Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Faith and Knowledge


Knowledge is not faith, and faith is not knowledge. Knowledge can't bring you to faith, and faith should not serve as the basis of knowledge.

Many of the so-called "proofs" for the existence of God appear to hinge on a person already believing that such a God exists. Nowhere is this more apparent in my mind than with Thomas Aquinas, who frequently wrote, in varying words, that ‘everyone understands that this is God.’ He was living in a Christian culture where the presuppositions were on his side. No doubt most if not all of the people in his life agreed together on the general nature of a supreme being who created the universe, even if they may have differed on some particulars. He might have been shocked, as I was, when I started meeting atheists who had been atheists since childhood, having always thought the stories about God to be silly or at least improbable. It could also have troubled him to have encountered people from cultures where the nature of the divine was either not considered of great import, or not understood as a personal deity to be known. A lot of assumptions go into the reasonings about proving God’s existence.

Anselm of Canterbury famously describe God as "that than which a greater cannot be thought." In recent years I've learned that he wrote his ontological argument in a work of meditation, not of logical reasoning. In other words, no ‘argument’ was intended at all, and it appears he was self-aware in writing from his perspective as a believer in God. Already believing, he found this way of thinking to be faith-affirming. That being the case, it seems uncharitable to take him to task for such a weak argument.

Someone could assert that an Invisible Pink Unicorn is the creator of all things, having swept the cosmos into being with a tilt of her glitter-laced horn. How can she be both invisible and pink? Why, that’s a divine mystery to be contemplated. After all, she is that than which nothing greater can be conceived. Maybe that’s quibbling over details though. Assuming that there is ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’ is a different question from the nature of that being, whether an Invisible Pink Unicorn, a Trinity, or something else.

It seems to me that such reasons ‘proofs’ for the existence of God can only ever serve as encouragement to those who have already taken a leap of faith, or are on the verge of doing so. They cannot possible provide the conclusive evidence that would be required to become considered knowledge. In the end, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). If it were knowledge, it would not be faith. And if faith is not required, then why does the New Testament repeatedly call for it?

To be clear, faith is not a moral virtue. When believing in something without or against evidence is held up as a moral triumph, a door is opened to embracing virtually anything that someone thinks 'makes sense' to someone. This is not to say that faith is evil, by any means. It sustains the lives of many through dark times. What I am arguing is that when it comes to making clear-eyed decisions that impact other people, knowledge is of far greater value than faith, on a par I would say with empathy. These two together can change the world.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Having a Canon

20 or 30 years ago, the word 'canon' wasn't really part of the everyday vernacular. Often I found it being confused with 'cannon,' the heavy artillery used in wars. Over the years the public has become accustomed to talking about what is 'canon' and what is not in relation to popular entertainment franchises, like Harry Potter or Star Trek. This term, 'canon,' is one that has historically been used most in the West when speaking of what counts as Scripture, and what does not.

To me, one of the most eye-opening courses you'll take in seminary is an introduction to the New Testament, particularly as you learn about how the text came together. The same can be said about the Hebrew scriptures as well. Of course, this is assuming that your seminary isn't fundamentalist, and honestly teaches current scholarly research around the origins of the text. You'll learn that many if not most of the books were written by someone other than the person attributed, and that many were written years after the fact by people pretending to be the more famous writer. They were responding not to situations in the church of the first generation, but to circumstances later, in the actual time of writing. To the surprise of many in such a class, they learn that the New Testament canon was not formulated by a specific church council, but rather was put together over time and by consensus among the Christian communities that became identified with 'orthodoxy.' Different Christian communions accept different books, with the Ethiopic Bible consisting of as many as 84 books, far more than the Protestant canon of 66. 

The canon isn't necessarily closed for everyone who identifies as Christian, either. Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, maintains an open canon of Scripture. Periodically their prophet-president presents a revelation, which the church in conference reviews and either approves or rejects. This is a fairly fluid process, as Community of Christ does not affirm inerrant verbal inspiration of Scripture. 

Outside of historic Christianity we find the Unitarian Universalist Association, which came out of a Protestant background, rejecting not only creeds but also a formal canon. UU churches have neither creed nor canon, and ministers speak on topics drawn from an array of sources.

The Universal Life Church does not dictate any particular canon for ministers to use. The headquarters congregation in Modesto, California reportedly tends to hear from the King James Bible, but that's simply because Rev. Andre Hensley is accustomed to using that version. Similar to our Unitarian Universalist counterparts, we are welcome to find truth wherever we prefer. That doesn't mean that people don't have their own canons. 

From what I've gathered over the years, a good number of Universal Life ministers hold to a view of the Bible that includes inerrancy and infallibility. They may be Pentecostal, fundamentalist, or evangelical. Hell, many are a challenge to classify, which is why the ULC is the right place for them. Of course, many ULC ministers have no personal preferences, being fairly secular and having only gotten ordained to officiate a wedding for friends. Still others are Wiccans or adherents of another path. For those without a formal declared canon, there can still be tendencies.

A ULC minister who knows a great deal about Star Wars might draw considerably from that 'universe.' The same could be true of an expert in Shakespeare or of someone who is deeply into music. People speaking from the heart draw on what they know and love, at least it's certainly easier that way. While there might not be something they think of as 'scripture,' there can still be a realm of symbols and meaning that is important to them.

So I suppose the challenge I'll leave you with is to attempt to discern your own canon. If it's the Bible, why is that the case? If something else, why or how is that meaningful to you? By exploring these questions we can better understand ourselves and, hopefully, better minister to those around us.

See Also:

Yale Bible Study, Formation of the Biblical Canon: New Testament (Video)

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Open Ordination

Among Christian churches there is "open communion" and "open membership." With the Universal Life Church, we have "open ordination," which I suppose also counts as "open membership."

Rev. Kirby J. Hensley was known to refer to ordaining others as the single most important act of any ULC minister. While marriage and other ceremonies are of course quite important, as is providing pastoral care and fulfilling other duties of ministry, it is through ordination that people from all walks of life are empowered to serve others in ways they could not otherwise. While individual ULC ministers and congregations have a variety of beliefs and practices, ordination is something we all hold in common. If there is any ULC 'sacrament,' this is it. 

"Open communion" refers to the practice of welcoming everyone to participate in the Lord's supper. Some churches, like the Roman Catholics and certain Baptists, limit communion to members in good standing only. Others restrict it to believers who were baptized by immersion. Still others have it open to anyone who professes faith in Christ, or else make no statement other than that it is Christ's table, where everyone is welcome. "Open membership," on the other hand, refers to the practice in some churches that have believer's baptism by immersion only to also welcome as members people previously baptized in other modes (sprinkling or pouring, as children or adults) without requiring re-baptism. The Universal Life Church has no specific policy on either of those matters, leaving it to individual conscience and the practice of the congregations. Ordination, on the other hand, is for everyone. 

If someone wishes to be ordained, you can either direct them to the website, or else simply offer to ordain them yourself. You would then need to send an email (, letter (Universal Life Church Headquarters, 601 Third St. Modesto, CA 95351), or submit the form online ( on behalf of that individual. However, do not ordain anyone without their explicit request. An unwanted ordination might generate a record, but it accomplishes nothing if the person does not want it, or even know about it. 

The idea of ordination is, as I alluded to above, putting people on a path of empowered leadership. Clergy are often able to visit friends, family, and congregants in prisons and hospitals with greater facility than others, and to be certified as a professional chaplain, ordination or endorsement by a recognized faith tradition is required as well. The only denomination of Universal Life able to provide such endorsement for the purposes of formal recognition by the Association of Professional Chaplains is the ULC headquarters in Modesto, California

If you know people who could benefit from ordination, offer them the opportunity, and do what you can to make it easy for them to receive it. The Modesto church will send out the credential to new ministers free of charge, arriving in the mail usually within a couple of weeks. This is a privilege that more of us should exercise. 

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Devoted to Death?

There are devotees of some spiritual paths who could find it quite difficult to be formally recognized as clergy, limiting their ability to officiate weddings or to pursue a profession in chaplaincy. Fortunately, the Universal Life Church has everyone covered. When we apply for ordination we're simply agreeing to do only that which is right, and to support religious freedom. There are no definitions or doctrinal standards beyond that, freeing the new clergy person up to build a ministry according to the dictates of their conscience. This really applies to everyone, including followers of Santa Muerte.

Andrew Chesnut is essentially the scholar of Santa Muerte, and he wrote a book about her and the people who call upon her. There is also a Facebook Group Chesnut runs that might be worth a look for you. That said, I'm not going to spend a lot of time explaining devotion to this entity. She is viewed variously as a folk saint or as a goddess in her own right, and she is adored by people of all walks of life, not just narcotraffickers like in series and movies. She is called upon often for things other saints would not attend to, and can bring both weal and woe. There are temples, chapels, and so forth dedicated to her, although the Roman Catholic Church opposes her adoration and teaches against it emphatically. While she got her start in Mexico, and remains strongest there, she is known now throughout the world, with people in numerous nations either including her at their home altars, or dedicating them to her. 

In the United States a person could incorporate a Santa Muerte church and ordain themselves, but that's a lot of work and costs money. Meanwhile, the Universal Life Church headquarters in Modesto, California sends a credential for free to anyone who applies for ordination. The newly-minted minister can proceed to officiate weddings and any other rituals after the fashion of their faith, and where legality matters, it will be recognized. Further, those ordained through the headquarters can get on the track to become certified chaplains, as only the original Modesto-based denomination can sign off on that as one of the steps. Imagine ordained and certified chaplains who follow Santa Muerte offering comfort, encouragement, and presence to those in need. 

So, whether you are 'devoted to death' or follow some other less-well-recognized path, the Universal Life Church welcomes you and is ready to endorse you. Click here to apply

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