of personal lived experience, or if one grows up in an environment that twists traditional Christianity into profound repression.

I have a close friend who struggled for years with post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the stories told in his extreme Christian community - that salvation depended on a transformative "come to Jesus" moment which he had not yet had, and the Rapture was likely to happen at any moment.

Every time he came home from school and his parents were out at the store, he wondered whether the Rapture had happened and he'd been left behind. Well, the Rapture didn't happen, and isn't going to happen, because it's both bad cosmology and bad theology, but that was no help for my friend.

He couldn't talk to anyone about his feelings because his Christian group essentially held that people were saved, or not, and the people who were saved were predestined to be saved, and those who weren't, weren't - so if you didn't have your special mystical experience, you were a bad person.

Now theology is important - whether the person in question is a Christian or an atheist, it's at first sight hard to blame them for acting on what they believe. But, as my friend put it, imagine telling slaves brought to America that their abuse was OK because their abusers thought it was right.

It's a bit much to compare being raised within a repressive group and slavery: that fails to respect the real experiences of people who endure slavery, which is worse. But, the point is, in the end, we can't give people a walk on carrying out their sincere beliefs if those beliefs end up hurting other people.

That's why I try to follow Jesus's example of examining each situation anew, looking at how individual human beings are affected by the concrete actions being done in that situation. When we're trying to decide what we should do, it can be tricky; when we try to decide for others, we can lose perspective.

That's why I believe that self-righteousness is one of the most dangerous sins. Morals are important, of course, and we can't get away from the fact that if we believe Christianity to be real, that God's will is important, and that sins that depart from God's will should be avoided, then we must teach morals.

But teaching morals is one thing, and forcing morals on people around us is another, much less taking on the responsibility to enforce morals on a whole population. Enforcing morals with laws requires violence, and enforcing them at a social level leads to repression - and victimization, like that of my friend.

That's one reason Jesus suggested that his disciples shake the dust off their shoes if a town fail to listen to their message - rather than suggesting that his disciples call down fire from the sky as at Sodom and Gomorrah. Presumably God has the budget for that, but would fail to respect the people who are there.

When all filled with righteous indignation - let's say for ark of saguement, legitimately righteous - over something that someone has done wrong, when considering our response, we should ask: is the response I'm considering itself doing harm to this person?

It's all too easy to fire off insult to insult, tweet to tweet, snarky email to snarky email. It's all too easy to propose that people whose behavior we approve of be punished. And we can't get away from punishment of misbehavior if we want a stable society. But are we doing more harm than good?

Worse, are we forgetting that Jesus wasn't just asking us to reconsider our sins, but our lives?

Jesus doesn't just preach repentance, fearlessness and a new way of thinking. He doesn't just rework old rule-bound approaches to morality in favor of an analytical, reductionist, person-centered approach. He also preaches a gospel of radical kindness and support for each other.

He preaches it in "love your neighbor as yourself". He preaches this in "turn the other cheek". He preaches it in "give to all those who beg of you" and in the Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes, which bless the poor in spirit, mourners, the meek, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers.

Jesus is making an argument for human goodness. Christians think of God as infinitely good - a troubling statement in the presence of evil, though we can chalk it up to praise for argument, a kind of performative Christian loyalty to God, in which believers commit to saying good things about Him in all circumstances.

Constructivist mathematics provides us an out here. Do infinities exist? Well, maybe, maybe not, but we certainly can't put infinity in our pockets. But we can conceive of a series whose elements always has a successor. There's always tomorrow after today. After every number, there's that number plus one.

And no matter where we are on our journey towards God, we can always get one step closer. So, in some sense, there's infinite room for us to improve our behavior. So even if we are actually not committing any sin, there must be ways that we can improve - by trying to make the world better.

Focusing on avoidance of sin as the core meaning of Christianity misses both its point and potential, and leads to self-righteousness in perfecting our own behavior and controlling the behavior of others; but Jesus calls upon us to do more: to love one another, to comfort the sick, to feed the hungry, to do good.

-the Centaur

Pictured: David Hilbert, whose finitism is a form of constructive mathematics, a formalist program which Kurt Godel ultimately proved impossible with his Incompleteness Theorem.