Learning about Christianity through a world of religion


By Jim Rigby – Special to the American-Statesman / January 3, 2015

I was born into a pretty typical version of Christianity. My mom always said, however, that every religion has something to teach us. Mom said we should respect everyone’s religion as much as possible.

Until I arrived at college, I had never actually opened the scriptures of any other faith. Once I arrived here in Austin, I started a lifelong practice of respectfully reading the scriptures of other world faiths.

To my surprise, I began to learn things about Jesus I never might have discovered had I stayed in my little sectarian version of Christianity.

Sitting under a tree in the Northeast corner of Wooldridge Park, I opened up my first world scripture, which was Hindu. As I read the words of Krishna, it felt like I was hearing a missing track from a familiar song. It was like I had only seen through one facet of a diamond, and was now realizing for the first time that the true jewel was vastly larger than I could have imagined.

I could hear for the first time that Jesus, like Krishna, was calling us to something much deeper than traditional religion. I realized that both texts were cosmic hymns calling us into the vastness of our common life with all. What had been the comfortable wading pool of sectarian religion was suddenly beginning to feel like the vast open waters of life.

From Buddhism I began to understand that Jesus wasn’t calling us to dogma. Like Buddha, he was calling us to a deeper and wider wakefulness. In studying the spiritual riddles of Zen I realized that Jesus taught in parables for the same reason that Buddha did. If love is our aim, then awareness, not belief is our true path.

From Taoism I learned that heaven could be found in the ordinary gifts of nature. When Jesus told us to consider the birds of the air he was saying, like Taoists, that life itself can be our teacher. I better understood the Sermon on the Mount when I discovered the Taoist teaching that the soft (water) overcomes the hard (stone), and that “the ocean is the ruler of waters because it takes the lowest place.”

From Islam I learned to give myself fully to life, holding nothing back. From Sufi Islam I learned that humor can be a great guide to the sacred. It was Sufi poetry that first awakened me to scripture not as a joyless essay but as a cosmic song to which we should be dancing.

From Judaism I learned that love is inseparable from justice. From the Jewish prophets I learned that I needed to love the people in my religion and nation enough to tell them when I thought they were being unjust. From Judaism I came to understand that love is not a sentimental feeling, but a redistribution of the goods so that all may enjoy the necessities of life.

Finally, from atheism I learned the importance of radical honesty. Reading the compassionate appeals of freethinkers, I came to understand the second commandment (not to make images of God) means that doubt is as important to faith as is belief.

I am still a Christian after all these years, but I have left the little version of my upbringing and have come to understand my own faith as one voice in a larger choir. Most of all I have come to understand what Christian scripture means when it says, “whoever has love, has God.”


Rigby is pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX. http://www.staopen.org/



The essence of courage does not consist in the willingness to be violent. The essence of courage is found in the willingness to face our own pain, and to share the pain of others. Most violence in the world is born out of a lack of the courage it takes to empathize.

Religious Atheism


Our church made national headlines within our denomination, and in many religious publications, when we accepted an atheist into our membership. Our actions were pictured as defiant by some and as complacent by others. In truth, we were honoring a church tradition that goes back as far as Doubting Thomas and is found in many great religions of the world.

“All we know of the truth is that the absolute truth, such as it is, is beyond our reach.” So wrote
Nicholas of Cusa, a German mathematician and philosopher, but also a Catholic Cardinal. He called his method “De Docta Ignorantia”(Learned Ignorance).

Buddha is recorded to have said:

“…Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.'”

St. Paul recommended that we think upon everything that is true, beautiful and Good. To answer that call we most go beyond the confines of any creed.

There have been times in history when agnosticism and atheism have found honored places in the church under the title “negative” or “apophatic” theology. Such “negative” theology did not so much actively attack the symbol God, but taught that a pious and humble unknowing better honors the mystery of being than the pretended certainty of a creed.

“The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth,” wrote
Pierre Abelard, a French scholastic philosopher and theologian.

Critics often attack religion citing a principle of science called “Ockham’s Razor.” The principle states that one should tend toward simplicity in explanation. So if an agent, such as God, is not necessary for an explanation; the agent should be eliminated. What most people don’t know is that William of Ockham, who developed this core principle of science, was a Catholic priest.

We live in a culture where religion is usually equated with a very narrow spectrum of human thought, but there are religions living in our midst that welcome critical thinking and doubt.

Even Christianity has not always resisted honest doubt. There were times when the best critical and most pious thinking could live together in the same skull. There is no reason we cannot return to that kind of honest religion if we are willing to go through a perpetual reformation possible only when doubt and commitment are both deemed essential for a life of faith.


Towards the end of his career, Martin Luther King started calling himself a world citizen. He had escaped the prison of limited allegiance we are taught to have as Americans. He questioned capitalism. He questioned the American empire and whether we can surrender responsibility to such mechanistic systems and not lose our own humanity. People said that Dr. King had blown it by condemning the war in Viet Nam. Major news publications were saying he was no longer relevant. It appeared they had the last word. Martin Luther King had been organizing a March of the Poor to make the face of poverty visible in Washington, D. C.. Civil rights workers built a tent city named “Resurrection City.” The name was based on the idea of the Exodus, the resurrection from brokenness to wholeness. Before the event could happen Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee while working to help sanitation workers. The people gathered in Resurrection City anyway. It rained on them. The mud was five feet deep in some places. The movement seemed to be in shambles. Newspapers weren’t reporting what was happening. At the time, what looked like utter defeat gave birth to invincible dedication. When we look back with the eyes of discernment, we realize that something prophetic was happening that was invisible at the time. The powerful didn’t get to say what Martin Luther King meant to the poor. And thats part of what faith means, doing our duty and not letting despair have the last word in our lives either.



I saw your comments yesterday, but did not have the time or energy to enter into a conversation that will almost certainly be two ships passing in the night. I will share what I consider faulty in your arguments, but then I want to express my central concern at the end of this post.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Thou shall not have an abortion.” The biblical case against abortion is extremely weak which is why opponents are reduced to using Psalms about God knowing us in the womb, or begging the question by presuming that every reference to murder is a condemnation of abortion as well.

“Telescoping” is the practice of projecting modern concepts onto ancient texts. So the opponents of Galileo were able to “prove” the earth does not orbit the sun treating ancient poems as if they were scientific. It is the same error to take poems not directly addressing abortion and using them as “proof.”

Another exhausting technique is called “dump trucking” which means to dump a bunch of scripture passages and force your opponent to refute them all. You listed a bunch of passages, but only three remotely approach the topic at hand -Psalm 139:13-16, Jeremiah 1:4-5 (saying God knows us in the womb) and Ex. 21:22-25)

You claimed that your opponents don’t care about scripture, but I have studied scripture my entire adult life in Greek and Hebrew which is why I can point out the emptiness of your argument. The idea that our souls enter the body at conception comes from Aristotle, not scripture. The word for “soul” or “spirit” means “breath” in Hebrew and the ancient Rabbi’s (before Greek influences) generally held that personhood begins at birth.

The two passages about God knowing us in the womb say nothing about the question of when personhood begins. God also knows the chick in the egg, but that doesn’t make it a person. We misuse the text when we twist it out of context and claim it is making a scientific claim. This was the error of Galileo’s opponents.

Finally, you quoted Exodus 21:22-25 which seems to make your case, but the text can be read in different ways. The NRSV quotes the passage in a way that sounds to say the fetus does not have personhood status. In that translation, injuring a woman should be punished by an eye for an eye, but inducing a miscarriage should be punished by a fine.

“22 When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

If you look at the rest of the chapter it talks about slaves and women as property. I may love scripture, but I don’t want to bring that horror back to life in modern jurisprudence. There is much in the Bible that would be abhorrent if applied today.

So my three concerns can be summarized as follows: I do not accept your biblical interpretation, I do not accept your claim to be judge of other peoples’ lives, and I don’t want to live in the theocracy for which you advocate.



“Scripture” is not confined to any one book. Scriptures are any writings that touch our souls, whether or not they have the blessing of organized religion. The word “canon” means “yardstick” and is intended to give us a compass to sail in the great ocean of life, not a thimble in which to limit our mind’s search for truth. How can my soul not become larger when breathing the common breath of saint and freethinker alike? Because I am a minister I have a Jewish and Christian Testament by my desk, but the drawer where I keep the quotes and poems that awaken my soul to love nature and all humankind are my Third Testament.


As I left the sanctuary from our first worship service yesterday, I was surprised by a television crew from Germany. They were doing a documentary about religion in Texas. Sunday was their last full day in the States and they had just heard about our church. The film makers had been struck by how divided religious and nonreligious people are in Texas. They had heard our church might be a middle ground. I admitted that religion is often unhealthy, especially when it is in the service of capitalism, superstition, nationalism or even personal fear. I told them that we have several atheists in our congregation, and no one would think of converting them. I said our mysterious universe lies in between theistic and atheistic systems; and when we are humble, grateful and reverent, the gap is not so wide. When believers stand before mystery, all dogma is forgotten for a moment and they become reverent agnostics. When a scientist looks through a telescope and whispers “wow,” he or she has said what we mystics mean by the divine name.

On murder and male privilege

There have been some excellent articles this week questioning whether there is a link between recent mass murders such as in Isla Vista and attitudes of male privilege.

Chauncey DeVega wrote a brilliant article on white male privilege for Alternet pointing out that, “when an “Arab” or “Muslim” American kills people in mass they are a “terrorist”. When a black person shoots someone they are “thugs”. When a white man commits a mass shooting he is “mentally ill” or “sick”.”

Jessica Valenti of the Guardian wrote, “(Elliot) Rodger, like most young American men, was taught that he was entitled to sex and female attention. (Only last month, a young woman was allegedly stabbed to death for rejecting a different young man’s prom invitation.) He believed this so fully that he described women’s apathy toward him as an “injustice” and a “crime”.

“You forced me to suffer all my life, now I will make you all suffer. I waited a long time for this. I’ll give you exactly what you deserve, all of you. All you girls who rejected me, looked down upon me, you know, treated me like scum while you gave yourselves to other men.”

It is a serious mistake to consider these murders as inexplicable acts of unspecified mental illness if they are actually the result of misogynist attitudes learned by the majority of males of this culture. The National Coalition against Domestic Violence estimates that one in six women in the United States has suffered either sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. One third of all female homicides are committed by an intimate partner. A culture that produces this kind of abuse so routinely may very well be playing a major role in producing the misogynist attitudes that result in violence against women.

Looking back on his words, Rodger’s words sound eerily familiar to anyone who works on sexual assault or domestic violence:

“I’m 22 years old and I’m still a virgin. I’ve never even kissed a girl. College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure. But in those years I’ve had to rot in loneliness. It’s not fair. You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me. But I will punish you all for it. I’ll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am, in truth, the superior one. The true alpha male.”

It is too early to know what happened in this specific case, but since violence against women in our culture is anything but rare, it is past time to ask whether much of this violence stems from teaching young males attitudes of male privilege.

“White male entitlement is the belief that minorities owe us deference, and women owe us sex,” says DeVega. He then quotes William Hamby on the topic:

“Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel (2010) proposed a mechanism that might well explain why white males are routinely going crazy and killing people. It’s called “aggrieved entitlement.” According to the authors, it is “a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back. And its gender is masculine.” This feeling was clearly articulated by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the perpetrators of the Columbine Massacre. Harris said, “People constantly make fun of my face, my hair, my shirts…” A group of girls asked him, “Why are you doing this?” He replied, “We’ve always wanted to do this. This is payback… This is for all the sh*t you put us through. This is what you deserve.”

DeVega concludes:

“At the risk of getting too existentialist, I’d like to propose a very simple and elegant explanation for not only school shootings but a host of other barbaric acts in recent years: White men are having a crisis of both aggrievement and entitlement. One need only look at the 2012 election season to see less brutal but equally mind-numbing examples of white men going mad because they are losing their power. The “Republican Meltdown” is a perfect example of men who previously had all the control escalating to madness when that control was lost.

“The thing is, losing power hurts. That’s the “aggrieve” part of aggrieved entitlement. It’s one thing for a bunch of white men to feel hurt because they are no longer the kings of their own private castles, rulers of all they survey. It’s another thing for them to feel like they’re entitled to power, and more importantly, entitled to punish others for taking it away. And that — aggrievement plus the feeling of entitlement — is what may well drive people like Adam Lanza to these horrific crimes.”

Alan Alda said this week that humanity has seen the need to confront cancer and the common cold, “We don’t accept those things. Why should we accept this kind of behavior (misogyny) that leads to death and dismemberment, just because it’s common all over the world?”


I love this. It puts radical politics in a nutshell for me:

“Some time ago, in an attempt to discredit one of the Zapatista leaders in southern Mexico, Sub-comandante Marcos, government officials there tried to put forth the idea that Marcos was gay. In a region where machismo still runs strong, it was hoped this would tarnish the leader’s credibility.

He responded by writing a poem:

“Yes, Marcos is gay. Marcos is gay in San Francisco Black in South Africa an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10pm a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains.

“Marcos is all the exploited, marginalised, oppressed minorities resisting and saying ‘Enough’. He is every minority who is now beginning to speak and every majority that must shut up and listen. He is every untolerated group searching for a way to speak. Everything that makes power and the good consciences of those in power uncomfortable — this is Marcos.”

[From Social Justice E-Zine #27.]



Confusion is not our enemy. Confusion is our body’s deepest creativity. It may not always feel pleasant, but confusion is like a picture coming into focus. Sometimes, all the information is already there. Other times, confusion is the process of gestating something new.

In an evolving universe periods of confusion are absolutely necessary if we are to grow. When confusion becomes frustrating, we must occasionally whisper to our hearts an affirmation of faith: “If I can but listen, this confusion will eventually lead me where I need to go.”