Author Archives: Ray Woodcock

The Amazing Thing About Christian Belief

The amazing thing about Christian belief is that, somehow, among the billions of possible planets, and the billions of people on this one, divided into innumerable sects and shades of belief — somehow, against all odds, my group got it right! Isn’t that amazing? God could be gods, or no god; they could have four heads or five hooves, or could speak only in the language of Zoltran — but no! None of that! By a coincidence beyond “inconceivable,” somehow, when it comes to God, I’m the one who wound up being completely right! about everything!

Nothing arrogant about that, right? I mean, obviously, this core belief is as good a reason as any to get mad at people — the ones who don’t recognize my superiority, that is — and call them names, ridicule their claims to know more than I do, even kill them. Not that contemporary Christians would do any of that, or at least not the killing. That’s medieval. That was when Christians had the power to do such things. They don’t anymore, and they won’t, and that’s too bad — because, aside from the tortures and the murders and the bad science and all that, at least the Middle Ages did give people the Kingdom of God. Right?

And so the question at hand is, how can we get back to that? Because that’s what God would want and, of course, he can’t do these things without our help.

Well. I’m no authority, but I’d say the first thing to do is to make sure God stays in his place. So let’s start with theology. The science of God! Gotta chuckle about that one. Theology tells us that God has to be a Trinity, even though the Bible itself doesn’t say so, and nobody can make sense of that — because, without a Trinity of just the right configuration, certain Bible passages will contradict each other. And that’s not acceptable because that would mean God wrote an imperfect Bible. Which, in turn, is not acceptable because it would mean that God didn’t actually write it and/or that we should not treat it as a legal document, replete with numbering of chapters and verses that God, himself, forgot to add. Neither of those options is acceptable because, really, how can you ever hope to have a religion that completely departs from practicing its founder’s most important message about the treatment of other people, if you don’t have an infallible scripture with which to overrule him?

So, like I say, the first thing is to help God explain who he is (the Trinity, I mean), and help him provide that explanation in a form that we can lawyer into submission — because, rather pathetically (for an all-knowing deity), he failed to realize that we would need this, so as to have specific reasons for burning people at the stake. Frankly, there are a lot of things that God forgot to put into that Bible, starting with a list of the books that it should include, so that our forbears wouldn’t have to spend centuries (continuing to the present) disagreeing about which books those should be, and also including an explanation of how the Bible can be the word of God when it says that, no, Jesus was the word of God.

The question posed by Ms. Olmstead is this: “To what extent are we called to flexibility and empathy in our doctrinal choices?” In other words, if the Bible says something, can we disregard it? For virtually all Christians in America, the answer is a resounding yes, if it happens to be something we don’t wish to make part of our religion. There’s that classic scene in The West Wing about that, but really we don’t need TV for this: everyone knows we can come up with reasons not to stone people, regardless of what God’s supposed laws might say. I mean, you have to keep the divinity in his place. He has his laws, and we have ours, right? Am I right?

Ms. Olmstead’s title asks, “Where Should Christianity Draw a Line in the Sand?” Because you can only put up with so much guff from these people who (like oneself) selectively decline to treat the Bible as it does not ask to be treated. Because, as I say, by some unbelievable (and I do mean unbelievable) coincidence, when it comes to drawing lines in the sand, it’s like Phil Collins says: Jesus, he knows me, and he knows I’m right!

* * * * *

This post was submitted as a comment on an article by Gracy Olmstead in The American Conservative (2018).


Seeking Conclusions About Fundamentalist Christian B.S.


Four years ago, I met a fundamentalist couple. This was not my first encounter with people who want to believe that the Bible is God’s word. To the contrary, as detailed in another post, I had been raised as a conservative Lutheran, had become a Lutheran pre-ministry student, and had spent several years deeply engaged in the Jesus movement of the early 1970s.

I say this man and woman (let’s call them Jack and Jill) were fundamentalists. I have seen other terms for their general kind of belief — “evangelical,” for instance, and “biblical literalist.” Maybe those words would be more accurate. I will stick with “fundamentalist,” here, because it is the word I used in a prior post that I will be citing shortly.

We got along well, these two fundamentalists and I. It seems this happened largely because I listened to their views and did not make much of an effort to present any other perspective. I suppose diplomacy is almost always a part of friendship, and deception is always a part of diplomacy, at least in the sense of choosing what one dares to say and how one dares to say it. These are uncomfortable realities, but they seem to reflect how most people approach interactions with persons of differing viewpoint.

The Internet is often criticized for removing important human dimensions of communication. In Facebook, email, and other digital interactions, we experience each other primarily as collections of words, attitudes, and opinions. We don’t necessarily get the smiles, the body language, the things left unsaid. Such media can promote misunderstanding; they can downplay some of the best aspects of the experience of communicating with an appreciated acquaintance.

And yet such media can also be liberating, and can facilitate learning and awareness. The side of me that wants to be honest seems to fare better in this digital realm. Here, online, those of us who stay diplomatically silent in person are sometimes more inclined to demonstrate that we have thoughts and ideas too, and that those thoughts and ideas deserve as much respect as those of the person who dominates face-to-face conversation.

So when I was with Jack and Jill, I tended to sit and listen as they — Jack, especially — went on and on about various topics. He did very much dominate the conversation. Then, and in our subsequent online conversations, he showed little interest in my life or my views. To the contrary, he frankly admitted that he did not consider himself openminded. He knew what he wanted to know, and that severely limited what we could talk about, and how much respect I would get.

I appreciated that Jack seemed to feel that I was a decent guy. But I think that was because I did not make a serious effort to stand up for myself, to explain why I had concluded that his form of belief was false. As many have found, you become less enjoyable when you stop serving as someone’s admirer.

Fundamentalist Christian B.S.

I am not very well equipped to be an admirer of someone who promotes fundamentalist Christianity. As I discovered in my own pilgrimage, that sort of religion requires an extraordinary determination to lie to other people, and to oneself — or, at best, a remarkable inability to realize that one might be mistaken.

In those years of deception and self-deception, I did meet people who tried to get through to me, as I came up with Bible passages to explain other Bible passages, and explanations to explain other explanations, and so on ad nauseum, in a never-ending circle. The problem is obvious to me now: I was afraid of going to Hell. To avoid that, I had to “believe in Jesus” — which meant, bizarrely, promoting a kind of religion that was not remotely what Jesus stood for.

The religion I was promoting was a legalistic one, based on lawyerly interpretation and analysis of Bible passages — whereas Jesus had made clear his opposition to the lawyers and the scribes of his day. Consider these remarks from Matthew ch. 23:

Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. . . .

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. . . .

Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town . . . .

Perhaps God did send us sages, in the form of scientists who contributed to our understanding of our world. How do Christians react to science? They reject it and cling to the Bible, as they always have done, from Galileo and Copernicus right down to evolution and global warming. Believers like science, when it says what they prefer — which is another way of saying that believers don’t like science at all, because science is all about questioning and seeking to replace one’s previous beliefs with better explanations.

(In these remarks, I don’t mean to suggest that secular science or liberal perspectives are always superior. I address that side of the table in 1 2 other posts.)

The fundamental problem of fundamentalist Christianity is that you can’t teach someone who does not want to understand. As soon as so-called Christians gained power in Rome, within a few hundred years after Jesus, they began to torture and kill people who did not interpret the Gospel their way. In the words of Jesus, these Christians were whitewashed tombs, seemingly righteous and yet full of lawlessness. And they only got worse, as elaborated in another post: they took over Europe and held control for a thousand years, from the Dark Ages to the Enlightenment, when people finally began to throw off the Christian yoke.

There was no humility in that sort of Christianity, no willingness to be the student. Bible-believing Christians always have been, and continue to be, proud of their ignorance. Indeed, they turn Jesus on his head, excusing and even glorifying their status as know-nothings, because Paul observed that not many members of the church at Corinth were wise by worldly standards. In the words of one interpreter of that passage, God “does not depend on education, philosophy, science, or any human device for doing His will.” As I learned during my fundamentalist years, real education is OK, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your Bible study.

If you were to think seriously about Jesus, you might focus especially on his message of love. “Love your enemies,” he said; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You might contemplate that message as you consider what people have done in his name — as they have diligently pursued the textual, lawyerly, scriptural project that he had nothing to do with. Think about it: he could have enlisted his disciples in the task of writing a scripture; he could have written one himself. That didn’t happen. But that was what his Gentile followers wanted, just as his Jewish would-be followers wanted him to be the conquering Messiah. So, like the Jews of his time, the Gentile believers of later centuries rejected who he actually was, and what he actually said, in favor of building their own preferred religion. From there, it was only a series of small steps to the point where, guided by Bible passages that he neither wrote nor authorized, his so-called followers would proceed to murder others, and each other, by the millions.

My other post discusses that in some detail. It speaks about the tortures, the abuses of prisoners and the mentally ill, the tolerance of slavery, and some of the other ways in which Bible-led Christians abused their centuries of power. Certainly the Middle Ages had their achievements — their Gothic cathedrals, for example, and their Gregorian chants. But, overwhelmingly, they represent a time that nobody wants to go back to. They demonstrated that a Bible-led society is a really bad idea.

And yet there I was, during my Bible-believing years, standing up for the Bible-based church. It’s not that I really approved of tearing people’s skin off in Christ’s name. Rather, like most fundamentalists, history was one of those subjects on which I was confidently ignorant. I didn’t necessarily know much about what had happened; but, whatever it was, I was sure that, now, we were past all that. We were on to something powerful and holy.

And yet, even there, I look back and shake my head. The Bible, itself, didn’t add up. For instance, fundamentalists see no problem in the fact that God forgot to number the chapters and verses of the Bible — that he needed human assistance to make those thousands of changes to the original texts of the manuscripts and letters now gathered together as so-called books of the Bible. God also forgot to even mention the Trinity, much less explain it — but that didn’t prevent the lawyers of fundamentalist Christianity from spending centuries sorting it out, burning Unitarians at the stake along the way for their failure to embrace this theological invention.

Bible believers do not ask themselves why, if God was unfolding his divine plan, the process of forming the official list of Bible books would require centuries of dispute — why, indeed, we still have disagreement among Christians as to which books belong in the Bible. Such believers are comfortable with the fact that, in a vast number of instances, surviving biblical manuscripts do not agree with one another — mostly in small instances, but sometimes in major ones. Somehow, Christians who find it exceedingly important to study the original Greek and Hebrew texts, so as to get to the exact meaning of God’s alleged word, are not in the least dismayed by the obvious fact that there have been hundreds of different translations of the Bible into English — disagreeing, again, on many small points and on some larger ones. To the kind of person who can swallow all this, it’s fine that the “original” Greek texts were, themselves, translations — that, historians tend to agree, Jesus primarily spoke Aramaic and probably knew very little Greek. The message is, never mind that, let’s study Greek anyway — as I did, for two years, during my own pre-ministerial studies.

Faced with such realities, an honest person will conclude that this Bible was not the work of a God seeking to provide a perfect text. Either God was not involved, or he was seeking something other than the human invention of biblical inerrancy — the notion, that is, that “the Bible is without error in all that it affirms” ( Certainly a person seeking to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, after reading his reported words about lawyers (e.g., “the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves” and “Woe to you, lawyers!” — in Luke 7:30 and 11:46), will marvel at the legalistic acrobatics that theologians perform, in their desperate attempts to lawyer the Bible into submission.

Consider, for instance, how tries to rationalize the many, often glaring, contradictions among Bible passages: it says biblical inerrancy “allows for variety in details in explaining the same event” and even “allows for problem passages.” To explain the latter admission, says,

[I]t is impossible to provide solutions to all the problems [among seemingly contradictory Bible passages]. In some cases the solution awaits the findings of the archaeologist’s spade; in another case it awaits the linguist’s research; in other cases the solution may never be discovered for other reasons. The solution to some problems must be held in abeyance. The answer, however, is never to suggest there are contradictions or errors in Scripture.

So there you have it. The answer is never to suggest that the Bible contains errors or contradictions. Never is a big word. It means that no evidence of any sort will ever be allowed to shake the determination to make the Bible into something that the Bible, itself, does not claim to be. Because, let us be clear, what says is not remotely found in the Bible itself. Unlike any halfway competent human writer, we are to believe that God did not have enough intelligence to simply list the books that he wanted in his Bible, provide authoritative copies of the originals, and give us what has given us: a straightforward, definitive assurance that this Bible contains absolutely no errors.

There is no source other than the Bible that Christians commonly consider controlling in matters of faith, and the Bible itself fails to support the notion that its constituent books were all inspired or otherwise contributed or even influenced by God. Religious Tolerance offers a brief review of the passages most commonly cited in support of scriptural inerrancy — pointing out, for example, that when 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God,” it could only have been referring to the Old Testament, because the New Testament did not yet exist. Defending Inerrancy illustrates the dishonesty of Christian theologians in such matters, claiming that certain statements by Jesus “speak to the Bible’s infallibility” when, again, the New Testament (focused substantially on the gospel of Jesus) would not come into existence until long after he had left the scene.

By this point, you might agree that, as I pointed out in another post, these Christians are guilty of blasphemy (commonly defined as speech conveying great disrespect) against their own God. According to Wikipedia, “Blasphemy has been condemned as a serious, or even the most serious, sin by the major creeds and Church theologians.” And that’s exactly what it is, when you make God out to be some kind of idiot, who failed to grasp the obvious need for these basic materials and statements, and thus has always been desperately dependent upon his so-called followers to help his religion remain viable. In fundamentalist Christianity, the followers are actually the leaders. They have thought of things that completely eluded their God; they are way ahead of him. No wonder they enjoy their religion — it tells them that, in their own way, they are the real masters of the universe.

Some Christian fundamentalists would reply that we should not second-guess God. But, in writings like this one, we are not second-guessing God. We are second-guessing Christian fundamentalists. If there is a God, it would be inordinately stupid to treat him as though he were stupid.

Rather than make the Bible into something that it patently is not, the humble and sensible thing is to take the Bible as it is. It is a collection of manuscripts, some pertaining to the Jews of the Old Testament, some to the Christians of the New. For those who find particular value in Jesus, the most important message of the Bible may have to do with his gospel. There is no denying that Jesus was, and remains, an extraordinary person with a remarkable message.

Goodbye to the B.S. Artist

As I say, I met Jack and Jill four years ago. A year and a half later, I wrote a blog post about some of my subsequent online interactions with Jack. Among other things, that post examined the practice of “lying for the Lord,” as I had once heard some Mormons call it. I summarized one section of that post in these words:

In several ways, then, it seems that pathological lying may serve as a relatively understandable (albeit informal and sometimes confused) diagnosis of the behavior practiced — indeed, encouraged — in fundamentalist Christianity. That impression would seem to apply especially to ministers and Bible students who waste enormous amounts of time trying to rephrase and repackage their beliefs in superficially credible terms.

Another section of that post offered some examples of online interactions with Jack and Jill. The main difference between them, for my purposes, was that Jill might express a view against vaccines, for instance, apparently based on nothing more than rumor; but if I questioned it, she would not waste my time inventing goofy arguments, playing games with words, or evading obvious points. Jack, by contrast, was a bullshit artist; as noted earlier, he had no interest in intelligent discussion. He knew where he wanted the discussion to go, in advance: it needed to reach a conclusion consistent with his fundamentalist beliefs — and he was going to get us there, by hook or by crook.

That, I think, was probably why I got out of Christian fundamentalism, whereas Jack will probably always stay in it. For all my attempts to invent scripture-based rationales supporting various conclusions, at the end of the day I was reachable. As described in another post, a professor did in fact get through to me: he listened to my arguments; he replied intelligently; I tried to work through what he was saying; a crisis of faith resulted; through strenuous efforts continuing for about a year, I concluded that he was right; and eventually I ceased to be a fundamentalist Christian.

When I realized that Jack was completely insincere, in the sense of seeking a predetermined outcome rather than the truth of a given matter, I unfriended him on Facebook. I hesitated to do that, but ultimately I had little choice: as illustrated in the other post, he kept inserting his irrationality into otherwise earnest discussions between people who were trying to explain their disagreements to each other. More than two years later, I still think that was the right thing to do. If you can’t or won’t be reasonable, I don’t want to help you bother people.

During the two years after I unfriended Jack, I continued to be Facebook friends with Jill. It was the usual Facebook interaction: she would “like” things that I posted, and vice versa. I would occasionally challenge her more extreme views, but those exchanges were invariably brief and to the point.

I assume Jack continued to be Jill’s Facebook friend throughout these past two years, and as such I assume he saw at least some of our interactions. He generally seemed to be a pretty mellow guy. My guess was that he saw that I didn’t care to interact with him anymore, and he was content to leave it at that.

For some reason, that changed recently. Jack decided to join in an exchange between Jill and me, probably because it was about a Bible passage and he is a minister. (He could inject himself into that exchange, on Facebook, because Jill had both of us as friends.) And immediately it was like old times: once again I was getting, from Jack, these long, rambling posts, unreasonable claims, and the same obvious desire to “win” rather than discuss. Here’s how it went in one such case:

  • First exchange: I posted a two-line response to Jill; she posted a two-line reply; Jack jumped in with two posts totaling 42 lines.
  • I did object to that verbosity. But eventually I took the bait and replied at some length. Jack (no advanced degrees) proceeded to explain things about the law to me (a lawyer). When I questioned that, he said he meant only to be discussing the law of Moses — on which he (having never studied theology, and having no substantial exposure to Jewish culture) felt that I (12 years in NYC; Jewish ex-wife; former theology student) had only “marginal knowledge.”
  • Seeing that Jack wanted to approach the Bible as a lawyer, I asked him for (a) “a straightforward statement of God’s intentions, regarding which laws are to be observed” and (b) a summary of the arguments against his position. Jack ignored those requests, choosing instead to bury me in another long, rambling reply.

I made those last requests, in part, because I wanted to see whether my impression was mistaken. It seemed to me that Jack just liked to hear himself talk, but I realized I could be wrong; he could be driving toward a coherent point in some way that I wasn’t recognizing. If he did have something specific to say (as distinct from trolling for interminable debate), it seemed reasonable to ask him to state, not his own point (which might have been construed as inviting yet another longwinded discourse), but rather the opposing points, on which he would presumably not expostulate at length. On the other hand, my exposure to counseling psychology suggested that, if he couldn’t say what his opponents argued, he might not be listening to them.

I might have had more patience with Jack if we hadn’t already gone down this road. I had written that previous post — I had rambled, in that previous post, I think — because I was trying to come to terms with, in some sense to gain some perspective on, this unpleasant kind of individual.

I don’t want to overstate the unpleasantness. In his (long) last remark, Jack did make some positive remarks about me. Unfortunately, he mixed them with some attacking remarks and some inaccuracies. It seemed to me that he may have found that he could keep people enmeshed in his debates by holding out that kind of olive branch. By that point, though, I really only cared that he had disregarded my reasonable request for a summary of what, exactly, he was disagreeing with.


From time to time, we must all deal with people who seem to be (or really are) disagreeable or unreasonable. In such situations, it seems best not to rush to judgment: sometimes those whom we find most annoying are those who have the most to teach us. At the same time, the person who strives to keep an open door and an open mind is at risk of being dragged into fruitless debates, or worse, with people who may be insincere, manipulative, or mentally ill.

I have recorded these reactions to this episode here because, as with the previous post about Jack and Jill, it gives me a point of reference that will remain readily accessible, long after the Facebook debate is buried — and also because, for more complicated or extensive issues, Facebook’s little posting space is not adequate. I hope these materials are useful, in the future, not only to me, but also to others who grapple with questions of faith, and with the frequently false statements that some believers make.

You Shall Know Them By Their Fruits

In other posts, I have occasionally reminded Christian readers of this excerpt from Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:15-23):

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. . . . A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. . . . Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not . . . done many wonders in Your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me . . . .”

Christian or not, it seems advisable to check oneself and one’s beliefs and projects, to make sure there has not been slippage between what was supposed to happen and what is actually happening.

What was supposed to happen, in Christianity, was the development of a religion reflecting the priorities that Jesus set forth during his time on Earth. In that same Sermon, he expressed one such priority: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Or, as expressed in Romans 13:9-10, “[T]he commandments . . . are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Love for others is an important theme throughout the New Testament. It does seem reasonable to ask whether the project of Christianity has indeed been Christlike in the particular sense of demonstrating love for one’s neighbor. The answer is very much in the negative. The remainder of this post provides historical examples, some continuing into the present.

In my experience, Christians do not like to read this sort of thing. Certainly they are not big on preaching it and learning from it. To the contrary, they seem confident that, unlike all the generations of believers before them, they are different. They are better. They are not supporters of a disgusting religion.

That may be true of certain individuals and even of certain Christian denominations. And let us not deny that religious belief can have positive effects upon people and communities. Whether the positives outweigh the negatives is a topic worth discussing. The following evidence suggests that, over the 2,000-year history of Christian belief, the overall answer would be no: the Christian project started going off the rails within its first few centuries; it was enormously harmful for more than a thousand years; and it has become prettier and more tolerable in recent centuries only because secular political and intellectual pressures have reduced its control over daily life.

What I offer here is, obviously, only a fraction of the evidence on those matters. If any reader feels that the evidence does not support the conclusions just stated, I am open to comments and, time permitting, I will investigate further and revise this post as needed. For now, the material presented below is provided just to make clear that Christianity has been really terrible, in many ways, throughout its history.

In my view, as I say, the core problem lies in Christianity’s longstanding determination, very much against the advice of Jesus, to prioritize a lawyerly, text-oriented approach to the words of the New Testament, and on that basis to disregard the key Christlike priority: love of one’s neighbor.

Torture, Murder, and War

This section drew the bulk of my attention, as it seems to address the most extremely violent outrages committed in the name of Jesus. These are just a few examples, starting shortly after Christianity obtained political power during the Roman Empire.

  • Roman Emperor Theodosius I (380) ordered,

It is our will that all the peoples who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans . . . . We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, . . . shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative . . . .

[T]he successors of Constantine were ever persuaded that the first concern of imperial authority was the protection of religion and so, with terrible regularity, issued many penal edicts against heretics. In the space of fifty seven years sixty-eight enactments were thus promulgated. All manner of heretics were affected by this legislation, and in various ways, by exile, confiscation of property, or death.

  • Charlemagne (774) defeated the Saxons and gave them a choice: be baptized or be killed.
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges widespread public demand, by ordinary Christians in the Middle Ages, for heretics to be tortured and burned at the stake.
  • Wikipedia on the Crusades (primarily occurring in the 11th to 13th centuries):

Crusaders often pillaged as they travelled . . . . During the People’s Crusade, thousands of Jews were murdered in what is now called the Rhineland massacres. Constantinople was sacked during the Fourth Crusade. . . . The Crusades also reinforced the connection between Western Christendom, feudalism, and militarism.

  • The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ruled,

Secular authorities . . . shall be admonished and induced and if necessary compelled . . . to take an oath that they will strive in good faith and to the best of their ability to exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the Church . . . .

  • Wikipedia reports that the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) resulted in countless tortures and an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 executions by the Church. The Catholic Encylopedia admits that even witnesses were tortured.
  • I encountered and verified some claims by a site called Heretication (which, later, I found was probably based on a webpage in the Bad News About Christianity website).  Having determined that the claims I investigated were supported by other sources, I was inclined to believe other Heretication claims, including these:

The Waldensians . . . were excommunicated as heretics in 1184 at the Council of Verona, and persecuted with zeal for centuries. 150 were burned at Grenoble in a single day in 1393. . . . Anyone in Villaro who declined to go to a Roman Catholic mass was liable to be crucified upside down, but there was some variation in the manner of killing in other towns. Some were maimed and left to die of starvation, some had strips of flesh cut off their bodies until they bled to death, some were stoned, some impaled alive upon stakes or hooks. Some were dragged along the ground until [their] flesh was scraped away. One at least was literally minced. Daniel Rambaut had his toes and fingers cut off in sections: one joint being amputated each day in an attempt to make him recant and accept the Roman faith. Some had their mouths stuffed with gun-powder which was then ignited. Paolo Garnier of Roras was castrated, then skinned alive. Children were killed in various ways before the eyes of their parents. . . .

The term heresy covered ever more and more areas of belief. . . . Pope Innocent III . . . said that those who interpret literally Jesus’ statements about limiting their statements to a straight Yes or No were heretics worthy of death . . . . In 1229 Pope Gregory IX . . . [organized] a crusade against the Stedingers, a Germanic people living near the River Weser, whose heresy amounted to no more than rejecting the temporal authority of the Archbishop of Bremen. . . . The whole population was exterminated. . . .

It was heretical to eat meat on Friday, to read the bible, to know Greek, to criticise a cleric, to refuse to pay Church taxes, or to deny that money lending was sinful. . . . Franciscan spirituals were burned at the stake for such behaviour as claiming that Christ and the apostles had not owned property, preaching absolute poverty, wearing traditional hoods and habits and refusing to lay up stores of food. The Apostolicals, a sect founded in 1300, tried to live like the apostles. The luckier ones were burned at the stake like the sect’s founder, but others suffered worse fates. Dulcino of Novara, the successor to the founder, was publicly torn to pieces with hooks, as was his wife. . . . Cecco d’Ascoli, an Italian scientist, was burned at the stake in 1327 for having calculated the date of Jesus’ birth using the stars. . . . Heresy still covered everything from refusing to take oaths to refusal to pay church tithes. Any deviation from Church norms was enough to merit death: vegetarianism, the rejection of infant baptism, even holding the (previously orthodox) view that people should be given both bread and wine at Mass.

In 1482, under Pope Sixtus IV, 2000 heretics were burned in the tiny state of Andalusia alone. Pope Leo X condemned Martin Luther in 1520 for daring to say that burning heretics was against the will of God. Evidently he thought it presumptuous for an ordinary human being to claim to know God’s will. Perhaps he was right, because Luther changed his mind in 1531 and started advocating the death penalty for heretics and blasphemers. He thought it should be a capital offence to deny the resurrection of the dead, or the reality of heaven and Hell.

Translating the bible into vernacular languages, or helping with the printing of such a bible was heresy according to the Roman Church. Generally, in Europe, women were buried alive for this offence. Men were burned alive. . . .

Anabaptists, the precursors of modern Baptists, were persecuted by Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists alike. The Anabaptists’ main crimes were to call for social reform, to favour adult baptism over infant baptism, and to embrace pacifism – they would not kill, condone capital punishment or serve in armies. They also allegedly advocated ancient Antinomian views. Their leaders died in various ways. Thomas Münzer was burned at the stake in 1525. Feliz Manz drowned in 1526 (drowning was a favourite way of executing Anabaptists because of their views on baptism). . . . When a whole town, Münster, went over to the Anabaptists in the 1530s Catholics and Protestants joined forces to retake the city. The Anabaptist leaders were publicly tortured to death with red-hot pincers and their bodies hung in cages outside a church, where they remained for some years. . . .

A Protestant writing master from Toledo was burned at the stake in 1676 for having decorated a room with the full text of the ten commandments. . . . Around 1520 the diocese of Lincoln alone was convicting over 100 people a year for the crime of “not thinking catholickly”. . . . In 1528 Patrick Hamilton was burned at St Andrews for holding heretical opinions, notably a denial of the freedom of the will. In 1546 Anne Askew was burned at Smithfield because of her beliefs about the Eucharist. In 1592 Henry Barrow and John Greenwood, who preached congregationalism, were hanged at Tyburn for “obstinately refusing to come to church”. . . . Unitarians were executed in 1612 in London and Lichfield, and one in 1651 in Dumfries. William Prynne, a Puritan lawyer, published criticisms of Archbishop Laud. For this had his ears hacked off by the public hangman in 1633. Along with others he was charged again and tried by the Star Chamber in 1637. The others charged had their ears cropped, and as it was discovered that Prynne still had stumps left on the side of his head, these were severed too. He was also branded on the cheeks, and then imprisoned for life along with the others.

  • Wikipedia’s article European Wars of Religion includes some of history’s deadliest wars. Examples include the Thirty Years War, with a death toll nearly half the worldwide toll of World War I — at a time when the population of Europe was only one-quarter of its 20th-century level — as well as the Hundred Years War, the French Wars of Religion, and the Crusades, each taking roughly two to three million lives.

Other Areas of Christian History

Bad News About Christianity (BNAC) offered additional reports on a rather astounding number of areas in which Christians have displayed execrable attitudes and behavior. Here were several examples:

  • Rape. “The words of Deuteronomy 22 . . . were often used to justify the rape of virgins. If a man wanted to marry a woman – whether she wanted him or not – a standard method was to abduct her and have sex with her. As “soiled goods”, she would be unlikely to find another husband, so her choice was to marry her abductor or live out the rest of her life as a spinster. . . . [This practice] was popular well into the twentieth century in conservative Christian countries.”
  • Freedom of Expression. I was concerned that, lately, liberal views were tending toward mild persecution of religion in the U.S. Yet it was difficult to sympathize with Christians who had brought this on themselves by failing, so intensively and for so long, to stand for scientific learning and for the universal human right of freedom of expression. Excerpts from BNAC:

Within a century of the introduction of printing in Europe a formal process was required to keep track of books that the Church had ordered to be destroyed. . . . [including works by some of the greatest minds in history, e.g., Dante, Copernicus, Galileo, and Locke]. Also placed on the Index were writings that told the truth about the forged documents that the Church had produced . . . .

Christians in secular states have often managed to ban respectable works, again well into the twentieth century: Webster’s Dictionary for example was banned in Arkansas because of its entry on Darwinian evolution. Information about family planning and birth control has been banned in many Christian countries.

Over the centuries the Christian Churches have burned countless thousands, perhaps millions, of books of which it disapproved. . . . Some writers destroyed their own unpublished works, fearing the consequences of discovery. . . . Philosophers were also obliged to publish posthumously or anonymously, for fear of the consequences. . . .

The traditional Christian obsession with sexual matters resulted in prosecutions for obscenity not only against books about birth control, but also against respectable literature and even books on psychology. . . .

Christians still seek to impose their views on others. Because of Christian sensitivities the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian . . . could not be shown on British commercial television. . . . In Britain and the USA attempts were made to ban Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ when it appeared in 1988. . . .

Fundamentalists in California have managed to ban schoolbooks that deal with a wide range of subjects, including the theory of evolution, race relations, nuclear war, sex discrimination, human sexuality, birth control and the Holocaust. . . .

During the whole period of 1,500 years or so that the Church enjoyed absolute power the concept of penal reform was unknown. Prisons in 1800 were as insanitary, cramped, infested and dangerous as they had been when the Roman Empire first adopted Christianity. . . .

Christian tortures took many forms. People were restrained by irons and fetters, sometimes locked into agonising positions with neck, wrists and ankles held within inches of each other. After a short time in this position they were permanently disabled. Alternatively prisoners could be racked, beaten, flogged or otherwise abused. One method was to keep their feet in water until they rotted. . . .

The pioneer of modern penology was an Italian rationalist, the Marquis Cesare Beccaria-Bonesana, who published Dei Delitti e delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishments) in 1764, claiming that the prevention of crime, not punishment, should be the prime aim of an enlightened society, and that crime was deterred by the likelihood of detection rather than the severity of punishment. The Inquisition condemned his ideas. For the Churches the prime purpose was punishment and retribution, as affirmed by the Bible, not rehabilitation, which was not mentioned in the Bible. . . .

The idea that gaols should be primarily for rehabilitation was entirely a secular one. So were the beliefs that prisoners had rights; that they were entitled to basic sanitation, and freedom from flogging, torture and mutilation; and that they should receive access to medical attention, adequate nutrition, and education. . . .

[The following are captions accompanying photos on the webpage.]

[C]hurchmen branded people with crosses and with letters: A for Adulterer, B for Blasphemer, etc, Sometimes in the forehead, sometimes in the cheek, sometimes on the chin. . . . Prisoners were often chained to an immovable object, or to a heavy object . . . not only to immobilize the victim, but also to cause pain: note the spikes on the inside of the iron ring. . . . [In the Iron Shoe, a] screw mechanism allows the torturer to crush the victims foot. . . . [The Scold’s Bridle included] various mouth-pieces that can be fitted to restrict speach and cause acute pain. . . . [In the Iron Maiden,] the doors shut “slowly, so that the very sharp points penetrated his arms, and his legs in several places, and his belly and chest, and his bladder and the root of his member, and his eyes, and his shoulders, and his buttocks, but not enough to kill him; and so he remained making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died.”

The Churches considered it wrong to attempt to eliminate poverty, since Jesus himself had given an assurance that the poor would always be with us. . . .

Oppression of the poor and aged has been common in all Christian countries. . . . On the other hand Churches have traditionally provided wealth and power to the younger sons of noble families whatever their beliefs. . . . Throughout Christendom the poorest were liable for a range of Church taxes. The nobility, which provided almost all senior ecclesiastics, was generally exempt. . . .

Not so long ago the rich sat at the front of the church and the poor at the back. Sometimes the rich took Communion on a different day from the poor, and sometimes the rich and poor were offered wine of different qualities. Some priests even preached that there were different heavens for the different sections of society . . . .

Churches have changed their ideas since secular principles of equality have become widely accepted. Few of them now use the third verse of the hymn All Things Bright And Beautiful although its truth was unimpeachable within living memory:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

As in so many other areas of social improvement, the dynamos of change were almost all outside the mainstream Churches [being advocated instead by freethinkers, Utilitarians and Quakers]. . . .

[Photo caption:] Children were sold throughout Christendom . . . . This brace of babies was offered for sale around 1940 in France . . . .

Christians opposed all attempts at [workplace] reform, saying that existing conditions were natural, and reform was contrary to the Bible. Churchmen in the nineteenth century opposed the reduction in working hours, protection for women and children, and even safety legislation. Agitation to improve industrial working conditions came from freethinking Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill. Ideas like safe and hygienic factories, education for workers, and infant schools were pioneered by the philanthropist Robert Owen, who had rejected all religions at the age of 14 after reading Seneca. . . .

At this point, I desisted from providing additional long excerpts from BNAC on other subjects of interest or, should I say, disgust. Briefly, here are a few examples of what some of those summaries would have contained:

  • Family life. “Relying on biblical passages, early Christians inferred that family life was worthless and hailed virginity as the ideal.”
  • Slavery. “For many centuries slavery was perfectly acceptable to Christians . . . [who] used a number of Old and New Testament quotations to prove their case.”
  • Treatment of mental illness. “According to Christians, lunatics were possessed by unclean spirits. . . . [Thus] for many centuries no advance was made in understanding the nature of mental illness . . . . [and] many thousands of men, women and children, already burdened with madness, were confined in chains and subjected to routine torture.”
  • Abuse of animals. “The Church deduced that because animals did not possess souls, they were . . . disposable toys provided for mankind’s amusement. Activities in which animals were tortured for sport, were recorded without any hint that there might be anything wrong with them. . . .” (Examples: cat burnings; blood fiestas; dog fighting.)

“What Is Truth?”

“What is truth?” is a question. You realized that, and you also realized that it is the title of this post. What you may not have fully registered is that the title is in quotes. I am not asking, here, what truth is. I am asking what the question is.

That may seem rather ridiculous. I say it is no more ridiculous than many of the things that people think, and say, and believe are true. At least I am not claiming anything significant. I am just observing that those three words, arrayed in that order, comprise a question.

But if you’d like, I can try to explain why the question would catch my attention. To me, there are two noteworthy things about it. First, it focuses on truth, and truth is commonly considered important. Second, it is the question that Pontius Pilate asked Jesus (John 18:38).

Pilate’s question has been interpreted in various ways. For instance, Wiersbe (2007, p. 303) observes that Pilate may have been either “sneering or sighing . . . we do not know.” Wikipedia, citing Wiersbe, suggests that Pilate could have been implicitly criticizing either the nature of Jesus’s trial or his claim to speak the truth.

Pilate’s utterance is probably why the question seems to be of interest especially to religious people. For example, at this writing, among the first 50 results in a Google search for that question, the large majority are patently religious — mostly Christian, but with a few Mormon entries and at least one that looks Hindu. Christian commentators (e.g., Rolheiser, 2011; Sancto, 2012; A Catholic Thinker, 2012) often consider Pilate’s question ironic, insofar as he seems to have been expressing uncertainty about truth while looking directly at the one who claimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

These insights suggest a characterization. “What is truth?” is a question that matters to many Christians because it highlights the contrast between their religion and the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition. In that tradition, someone like Pilate could (and perhaps Pilate did) snidely or sincerely allude to the complexity of philosophical truth, while completely missing the presence or possibility of religious truth.

Pilate, presumably not stupid, was able to miss the significance of Jesus (as portrayed in the New Testament), just as many Christians fail to understand various philosophical truths, because the alleged answer to the question of truth was not provided in an acceptable form. In that light, “What is truth?” points to the phenomenon, witnessed recently in the polarization of American politics, in which a given event can be interpreted in deeply incompatible ways, depending on one’s prior mental and emotional needs and commitments.

It could seem reasonable to respond to this state of affairs by striving for an open mind, freeing oneself from the distortion of those prior commitments. Unfortunately, while that may make sense from a secular perspective, it could be the exact opposite of what faith requires. In response to Thomas’s doubts (John 20:29), Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The greatest faith, within this religion, may be that which is most extremely capable of disregarding or reinterpreting evidence, so as to conform with prior mental or emotional commitments.

From a secular perspective, that may seem like craziness. Playing games with reality is a good way to get hurt or killed — even more so when believers exult in their freedom to behave irrationally, by seeking out endless nonsensical sociopolitical perspectives that have little or nothing to do with faith. You can support the Bush Administration’s counterproductive wars; you can insist on keeping guns in your home as a political statement; you can fight against vaccines and taxes; you can claim expertise in climate science and other fields in which you have no training. But your faith does not require you do to any of that — if anything, it is directly opposed to most of it — and if you insist on looking for trouble, eventually you will find it.

It is neither considerate nor intelligent to behave as if you need not try to make sense to your neighbors. And yet one might say the same thing to the philosophers. At least the believers do have a relatively coherent response to “What is truth?” By contrast, among the results of my Google search, I found these words in the introduction to the Truth entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP, Glanzberg, 2013):

The problem of truth is in a way easy to state: what truths are, and what (if anything) makes them true. But this simple statement masks a great deal of controversy. Whether there is a metaphysical problem of truth at all, and if there is, what kind of theory might address it, are all standing issues in the theory of truth.

So, not a bad start, given 2,500 years to work on it. With religion as an obtrusively irrational counterpoint, it has been easy for the secular types to assume that they all agree on science as a superior alternative. Yet this is not so. Another SEP article (Oberheim, 2013) observes that Kuhn (1962) and Feyerabend (1962) were labeled “the worst enemies of science” because their philosophies supported doubts about the rationality of science. Oberheim says the sociology of science became a recognized discipline as a result of that challenge — and, again citing the SEP (Longino, 2015), research within that discipline has contended inter alia that “philosophical analyses of rationality, of evidence, of truth and knowledge, [are] irrelevant to understanding scientific knowledge.” Going further, Good (1999, p. 186) says that some views held by mainstream philosophers of science “have actually been serious hindrances” to the science of chemistry.

So the philosophers are not consistently on the same page with one another, much less agreeing en masse with the scientists. “What is truth?” thus leads us around to the suspicion that truth may be perceived in multiple ways, depending upon one’s perspective or purpose. And — as if to suggest that we might finally be approaching the actual state of affairs — that sympathy to multiple perspectives may irritate believers, scientists, and philosophers alike, insofar as all seem to think they know a lot about truth, and are prepared to explain it to me in detail.

If I had to venture a guess at this point, I might say that truth appears to begin with those statements that must be true, in order for a certain enterprise to proceed. For instance, you have to start by assuming certain things about Jesus, in order to proceed with the Christian project; and you have to assume things about language or the physical world, if you are to get anywhere in philosophy or science. The assumptions will seem well founded in some situations, less so in others; the assumptions of one project may seem much more solid than those of another; but their basis in reality typically becomes less of an issue, once you roll up your sleeves and get absorbed in the details of the project.

That seems to explain Balkin’s (2003) contention that “law creates truth” — that “[i]t makes things true in the eyes of the law. And when law makes things true in its own eyes, this has important consequences in the world.” For instance, what the law makes true regarding taxation is “not true and false from the standpoint of mathematics or natural science” but rather just “from the standpoint of law . . . in ways that matter to us.” The idea seems to be that you start with your own little corner of the world; you say and do things that seem true within that limited physical or mental space; and then, at some point, what you have been saying and doing begins to affect people and things outside of your sphere. As Balkin observes, that can become problematic:

As soon as law creates a category or an institutional structure, it is possible for things to become true or real in the eyes of the law whether or not they are judged true or real from another perspective– for example the standpoint of medical science, religious belief, or political philosophy. . . .

As in religion, philosophy, and science, Balkin observes that legal truth gives people “tools to think with” — “a way of understanding”:

When law “recognizes” a cause of action for sexual harassment, for example, it sees that such a thing exists as a legal wrong. At the moment the wrong becomes cognizable to the law, it becomes real to the law, whether or not it had been real to generations of individuals before that point.

Balkin suggests that other forms of knowledge, behaving in roughly similar fashion, include medicine, psychology, social science, and history. These ways of knowing can conflict because “truth and knowledge are shaped by institutional purposes.” For instance, to a doctor, a person who walks into a hospital’s emergency room is “a set of clinical problems to be tested, identified, diagnosed and cured” but, to a lawyer, that same person is “a potential tort suit.” Both perspectives may be correct, but they can be unrelated or even opposed to one another.

In words that also apply to religion, philosophy, and science, Belkin closes with these remarks:

Law’s construction of a social world and its development of the social imagination can do enormous good. But it always also has other effects. It always also serves other ends, including the empowerment of legal institutions and legal forms of thinking. . . .

My point is to focus on the ways in which legal concepts, legal thinking, and legal imagination colonize moral and ethical imagination. To do this, we must pay careful attention to the many ways in which . . . the moral imagination becomes ensnared by and held in servitude to the legal. Then the truth of law does not necessarily set us free. . . . Law’s power grows organically and relentlessly out of law’s colonization of social imagination.

With those words, “What is truth?” takes an ominous turn. No longer are we talking about a familiar conflict between the old antagonists, God and science, each comfortably sealed in its own self-congratulatory echo chamber. Now, much to the contrary, Belkin portrays truth as an aggressive, colonizing force, a weapon with which to take control of what people think and do. This characterization resonates: this is, after all, what religions and philosophies have always seemed to be hoping for.

In such a setting, the question may be whether truth is your friend — whether the world is actually better off when you or I think we can answer the question, “What is truth?” The image comes to mind of two theologians or lawyers, fighting for years on end, to advance their own firm convictions as to the only permissible outcome of some dispute. When people think they have the truth, they dig in their heels. They become angry; they become hardened. This, it seems, is where wars begin.

Yet there is, perhaps, a response to such concerns. This post adopts a God’s-eye metaposition, standing above the fray, critiquing claimants to the prize of Truth. These various special-purpose forms of truth — legal, religious, etc. — do not generally seem so wise and true as to justify ignoring other forms of truth. In other words, by writing about these perspectives, I have implicitly taken the view that these are all just pieces of the puzzle. The heretofore unstated claim is that, approached honestly, “What is truth?” ultimately drives us toward questions and adaptations, rather than answers and verities.

Pilate asked, “What is truth?” We don’t know what he meant by that. And that is fortunate. Because what he achieved, by leaving us in limbo, was to exemplify the nature of the question. The query pushes us to keep asking him, and each other: Why do you say that? What do you mean? If the scripture is to be our guide, in this case it guides us to keep thinking about religious people, like Jesus; and about philosophers, like the Greeks and Romans in whom Pilate may have been schooled; and about the political and legal and other influences at work, in that moment of Christ’s Passion.

Repentance and the Methodist Minister

In prior posts in this blog, I have described the pursuit of truth that shaped my thinking about Christian belief, as well as some of my experiences with the ministerial profession, during my early years as an ardent reader of the Bible and as a pre-ministry student. Given that background, I have criticized instances of falsehood and hypocrisy that I have encountered among conservative Christian ministers and apologists.

In this post, I turn to the phenomenon of hypocrisy among liberal Christian ministers, mostly encountered in my later years, with particular focus on the topic of repentance. As above, this discussion explores a situation arising from my personal experience.

This is a long post. For those short on time, I suggest reading the Introduction and then deciding whether to skip on down a ways.

(Note: if a linked webpage is no longer available, or if its content seems to have changed, the Internet Archive may show what it looked like on some prior date. I also have screenshots for some webpages, and could insert those if necessary.)


Contrasting Concepts of Christian Ministry
The Meaning of Repentance
Repentance as a Weapon
The Inclination to Repent
The Homeless Center
Repentance Requires Truthfulness
Repentance vs. Hubris
Resisting Repentance
Witnessing Against the Enablers


This post presents a critique of certain acts by a liberal Christian minister, some of which are summarized in the accompanying video. I knew this minister pretty well: her name is Meg, and she is my ex-wife.

I decided to write this critique upon discovering that Meg has been conveying false information about me. That discovery surprised me. We were divorced more than 14 years ago. We didn’t have kids. I haven’t seen or heard from her since. There didn’t seem to be any reason for these false statements. But as I worked through this post, I arrived at a possible explanation of her motives.

Maybe it was just as well that this issue arose. For one thing, this inquiry into Meg’s words and acts helped me to arrive at a better understanding of our divorce. Working through these materials also highlighted the role that repentance can play in healing people’s lives and relationships. And I suspect there will be people who will need or appreciate the information provided here.

Further, as I explored the topic of repentance within the context of our divorce and more recent events, I began to perceive that a failure to take repentance seriously, on the part of a liberal Christian denomination like the United Methodist Church (UMC), might shortchange members and ministers in that denomination. It may also result in harm to innocent and vulnerable people. Hence, this post considers how such a denomination might benefit from an improved understanding of repentance.

Aside from what I learned during our marriage and divorce, the materials cited in this post are mostly those that I have been able to uncover in a moderately diligent online investigation. As far as I can tell, I did arrive at a basic understanding of relevant matters. But I welcome additions, corrections, and clarifications. There are still some things that I was not able to figure out. Readers should feel free to contact me or post comments (anonymously, if desired) at the end of this article.

The next two sections provide the backdrop of ministry and repentance. To me, this material is important. But I realize it won’t appeal to everyone. Those who can’t stay awake through those preliminary sections might want to skim on down to where we start talking about particular events.

Contrasting Concepts of Christian Ministry

Meg had grown up in the UMC. At some point, four or five years after our 2002 divorce, she went back to school, earned a Master’s degree in divinity (M.Div.), and became a UMC minister.

I had a sense of what was involved in becoming a minister. As described in another post, I was baptized in the conservative Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and, after two years of intense religiosity in high school, I enrolled in a pre-ministry program at a Lutheran college.

It appeared, though, that the Lutheran and UMC concepts of ministry differed. For Martin Luther and his followers, the Bible was the starting point of faith. Hence, the Lutheran seminary sought to produce Bible scholars who also knew something about running a church. We started studying ancient Greek in the first semester of our freshman year in that undergraduate pre-ministry program, because the seminary expected us to be able to read the original New Testament texts, in Greek, upon our arrival. That was in the 1970s, but that is apparently expected today as well. I am not sure whether I would also have been expected to read Hebrew. The minister in our church, when I was in high school, was able to read Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and also German, Luther’s native tongue; my first-year studies thus included German. Altogether, an M.Div. from the Lutheran seminary presently requires the equivalent of about 59 semester credits of theological study, where “theology” largely means the study of the Bible’s text and its interpretation, plus a small number of courses in other areas.

I did not see a straightforward statement of courses required for the M.Div., at the websites of either the UMC General Board or the particular seminary Meg attended, but another seminary on the official list did make a course catalog available. In their program, the M.Div. required only 24 semester credits of study covering the Bible, the history of Christianity, and theology. That would be less than half (actually, about 40%) of the Lutheran seminary’s requirement. Everything else seemed to be oriented toward the practice of ministry, with required or elective courses in a variety of areas (e.g., pastoral caregiving, prison ministry).

In a video, I captured an amusing discussion in which Meg and I talked about Bible stories. She had a very limited grasp of what was in the Bible, consistent with her more or less agnostic beliefs. The lack of biblical orientation may have reflected the priorities of the seminary that trained her local minister, at the church she attended in her youth. To that minister, no doubt, the important thing was not to learn the content and meaning of Bible passages, but rather to pursue the practice of faith in contemporary life, with the aid of references to the occasional scripture. The Methodist seminary training may have been more useful for purposes of running an appealing and relevant church. But as I developed this post, I had to wonder whether UMC pastors in training, including Meg, were shortchanged in their understanding of essential Christian doctrines. It will soon become clear why I was particularly interested in what she had learned about the doctrine of repentance.

The Meaning of Repentance

It seems repentance can mean what you want it to mean. In its weakest form, some construe it as no more than an awareness of a tactical error, as in, “I shouldn’t have borrowed the neighbor’s grill without asking. He might call the cops.” From both a religious and psychological perspective, that weak construal leaves out much of what repentance can be.

Repentance is central to the teachings of Jesus. According to the very first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus began his ministry by calling upon his hearers to repent. Numerous commentators conclude that, in Christian belief, repentance is essential for salvation.

But repentance is not an exclusively Christian concept. In various forms, it appears in other religions and also in secular contexts. For instance, Piquero (2016) finds a positive relationship between repentance and reduced juvenile re-arrests; Baron (2015) argues that repentance was underestimated in the amnesties granted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa; Bastian et al. (2012, p. 158) cite repentance as a means of regaining one’s moral standing in the community after committing immoral acts; and Bench-Capon (2016, p. 12) suggests incorporation of a repentance element in an artificial intelligence system designed to assess human behavior. Within the sphere of religion, Lerner (2015) considers repentance important in Jewish religious practice; Lee et al. (2016) likewise in Buddhism; and Wikipedia states that tawba (i.e., “retreat” or “return”) is “of immense importance in Islamic tradition.”

Dictionary definitions of repentance tend to emphasize feelings — notably, deep sorrow or regret for a wrongful act. The key ingredient appears to be the conscience, typically understood as an inner sense that encourages a person to choose right rather than wrong action. In psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) offers Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) as the most likely diagnosis for a person who seems to lack a conscience — although, according to PsychCentral, ASPD requires at least three of these traits, usually occurring by age 15: feels no guilt or remorse; regularly breaks or flouts the law; constantly lies and deceives others; is impulsive and doesn’t plan ahead; is prone to fighting and aggression; has little regard for the safety of others; or is irresponsible or fails to meet financial obligations.

Outside of psychiatry, people often use “psychopath” or “sociopath” to denote ASPD-type attitudes and behaviors. Sources disagree on whether those two terms mean the same thing. Among those who see a difference, the dominant view (from e.g., Psychology Today, Huffington Post, PsychCentral) seems to be that a sociopath has problems with social contacts or society in general (e.g., nervous, easily agitated, prone to emotional outbursts, unable to keep a job or stay in one place, generally viewed as troubled), but may be at least somewhat able to form one-on-one emotional attachments and feel empathy, and may have enough of a conscience to feel bad about what s/he is doing. The psychopath is rather the opposite: calm, charming personality, easy to trust, fits in well (e.g., has a job, may have what seems to be a loving relationship with a partner), and good at faking emotions — but cold inside, with no conscience and no ability to form emotional attachments or feel empathy. As those descriptions imply, the crimes of a sociopath tend to be disorganized and spontaneous, while the psychopath’s are carefully planned. The psychopath’s lack of emotionality is believed to result from brain structure, perhaps genetically determined, while sociopathy is believed to result from childhood trauma and abuse.

These concepts raise the question of whether a person who lacks a conscience, and thus cannot experience deep regret, is capable of repenting. My search led directly to 1 2 3 discussions in which people grappled with this question. Possibly a working response would be that even if someone has never felt horrible about harming some other living creature, s/he could nevertheless achieve what amounts to repentance, by coming to understand that certain acts s/he has committed are morally unacceptable, being convinced that s/he must change, pursuing such change with determination, and achieving a style in which s/he largely succeeds in doing the right thing, even though s/he does not have the guilty feelings that a dictionary definition might require for repentance.

Indeed, for some purposes, that solution might be better than an overly emotion-oriented concept of repentance. The problem with emotions is that they provide flaky guidance. If I define repentance as a predominantly emotional matter, it will be tempting for me to assume that everything is OK as soon as I feel OK. The people I’ve harmed may not agree.

In 1530, Philip Melanchthon wrote, and Luther approved, the Augsburg Confession. Article 12 of the Confession stated that Christian repentance starts with contrition (i.e., “terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin”) and continues through faith (i.e., the belief that, “for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven”) to produce good works, which are “the fruits of repentance” and “are bound to follow” (see Moldenhauer, 2016).

Similarly, the UMC states that salvation entails repentance, defined as “turning away from behaviors rooted in sin and toward actions that express God’s love, and another UMC webpage states that “repentance should be accompanied by . . . works of piety and mercy.” The general idea seems similar to the Lutheran view, but the phrasing in those quotes is less strict: “should be accompanied” sounds like a mere suggestion. It is not the same as saying that good works “are bound to follow.”


Thus, in the Lutheran Commentary, Horn (1895, Philemon, p. 229) says, “Christian repentance demands restitution,” defined as repayment to the victim for injury or loss. If you’ve stolen someone’s bicycle, it is not sufficient to pray that God will make that person feel better. You owe them a bike. You need to pay back.

That does seem to have been the 19th-century Methodist concept as well. For instance, Rev. John Prickard preached that “repentance was all that we could require for the offence against God, and restitution was all we could insist on for the offence they had committed against their neighbour” (see Jackson, 1872, p. 187). But you won’t necessarily get that nowadays, in the observation of one Methodist minister (2006):

For Zacchaeus repentance meant something concrete: ‘Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount’ (Luke 19:8). This sounds rather different from the conversion testimonies that we sometimes hear in our churches today. . . . [I]t has been a long time since I heard a testimony like that of Zacchaeus, for whom repentance meant costly restitution for some serious moral failure against others in the past.

Frankly, the same seems true of the 20th-century Lutheranism in which I was raised — in practice, if not in doctrine. There was much talk of forgiveness, but very little mention of restitution — in effect, Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. So I suppose it depends on what you want to believe. If your God is content to let you repent by planting a tree in memory of some guy you killed, then maybe you belong in a heaven with others who feel the same about their sins against you. But if I were that dead man’s child, I think I’d be more impressed if you found a way to replace his paycheck. Onerous, I know, but probably conducive to a reduced murder rate. In the process, you might learn something about love. And you might end up with a religion worth belonging to.

For a boiled-down summary, WikiHow says that Christian repentance includes thinking about what you’ve done and why it was wrong; repenting for the right reasons; getting help; changing your behavior; making right the problems you caused for others; and living a life that pleases God.

Today’s UMC is willing to go partway toward meeting the WikiHow expectations. For example, in a webpage titled “Act of Repentance for Racism,” the UMC acknowledges that it previously engaged in “acts which have perpetuated the sin of racism”; resolves to adopt “a study guide which addresses the church’s role in racism”; and “requests all local congregations in the United States to engage in study sessions” using that guide. It’s a start. But the acts being repented of, involving alienation or segregation of blacks within the UMC, occurred between 1816 and 1939. Pretty safe to repent of them now, right? The relevant parties are all dead. Nobody will be suing you for what you admit. Not that the UMC statement actually admits much: it does not name specific acts of wrongdoing. If you want to know what racist acts the UMC has committed or is now committing, it seems the lawyers are more forthcoming than the church.

So, within Christian practice, we have a lame pseudo-repentance that shields the wrongdoer from real, present-moment responsibility, and then we have a more legalistic concept of repentance calling for a stricter identification of wrongs and remedies. But there may also be a third dimension. Often, where law is involved, social science is or should be involved as well. There are usually reasons — psychological, cultural, historical — for the things people do. Understanding those reasons may help all parties — the wrongdoer, the wronged person, bystanders, and the system — to arrive at superior ways of preventing and responding to undesirable behaviors and events. To a considerable extent, this post is about the difference between the “repentance lite” practiced by today’s UMC and these other — deeper, it seems, and more meaningful — approaches to repentance.

Repentance as a Weapon

Ironically, it was Meg herself who helped me to realize that repentance might now be the key issue between us. When I became aware that she was telling tales, and searched for further information, I came across an article (archive link) that she wrote. That article described her participation in a protest, in October 2014, against police brutality in the predominantly black suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.

In this section, I criticize some aspects of Meg’s participation in that protest. I do sympathize with resistance to police brutality and racism. But Meg’s handling of the situation illustrates that repentance can be misused: one can apply it incorrectly against others, or can fail to apply it properly to oneself.

In that protest, held at the Ferguson police department headquarters, Meg joined several dozen other clergy from around the country in what the Huffington Post described as an effort to persuade police officers “to ‘repent’ for the [fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown] and for other acts of brutality against people of color.” At face value, that did make some sense. If the police were doing wrong, surely they needed to repent.

I wondered about Meg’s own motives for participating, though. In my experience — and now, in the materials that my Google searches have brought to light — she rarely if ever participated in political protests or took an active role in race-related matters. The 45 videos in her Vimeo channel present sermons whose titles refer to veterans, finances, baptism, serving God, and other topics; but I don’t see that she has delivered a sermon on such subjects as police brutality or discrimination. The titles are not very informative, for most of the sermons in her YouTube channel and for many in the Vimeo channel, so I could be missing something. But it doesn’t seem I am missing much. Throughout the materials that I reviewed while preparing this post, it appeared that she made many statements and took many actions related to homelessness, but few related to race.

As Meg used to tell me, and as demonstrated by her videos and by my own video, she loves to be onstage. Going to Ferguson as a member of that group of ministers was much more visible than being a mere anonymous protester. I do think she considered it important at the time. But I also think that it was dramatic and exciting, and that she got her face and name in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — along with a couple of black women whose names, ironically, weren’t mentioned.


The Huffington Post article quoted a minister who explained that repentance required both an admission of wrongdoing and a commitment to make changes. He said, “[T]here has not even been any admitting of wrongdoing yet by any of the powers that be in Ferguson.” It appeared that the city was not fulfilling its responsibilities to its citizens. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (2015) found pervasive injustices, in Ferguson’s police practices, violating multiple federal laws and constitutional rights. New York Times article conveyed the view that nothing would change, however, unless the Justice Department sued Ferguson and demanded systemic restructuring.

That raises the question of what individual police officers can do. Meg’s article said that, in Ferguson, she confronted two different officers with these words: “You are a part of a system that killed Michael Brown. I call you to repentance and offer to hear your confession.” That may have made good theater, but it seems like questionable religion. For one thing, most Protestants don’t ordinarily do confession, per se. That’s a predominantly Catholic thing — and, even then, you rarely if ever see priests walking up to people on the street and demanding a public confession. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that “secret confession, sacramental in character, has been the practice of the church from the earliest days.” That seems to be the case in the UMC as well: its Book of Discipline ¶ 340.2(a)(5) requires ministers to “maintain all confessions inviolate” except where otherwise required by law. But if I’m wrong about that — if Methodist ministers are in the business of demanding public confessions — why aren’t they (including the Methodist ministers in Ferguson) doing it every day, in the ghettoes of their own home towns? For that matter, why aren’t they publicly shaming the exploitative and abusive members of their own congregations? Isn’t it a little suspicious that this handful of protesting ministers (many from out of state) only now decided to demand confessions, when the world was watching through the cameras in Ferguson? It seems someone might have reminded them that Jesus told his followers not to make a show of their religion in public (Matthew 6:5).

Not to say these ministers were all just glory hounds, but their approach does seem unfair. The Justice Department’s report (p. 12) noted, for example, that some Ferguson officers had tried to do the right thing, but were defeated by the dominant culture within the Police Department. The officers who would be most stricken by conscience might be the best of the lot: they might be most likely to give someone like Meg a public confession — thereby putting themselves at risk of lawsuits, imprisonment, and retribution from fellow officers. A minister whose form of protest leads to punishment of the best officers is not necessarily doing us any favors.

In her article, Meg says that tears came to the eyes of both of the officers she confronted: “We looked into each other’s souls. What I saw was pain.” Or maybe not. Maybe what she saw was frustration at being falsely accused — because, for all we know, the officers selected to handle that protest may have been those who were actually the best at working with members of the community. Or maybe she was seeing tears of grief or fear arising from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — if, for instance, the officer happened to be a veteran, presently experiencing a flashback to his military experience with angry crowds in Iraq. As another possibility, she may have been seeing humiliation, as in the 1970s, when protesting women treated returning Vietnam veterans as baby killers, just as Meg seems to have assumed these officers were racist. In other words, a skilled mental health worker would probably not assume that s/he could know what was going through the mind of a police officer being publicly accused during a political protest — and would surely not be the one making such a potentially unfounded accusation. Automatically labeling someone as racist because he wears a certain uniform is not a Christlike departure from labeling someone as dangerous because of the color of his skin.

In her article, Meg tried to explain why she made the four-hour round-trip drive from Columbia to Ferguson that day:

The congregation I serve is celebrating 100 years in ministry. During those 100 years we have been guilty of sins of racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism. The fact that I have only been a part of this congregation for four and a half years does not negate my responsibility within a sinful institution. . . .

This is the context from which I went to Ferguson on Monday to participate in a clergy protest. I needed to be with other people of faith to name our own sinfulness, our own complacency within sinful systems. I needed to confess, repent and make a commitment to pursuing a new direction.

Those remarks seem confused. Meg can’t repent of sins that were committed by other people, or before she was born. Repentance may include feeling bad, but that doesn’t mean every bad feeling is repentance. She didn’t really repent of “complacency” or make a commitment to a new direction: as noted above, there seem to be no signs that her ministry became reoriented toward issues involving race or police brutality, during the two years that have passed since that Ferguson protest. She didn’t need to make that trip in order “to be with other people of faith”; the people of faith in her congregation were right there in Columbia. She didn’t need to go to Ferguson to confess or repent; Columbia was perfectly adequate for that too.

It is not clear why Meg made those statements. Maybe she feared that people would suspect she was seeking the limelight when, in her mind, she was just trying to do something meaningful. Maybe the Ferguson experience turned out to be upsetting, or not quite what she thought it would be, and she felt obliged to try to resolve a bit of the disorientation that it generated within her. Maybe her training taught her that people are used to fuzzy thinking when they hear seemingly religious words like “repent.”

It does appear, though, that what the UMC taught Meg of repentance, in her childhood and in seminary, involves a double standard. When confronting herself, her article follows the UMC formula (above) of claiming a fake personal responsibility for unspecified acts committed long ago, by people who are probably not even alive anymore. There is no real bite to it, no identification of specific sins, on her part, that might require a potentially costly personal restitution. But that approach was not going to be acceptable for the cops she confronted. For them, the vague words about involvement with a “sinful system” were just the starting point. She expected those officers to confess specific racist acts — acts that, if overheard, could cost them.

If Meg was serious about facing up to her sins, her article needed to say pretty much the opposite of what it said. It would certainly have been refreshing if, for instance, she had told us about being confronted by a cop who said to her, “You are a part of a system of poverty pimps that uses the failings of police officers, and the suffering of black people, for your own self-glorification. I call you to repentance and offer to hear your confession.”

The message that Meg carried to those police officers was a message from a position of privilege. It said, in effect, “We have standards in this country, and if you want to wear that uniform, you need to live up to those standards.” That would not be a bad message, for some purposes. But from a Christian minister, it is off-key. The message of Jesus was, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). He does not seem to have led his disciples on political missions, to insure that Roman guards were complying with Roman regulations. Those disciples were having a hard enough time just understanding and applying his teachings to their own lives.

It is possible to approach such matters differently. Imagine an article on race, written by a different sort of minister. Instead of spending a day making a trip to Ferguson, joining in the protest, and writing about that experience, this minister uses that time to listen to the complaints of the Ferguson protesters, and humbly tries to apply those complaints to herself. Let’s say she’s a UMC minister in Columbia, and is aware that the UMC has been growing whiter, such that it is now 90% white and only 6% black, while the city of Columbia is 79% white and 11% black. Let’s say, moreover, that her particular church is located in a more heavily minority area, and yet her congregation is mostly white. Plainly, if that minister is genuinely concerned about engaging the UMC with black people, such as the ones in her neighborhood, she has some work to do. So perhaps she has noticed the Columbia Missourian article indicating that Columbia’s police department has been devoting a disproportionate amount of attention to black motorists in the predominantly black part of town. Now, instead of picking on the police located at a safe distance, in far-off Ferguson, she can make a more courageous nuisance of herself right there at home, where she might face consequences. In her article, she can name the Columbia officers she spoke with, and can describe what she got from them. She can also describe specific instances when she has caught herself perpetuating covert racism, so as to educate her audience and keep herself honest. Unfortunately, that is not the route Meg chose.

To sum up, repentance is not a weapon. It is not a matter of going out, finding fault with people, and demanding public confessions. Moreover, in Christian teaching, the primary purpose of repentance is personal change leading to salvation, not political change leading to a better society. Even if political change were a suitable preoccupation for a minister who claims to be following in the footsteps of Jesus, it does not appear that Meg, herself, was sincerely committed to the pursuit of political change on the specific topic of racism. But even if she had been, it would still have taken a lot of nerve for her to demand repentance from others — as we are about to see.

The Inclination to Repent

So Meg raised the topic of repentance, and did so in such a way as to call into question her own grasp of, and investment in, that topic. She seemed unfamiliar with the language and behavior of the genuinely repentant person.

I was sensitive to that possibility because, after all, I had spent nine years living with her. The end of those nine years began on a summer day, just a week before the sixth anniversary of our wedding. On that day, I suddenly came to understand that, in being her biggest fan, I had been blind to behaviors that would destroy our marriage.

That day was June 29, 2002. That afternoon, she came home from a business trip, and informed me that she had been carrying on affairs with other men for the past eight of our nine years together.

Now that, you might think, would be a great opportunity for someone to show that they know what repentance is. Not to get ahead of the story, but that was 14 years ago, and I am still waiting for an apology.


So, yes, I do have some basis for paying careful attention to the words Meg uses, when she writes about repentance. For me, this was a brutal experience — and as described below, she has deliberately compounded its brutality.

In case anyone is wondering, it is hard for me, even now, to present these facts. Obviously, I could have told this story at any point in the past 14 years, if I had been inclined to make a public statement against Meg. YouTube tells me that she started posting videos of her sermons five or six years ago. If I had been following her activities, I would have found those videos when she posted them. My critique of just one of her videos, provided below, suggests that I probably could have found quite a bit to criticize in her weekly sermons, if I had wanted to do that. There probably were other relevant videos or webpages too, put online by Meg or others (e.g., newspapers), that have since been taken down. I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t following her; I made no public statement on these matters before 2016; and I have not interfered with her ministry or with anything else in her life.

To anticipate one question, after she told me of her affairs, back in June 2002, I don’t think I was ever seriously tempted to call her names and leave, slamming the door on the way out. There seem to have been several factors moderating my reactions, as her story unfolded. For one thing, I was 15 years her elder, and sometimes our relationship felt like that of mentor and protégé. I was often in a position of providing guidance, especially in her career but also, sometimes, in other areas of life.

I was in no rush to terminate our relationship, also, because I wanted to try to understand what was happening. I had been divorced once before. I felt that I could have learned more from that experience. This time, I wanted to proceed more cautiously. So, rather than throw Meg out or leave in a huff after her June 29 confession, I spent the next two weeks continuing to live with her, keeping things on an even keel to the extent possible, and using the time to ask a lot of questions and do a lot of thinking.

My state of semi-detachment, during those weeks, comes through in the accompanying video. As one might expect, I wasn’t always calm. But when I got upset, I usually responded by going out for a walk, to think about what was bothering me. Usually, with Meg, during those two weeks, I was in more of a clinical state of mind. Maybe I was retreating to rationality as a source of structure in a crumbling personal world. Or maybe it was just the nature of the story she was telling me, and other things she was saying along the way. Sometimes it was really over the top. As I began to develop a sense of what Meg had been doing and thinking, the strangeness of her account made it interesting. It almost removed me from the picture. It was like she contained the whole opera within herself, and I was just sitting in the audience, observing as the tale unfolded.

I think it also helped that I was reasonably confident of myself, where women were concerned. My years with Meg had followed other relationships in which I had matured. I felt that I had become a faithful and pleasant boyfriend and husband. Her drama did not erase the evidence that I was able to do my part in making a relationship succeed. So I couldn’t entirely take it personally. This story didn’t seem to be about me, exactly. She didn’t seem to think that I was guilty of any terrible act or personality trait that would drive her to this. For me, it was more like a nightmare, where bizarre things happen and you just have to try to get through it.

With Meg’s permission, I made hours of audio recordings, capturing many of her statements on these matters, during those weeks in July 2002. At present, it seems unnecessary to disclose the contents of those recordings at length. The accompanying video provides a couple of brief excerpts, sufficient to establish that I am telling the truth about the reason for our divorce. Here, I will add a few points to flesh out the contrast I am developing, between the glib salvation of the phony Christian and the real, heartrending sorrow of true repentance.

Meg said that most of her affairs had been with married men. She indicated that some of their marriages had broken up because of those affairs. Yet she insisted she was not responsible for those breakups. Moreover, she said she wanted a divorce so that she could continue with more of the same. At one point, she said that someone had asked her how she had gotten away with so much lying to me for so long. Her reply, expressed with pride: “It just depends on how good a liar you are.”

Those behaviors were consistent with the attitude toward me that emerged during those two weeks of discussion. It suddenly seemed she did not take me too seriously as a lawfully wedded husband who had subordinated his own career and desire for a stable home — spending all those years following her across a half-dozen states where, for the most part, I did not want to live, as we focused on helping her to achieve rapid promotions in the American Red Cross. Instead, it now seemed that, in her mind, I was almost like a parent from whom she was trying to conceal the adventure of a teenage romance.

A jilted spouse, encountering this sort of situation, could be understandably skeptical toward the philosophy of today’s no-fault divorce, in which marriage is an arrangement of convenience, within a toothless legal structure that offers no protections against even gross irresponsibility and exploitation. As I explain in another post, the old-fashioned legal alternative rejected “marriage as contract” in favor of “marriage as status.” It was in the marriage-as-status world that marriage was literally an institution, a sphere protected against third-party interference and made safe for lifelong intimacy and trust. Those who would treat lightly the marriage vows made by themselves, or by some other married person, could be punished by criminal law and/or sued by the offended spouse (for e.g., “alienation of affections”). Of course, traditional marriage-as-status had problems, especially for women whose husbands abused or exploited them. But some may feel that a story like this one favors the protections that the institution gave, or could give, to the trusting spouse. It is not surprising that, as discussed in that other post, the tide in the past several decades has been turning back toward a more traditional and less frivolous attitude toward marriage.

As our discussions continued, in July 2002, another aspect of the situation emerged. To a certain extent, I started to feel sorry for Meg. It seemed that she might be a bit pathetic. I know my partners tend to become more appealing to me as I become more attached to them, over a period of time; but I did honestly think she was an attractive woman. But now it sounded like she overplayed her hand, sometimes failing to seduce married men who declined to pursue the opportunity. I think those hours of conversation brought me to see her, through her own eyes, as a sort of ugly duckling, trying to be pretty and to feel glamorous, and yet rarely managing to be the life of the party. As I say, I did not think she was an ugly duckling; but if that was her self-perception, I could see how that might play a role in some of her behavior.

In her article, Meg said that, when she confronted those two police officers in Ferguson, what she saw in their tearful eyes was “a need to release the doubt and guilt and confusion and fear.” If that is the test of regret leading to repentance, Meg failed. During those two weeks of talk about her extramarital affairs, the only time I saw tears in her eyes was on June 30, the day after she informed me of all those years of cheating. We were in the kitchen. I was asking her questions and she was answering them. At that stage, there was still a great deal of new information. It was a lot to handle. The things she was saying were so personally devastating to me that, at one point, I sagged against the doorway, put my head down, and moaned in grief. It was an almost animal sound, like a wounded cow. I don’t think I had ever done anything like that before. I didn’t mean to; it just came out. I think that scared her; she did shed a few tears at that. But the moment passed. Throughout the following weeks, and in the period of more than 14 years since then, there has been no glimmer of regret on Meg’s part.

As we spoke, during those two weeks, she said she had finally decided to tell me about all this because she felt “hideous” about lying to me. But that turned out not to be the case: eventually I found that some of these “confessions” included brand-new falsehoods. For instance, on a couple of occasions we talked about her affairs during the past twelve months. At one point, she told me that she had not cheated on me in that period of time. She said she had vowed to be faithful during that past year because now, at last, we had a nice home in a town we liked. But then, at another point, she said she was upset because, during that year, she had not been able to keep herself from cheating, and in fact had cheated more frequently than before. Her accounts contradicted each other in other ways as well, and were also inconsistent with other things that I knew then or would eventually figure out. For example, she failed to confess an affair that she had pursued rather flamboyantly in work-related settings. (I think she didn’t tell me about that one for fear that I would figure out who the guy was. It seemed her primary ethical concern, at this point, was to protect the identities of her lovers, to the extent possible.) So I don’t think she really felt hideous about lying to me. I did ask further questions about her alleged remorse — when she first felt it, for instance, and what had triggered it — but she didn’t seem able to provide much detail.

When I heard her confession that she had been cheating on me during the last eight of our nine years together, I finally understood a phone call I had received a year after I met her, back in 1994. We were living together. A young man called and asked for her. When I said she wasn’t home, he started insulting me. I had no idea what was the matter with him. I just hung up on him. I didn’t have his name, so she didn’t have to worry that I would figure out who he was. So now, in 2002, she was willing to confirm that he was the first of her affairs. It seemed that he had insulted me because he had the impression that I was a worthless boyfriend. Apparently this was what she was telling these guys, to justify her cheating.

I also figured out the identity of another one of her lovers, and we talked about him a bit. She described him as mentally unstable. During those two weeks of conversation in July 2002, she suggested that she had “comforted” him by having sex with him. She had apparently forgotten that, a year or two earlier, in previous conversation about her colleagues and her work experiences, she had told me (without mentioning any sexual involvement) that this man was needy, that he had become a pain in the neck, that eventually she had to avoid his attempts to contact her, that he went on to suffer a mental breakdown, and that ultimately he was institutionalized with severe mental illness. I don’t know whether her sexual involvement aggravated his symptoms. But that is one thing they warn against in mental health training, and I hope the same is true in ministerial training. You don’t have sex with clients; you don’t take advantage of people in vulnerable situations. Certainly one would hope that she eventually stopped believing that an affair with a married woman (with its potential for guilt and for ultimately being rejected as she did reject him, among other things) would be an appropriate form of therapy for a mentally disturbed man.

That particular story has ramifications beyond Meg herself. As discussed in more detail below, one might have expected the UMC to pay more attention to what can go wrong when it certifies a minister who considers herself capable of sexual healing — especially when she goes on to choose a form of ministry in which she would have considerable power to provide counseling and other assistance to the homeless population, which includes substantial numbers of needy, vulnerable, discouraged, and mentally ill men.

The Homeless Center

The preceding section supports a belief that it would be risky and inappropriate for the UMC to produce ministers who lack the spiritual foundation and religious commitment necessary for ethical ministerial practice. In Meg’s case, this is not a hypothetical matter. We now have the results of her work at the Wilkes Blvd. United Methodist Church in Columbia, Missouri, over a period of six years. This section discusses outcomes, at that church, that support some of the concerns and conclusions expressed above.

According to an article in the Columbia Missourian, Meg’s first goal as a minister was this: “Don’t be a church with a split personality.” The article did not explain the reasoning behind that goal. A church would ordinarily consist of not one, not two, but a hundred personalities. Presumably she meant a single focus. But there, again, one might ask why. Churches commonly offer members the opportunity to participate in several different kinds of service or fellowship.

Meg told the Missourian that, before she arrived, there was “a great group of people” involved in the addiction recovery groups that met at the church. If her concern had been simply to make sure that her congregation had a single area of focus, it would have made sense to build upon that established addiction recovery mission. She didn’t do that. But neither did she tell the addiction recovery groups to find another place to meet. They apparently continued to meet at her church, throughout her years there. From what I can tell, she didn’t give them much attention, but also didn’t bother them. She was evidently willing to let them do their own thing.

So it does not seem that Meg was really concerned that her congregation might be engaged in more than one pursuit. There does not seem to have been a genuine commitment to a single congregational personality. The bit about a “split personality” bit may have been just an excuse to disregard some traditional ministerial priorities, so as to focus on what she really wanted to do.

What she wanted was clear enough. She told the Missourian that apparently God wanted her to revive her old interest in homelessness, harking back to her undergraduate volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity circa 1992.


To explore that personal area of interest, she used her congregation’s savings to create a day center for homeless people, located on the third floor in the church building. This center, called Turning Point, reportedly brought, to the Sunday morning church services, people who were sometimes not just unwashed, but also intoxicated and/or snoring. Certainly Jesus preached to the lowly, but lowly does not necessarily mean holy; he also advised against casting pearls before swine. There was apparently quite a conflict: the expenses, and the disruption of Sunday services, were extensive and disturbing enough to drive away a majority of church members. According to the Missourian, “All but about 20 parishioners left.” But evidently Meg felt they lacked vision; those who departed were accused of “resistance to change.”

The departure of so many members was apparently quite upsetting for those who remained. The Missourian article quotes Meg as saying, “[W]e had to process through a lot of that grief because folks were losing friends that had been with them and worshipped for a long time.” In other words, she seems to have seen that many of them were actually rather close-knit. Here, again, it does not seem that the congregation had a split personality when she arrived.

In March 2014, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported that Meg started out on the homeless center project as just a temporary “stopgap” fix, until the city could establish a more permanent day center. That was surprising. One might expect that the decision to tear a congregation apart would be made with great reluctance, and only in anticipation of an enduring mission. She told KOMU News that, as long as Turning Point did remain within her church building, they would be “working to raise funds to eventually be able to keep the center open all day and serve more people.” I don’t know whether that was realistic at the time. It did not pan out. Nearly three years later, in November 2016, the Tribune suggested that funding was keeping up with needs, “more or less.” But it also noted that, as had been the case three years earlier, the center was still only staying open from 8 AM to noon, and only on weekdays.

Let us not withhold credit where due. My years of exposure to the social work profession lead me to think that Meg would have made a good social worker. I’m glad the homeless and marginally housed people of Columbia have that day center. They might not have it without her. The materials I reviewed, in the course of preparing this post, have convinced me that she cared, that she and her second husband worked hard, and that they achieved something of value. (It looked like he devoted quite a bit of time and effort to the homeless center, and to other projects in Meg’s church. I did not see that he got much public credit for it, in her articles, interviews, and media photo opportunities.) People began to recognize her as a key person in Columbia’s response to homelessness. On December 15, 2015, the Tribune said, “As the Turning Point continues to grow, the most positive force of all regarding the future is the Rev. Meg Hegemann.” A month later, she and Turning Point were the 2016 winners of the Columbia Values Diversity award.

That was right before she decided to quit and move back to Maine — leaving others to carry the burden of keeping her project alive. She gave her last sermon four months later. In an interview with the local NPR radio station, they said she was merely going “on leave”; she apparently told the Missourian that she was “retiring”; and at present the UMC website says she is on “sabbatical.” But those characterizations appear inaccurate. Her job at the church in Columbia was promptly filled by someone else, and she has taken a position as a minister in her home town in Maine.

Meg admitted that there was initially “some nervousness” when people discovered that she was bailing out. She claimed those worries had vanished by the time of her departure, but that seems unlikely. One can hope that, in 2017, Turning Point will survive a political environment in which the National Council of Nonprofits perceives considerable risk to the financial stability of nonprofit organizations. It appears that nonprofits whose funding is shaky will be at particular risk.

Without Meg (and her husband) to wear two hats, Turning Point had to become a more clearly separate entity. As one would expect, the new minister appears to be focused on Bible study and other traditional religious preoccupations, and less invested in the homeless center. It was evidently necessary to hire a separate director for Turning Point. That new director is not a member of the church staff. This seems to mark the end of Meg’s attempt to straddle the worlds of ministry and social work at Wilkes Blvd UMC. Far from eliminating a split personality within the church building, the available information suggests that she created one.

Why am I giving her a hard time about this? I’m not, really. To save money while attempting to start my life over, after our divorce, I spent a year sleeping in a tent while taking graduate courses in that same city. Having had that experience, I can believe that Columbia would benefit from a center for homeless people.

The problem I perceive in this situation is just that, as in our marriage, there seems to have been a difference between what Meg committed herself to do and what she felt like doing. The world does need homeless centers. It needs many things. But when you take a job as a minister (or, for that matter, when you take wedding vows), you have to understand that people are depending on you to behave in a stable and reliable manner, toward building a future. That is what commitment means. You say goodbye to the endless possibilities that you might have pursued, and you turn your full attention to producing good results in what you have promised to do. If you’re not interested in doing that, you don’t make the commitment. You sure don’t make the promise, and get others to depend on you, when you know that you are going to let them down.

Ministers do have leeway. But there are limits. The UMC’s Book of Discipline ¶ 340 specifies the “Responsibilities and Duties of Elders and Licensed Pastors.” There are a number of such duties, listed in four sections. The first three sections contain the religious component: Word and Ecclesial Acts; Sacrament (especially baptism and communion); and Order (i.e., church administration). Those three religion-oriented sections dominate this list. The fourth section, Service, is brief; moreover, it assumes that the more traditional religious work is already being done. For example, the Service section speaks of “ordering the life of the congregation,” which won’t be feasible if the congregation is on its deathbed.

Needless to say, if you’re a minister, you can participate in a homeless response team. If your congregation is willing, you can let that team use your facility. The Tribune says that a number of others in the community were motivated to get the homeless center running. So yes, by all means, work with those people — but keep your eye on the ball. As a practical matter, you should remember that the underlying religious institution needs to be healthy, if it is to continue to pay your salary and to contribute volunteers to your homeless center. In an era of declining church membership, don’t run roughshod over people, if you want them to show up on Sunday mornings. Don’t take an attitude of “my way or the highway,” as one ex-member of that church described Meg’s style. Don’t taint God’s name with goofy claims that he is the driving force behind your brainchild, when most likely he isn’t.

Why did Meg lose sight of the core mission prescribed by the Book of Discipline? I have a theory. In the election contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the fall of 2016, I saw that well-educated, well-meaning liberals are human — that, like their less-educated and conservative brethren, they can become frightfully intolerant and narrowminded, once they have decided they know The Truth. Based on my years with Meg, I suspect she brought herself and her congregation to a crisis point of mass departures, culminating in what she called a “lynch the pastor meeting,” partly because she became too immersed in that liberal echo chamber — because, in effect, she believed she was smarter and more compassionate (toward homelessness, especially) than the people she worked for.

I have wondered whether she needed to believe that — whether becoming a minister gave her a sense of moral purity, a way of writing off her reckless handling of our marriage, without having to do the hard work of repentance. It would be unfortunate if that’s why she went into ministry — if the desire to feel like a good person led her to waste her midlife career change opportunity on a profession that will probably allow only occasional dabbling in the social issues she cares about.

It has certainly been interesting to observe that Meg’s seminary gave her an award for her distinguished service as a minister, praising specifically her work with homeless people. Consistent with that priority, as noted above, her preoccupation with the homeless center is obvious throughout the materials I reviewed while preparing this post, including articles, videos, and local media coverage cited on her version of the church website. She seemed to treat the rest of her ministry as almost an afterthought. Those priorities had severe consequences for that hundred-year-old congregation. The sometimes angry, sometimes heartbreaking departures of so many members probably explain why the previous minister’s five Sunday School classes and iGod youth group vanished on Meg’s watch.

It seems, in other words, that the seminary had its priorities wrong, when it commended Meg’s focus on service. By contrast, the priorities of the associate pastor who replaced her, Brad Bryan, seem to be what the Book of Discipline expects. Since he took over, his entries on the church’s Facebook page have included some references to homelessness, but they have paid much more enthusiastic attention to Bible study, Sunday morning services, and other traditional church priorities. Likewise, Bryan’s redesigned church website indicates that he has started five different small groups — all devoted to scripture, devotion, and other religious topics. At this point, his focus on basic ministry seems to be working. Here is his Facebook entry from November 14, 2016, almost a half-year after Meg’s departure:

78 of us gathered for worship yesterday; AMAZING! Let’s keep it up. Keep telling your story of the impact Wilkes Blvd UMC has in your life and keep inviting!

Granted, 78 people is not a megachurch. But in comparison to the newspaper photo showing very sparse attendance at one of Meg’s last sermons, 78 people seems like real progress. In which case one must observe that the seminary can go ahead and hand out awards but, again, the seminary is not paying the minister’s salary.

I have criticized Meg for putting her congregation through wrenching changes to create the homeless center, only to turn around and abandon it. In fairness, I should acknowledge the possibility that she was asked to leave — that membership had flatlined and the UMC district was tired of covering budget shortfalls at her church. That could explain why, at the time of her departure, the church’s Facebook page did not present the usual congratulatory announcement about her acceptance of an appointment back in Maine. It could also explain why the going-away commemoration of a visible public leader who had been with the congregation for six years seems to have been rather subdued. This would be a regrettable come-down for the rising star that Meg was, at the time of our divorce, in her Red Cross career that we had both worked to develop, during our years together.

I’m sure Bryan, previously serving as associate pastor, was eager to take over. There may have been an informal understanding, between Meg and the pillars of the church, that she could feel free to depart on any schedule that would work for her. Her friends and relatives in her small town back home may have heard, some time ago, that the position in Maine was going to be available within the next six months or so; she may have been waiting for that opportunity to open up. But this orientation toward Maine draws attention back to what the Tribune (above) described as Meg’s plan of providing a mere “stopgap.” As a person very aware of her feeling that Maine was her real home, I have to think that, when she splintered her congregation to create the homeless center, she was probably not committed to stick around and make sure that either the congregation or the shelter would survive in the long term.

Creation of the Turning Point homeless day center does appear to have been a noteworthy achievement. Yet that achievement, and the contrasting decline in the church, seem to suggest that, as in our marriage, Meg’s dedication to a new project might last a year or two. As her former mentor, I found that the challenge was to figure out next steps, in her employment path, that would continue to keep her engaged, and that would also have a logical connection with what she considered important. It took many, many hours to keep up with, and to think about, her feelings and priorities, and to research her possibilities, proofread her résumés and cover letters and other writings, and so forth, over a period of years — but, as I say, those efforts did pay off, in terms of building her Red Cross career.

One way to interpret Meg’s experience with the homeless center is that a talented and energetic person, stuck in the wrong profession, may find a way to achieve remarkable things — but may do so in an eccentric manner that does not necessarily pass customary tests of success in that profession, and may cause unnecessary damage in the process. A lesson emerging from that interpretation might be that a feeling of frustration, with the seeming stupidity or indifference of people unsympathetic to one’s vision, does not always mean that those people are wrong.

It seems, then, that an experience of genuine repentance after cheating on me, back in 2002 — or, perhaps, a careful exploration of the absence of regret — might have yielded (a) personal and professional insights leading Meg to a more suitable choice for her next career and (b) a stronger inclination to work with, rather than against, people who seem to stand in the way of the questionable thing that one suddenly wishes to do.

Repentance Requires Truthfulness

I mentioned, above, that I have been waiting 14 years for an apology from Meg. At some point, of course, I realized that I might never get that apology.

It took me a bit longer to realize that matters might not end there. I have already mentioned that it seemed she was depicting me, to her lovers, as a useless boyfriend and husband. She used the same line on me, when we first met: as noted in another post, she portrayed her previous boyfriend as abusive, when it would eventually develop that he wasn’t.

With that background, let us consider: what is Meg going to tell her second husband about me? What is she going to tell her congregation? I’ll give you a hint: she is not going to stand up in front and admit, to them, that she cheated on me rather wantonly for eight years, repaid my years of prioritizing her needs by dumping me like a piece of garbage, and showed no remorse at any time in the period of nearly a quarter-century between her first fling and the present day.

If she had sincerely repented of that misbehavior, she would have felt the need to be truthful with me, finally, and also with the congregation. That would have been the first step toward redemption — in terms both spiritual and worldly.

Instead, in 2016, I started to become aware of what has actually been going on, in the years since our divorce. The other post discusses a newspaper article in which, according to the reporter, Meg told her congregation of her “personal experience” in the area of violence against women. As that post indicates, I knew Meg’s background up through summer 2002, and I was developing a general idea about it since then — specifically, that she has been with her present husband since the year after our divorce. If she was claiming personal experience in the area of violence against women, it seemed she had to be inventing false stories — and it wasn’t too hard to guess who those stories might be about.

Naturally, I wanted to verify this. But that’s where I started to encounter suspicious behavior from others. First, as the other post describes, Rev. Bryan (i.e., the minister who replaced her) ignored my repeated attempts to contact him. It wasn’t because he was too busy; I was able to verify that his office did respond promptly to others who contacted him by Facebook and email, as I had done. And then I found that the newspaper reporter refused to tell me what sort of “personal experience” Meg had alleged, in her sermon about violence against women. The reporter and I exchanged several emails on the matter. She seemed to be a reasonably friendly and responsive person. There did not seem to be any reason why a reporter would refuse to discuss a sermon that she had mentioned in her own article. The ethics of her profession seemed to call for obtaining and sharing information with the public. The reporter did not offer any explanation for refusing to answer my simple question. It certainly appeared there must be something controversial about the situation: she said that she would need her supervisors’ approval before giving me such information — and her supervisors refused to give that approval.

As often happens, the stonewalling couldn’t hold forever. I did eventually discover that Meg herself had given me, and the world, a brief but enlightening summary of what she has been telling people about me. Here are her own words, published in another article (archive link) that she put online:

Though my first marriage ended, I had family support to float me enough cash to remain housed. My forever marriage is safe, healthy, loving and respectful.

Plainly, those words do not reflect well on me. She seems to be saying that, after her first marriage ended, she did not even have enough money to pay rent. The implication is that I drained her in our divorce. That was not so. In the divorce, Meg and her father decided how our property would be divided, and I accepted what they gave me. Their decisions on property division appeared to be steered by the desire to avoid a legal battle, though I did not threaten one and was not even represented by an attorney. I made one request in our discussions, and her father said no. Her lawyers wrote up the papers, and I signed them. The whole thing was done within a few weeks. Meg walked away with about $20,000 in liquid assets, as well as her pick of our physical possessions. Furthermore, at that time, she was a national-level Red Cross employee. According to her court filing, she had a gross income of $3,874 per month. For a single woman with no dependents, in a small midwestern city with a low cost of living, that was more than sufficient to help her “remain housed.” I mean, I saw the place she moved to: I went over, one time, to drop off a few remaining possessions she had neglected to take. It was nicer than the apartment we had shared. Not to mention that she was looking forward to very bright prospects for salary growth.

Then there’s her other remark — that her “forever marriage” is “safe, healthy, loving, and respectful.” Those words seem to suggest that her first marriage was unsafe, unhealthy, unloving, and/or disrespectful — that, in other words, she was a victim of domestic abuse.

There, again, we could start with a look at the divorce papers. Meg’s divorce petition made no claim of domestic abuse. That was atypical, according to the attorney with whom I had an initial consultation. He told me that the “divorce mill” law firm that Meg hired to represent her would typically insert what he called “a bullshit domestic violence allegation” in order to gain leverage for their female clients during divorce negotiations. It appeared that, at that point, when Meg was still speaking to me, she may have actually made sure that they did not make any such false claim against me.

Someone might ask whether possibly she felt intimidated into remaining silent about actual domestic abuse. That would be unlikely. Here’s how events transpired. After I had interviewed Meg and recorded her statements in July 2002, as mentioned above, she flew back to Maine for a previously scheduled vacation, to visit her parents. That seems to have been a dramatic trip. When I called to make sure she had gotten there OK, she spoke to me in an odd voice, like a rather bratty teenage girl. I do not know what that was all about. Her arrival was apparently very stressful to her mother, to the point of requiring hospitalization. It was heart-related, according to Meg. Meg let me know that her mom was being taken to the regional hospital by ambulance, and that she and her dad were going to follow along a few hours later, after they attended somebody’s birthday party.

At the end of her week in Maine, Meg flew on to meetings in Washington, DC, and then flew back to Missouri. Meanwhile, her dad was so motivated to protect her interests, or to get her divorced, that he drove 1,700 miles, from Maine to Missouri, to accompany her during the weeks of our fast-track divorce. In doing so, he left Meg’s mom behind, apparently alone and in a decidedly sick condition. She sounded very weak when I called to see how she was doing, and to ask if she wanted an update, from my perspective, on what was happening in our divorce situation. Leaving nothing to chance, it appeared that Meg’s dad was even staying in the same motel room with Meg, there in Missouri — or at least he seemed to be present, alongside her, whenever I might call, night or day. So it’s not as though I could have somehow intimidated her without him being aware of it.

Even if Meg’s divorce petition had alleged domestic abuse, she would have had a hard time supporting such a claim. Bear in mind, first, that she was a feminist, a college graduate, and a professional woman, with years of work experience, who had received extensive on-the-job training in subjects such as sexual harassment. Meg knew how to document things. It would be difficult to believe a domestic violence complaint, from a woman like this, when our years together had produced no police reports of domestic violence; no records of relevant physical or emotional harm from doctors’ offices, counselors, or emergency rooms; no visits to women’s shelters; no mentions of domestic violence in other relevant professional correspondence; and no friends or family members claiming knowledge of any domestic abuse.

To the contrary, the people closest to Meg were as confused as I was. Her sister said to me, “We don’t understand what Meg is doing.” Meg refused to tell her mom what was going on — she felt her mom would be judgmental. I was the one who informed her mom of Meg’s confession that she had been cheating on me for all those years. Her mom’s reply surprised me. She said, “Some people have no shame.” Her dad expressed uncertainty as to Meg’s reasoning, when I asked him about some of the confusing things she had said. He said, “Maybe she doesn’t know what the truth is. Maybe she’s making it up.” He didn’t seem to know if she was telling the truth, even to him. I did not know what to make of those reactions, from her own parents. They didn’t seem surprised. One might ask whether they had seen something like this before.

Along with these facts, we have the video presenting Meg’s own statements about her affairs, making clear that infidelity, not domestic abuse, was the issue leading to our divorce. We also have other videos from our marriage, showing how she and I interacted in various settings. In those other videos, Meg seems happy. She doesn’t seem downtrodden or fearful. Indeed, there are hints of verbal and physical assertiveness on her part.

None of this supports her implication that her first marriage was not “safe, healthy, loving and respectful.” She got safety, love, and those other things from me. I was the one who didn’t get them, whose marriage turned out to be unsafe. Obviously, it was emotionally damaging, but there was also a physical dimension. I was healthy, and I was lucky, so I came through OK. But it might have turned out otherwise. There was, for instance, the time when we were sitting on the couch, and I told Meg that I was suddenly feeling an uncomfortable and somewhat alarming pressure in my chest. Did my loving wife run for aspirin, or ask if I wanted her to dial 911? Not exactly. She went into the bathroom and stayed there until the symptoms had passed. Not to mention her report that none of her lovers, during our years together — starting in the mid-1990s, when AIDS was a virtual death sentence — had worn a condom.

Meg’s article, in 2014, may have portrayed me as someone best left behind, but in fact she was still finding me useful. Just as she had apparently told her lovers that I was a lousy husband, she was now bearing false witness on a larger scale, telling her congregation and her online readers that I was abusive to boot. And apparently the story was going over pretty well. The reactions of Rev. Bryan and the reporter — the failure of the reporter, or anyone else, to check that story with me — suggest that the tale of this poor, helpless female was accepted as gospel.

As just shown, Meg’s article contained two brief negative statements about her first marriage. But that may be just the tip of the iceberg. It appears she may have worked up a more elaborate performance, conveying a substantial amount of false information. The reporter’s published article seems to say that Meg’s “personal experience” was the most notable element in her sermon on violence against women, suggesting that she made multiple derogatory remarks about her marriage to me.

I think, now, that Meg may have given me an advance notice that she was going to be developing that performance. As illustrated in the accompanying video, we were still getting along fairly well in July 2002, for the most part, during those two weeks of discussion, before she flew back to Maine. But after she returned, in August 2002, it seemed that things were changing. There were several small episodes in which she seemed to be trying out the role of the abused woman.

Two of those episodes occurred when she and her father drove over from the motel to our apartment, so that she could pick up some of her things. In the process of loading his truck, she said something, I forget what, that gave me the impression that she was concerned for her safety. I asked what that was about. I remember her smiling and saying, “I really am terrified,” as she carried a box outside. It wasn’t a forced or fearful smile, either; just a regular smile, as if she hadn’t yet worked out that part of the routine. And then, when it came time to divide up the things we had stored in the basement, she pretended to be afraid to go down there with me. So her dad and she and I all went down together. But then something came up that I wanted to talk to her about privately. She calmly asked her dad to go outside so we could talk. She wasn’t the least bit fearful. It seemed she had just needed to put on a little show. At the time, it merely seemed odd. But now, as I say, I wouldn’t be surprised if, over the years, she has assembled a regular mini-drama about her supposedly terrible first marriage.

Why would Meg invent a story of domestic abuse? I think there were two factors. First, as noted above, she did have that prior history of falsely accusing a boyfriend. She knew, already, that it was safe to make such accusations — that people would readily assume the woman was the victim and, in fact, would take her to their breast and offer their support. Second, in ordinary life, and certainly as a future minister, Meg would be needing an acceptable explanation for her divorce.

I’m not sure she was clear on that second point in July 2002. When she was letting me record her confessions and other matters, as shown in the accompanying video, she seemed to think the cheating was no big deal. I have struggled to understand that. Somehow, it seemed, she had gotten very much the wrong idea about marriage and infidelity. I thought that perhaps this came from her background. Another post describes how law and culture did become much more supportive of divorce, and of sexual experimentation in marriage, back in the 1970s and 1980s. My guess was that maybe some influential person(s) in rural Maine in the 1980s, when Meg was a teenager, gave her the impression that cheating is a sort of wink-wink thing that all the fun people do. Maybe she had grown up feeling that her mom’s “judgmental” attitude reflected a victim mentality, or was outdated or excessively strict.

If that was the situation, then it seems the United States (and especially central Missouri) circa 2000 may have been too old-fashioned for Meg. As I discuss in the other post, America has indeed developed a hookup culture in recent years, for those who don’t want to tie the knot. But marriage remains a different story: virtually nobody endorses open acceptance of marital infidelity in present-day America. If anything, as mentioned earlier, what we have seen since the 1980s is a resurgence of belief in traditional marriage, backing away from the 1970s climate of somewhat more freewheeling extramarital experimentation.

So it appears that the next step, for Meg, was to get up to speed — to discover, that is, that most people would not think her behavior was really cool. Perhaps she had a wake-up conversation with a person she respected. Maybe something like that happened when she took that trip back to Maine, in July 2002; maybe a discussion up there persuaded her that she would have to start developing that domestic abuse story, as a much more acceptable explanation for why our marriage ended. Her father did tell me, at the end of July, that he had told her it was unacceptable to interfere with other people’s marriages. So maybe he was the person of influence. At the same time, he seemed puzzled as to what I meant, when I asked him, How about me? As far as I could tell, he had not explained to her that it is also unacceptable to cheat on your spouse.

In short, the information available to me, at present, tends to indicate that Meg walled herself off from me, starting in summer 2002, because she was transitioning from being my friendly wife to being a person who would paint me as an abuser. Did Meg’s transition to that viewpoint contribute to the strong antipathy that I received from my feminist professors at the University of Missouri – Columbia in 2004-2005, when I started my social work studies there? I don’t know. They weren’t the kind of people who would be forthcoming about such things. I do know that my male classmates in that largely female program didn’t seem to be getting that sort of treatment. I was the only student, in my year there, whom any professor yelled at, when I was just asking a question. So, yeah, that was strange too, and maybe not a coincidence.

I will never get a full accounting of what Meg has been saying about me since our divorce, nor of whom she may have said it to, in sermons and conversations. I also won’t know what she may have emailed to people, or posted on webpages that didn’t come up in my search, or that have since been changed or taken down. But I do have the fact that she has never apologized or shown signs of remorse; I have the behavior of Rev. Bryan and the newspaper reporter; and I have Meg’s article falsely implying that she left our marriage in poverty, and that I was not a “safe, healthy, loving and respectful” husband.

Perhaps it is clear, now, why I found it remarkable that Meg would drive to Ferguson, to demand repentance from those police officers. In doing so, it appears she was able to capitalize on several popular prejudices: favoring the minister over the sinner; favoring the polite little female over the big, intimidating male; favoring anyone who would confront any Ferguson police officer on race. It got her some publicity and, apparently, a sense of self-righteousness. But it was not appropriate. The problem was not just that, as described above, she abused the concept of repentance, using it as a weapon. The problem discussed in this section is that she hypocritically dared to demand repentance from someone else when she, who abused her marriage and her congregation as few women and few pastors ever do, was not repentant herself. It appears, to the contrary, that she has been deliberately deceiving people in order to avoid admitting her own misdeeds.

Repentance vs. Hubris

Repentance is, by its very nature, a recognition that one has done wrong. A mistake has been made. Repentance entails some humility toward others. This is substantially opposed to arrogance, in which one displays a sense of personal superiority.

There are many ways to be arrogant, and each of them has its own potential for public embarrassment. The more visibly you flaunt your successes and your specialness, the more you invite the sort of come-down that Jesus described (e.g., Luke 6:26). As I have discussed in a separate post, arrogance seems particularly inappropriate for ministers.

As noted above, Meg has posted videos of more than 40 of her sermons on Vimeo, most dating from 2013.

(Update, Feb. 13, 2017: it appears that Meg’s videos remained available for several years, and also remained there for six months following her departure from the Wilkes Blvd church; but now, within the past month or so, all those videos have suddenly been removed. The “Pastor Meg’s Videos” page now says, “Sorry, no videos found.” Presumably Meg would be the only person with access to the contents of her Vimeo channel. Possibly she had some reason for removing those videos, other than the obvious coincidence that it happened shortly after I posted this writeup. But removing 40+ videos, in response to a critique of just one video, would certainly raise a question of what might emerge if I were to view the others. Regardless, the critiqued excerpts from her sex sermon do remain available in my accompanying video. I have decided to retain the following discussion of those 40+ videos, but readers will apparently be unable to view them directly.)

One useful feature of sites like Vimeo is that they count the number of times a video has been viewed. A minister, or a church committee on ministerial excellence, might have found it interesting to review those counts. As of my initial visit to Meg’s Vimeo channel, those counts were as follows:

Viewed 0-5 times: 26 sermons
Viewed 6-15 times: 7 sermons
Viewed 16-30 times: 7 sermons
Viewed 31+ times: 3 sermons

Some of her videos seem to have covered non-sermon events. One not included in this count — the most heavily watched of all — is a 94-second announcement of a fundraiser. It has had 377 views. So it’s not as though people were unaware of her Vimeo channel.

(Note that just opening the Vimeo webpage appears not to increment the count; I think you have to start watching the video to make your view count. By contrast, YouTube appears to increment the count as soon as the page is opened. I probably added at least a half-dozen views to each of Meg’s YouTube video counts, in the process of wrestling with a Firefox browser add-on that was supposed to make each of those videos visible in separate tabs, but instead just managed to keep crashing the browser after the tabs had opened. Before I started tinkering with that, the view counts for the older sermons in her YouTube channel, dating from earlier in her ministry, were probably a little higher than the counts for her newer Vimeo videos.)

There would be no guarantees that online attention would translate into bodies in church on Sunday mornings. But at least the number of times that people viewed a sermon posted on Vimeo might provide useful information on what viewers care about. It is harder to determine that from church attendance. People may not even know the topic of a Sunday sermon in advance. In that case, the topic can’t influence their planning. Other factors (e.g., weather, holidays, friends’ plans) will also influence individual decisions on whether to attend church on a given Sunday.

First, then, let’s dismiss the bulk of Meg’s Vimeo sermons. The view counts seem to say that those sermons were not setting the world on fire. That is consistent with the impression of continued low attendance through the end of her tenure.

Yet there is a bit of a puzzle here. You might expect that a person who loves being onstage would want to be successful up there. She might strive to become a more exciting speaker; she would surely avoid actions that might drive people away. Meg’s actual behaviors seem to indicate that she didn’t prioritize church membership, attendance, or enthusiasm for her sermons. One possibility is that she felt she was saying things that people needed to hear, not necessarily things they would want to hear — that, in other words, those who came to church might tend to be those who actually wanted to hear what she had to say. If that was the situation, it would seem that, in her mind, her sense of mission was more compelling than the visible results. That interpretation seems plausible: she seems likewise to have prioritized her mission to the homeless over her congregational responsibilities.

I have some sympathy with that sense of mission. People like me, who write things, have to be reconciled to the fact that some of our efforts will be useful to many people, and some won’t. Of course, if you’re getting paid for the work, and if you want to keep the job, it may behoove you to take account of what people want from you, as distinct from what you think you should give them. If Meg had hired a career advisor or marketing consultant during those years, that person would presumably have noticed the low numbers of views of her sermons on YouTube and Vimeo, and might have advised doing a bit of experimentation, to see what gets attention.

As it turns out, among the Vimeo videos, we do have an exceptional few that drew relatively large numbers of viewers. At this writing, Meg’s three most frequently viewed Vimeo sermons have been viewed 211, 123, and 66 times, respectively. On closer examination, we see that two of those three came from the same four-week series of sermons, and the topic of that series was sex.

One of those four sermons on sex is not presently available on Vimeo. That seems odd. The missing sermon, if it had been posted, might have turned out to be another of Meg’s most popular online sermons. Based on what I saw in the two sermons that I did view, both from this sex series, I wondered whether she posted that missing sermon, but then decided to remove it — or decided not to post it in the first place — because she (or, perhaps, members of the congregation or other UMC observers) decided that some of its sex-related content might be too controversial.

Another odd thing is that, of the three sermons on sex that are available, one (week 2, “Marriage”) has been viewed only four times. Plainly, we are not dealing with viewers who sat down and watched the entire series of three or four available sermons. For some reason, viewers have homed in specifically on the sermons for weeks 1 and 4 in that four-week series.

To refine the suggestion offered above, the fact that a sermon has drawn numerous viewers does not necessarily mean that the minister should do more sermons like it. When specific sermons are singled out for very atypical attention, and especially when the subject is sex, the view count might not provide an accurate reflection of what present and would-be members of the congregation care about. Instead, it could be that random individuals, completely unrelated to the church, have stumbled across those videos. It would also be possible that the view counts are high because people who are now (or were previously) affiliated with Meg’s church found something especially disturbing in those particular videos, and have been discussing those videos among themselves.

As I say, I, myself, have not even started to watch most of Meg’s sermons. But as an ex-husband whose marriage was destroyed due to her sexual infidelity, I confess that I did take an interest in seeing what she might be telling people about sex. So I watched the first one in the series, and later I watched the second one. In the accompanying video, I limited my critique to brief excerpts from the first one.

My first observation is that, of course, it is common for preachers to stand up and spout off about all sorts of things that they do not necessarily understand very well. Having been a believer who experienced deep and painful discrepancies between what the preachers claimed and the way things actually worked, however, I am not very sympathetic to that particular form of arrogance.

I noticed, in particular, that Meg said, “We can decrease the power that sex and sexuality has over us, by just naming it for what it is.” She did not cite any research supporting this proposition. Again, having been a believer who tried naming things and exercising willpower and implementing other simplistic solutions — and who incurred great frustration and doubts about my spirituality and some self-loathing when I proved unable to achieve the outcomes I had been told to expect — I did feel that the audience should have been spared such speculations.

Wikipedia tells us that human sexuality is a complex subject, with “biological, physical, emotional, social, [and] spiritual aspects.” Attempting to cut through all that, Meg’s sermon offered the opinion that sexual attraction between adult humans “tends to wane after about 12 to 18 months.” She cited one source for this view. I was not able to find that source. As discussed in a separate post, this view does not accurately capture current research. Among other things, research suggests that — for women, especially — sexual satisfaction often increases in long-term relationships.

In another portion of that same sermon, Meg tells us that sex with what she calls “a forbidden partner” is far more stimulating than sex with a permitted partner. Here, again, it appears that she may have been expressing her own personal experience, as distinct from research findings. For instance, a brief search led to Trudel (2002, p. 238), who found that only one-third of survey respondents reported that they had fantasies of a sexual affair with a forbidden partner, and that women were significantly less likely than men to have such a fantasy; and to Bivona (2008, p. i), who found that women who did have erotic rape fantasies had such fantasies only about four times per year, on average, and that nearly half of those women found that such fantasies had undesirable aspects.

(Of course, “forbidden partner” could include not only extramarital affairs, homophilia, and rape, but also incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, zoophilia, and other paraphilias. Meg may have intended merely to evoke a daring or glamorous fantasy fling, but some viewers of her sermon or video could infer that she tacitly condoned sexual preferences ranging from the unorthodox to the criminal. I did wonder whether her ambiguous remarks near the end of the second sex sermon were pointing in that direction as well.)

In my brief research into the question, the best evidence seems to suggest that only a fairly small minority of married women ever cheat on their husbands. That perspective does not come through in the sermons I viewed. In her remarks about forbidden partners, Meg failed to place sex into a larger context of what makes a great relationship. She did not present the perspective of a woman who loves sex with her husband; she did not seem to recognize that people whose relationships survive may not be primarily interested in forbidden sex. Regrettably, it sounded like not much had changed since I had last heard from Meg on the subject of sex. For her, it still seemed to be largely a matter of biological drives; there wasn’t much talk of feelings or attachment; and — in 2002, at least — guilt was a factor only when it spoiled her momentary lover’s enjoyment of the experience.

At some point, it occurred to me that the guy holding the video camera, during Meg’s many videotaped sermons, was probably none other than her husband. He did seem, in any event, to attend services and to be involved in her church. One can imagine him sitting there, filming, while she explains how it is normal for a wife to find marital sex boring. (By the way, she did not undo that impression in the second video in her sex series, on the topic of marriage.)

I mean, I agree: experiences with Meg taught me that it is possible for a wife to refuse to communicate and work with her husband and, through such dysfunctionality, to arrive at a degree of sexual dissatisfaction that she will then fail to mention to him — that, indeed, seems contrary to what he thought he was observing in the marital bedroom. It would be rather perverse to persist in that direction through years of marriage to a highly motivated and communicative partner. Let me emphasize that the things Meg told me in July 2002 did contribute a great deal to my lifetime collection of remarkable experiences.

Some might suppose that, during our nine years together, Meg may have been too young and inexperienced to develop a mature way of working with her partner. That supposition would not fit with Meg’s realities; and in any case, by now, it would wear very thin. She is obviously not afraid of the subject of sex. She had ample time, experience, and education with which to make a wise decision on whether to commence and continue a sexual relationship and a marriage with her second husband. At this point, it was pretty lame to stand up there, posing as a minor authority on sex, and tell her congregation that sexual dissatisfaction in marriage is the ordinary experience after the first 12 to 18 months.

For such reasons, I am not very enthusiastic about Meg’s words, on a church webpage that has since been taken down (archive link). On that page, speaking of her second husband as she once spoke about me, she wrote, “I’ve got an amazingly patient husband who puts up with my stubbornness and mood swings and loves me anyway.” I have to say, I was sorry to find that webpage. I have hoped that he is not in the same situation I was in. Nobody deserves that. I have seen some of their current published photos of the two of them together. I hope that her smile in those photos is genuine — that she is not telling him (or the world) one thing while privately nursing its opposite. Regardless, I think he probably does not deserve her innuendos about sexual dissatisfaction in long-term relationships, and probably does deserve the bulk of the credit for their marital stability.

As for the decision to give that sermon, I don’t know that sex is the best topic to present to an audience of all ages. Even if it were, Meg’s sermons on sex suggest that she may not always have devoted careful thought to the words she would be sharing with the public. The advice is sound: stick with what you know. If you’re not an expert on sex, then common sense and self-restraint would advise against standing up there and pretending otherwise. If you are convinced that your congregation needs your help to learn about sex, it could make sense to invite, as guest speaker, a sex therapist or social scientist who has some experience in making public presentations in his/her specialty, phrasing things appropriately for a church service. Or you could have a Wednesday night study session, or assemble a video in which you interview such a person, perhaps with a blog post featuring answers to questions posed by the audience, and a list of good books and websites on various sex-related topics. But unless you are completely cavalier about the value of research and expertise — unless you’re just seeking the gratification of standing up there and pretending to convey truth and wisdom — you have to realize that sex is an extremely important, delicate, and potentially upsetting topic to many people. On that topic, especially, it is not appropriate to make your captive Sunday morning audience sit there and squirm while you reveal your potentially disturbing personal views.

After that bit about forbidden sex, as shown in the accompanying video, Meg’s sex sermon moves on to her interpretation of the Bible story of Ruth and Boaz. In that story, Naomi tells Ruth to notice where Boaz lies down, and then “go and uncover his feet and lie down” (Ruth 3:4). Doing so would signal submission. But that’s not how Meg prefers to interpret it. Instead, she says, “It wasn’t his feet she was uncovering.” She proceeds to explain that this is a euphemism for having sex. She claims the real meaning “gets lost in translation.”

But that is almost surely false. Of 22 translations offered by Bible Hub, only one, the NET Bible, offers phrasing that varies at all from a literal reference to feet — and even there, the NET Bible’s accompanying notes specifically reject Meg’s interpretation, as do most commentators. There are many reasons why scholars take this passage literally. For one thing, if Ruth and Boaz had sex when she “uncovered his feet” upon arriving, why would Boaz be surprised to see her when he awoke later in the night? (Ruth 3:8). Meg’s interpretation also makes a hash of the text’s repeated indications that Boaz was aware of Ruth’s integrity and was concerned about handling matters appropriately (Ruth 3:11-12). There is no obvious reason why the writer of the book of Ruth would deviate from the inclination against premarital sex found in the law of Israel (e.g., Deuteronomy 22:13-23). Moreover, if “feet” were a euphemism here, why is it not also a euphemism in many other places (e.g., Genesis 18:4)? And why would we need a euphemism for sex in this story, when the Hebrew scriptures speak frankly about other sexual encounters (e.g., 2 Samuel 11:4)?

Meg didn’t provide any textual analysis to explain her unorthodox interpretation of the Ruth story. She just went out of her way to find and share a sexual interpretation not supported by the evidence. Such behavior raises a fair question of whether she approaches ministry as a wounded healer who continues to inflict her own sex-related confusion or corruption on people whom she is supposed to be helping.

My accompanying video adds another clip, this one provided by the church’s Facebook page (May 29, 2016). This clip shows Meg standing in her church and singing a portion of a song. The song is “Something to Talk About.” The lyrics of that song include the following:

I hear them whisper, you won’t believe it
They think we’re lovers kept under cover . . .
Let’s give them something to talk about
A little mystery to figure out

Of all the songs in the world, it is remarkable that Meg would choose to perform this one in a church. The primary problem is not that the song really does not have much to do with faith, and that Meg’s attempt to Christianize it produces a mess (e.g., changing the second line, above, to refer incoherently to “Christians kept under cover”). Nor is the problem that the song is necessarily scandalous: its lyrics do not specify whether the proposed affair would be extramarital. The problem is that the person singing this song is Meg.

Suppose she had preceded that performance with a confession. Suppose she had taken the microphone, looked at the congregation, and said, “I cheated on my husband throughout my first marriage. Also, on Vimeo, a few years back, I posted a sermon explaining that, in my view, forbidden sex is much more appealing than sex with a steady partner, such as my husband.” Then she starts singing these lyrics about giving people something to talk about, as her second husband sits right there in the church. Do you suppose some members of the congregation might have found that scene rather awkward?

Let me put it this way. One time, I had an ex-alcoholic roommate. He feared alcohol. He did not want it anywhere in sight. He knew that, sometimes, the temptation would be too much. So he steered clear of it. And that is simply not what appears in Meg’s sex-related behavior. Her morally unacceptable behavior did, in fact, cause the end of our marriage, with severe and permanent adverse consequences for my career and my life — and, it seems, for her career as well. But, for Meg, it appears that was a price worth paying. She is not coming across as someone whose path to ministry led through a profound personal struggle to overcome the kind of sexual addiction with which her own sermon seems preoccupied. There are no signs that she endured a painful ordeal before she finally got herself sorted out, or that she has an addict’s deep-seated fear of the destructive power of sexual misbehavior. Here, again, there is no sign of repentance.

After making the mistakes Meg has made, wise people learn that fooling around is not something to fool around with. But apparently Meg still doesn’t get that. Someday, if she ever comes to recognize her own arrogance, she may give a truly rousing sermon on repentance. That day has not yet arrived.

Resisting Repentance

Sometimes our society seems to teach us that it is naive if not dangerous to admit our mistakes and try to do better. If you’re a lawyer, for instance, you don’t usually win lawsuits by conceding fault. But it will be a sad day when that mentality becomes ingrained even among ministers who encourage others to confess their sins and repent.

Meg’s story, as presented above, is not the story of someone who consults with people, tries her best to reach solutions that will work for everyone, sincerely regrets her mistakes, and attempts to find a way forward that everyone can live with. In our marriage, and also in her homeless center, Meg’s story is that of a person who decides what she is going to do, and does it. That achieves results, for some purposes. She got her homeless shelter; she got a new husband. But there’s a lot of wreckage in her wake.

Let us be clear. Most of us are able to take a hint. In the situations described above, church people usually understand that you have to be sorry for your sins, and try to do better, if you want to call yourself a Christian; you have to be humble enough to listen to congregants who claim you are straying from your core purpose, if you want to be a successful minister; you have to be honest and faithful where your spouse is concerned, if you want your marriage to work; and you have to realize that, if you can’t or won’t do these things, you will be responsible for the ensuing failure of your Christian faith, your ministry, or your marriage.

In the context of repentance, this raises a question. What should we do, when dealing with someone who just doesn’t get it — someone who ignores the quiet hints, the loud complaints, even the howls of anguish? What kind of person or situation are we dealing with here?

On that, I don’t know if I can offer much insight from the years when I thought we had a generally good relationship and a fairly happy marriage. But I do think the weeks between June 29, 2002 (when Meg told me of her affairs) and early August 2002 (after which we had few interactions) were a time when the blinders were coming off, for me. In this section, I will try to convey, briefly, a sense of what it was like to try to understand and work with someone who appeared resistant to repentance, at a time when repentance seemed so necessary.

I will say, first off, that those were weeks of transformation in our relationship, and not just for the obvious reasons. One of the most striking discoveries, from that period, was that there could be such a swift and severe change in Meg’s attitude. Up until the day of her confession, she had seemed to be happy, to love me, to really enjoy our life together. And now, within a matter of weeks, she decided that she was not my friend, and that she would not be talking to me anymore. At all. Ever. And that is exactly how it has been. In the 14 years since then, I have not heard from her once. I did try making contact a few times, with small gestures of friendship — emailing her a link to an obscure song she had been interested in, for example — but, again, with zero response.

We didn’t have kids, so this was feasible. But it was weird. It wasn’t because we had somehow become enemies during the divorce. We hadn’t. The divorce was a simple paper-processing matter, concluded quickly and on relatively amicable terms, as divorces go. This was simply, somehow, what Meg preferred.

In case you haven’t experienced anything like this, let me assure you: if you have spent nearly a decade structuring your life around someone, if you consider that person your best friend in the world, and if she suddenly stops speaking to you and says you aren’t her friend at all, that can be immensely confusing. Was this some kind of negotiating tactic? Had she gone crazy?

In those two weeks of conversation in July 2002 — our last weeks living together — I began to wonder whether I really knew Meg at all. She said, for example, that I was the only person with whom she had ever looked through photographs of events enjoyed together. How was that possible? She said, moreover, that that sort of activity meant nothing to her. But she had seemed to enjoy it when we were narrating the stories of our trips. She also said it was a waste of time to spend time with friends. Granted, she wasn’t the most gregarious person, but over the years she had initiated visits to see friends and relatives. I didn’t realize she had that kind of flatly dismissive attitude toward people who considered her their friend.

And, you know, maybe she didn’t. Maybe there was a certain element of make-believe. I think, for instance, of an episode, during those two weeks of discussion, when we went for a bike ride, as a break from the hours of talking. At one point, on that ride, I became exasperated with the grumpy attitude she had adopted. I asked her to do me a favor and just treat me as she would treat some random guy whom she was trying to seduce. The change was remarkable. Instantly she was fun, funny, flirtatious, cute.

That was really pretty strange. I didn’t know what to make of it. At the time, I took it at face value. As such, I wasn’t sure whether to be angry with her, for having the ability to be pleasant at will, but not bothering to do that for me, or disappointed in myself for often accepting her unpleasant, moody side — indeed, for making excuses for it. When she seemed unpleasant or depressed, I would think maybe it was because she wasn’t getting enough sleep, or because the weather had been cloudy lately. I noticed that we rarely argued when we were living together normally. If there was to be an argument, it would tend to happen when she came back from a business trip. To me, that suggested that we did better when we had stability and spent more time together. I didn’t imagine that maybe the trip had included a romantic fling, and that it was such a drag, for her, to be back home with me, until a few days had passed and she could transform herself back into my happy, loving wife.

In the process of trying to understand who Meg was and what she was telling me, in July 2002, I called one of her friends. This friend told me that, four years earlier, in 1998, anticipating her own upcoming marriage, she had eagerly asked Meg what marriage was like. Not long before that, we had lived with this friend and her fiancé for maybe six weeks, while transitioning between apartments. She had seen how we got along. She assumed Meg would have nice things to say about marriage. Instead, Meg stunned her by replying — shaking, and in tears — that marriage was horrible and that she wished she had some way out of it. Of course, Meg did have a way out of marriage, any time she chose. But apparently she decided not to pursue that option until I had devoted another four years helping her to find a stable home in a place where she would be willing to remain for a number of years, and to advance to a national-level position in the Red Cross.

Long after our divorce, it would occur to me that Meg’s reaction might have been her way of telling the friend not to marry her handsome, successful fiancé because Meg had slept with him. I don’t know that she actually did; it was just speculation, based on an incident when the four of us were together and he stood up and made a loud, lewd remark and gesture conveying an interest in having sex with Meg, or perhaps indirectly bragging that he had already done so. At the time, I didn’t think of that. It seemed like frat-boy behavior. I just wrote it off to immaturity and poor social skills, and I don’t know — maybe that’s all it was.

After that phone conversation in June 2002, I asked Meg about her friend’s story, about how Meg had cried and said she wished she could get out of marriage. Meg said she didn’t remember it. So, wow, it was starting to feel like I was getting lost in layers of confusion: Meg claimed she had been miserable in our marriage, but didn’t really seem to be; Meg didn’t remember telling her friend that she was miserable, maybe because Meg meant something else at the time; maybe Meg really was miserable, but maybe that had nothing to do with me. I did not know what to make of all this. From my knowledge of the friend, I wouldn’t think she would invent things out of thin air. So maybe Meg did remember it, but didn’t want to say so? Or maybe that conversation was an unpleasant experience that she blocked out? I have no idea.

I mention those episodes because it actually took me quite a few years to understand that maybe Meg was more of an actress than I had realized. For instance, maybe the sudden switch from grumpiness to sunshine during that bike ride was just a put-on. Maybe she was just letting me know that, in her view, I should be grateful that she did sometimes bother to behave pleasantly toward me. Maybe the shaking and crying with her friend was just an act, like those instances when she seemed to be trying out the make-believe role of the abused spouse.

It was possible that she had been simply pretending to love me and to be happy, for all those years. But why would someone do that? During those two weeks of discussion, she repeatedly insisted that my companionship was less meaningful, to her, than that of the men with whom she had had those affairs. In most cases, she barely knew them. So that was weird too. From what she said, even the few affairs that had seemed deep and important at the time had faded out pretty quickly. That simply wasn’t true of our marriage. I remembered, for instance, the day when she cried because she hadn’t had time to get me a birthday present. The crying didn’t seem to be the behavior of someone who didn’t care. So then why would she say, and seem to believe, that she had no feelings toward me? Unless, of course, that crying, too, was an act. But why would someone pretend to be having normal emotions, for years on end? Wouldn’t that seem like a colossal waste of time?

During those two weeks in July 2002, Meg repeatedly said that she wanted me to want a divorce. But why? Maybe she wanted to be able to say that I was the one who decided to end our marriage, though I wouldn’t think she would consider that important enough to invent — and to repeat, on tape — this bizarre story of multiple affairs, and all the other things she said along with it. Or maybe she thought that, if I was disgusted enough, I would hit the road and never look back, thereby sparing her the hassle of having to deal with me anymore. For whatever reason, it did seem that, like a flipped switch, she (or at least a part of her) had suddenly become completely and thoroughly sick of me.

As mentioned earlier, I did figure out that at least some of the things she told me, during those two weeks, were fiction, because the details kept changing, as I thought about what she had told me, and came back with further questions. It occurred to me that maybe she was inventing the whole thing, just to make the story as outrageous as possible, to make me want to leave her. But, as I say, there was clearly some truth mixed in. Information from third parties, and things that I was able to piece together, made pretty clear that some cheating had been taking place. Overall, she did seem to be presenting a lucid account of numerous attempts to seduce men, over a period of years.

I also thought maybe she was trying to convince me that she was crazy. But that seemed unlikely. She wasn’t foaming at the mouth. We were sitting there, or walking on the trail, talking, as we had done many times before. She was behaving more or less rationally. She was responsive to questions. For the most part, I did seem to be getting some of what she was actually thinking and feeling at the time.

In short, Meg’s evident resistance to repentance did not appear stupid or insane. I seemed to be dealing with someone who was attempting to provide information, with the caveat that what was real or true might be subject to revision, according to the needs of the moment. And maybe that was the key. Maybe real repentance would require a person to believe that there was a right way to behave, and that it wouldn’t be acceptable to behave in a very different way later, and to believe that this opposite approach had now become the new right way to behave.

I could imagine someone being subjected to torture, and learning that s/he would have to say and believe whatever someone expected, however false it might seem. On a less extreme level, I have encountered people for whom “truth” seems to be whatever gets them through the moment. I could imagine having to survive childhood with a parent who would play with your mind, approving your words or deeds at one point, and then turning around and punishing you for those same words or deeds later. I could also imagine having one parent punish you for a certain act or attitude while the other would reward it. Such contradictions could drive a child nuts. Or maybe not. Kids are resilient. Maybe they learn to treat this sort of thing as normal. Maybe some children, in such conditions, would conclude that there was no real need to resolve such contradictions. Just go with whatever works for now, even if it makes no sense.

I didn’t know whether any of that would actually apply to Meg. I did see clear differences between her parents, in terms of how they viewed her and how she viewed them, during these weeks. I thought they probably had differing disciplinary styles. I saw that her father could be wishy-washy, saying whatever someone seemed to want to hear at the time, and that wasn’t generally her mother’s style. I had to wonder whether possibly she had learned two very different approaches to marriage during her childhood, and had lived two different perspectives during our marriage.

I would have liked to learn more about what was going on. Doing so would have resolved some extremely painful mysteries for me. But for some reason, when Meg flew to Maine after those two weeks of discussion in July 2002, her dad seemed to decide that she needed to get a divorce immediately. So that was the end of our detailed discussion of what she had been thinking and doing.

When the dust settled, I was left with a very poor understanding of what had happened to me, to my wonderful wife, and to our marriage. I talked to other people about it, in the months and years that followed. People had different theories. One woman said that she, herself, had endured a rocky series of relationships and marriages in adult life because she had been sexually abused as a child. Her theory was that Meg bore the classic signs of such abuse: flirty, little-girl behavior; no kids; promiscuity; an interest in older men. To this woman, Meg was in the grip of multiple personality disorder. And, honestly, I could see how that might explain things. Maybe the personality who lived in Meg’s suitcase, and came alive on the road, had finally gained the upper hand, shoving out the personality that had wanted to build a home with me.

The problem with such theories is that, unless you’re an experienced mental health specialist in the particular disorder, there are often other diagnoses, other theories, that point in very different directions. For example, maybe the split personalities that affected Meg were not internal to herself, but located in her external world, on the organizational level. Now that I was beginning to investigate these things, some people told me that the national Red Cross tolerated a culture of remarkably unfaithful married people. If that was true, maybe Meg was struggling to reconcile (or fit in with) what she perceived as the de rigueur infidelity of life on the road versus the expected fidelity of married life at home.

Or, in a different direction, maybe a split personality in our marriage was tolerable, for her, because she viewed me as the person primarily responsible for that marriage; but maybe she could not tolerate a split personality in her congregation, because in that case it was her baby, and she saw herself as the responsible party. Or maybe, when she referred to a split personality, what she actually feared was an uptight, judgmental element in the congregation (somehow reminiscent of her mother’s concept of religion?), an element that could seem unwelcoming to the less religious, more easygoing, socially helpful types. Maybe — possibly without even being aware of it — she threw herself into building the homeless shelter, and neglected her congregation, precisely because that would drive away the churchy, Bible-oriented individuals who weren’t on board with the service-oriented plan. Maybe, as in her approach to our divorce, driving away inconvenient people was her preferred way to eliminate complicated interpersonal issues.

In the end, I decided that Meg probably didn’t have a split personality. Dissociative identity (i.e., multiple personality) disorder seems to entail “distinct identities” that “recurrently take control of the person’s behavior” and various other extreme phenomena (e.g., may include hallucinations; each personality may have its own distinct history and name; may include self-destructive or aggressive behavior) (Psychology Today, 2014, “Symptoms”). What she was experiencing seemed to be more mixed together into a single life. When she was away, sometimes she would call me and would seem to miss me; and when she was at home, my understanding is that sometimes she would miss some other guy to whom was currently feeling an emotional attachment. As far as I can tell, her lovers and I got some exposure to both the fun, flirty girl persona and also the mature, married, professional woman persona.

Instead of the split personality theory, other people have had an entirely different reaction to the Meg story. One woman with whom I shared the story felt that it was all very cut and dried. In her opinion, Meg wasn’t confused, and wasn’t struggling with alternate personalities; she had a plan, and she knew exactly what she was doing all along. Here, again, I am not a psychiatrist. But I have to doubt that Meg was pursuing a coldly psychopathic, long-term scheme to mislead me as to her real feelings, always pretending to enjoy our life together but never meaning a word of it. This was not your purely calculating social climber, always looking for an angle. There was some of that in Meg, no doubt, but I don’t believe that sort of person would focus her career on helping homeless people — assuming homelessness does, eventually, re-emerge as a focus of her work, and was not merely something she wanted to play with, or an area that would be especially likely to make her look good.

This discussion could continue with other possible theories. For instance, Wikipedia quotes Dike et al. (2005, p. 343) for the view (apparently originating in Healy, 1926, p. 1) that “pathological lying” is lying that may be very complicated, that may unfold over a period of many years, and that is disproportionate to any visible purpose. There also seems to be an element of fantasy, although not beyond the point of believability. Wikipedia suggests that pathological lying may sometimes be an attempt to spice up a life that seems unpleasant or boring. PsychCentral (Hill, 2015) says that pathological lying can occur in conjunction with a variety of other misbehaviors, including selfishness, manipulativeness, social isolation, and low self-esteem. Here, again, we have a theory that seems partly relevant. But that’s no way to do diagnoses. That’s what happens when you first start studying the DSM: you see that you, and everyone around you, has some of the qualities of various forms of mental illness. It’s as if you had an object that’s shiny and cold and red: that could describe a billiard ball, but it could also describe the side of an automobile. Meeting a few random psychiatric criteria doesn’t necessarily tell us much.

So I was left with a lot of unknowns. Unfortunately, the passage of years has not really clarified much. When I looked into these things in 2016, I saw that one of Meg’s articles says she moved a short distance to Fulton, a year after our divorce, to be with the man who would become her second husband. I haven’t explored it in detail, but according to a free search it looks like he was married until after we came to Missouri. So that added some wrinkles. Had they already met at the time of our divorce? Was he one of the affairs she said she’d been having in Missouri? Is that why this seemingly nice woman would never speak to me again — was she afraid that he might come to hear my side of the story? That would explain a lot — but it wouldn’t explain the part where, in July 2002, after telling me her tales of infidelity, she said she was having second thoughts about rushing into a divorce. Another possibility was that maybe she was able to have a stable second marriage because she had finished her exploration of split personalities in marriage, and was now experimenting with split personalities in ministry. Or did she finally come clean with me, not because she felt hideous about lying to me, or about having affairs, but just because she didn’t need me anymore, now that one of those affairs had finally hit pay dirt for her?

I mean “pay dirt” in the sense of finding true love, but I guess I should be asking it in a more literal sense as well: she did tell a newspaper reporter that her house in Columbia was “too big for just me and my husband.” I’m pretty sure she didn’t buy that house on her salary as minister of a small church. (I’m guessing it wasn’t in the predominantly black part of town.) So maybe she saw him as not only a meal ticket, to support her during her years in seminary and in a low-paying ministry job, but also as someone who would be willing to move back to Maine and deal with her family, as she and he have now done.

I didn’t explore the question of how that move might affect his career; I don’t know what sort of work he was doing in Columbia, or what job he might find in Maine. One can only hope, on his behalf, that the move to Maine doesn’t also entail having to deal with the ex-boyfriend whose wife once called me, complaining that he and Meg were still in touch. I would eventually discover that they continued to be in touch, even after we moved to Missouri. So, yes, we can add that to the several instances, during our nine years together, where I would have had reason to be more paranoid, if I hadn’t chosen to be trusting instead.

But now, let us review. This section of this post began with the question of what happens, or what one should do, when dealing with a person who does not “get it” — who may actually favor attitudes or behaviors hostile to repentance. It seems that, if a person disregards or does not see what others consider obvious, it could be because s/he is pursuing an agenda or responding to a threat not visible to others. We have the examples of the psychopath who has a plan; of the person with disordered identity who has lurched into a different persona; and of the pathological liar who is moved to tell stories from his/her fantasy world.

This line of thought suggests that, as one would expect, talk of repentance is premature if the person in question lacks a good awareness of reality. But in Meg’s case, it is not clear that the person does have an obvious problem with reality. This may be someone who is dedicated to being a good liar, for reasons we can only guess at; it may be someone who has spent a lifetime learning how to mask his/her differences from others. Really, it could be anything.

The practical conclusion seems to be that this is all very complicated. We could respond by suggesting that this person needs to spend years in therapy. That may be. But for some purposes, that is passing the buck. When you are a deeply unsettled spouse or a shattered congregation, trying to decide how to deal with someone like this, you may not have the luxury of waiting months or years for Dr. Freud to arrive at a diagnosis and provide a cure. You may need to make the best decisions you can, in a short timeframe, under conditions of great uncertainty. What we have seen here is that those decisions may not be very well informed — not if you have to gather your information and reach your conclusions on the fly, using only the bits of knowledge and insight that you can pull together, by yourself, on short notice.

It appears, in other words, that the task of identifying someone who is not presently capable of repentance, and who would therefore not be appropriate for marriage or for Christian ministry, could require more knowledge than I, or the congregation deciding whether to hire Meg, would be able to assemble by ourselves. The quality of our decisions would be greatly improved if we could gain access to relevant prior learning, as discussed in the next section.

Witnessing Against the Enablers

At the time of our divorce, as noted above, someone asked Meg: How were you able to get away with so many lies for so long? Back then, the question had to do with her years of infidelity. But a person could ask the same question now, in her ministry. She starts with the same premise in both contexts: evidently her tales of a lousy husband served to justify infidelity, when told to her lovers, and also served to justify her divorce, when told to her congregation. And the response, likewise, seems to have been rather predictable in both cases: back then, she enjoyed the gallantry of men who probably liked to hear that they were superior to her husband; and more recently, some members of her congregation may have appreciated the opportunity to present themselves as caring persons who felt sorry that she ever had to experience abuse.

I don’t know whether it would have been possible for Meg’s lovers, back then, to verify whatever stories she may have told them. Probably most of them didn’t really care about it very much, once the moment of gratification had passed. This may be the case, as well, for members of her congregation. It is pleasant to pat oneself on the back for showing kindness to a person who has experienced hardship, and to take that person’s side. Suspicion is often considered undesirable, especially in the company of individuals who are determined to put on a happy face.

There surely were people who could have tried to verify that Meg was what she seemed. We don’t have the details regarding anonymous parishioners, but we do have the unfortunate examples of Rev. Bryan, who did not even bother to return my messages, and of the newspaper reporter from that liberal college town, who was interested only in the side of the story that favored a women’s rights angle. Ironically, both of those individuals claim to be in the business of seeking and reporting truth.

Yet those failures of responsibility came at the tail end of the process. Let’s back up five or ten years, and consider how different the situation would have been, if the seminary or the UMC had played a responsible gatekeeping role before conferring admission, graduation, or ordination. Let’s suppose they have received an application from someone who wants to be admitted into seminary, or who wants to be ordained as a minister. What should they do with it?

Well, the ex-spouse would be a pretty obvious person to contact, if you actually wanted to find out whether the ministerial candidate had any skeletons in her closet, any lurking issues — gambling, drug addiction, mental illness — that could blow up when she gets out into the real world and starts running a congregation. Not everyone will have an ex-spouse. But when the applicant does have prior experiences suggesting major problems with people who knew her well, it is just common sense to pick up the phone and spend a few minutes talking to those people.

You wouldn’t have to believe everything they might say about your candidate. If you came across anything unexpected, you could ask the candidate for a response. If you were getting two very different stories — about, say, the reason for the candidate’s divorce — you could inquire further. The present case suggests that, when the two sides of the story are very different, it may not be too hard to find out where the evidence points. In this case, sixty seconds’ worth of recorded audio would have been enough.

If the inquiry did suggest that the candidate had a bad history, that would not necessarily be the kiss of death. Ministry is a special profession. From Bible times forward, some of the best Christians have been those who found redemption. If you took repentance seriously, you could ask what the candidate has done to demonstrate sincere regret for his/her past misbehavior and a desire to set things right and to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It would be especially appropriate to make such inquiries where there is a history of domestic difficulties: 1 Timothy chapter 3 recommends choosing bishops and deacons “of good behavior” and proven ability to build a family.

The seminary and the UMC had great power to avert a potential tragedy in Meg’s congregation. I would say the same, for me personally, about some members of Meg’s family. I think they had information that would have helped me to avoid the long-term disaster of marrying her. But, like the seminary and the UMC, they shirked any responsibility for notifying me. To the contrary, they were actually offended when I noticed some relevant family issues, and invited them to discuss those issues with me.

It is not clear why the seminary and the UMC would fail to make concerted efforts to choose appropriate candidates. This is not an era when everyone can trust that ministers will be free from sin. To the contrary, we have been living in a time of backlash against clerical misbehavior. While sexual abuse of children has been the dominant theme in recent years, we have also seen many exposés of other forms of ministerial hypocrisy, including extramarital affairs. One would expect that seminaries and denominations, wishing to avoid potential liability and to defend their reputations, would take common-sense steps, documenting reasonably diligent efforts to verify basic moral suitability in the people being admitted into M.Div. programs and ordained as ministers.

Beyond that, it does not take a graduate degree in theology to grasp the essentials of Christian faith. In this case, a simple inquiry, at the time of application to seminary or for ordination, would have raised a serious question of whether the applicant had an appropriate grasp of the repentance necessary for salvation. It would be rather negligent to make a minister out of a person who was apparently not even a Christian, by your own definition of the term. Doing so might say that you have more faith in that applicant’s tuition dollars than in your verbiage about ministry.

This case suggests that the seminary and the UMC did not make reasonable efforts to determine that their future ministers would meet criteria suggested by the Bible and common sense. They appear to have functioned as enablers, in the sense provided by Wikipedia: they followed procedures that perpetuated and perhaps even exacerbated a preexisting problem — procedures “that make accommodations for a person’s harmful conduct.”

As a result, the congregation was harmed, to the extent that the seminary and the UMC did not provide vitally important and easily acquired information on Meg’s suitability as a minister. I was harmed: those institutions gave Meg a status from which she was able to broadcast, and be believed in, her false statements about me. Others affected by her ministry may have been harmed, in ways we will never know. And Meg herself was harmed. If the seminary had discovered her unrepentant attitude toward me circa 2007, she could have been appropriately redirected to a career (in e.g., social work, community organizing, or public administration) consistent with her glaring lack of interest in religious practice and her long-term preoccupation with social issues — where, incidentally, she might have enjoyed a far greater potential financial upside.


In this post, I have examined certain matters related to my divorce in 2002. The focus here is upon the topic of repentance, as it pertains to behavioral patterns that came to light at the time of our divorce and that seem to have recurred in Meg’s ministry in Columbia, MO. This post advances the view that it is advisable to repent of — that is, to take to heart, learn from, and make amends for — the errors leading up to, and the harm resulting from, major personal mistakes.

The foregoing discussion suggests that our divorce provided an important learning opportunity. Among other things, it seems Meg would have delivered a very different sermon on Good Sex, and might even be a better wife in her second marriage, if she had genuinely repented for so grossly abusing her first one. It does appear that she learned very little from that prior experience. It’s not just that we see her, more than a decade later, continuing to believe that a sexual relationship predictably goes downhill after the first year. It’s that maybe there’s something else at work — that perhaps her loss of interest is not sex-specific, but would instead be repeated in the arc of her rising and falling commitment to the homeless center.

Repentance leading to honest dialogue with me, either before or after the divorce, might have been good preparation for ministry. It might have taught Meg something about keeping people informed, and about working with them rather than against them. Despite my own openness and my frequent inquiries as to whether she was happy, and whether there was anything we needed to talk about, she apparently believed that her only option was to keep sweeping things under the rug. That failed catastrophically. I regret that I was not more effective in breaking through her phony “niceness” (see Russell, 1957, p. 148). In the end, this “nice” minister bears false witness against me, just as she blames those who left her church for being “resistant to change.” Somehow, she still does not seem to take to heart the disasters she causes.

Rolling over people like an army tank, and then criticizing them for being in the way, is not the behavior of an individual who has felt shame for her past acts, and who wants to make things right. Refusal to learn from huge errors is not the behavior of a person qualified to lead others in wise living.

The materials in this post suggest that Meg has not yet become acquainted with the experience of real repentance. If that impression is correct, it appears she has not achieved the salvation of which Jesus spoke; and that would entail the conclusion that her ordination is not legitimate. I realize that a liberal church like the UMC is very unlikely to take its own alleged principles so seriously as to reach any such conclusion. But one can hope. Perhaps it will “repent” of this behavior, too — maybe 50 or 100 years from now, with a nice booklet that congregations can use in study sessions.

I would think that perceptions of quality would be important in attracting members, and there are reasons to think that repentance is crucial for quality control in Christian ministry. But until UMC recognizes that it has been negligent in this regard, ministers who need guidance and parameters, as Meg did, will be left to find their own way. In other words, if failure to own up to one’s current mistakes suggests an absence of repentance for the individual, perhaps it suggests the same for the denomination.

* * * * *

Postscript (6/10/2017): when or if I ever receive a reply from Meg or the UMC, I will post an update here. So far, six months later, I have heard nothing in response to any of this.

Taking Ministry Seriously, with Humility

I started first grade in 1961, in a one-room elementary school just down the road from our home in rural Indiana, as the child of a housewife and a railroad worker. The teacher, and the preacher in the Lutheran church supporting that school, were the first professionals whose work became familiar to me. When Mr. Gemmer, the teacher, would ask the two dozen (or so) kids in our eight grades how many of us wanted to become teachers, a majority of hands went up. Mine was among them.

In 1967, the school closed and Mr. Gemmer went away. I finished my primary and secondary education in public schools. In the last two years of high school, I became involved in the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s. During my senior year especially, a group of perhaps 15 students, participating in our school’s prayer group, generated an environment of caring and companionship that I have never forgotten.

At times during my junior and/or senior year in high school, I taught Sunday School in the Lutheran church next door, worked as the president of that church’s youth group, and served as an office assistant to the minister, Rev. Hillmer. In my private religious practice at that time, I was studying the Bible intensively, memorizing substantial pieces of it verbatim, fasting (for one or more days at a stretch), speaking in tongues, praying at length, and wrestling with the real or imagined demons of the pentecostal worldview pervading our portion of the Christian life.

These experiences gave me a foundation of religious conviction as well as some minor exposure to leadership, in those roles as Bible teacher, informal prayer group leader, and elected leader of the youth group at the Lutheran church. Through my encounters with Rev. Hillmer, I began to see that it could make sense to pursue a career in the ministry. That was the basis on which I decided to attend college rather than just study my Bible and await the Second Coming of Christ, which I understood was imminent. In fall 1973, I became a pre-ministry student at Concordia Lutheran Junior College in Ann Arbor, MI.

In their work at that time and in years to come, Rev. Hillmer and Mr. Gemmer embodied the faith of the committed Christian. I did not find, in their Lutheran church, the drama and intensity of our prayer group and of other Christian worship and practice in the Jesus Movement. But there was no question of their sincerity and devotion to the Christian faith.

It appeared that such devotion likewise motivated many of the professors at Concordia. By contrast, my pre-ministerial classmates were more of a mixed bag. Some did go on to become ministers, but others visibly lacked the kind of personal religious commitment that would motivate them to be vigilant against the Devil and to strive to expel sinful thoughts and acts from their lives. Frankly, in some cases I saw no real difference between these would-be future ministers and the completely secular young people I had known in high school. For instance, I wasn’t surprised that a first-year college student would want to have a female student climbing in his window at night; I was just surprised that he would want to be enrolled in a conservative religious college, much less a pre-ministerial program.

My own future as a minister did not pan out, but for a different reason. What waylaid me was not the temptations of the rich life, but rather the intellectual problems of faith. As described in another post, I discovered that things I had been taught and/or had assumed about the Bible and about Truth were not necessarily so. Starting during my year at Concordia, and with increasing intensity over the next two years, I struggled, sometimes rather desperately, to find a way to continue in the faith or, if necessary, to be certain that leaving it was the right thing to do.

I was not always alone during those years, but that was an extraordinarily lonely experience. It seemed like nobody else among my acquaintances wrestled with this sort of thing. It was as if I were somehow required to endure my own version of what Martin Luther had endured more than 450 years earlier, when he rejected the religious orthodoxy of his time with the famous words, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.” Luther’s drama might seem overblown to some; but in fact that moment, as much as any, heralded more than a hundred years of religious war that would rage across Europe.

As such, that moment may have more current relevance than meets the eye. Because — to move quickly through the subsequent years — what happened next in my own life was that I drifted some distance away from conservative Christian practice and belief. I became a philosophy major and then moved to New York City, married a Jewish woman, and became a lawyer. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, I watched scornfully as Christian conservatives confronted sex scandals in their midst, including adultery by famous ministers (e.g., Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker) and sexual abuse of minors, as well as fraud within churches. To me, such developments vindicated my hard-won realization that wanting to believe something does not make it so. If it’s not the cold, hard truth, then you have no business dragging God into it. He did not create your problems, and he is not likely to fix them for you.

I say that Martin Luther’s line in the sand has contemporary impact because now, in this U.S. presidential election season of fall 2016, we are seeing a quasi-religious confrontation among true believers reminiscent of Luther’s 16th century.

There was a time, in my years as a lawyer and, later, as a student of social work, when I could join liberal America in smug agreement with St. Paul’s words to the church in Corinth, “Few of you were wise in the world’s eyes . . . when God called you.” In other words, religious rigidity tends not to be very compatible with worldly concepts of intelligence; smart people tend to remain skeptical. My own experience persuaded me that people committed to finding truth will realize that the Bible is not what believers want it to be.

But I failed to take account of what happened next. Luther’s followers became as legalistic and dogmatic in their beliefs as the Catholics ever were — and now, as if to follow their example, liberal America has likewise departed from a commitment to truth, however unpleasant it may sometimes be, and is preferring instead to take a perverse pride in the sometimes destructive poses that it adopts on behalf of its self-appointed crusades. Like the Lutheran armies inflicting death on fellow Christians, supposedly in the name of a God of love, today’s liberal opinionmakers too often use their purportedly truth-oriented occupations — in academia, in journalism, and, yes, in liberal churches — to promote their preferred beliefs, distorting reality to win arguments. Such behavior recalls, all too clearly, the deplorable conservative habit of lying for the Lord.

In this 2016 presidential election season especially, I have been appalled at the supposedly educated liberals who evidently lack the capacity to think critically about their chosen dogma. In conversation after conversation, I have seen the kind of extremely partisan thinking that insists it is right every time, about every issue. That is not the mentality of a thoughtful person. And it comes out in public displays. Consider, for instance, the conflict between the New York Times‘s self-perception as a national “paper of record” and the palpable fact that the Times is grossly partisan, or the contrast between Hillary Clinton’s stated desire to bring Americans together and her claim that “you could put half of [Donald] Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” Regardless of my own dislike for Donald Trump, these are not the behaviors of people who care enough about truth to have learned that it quickly departs from those who claim to own it. In the words of The Guardian (Mallaby, 2016), the privileged class “has never been so dangerously isolated from its surroundings . . . . its arrogance enhanced by the conviction that its privilege reflects brains and accomplishment, not luck and inheritance.”

Unfortunately, I have experienced this deadly liberal arrogance about the truth in my own life and career. In other blog posts, I have described, for instance, the corruption of procedures for fairly resolving grievances in the very heart of the liberal enterprise, in master’s and PhD programs at the universities of Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, and Arkansas. As documented in those linked webpages, the professors and administrators responsible for that corruption tend to prioritize other things over the truthseeking that society has traditionally expected from its intellectuals. Today’s university ambiance favors those who will readily sacrifice principle for self-advancement, so for the most part this corruption has become a de facto element of university ethics. In some cases, truth is disregarded, not only where it is inconvenient, but also where it would interfere with the gratification of power — with, that is, the latitude to abuse those who cannot protect themselves. Such sadism is perhaps most notorious in the university’s treatment of graduate students, but it also emerges in abuse of junior faculty and, in many ways, of the public trust.

To recap, earlier paragraphs in this post explain that I was dismayed to encounter instances of false faith among conservative Christian ministers, and these last several paragraphs explain that I have been, if anything, even more dismayed to see that false faith is rife among the alleged truths with which liberal Christians and nonbelievers confront the conservative believer. Yes, there are many problems with claims based on or implied by the words of the Bible. But, these days, those who claim to prioritize reason over faith are not championing a consistently superior worldview. Yes, to cite one example among many, they do far better with their medical machines than the believers do with prayer. But that is merely an argument that certain matters are best left to science. One can just as easily retort that other matters, including some very important ones (e.g., faithfulness; generosity; the richness of present-moment experience) tend to be better left to a worldview that does not glorify selfish individualism above all else — a worldview, that is, that prioritizes, not the corruptible pursuit of personal advancement, but rather an unselfish commitment to the well-being of one’s community or, possibly, the expectations of one’s God.

It is easy to assume that you know the truth and that others do not. But how can you be so sure? Those who have attempted the philosophical and/or psychological study of what we know, and how we can be sure we know it, are likely to affirm that such questions are vastly more difficult than one might expect. In fact, human beings tend not to have simple and clear knowledge of things. Learning this about oneself is essential, if one is to be well educated.

It is regrettable that colleges and universities are so frequently failing to introduce students to those fundamental insights. Their failure leaves us with the spectacle of this year’s election contest, in which Americans seem more partisan and less truthseeking than ever before — where one can observe, as just discussed, that the supposedly smarter and more reasonable liberals remain unable and/or unwilling to grasp and respond effectively to conservative concerns.

But even if the universities are no longer reliably able to teach students what truth is like, at least the schools of religion should do so. The person who claims to have the answers, thanks to his/her own liberal intellect or conservative interpretation of selected Bible passages — the person who simplemindedly rejects the knowledge, intelligence, experience, and sincerity of those who disagree with him/her — may lack a basic sense of perspective on the breadth and complexity of life. Such a person does not seem a likely candidate for a divine calling.

About Christians Losing the Culture War

I have recently encountered several articles in which Christian writers talk about losing the culture war. This post focuses on a prominent example: an article in Time by Mary Eberstadt titled “Regular Christians Are No Longer Welcome in American Culture.” Eberstadt is promoting her book and, as this post demonstrates, she peddles falsehoods to excite the persecution narrative and stimulate sales.

I felt that Eberstadt’s title started off a bit strangely. What, exactly, is a “regular Christian”? Her article said she was referring to “American Christians who lean in toward traditionalism,” and she immediately restated that as “Traditional American Christians.”

But what is “traditional”? The answer is, it depends. For example, according to, Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams in 1636 as a religious sanctuary against “the orthodoxy of New England Puritanism.” It seems the Puritans were the original “traditional American Christians.” But a funny thing has happened since then: they have pretty much vanished, being remembered nowadays as just one source upon which other Christian denominations draw.

Today, Baptists and Catholics would surely be considered “traditional American Christians” — and yet these were actually among the nontraditional types rejected by the Puritans. In this regard, Eberstadt made the mistake, common in Christian writing, of ignoring the history of her own religion. What was traditional in the 1600s is gone now; what is traditional now will probably be gone some day. That’s how it works. We don’t speak Middle English anymore; we don’t live in log cabins. Times change. The Baptists and the Catholics found a place in New England precisely because someone spoke up for those who were not the traditional American Christians of that time and place — just as Jesus did for the outcasts of his day.

As just noted, Eberstadt implies that the “Traditional American Christian” is a person who “leans in toward traditionalism.” But that’s not necessarily true. The Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians — these are among today’s mainstream, traditional Christian denominations in the United States. But being a traditional American Christian in that sense does not necessarily make a person a traditionalist in daily life. Among the members of those denominations, you don’t see much interest in, say, a Mormon-style emphasis on modest, traditional clothing. Nor do the teachings of the mainstream denominations necessarily result in mainstream beliefs among their members. Churchgoers often say they listen to the sermon, but don’t necessarily agree with everything in it. Silver (2013) offers research on atheists who attend churches for reasons of family, social connections, and church-related activities. From the Lutherans to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christianity’s thousands (some say tens of thousands) of denominations and sects exist because of the fact dramatized in the “West Wing” TV show: people feel entitled to pick and choose Bible passages, emphasizing those they like, and ignoring (or inventing alternate interpretations for) those they dislike.

Eberstadt is herself an example of this nontraditionalism among people who might claim to be traditional Christians. According to Family Life (Rainey, 2002), Eberstadt’s role as a married woman is supposed to be as follows:

  1. Be a helper to your husband.
  2. Respect your husband.
  3. Love your husband.
  4. Submit to the leadership of your husband.

Supporting such conclusions, Family Life quotes numerous Bible passages, starting with Genesis 2:18, in which God’s stated purpose in creating woman was “to make a ‘helper suitable for'” the man. But that is a gentle way of putting it. Valerie Tarico cites the Bible as the foundation upon which traditional theologians described woman as “the devil’s gateway” (Tertullian) and “an instrument of death leading to all perdition” and that this is “why today she is placed below and that she bears within her ignominy and shame” (Calvin). Tarico further cites Bible passages stating that a wife is a man’s property; a daughter can be sold, and a raped daughter can be sold to her rapist; menstruating women are spiritually unclean; and so forth.

Eberstadt is no doubt a good person in many ways. But her concept of tradition depends on the selective, self-serving style of interpretation commonly taught in Bible study. One hopes that, somewhere in her writings, she has honestly admitted that, historically speaking, she is a liberal, not traditional at all — that, traditionally, she would not be voting, would not be telling men what to think, and would not have had an opportunity for higher education. She apparently wants to wrap herself in the mantle of tradition, without doing the hard work of actually returning to where tradition has historically kept women, in this country and elsewhere.

So I think what Eberstadt really means is not “traditional” but rather “conservative.” She doesn’t seem dedicated to a return to traditional ways. She just prefers a go-slow approach. And that is not necessarily bad. There will always be a tension between those who leap at opportunities and those who urge us to look before we leap. The leapers and the lookers can produce a beneficial balance. But this doesn’t make either superior. There are risks and advantages in both directions. Some people are rich or successful because they were careful; some are poor or unsuccessful for the same reason.

Conservatism is particularly interesting in Eberstadt’s “culture war” context. Let us be clear: Christians of her type are not suddenly losing a culture war. The more accurate statement is that they are always losing the culture war, because they are always fearfully clinging onto past ways, afraid of losing the advantages that they have enjoyed as established members of a dominant community, looking down on minorities and outsiders. Conservative churches are often depicted (and in many cases deserve to be depicted) as narrowminded, hypocritical, judgmental places where “our type” of people pat each other on the back for helping to preserve their own advantages and fantasies.

Slavery is an example. As conservatives — that is, usually following rather than leading social, political, and economic trends — Christians have a history of widely accepting and supporting slavery. As another example, for some reason, “Thou shalt not kill” has not resonated against the wars, murders, and other horrific crimes recorded in the Bible and practiced by Christians down through the centuries.

But, whoa, same-sex marriage! Now that is evil. More to the point, it is a new thing and, to a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, that tends to mean it’s probably bad. Again, it’s not that the knee-jerk conservative reaction is intrinsically wrong; it’s that many conservatives don’t seem to want to stop and think about their own habit of stopping and thinking. Let’s just pull the brakes on everything, and then be dragged into it anyway, kicking and screaming and feeling wronged. Consider the criteria by which Wheaton College decided who would be eligible to join its faculty in the 1920s (Cole, 2008, pp. 252-253):

To prospective instructors a questionnaire is submitted bearing such interrogations as . . . “Do you dance, play cards, attend theatres, attend movies, or associate with worldly people in other amusements such as are indicated above?”

We, today, might find this absolutely bizarre — that God forgot to put in the Bible that he did not want people to play solitaire or even watch movies about Jesus. And yet that was the conservative Christian mindset a hundred years ago — culminating in (among other things) the disastrous social experiment known as Prohibition. Not that anything was learned from that fiasco: conservatives needed to inflict it upon us again, once again at enormous cost to lives and nation, in the mindless War on Drugs. This is where conservatism becomes most dangerous: when it radically departs from tradition, in pursuit of a harsh and unrealistic dream.

Gay marriage is relatively new; we did not have it when the Constitution was written, 200+ years ago. But then, we did not have bicycles 200 years ago either. When the newfangled bicycle contraption did come into existence, it remained in the legal shadows: for seventy years, according to Wikipedia, cyclists were given “no legal right to use the roads or walkways.” In other words, the gay movement itself only started in the 1960s. We had gay people; we had marriage; we had gay people who wanted to marry. We just didn’t have a political environment in which that desire could be taken seriously. The question did not previously have political force. Now is the first time when it has become a real possibility on a national level. There is no golden past to go back to, other than the centuries when supposedly respectable Christians were comfortable with an arrangement in which gay people had to lie about who they were and what they wanted.

There is no legal right to force gays to endure a substandard existence. That’s what the courts have decided, now that the question has been squarely presented for consideration. But the more shocking fact is that there is no religious right to do that either. A growing number of mainline Christian denominations have concluded that the matter is not so simple. For one thing, if homosexuality were so terribly important, why would Jesus overlook it? In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said nary a word about homosexuality, but had strong words against adultery and divorce. Much the same is true throughout the Bible. So why aren’t Christians distinguishing themselves with a principled demand for laws forbidding adulterers or divorcees to remarry? Because that would be unpopular. Frankly speaking, it would cut too close to the collection plate.

Christianity purports to be following in Christ’s footsteps. But in fact it often does the opposite. Just like the Jews of Jesus’s time, so-called Christians like Eberstadt reject his concept of Messiah. In both cases, it was because he came as a savior, not as a conqueror. Specifically, Eberstadt wants victory in the cultural war. She cites abortion as an area in which Christians are losing. And yet what kind of “Christian” would be involved in such a struggle? Abortion was a reality in ancient Rome. Jesus himself was a survivor of Herod’s notorious Massacre of the Innocents. Jesus was eminently qualified and able to make abortion a big issue, if he considered it one. He didn’t. The abortion fight gets people upset and excited, but it doesn’t make them the least bit Christlike. Others have been trying to tell them this for the past forty years. But they just haven’t wanted to hear it. Being Christlike is not their priority; they would rather fight and attack people than seek the truth. And so we follow this twisted path to Eberstadt’s complaint about losing the culture war — to which the schoolyard retort is quite apt: if you can’t finish it, don’t start it. Stop inventing reasons to pick on people. Mind your own business. Or as Jesus put it, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Eberstadt cites “school prayer” as another front on which today’s alleged Christians are losing the cultural war. Some want to force kids of all denominations to pray together in public schools. The underlying fantasy appears to be that most Americans are Christians and, as such, are apt to construe prayer in approximately the same way. If that fantasy had any truth to it, we would see those schoolkids’ Catholic and Protestant parents praying together in their churches. These people want to bully teachers and school administrators into achieving an ideal unity that they, themselves, do not even hope to achieve. And so Eberstadt would return us to the mindset of the Dark Ages: if you can’t persuade the Jews, Muslims, pagans, and agnostics through the strength of your ideas, then hammer them with the force of your laws. Forward to the Crusades!

Alternately, there is the quest for voluntary school prayer opportunities — “voluntary” in the sense that the kids will supposedly not be browbeaten into participating in it when, in point of fact, their parents are being forced to accept it. Once again, we have a muscular, coercive, conquering concept of Christian faith that involves shoving one’s beliefs down another person’s throat. It is more the mentality of the Spanish Inquisition than of the New Testament. People who are mindful of the religion’s history can plainly see that such efforts besmirch the name of the God who gets dragged into it. But people who are willing to see the religion’s history in that light are not likely to remain within it. The ones who are left seem, too often, to be those who don’t want to know the truth.

Eberstadt’s article contains a remarkable number of borderline and just plain false statements. An example of the latter: “Religious expression is under attack,” she says, because of recent events, “including the Supreme Court decision overruling Texas’ restrictions on abortion clinics.” That Supreme Court decision had nothing to do with religious expression. According to Fox News, conservatives criticized that decision on grounds that it “erodes States’ lawmaking authority to safeguard the health and safety of women and subjects more innocent life to being lost” (quoting Texas Governor Greg Abbott). There is not a single reference to “expression” in that Fox News writeup of the Supreme Court decision, nor in the writeup offered by the conservative Wall Street Journal.

Eberstadt complains that people like her can no longer count on receiving “civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs.” That complaint is disingenuous. What are a Christian’s most-cherished beliefs? A search leads to such topics as the deity of Christ, his resurrection, and salvation by grace. Eberstadt’s article is not about anything of the sort. Instead, she offers the example of a teacher in New Jersey who was suspended for giving a student a Bible. She doesn’t mention that the act violated a school policy against distributing religious literature on school grounds. (If necessary, think “Koran” or “porn” or “hand grenade,” instead of “Bible,” to be reminded of why a school district might try to discourage teachers from creating unnecessary controversies involving middle-school students and their parents.) In other words, there are multiple problems with Eberstadt’s example: it’s not about uncivil remarks, nor about anyone’s “most-cherished beliefs”; it is not a deliberate suppression of Christianity (suspension would have been equally appropriate for an atheist teacher giving a student a leaflet attacking the Bible); and all of these facts are left unmentioned, in hopes of tricking Eberstadt’s reader into believing something that is not true.

Eberstadt wants to bemoan the disappearance of “civil criticism” among those who question her beliefs. Let me offer a clue: lying for the Lord is not going to promote the desired civility. She is jumping into combat on some of the nation’s most contentious issues; she is firing at the enemy — sometimes making statements that, as shown here, are downright nonsense — and then she is complaining that the enemy shoots back. If Eberstadt were to completely rewrite her piece in a spirit of Christian humility, with a visible commitment to be honest and fair in her remarks about her own beliefs and those of others, then (a) Time probably wouldn’t publish it, because it wouldn’t contain all this posturing on behalf of the self-styled righteous, and (b) on the other hand, readers not similarly minded might find it more difficult to dismiss her as one more phony self-congratulator.

Eberstadt admits the great difference between “the horrors of ISIS-led genocide against Christians in the Middle East and what Pope Francis calls the ‘polite persecution’ of believers in the West.” Regrettably, she goes on to muddle that with a complaint that “some American citizens are fearful of expressing their religious views.” Well, yes, and some people are fearful of leaving their bedrooms. The fact of fear does not demonstrate the existence of a genuine threat. When 63% of us are absolutely certain God exists and an overwhelming 77% describe themselves as religiously affiliated (to cite the numbers quoted in her article), it is doubtful that most American Christians experience anywhere near the persecution experienced by American atheists (~3% of Americans). Moreover, among Christians who do fear ridicule, some deserve it: to varying degrees Christians themselves ridicule others.

Simply put, Christian belief per se is not being widely persecuted, politely or otherwise. What Eberstadt characterizes as persecution seems, for the most part, to be just the logical elimination of theories that do not stand up to scrutiny. There certainly are reasons why an intelligent person would doubt Christianity. It has had its share of high-profile fakes and frauds. It makes excessive and false claims about itself. When your religion conflates its most solemn holy events with the Easter Bunny and with one of ancient Rome’s biggest party times, you can expect people to wonder whether it is for real.

Eberstadt offers a separate set of examples in support of her claim that “Some Christian institutions face pressure to conform to secularist ideology.” But that’s America. It is a secularist nation. We have never had a state religion. At times, the secular state and the religious preference are going to conflict. At those times, the secular state will tend to prevail, because the country does not exist to serve the religion. As a different example, some Jewish people treat the U.S. as if its purpose were to serve Israel. As with Eberstadt, their wish is not reality, nor should it be.

She offers the example of Gordon College, which came under fire for policies that seemed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. So, OK, let us review: you aren’t supposed to discriminate in America. We are all supposed to be equals here. Christians may not like it — they may want to shove the gays back into the dark — but fortunately their attitudes do not control the law of this land. Even so, on the particular issues in the Gordon case, a Christian lawyer’s analysis concludes that Gordon’s position has enjoyed the support of law, right up to the Supreme Court. That hardly points toward what Eberstadt decries as “an insidious intolerance for religion.” Another article suggests that, in fact, it is the school’s LGBT students “who feel they can’t say anything out of fear about what that will do to their college experience.”

In America, Christians have enjoyed virtually limitless opportunities to organize their practices, research their claims, market their views, and attack their opponents. After all that, if they still cannot achieve anything like the growing popularity of the first-century Christian movement that began with Jesus, it is fair to suggest that perhaps they are not really very much in touch with Jesus after all. In that case, Jesus made clear what he would say to such people: “I never knew you. Depart from me!” As the Matthew Henry commentary says about that,

Christ here shows that it will not be enough to own him for our Master, only in word and tongue. It is necessary to our happiness that we believe in Christ, that we repent of sin, that we live a holy life, that we love one another.

This article demonstrates the falsehood of arguments by which Mary Eberstadt tries to engage would-be Christians in fights that detract from the message of Christ. Replace people like Eberstadt with genuinely Christ-seeking writers who are committed to finding the truth, humble about what they know, and loving of others, and then let us revisit the questions of whether there is really a problem of religious intolerance in today’s America, and of whether followers of Christ should be jumping into a war to control the nation’s culture.

The Failure of Philosophy on the Big Questions

Philosophy is commonly associated with the big questions of life. For example, a Google search leads to a number of books, articles, and other materials linking philosophers with such questions. The question here is, does philosophy deserve that association?

What Are the Big Questions?

Granted, people may differ on what they consider most important at any moment. If your boat is sinking in the middle of the ocean, your big questions may include “Can we plug the hole?” and “Is there a life raft?” But under ordinary circumstances, lists of really grand questions in life tend to be short and similar, from one source to another. Here, for example, are the topics listed in the contents of a book by Solomon and Higgins (2013):

  • The meaning of life
  • God
  • The nature of reality
  • The search for the truth
  • Self
  • Freedom
  • Morality and the good life

Similarly, the table of contents from a book by Sample, Mills, and Sterba (2004) lists these as “the big questions”:

  • What can we know?
  • What can we know about the nature and existence of God?
  • Are we ever free?
  • Does our existence have a meaning or purpose?
  • How should we live?

Blackburn (2013) phrases similar concerns in somewhat different terms (and adds some that may be better answered by scientists than by philosophers):

  • Am I a ghost in a machine?
  • What is human nature?
  • Am I free?
  • What do we know?
  • Are we rational animals?
  • How can I lie to myself?
  • Is there such a thing as society?
  • Can we understand each other?
  • Can machines think?
  • Why be good?
  • Is it all relative?
  • Does time go by?
  • Why do things keep on keeping on?
  • Why is there something and not nothing?
  • What fills up space?
  • What is beauty?
  • Do we need God?
  • What is it all for?
  • What are my rights?
  • Is death to be feared?

There is not terribly much difference among those lists. A student, assigned to boil them down into the Top Ten Issues, might mention something like existence and nonexistence, reality and knowledge, consciousness and beauty, goodness and freedom, and God and the universe.

How Is Philosophy Doing on the Big Questions?

Imagine a world in which contemporary philosophers had arrived at answers to the big questions, and were effectively communicating those answers to the college students sitting in their classes. In such a world, the self-help sections in bookstores (and the self-help websites online) would probably be much fewer, smaller, and less popular. Religious nuts, spouting nonsense, would get nowhere with a public familiar with philosophy’s answers to the big questions. Politicians would be philosopher-kings, succeeding only to the extent that they could engage educated listeners with reasoned defenses of their preferred views on those questions.

Sad to say, the train went off the tracks somewhere. Self-help has long been a booming business. Religion and politics are the jokes that rule us. Hardly anybody thinks that philosophy, of the type taught in universities, has much relevance to the real world. Yes, a few times per century, some philosopher exerts far-reaching albeit gradual influence upon society; and yes, within other fields of knowledge, there is the occasional intellectual who understands philosophers’ insights, and applies them to his/her own work. But those are exceptions that prove the rule. There is an enormous contrast between what could be happening, as illustrated in those exceptions, and what is actually happening in the overwhelming bulk of philosophical study and writing.

As a practical matter, philosophers have long been pulling a bait-and-switch — holding out the promise of useful education, so as to get people to take their classes and buy their books, but then disappointing generation after generation of students with extremely complex texts that, very often, degenerate into hairsplitting trivia. Students can certainly pick up some ideas, and some familiarity with forms of intellectual debate, that may be useful in their future careers in other fields — although there are no guarantees, as philosophical discussion and reasoning can be very alien to the working world.

The point here is not that philosophy is a complete waste of time. It is that philosophy is a failure for purposes of providing answers to the big questions.

It is not that philosophers have not tried to answer the big questions. It is that, as we learn in philosophy class, every answer has its assumptions, its limits, its weaknesses. The real bait-and-switch is that, with few exceptions, those complex and trivial texts build to a single conclusion: there are not really any answers to the big questions. There are only unsatisfactory ways of attempting to provide such answers.

I do believe that that conclusion is correct — that the philosophers have not been lying to us, that for the most part there truly are no completely satisfactory answers to the big questions. Then again, that is precisely what someone like me would believe — someone who has followed the occasional philosophical debate far enough to arrive at the conclusions expressed in the preceding paragraph. With the aid of a bit of background reading, I, or someone like me, could probably poke holes in just about any big answer that someone might suggest. Persons with this kind of education tend to function as skeptics toward the very notion that there might actually be a useful answer to a big question.

Here’s an example. Take the first topic on the first of those three lists (above): the meaning of life. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “the meaning of life” says that that topic has interested philosophers since the time of Aristotle. But that entry also says that, somehow, “it is only in the last 30 years that debate with real depth has appeared.” How is that possible? Nor has that deeper contemporary debate led anywhere in particular. The encyclopedia entry suggests that — consistent with philosophy’s established track record — it has yielded, not answers, but rather more questions:

When the topic of the meaning of life comes up, people often pose one of two questions: “So, what is the meaning of life?” and “What are you talking about?”

The entry goes on to state that some people have debated the meaning of life’s “meaning” — but this, too, has not yielded definitive insight:

If talk about meaning in life is not by definition talk about happiness or rightness, then what is it about? There is as yet no consensus in the field.

In further discussion, the entry indicates that some philosophers ascribe meaning to life as it relates to God, while others prefer a sense of life’s meaning that relates in some way to one’s eternal soul. Still others focus on life’s meaning in non-supernatural terms, having to do with either the subjective individual perspective or something else, external to us, that confers meaning upon life regardless of subjective mental state. Finally, there are nihilist or pessimistic perspectives, in which “what would make a life meaningful either cannot obtain or as a matter of fact simply never does.”

So there you are. There, in a nutshell, is philosophy’s answer to the question of the meaning of life. The answer is, it depends on which philosopher you agree with. Very helpful. That and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee.

The true state of affairs is not that philosophy grapples with the big questions in a serious and responsible way. The true state of affairs is that, in the words of a New York Times article, philosophy suffers from “an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.”

Certainly there are people who enjoy philosophizing for its own sake, sitting around and batting ideas back and forth. For that sort of person, big questions can actually be unrewarding, as they tend to involve messy combinations of fact and feeling. Indeed, most important questions in life are like that. When you have a real-life problem, you might entertain various abstract notions, but at the end of the day you need a practical answer.

Suppose, as a relatively simple example, that you’re trying to decide whether to adopt a child. That’s not one of the big questions. But it illustrates a kind of situation in which someone does have a burning need for an answer. It’s not something that you can futz around with for years, and in the end just shrug and say, “Well, I guess there are no absolutely right or wrong answers.” People who bring personal interest and immediate need to the big questions are not wanting someone to diddle them for a while. They are wanting workable conclusions to inform their lives. And the need can be urgent — in the case of someone who is losing his/her religion, for example; in the case of someone considering suicide, or struggling with deep personal loss.

Philosophy tends to provide everything except that sort of working conclusion. In that sense, the bait-and-switch description may not be quite right; perhaps the better characterization is that philosophy is a subterfuge, a means of identifying the people who are most likely to seek out and live by specific answers to big questions, and persuading them that it is silly or at least unrealistic to seek such answers. Philosophy is, indeed, a debilitating subterfuge, insofar as its study tends not even to equip the student with a sophisticated alternative. Most students will not clearly and permanently digest and remember what the philosophers have actually said on a specific question. Instead, what the students tend to retain is a general belief that there is probably some good reason why any attempted answer to such a question is flawed and should be ignored.

If the student ever does arrive at a point in life where s/he needs real answers to big questions, s/he is likely to be found in the self-help aisle, or looking into the words of various physical and social scientists or religious leaders — more or less as s/he would have done if s/he had never read a word of philosophy. In the works of those self-help, scientific, and religious writers, the student may encounter references to various philosophers, and may once again be reminded that philosophy claims to be at the root of the big questions; but for the most part such references will be historical in nature. They will be reminders that, if you want to pretend to wrestle with big questions, you should consider wasting a few years in philosophy classes.

Philosophy vs. Metaphilosophy

Philosophy used to be done by people like Plato and Aristotle, who would try to articulate relatively straightforward solutions to big questions. But then readers noticed problems with the way that Plato et al. formulated or answered such questions. Over time, it developed that reasoned approaches to grand philosophical questions were invariably problematic. There was always some devil lurking in the details. Thus philosophy became more of a historical affair, like the history of the Roman Empire or of ancient Christianity, in which the early deeds of great leaders gradually devolved into the baffled and increasingly ineffectual scrabblings of minor devotees. At a certain point, attempting to get an overview of all that material, you grasp that it is essentially a history lesson — and perhaps an unnecessarily complicated one at that — and you move on, in search of better alternatives.

We see, in other words, that philosophy as currently taught in college courses, and as conveyed in books about philosophy, is a largely bloodless affair, conducted by people with no skin in the game. Is there a God? Maybe, maybe not — but it’s not something that this sort of philosopher will lose any sleep over. It is an activity in which the dominant voice is that of the spectator, sitting back and watching what other people have tried to do, in their variously brilliant or foolish struggles with the big questions.

One could characterize such armchair philosophizing as “metaphilosophy.” Officially speaking, “meta” implies self-reference (i.e., about oneself). So — according to Wikipedia and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy — metaphilosophy is philosophizing about philosophy.

But the concept of metaphilosophy has drawn a lukewarm reception. Most philosophers seem to feel that meta questions (e.g., “what is the purpose of philosophy?”) are just a part of philosophy itself. And of course philosophers consider themselves qualified to decide what lies within the proper scope of their professional activities, as do other kinds of professionals (e.g., police officers, generals, prostitutes, politicians). Ironically, though, the claim to possess an accurate overall understanding of philosophy, sufficient to reject the label of metaphilosophy, is just what one would expect from a metaphilosopher.

It does not appear, in fact, that philosophers have a very good grasp of the proper scope of their profession. They have positioned themselves as experts in their field, but not as experts on public need. As experts within their own concept of expertise, they have presumed to dictate what the general public should find interesting, or what the general public should be able to understand. Such positioning amounts to elitism: we will speak to the more intelligent people (i.e., those who are more like us), and leave the others to fend for themselves. Certainly some concepts are difficult to understand. But leaving those unlike us to come up with their own beliefs is, in effect, leaving the door open to liars and quacks — and that, we have discovered, is a great way to undermine public support for philosophical inquiry.

While metaphilosophy is certainly not the ordinary word to describe philosophy professors’ everyday teaching and writing about philosophy, it does seem to be the appropriate word. There are real philosophers, who are motivated to resolve big questions with practicable answers that can make a difference in real lives; and then there are various historians, analysts, and teachers who are content to talk about what the real philosophers are trying to do. Traditionally, both groups are called “philosophers.” But that seems lame, for a profession so oriented toward detecting distinctions. We do not confuse football players with those who merely talk about football, or who record the history of its games. We do not confuse the people who study sex with the people who actually participate in it. Let us likewise cease to confuse philosophers with metaphilosophical teachers and historians.

This is not to deny that the garden-variety teacher of philosophy may consider him/herself — perhaps with good reason — to be a philosopher of the first rank, prevented by circumstance rather than lack of brilliance from changing the world with the things that s/he would publish, given time and funding. The line between direct philosophical practice and indirect metaphilosophizing may be vague, contested, and in flux. Nonetheless, there does seem to be the possibility of a useful distinction between the people, ideas, works, situations, or statements that seem to count as solution-focused engagements with the big questions, and those that do not.

In that light, one might look more carefully at the definition of philosophy. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers a contrast between, on one hand, “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.” and, on the other hand, “a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.” or “a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live.” That contrast amounts to a difference between the general study of ideas offered by various philosophers down through the centuries, suitable for metaphilosophy, and the particular study of an identified set of ideas about a specific issue (e.g., a big question). The former is philosophizing about philosophy — adding the teacher’s or historian’s interpretation on top of what famous philosophers have said — while the latter is the actual practice thereof.

Reconceiving Philosophy as (Especially)
the Pursuit of Answers to Big Questions

It is possible to define teaching to include every instructive activity taken by every crow, dog, and human on the planet. But for purposes of people who are trying to educate small children, the definition of teaching quickly becomes much more narrowly conceived and closely monitored. The same is true of history: there is a difference between logging every random factoid (with or without commentary) and an attempt to provide a concise and readable explanation of what happened in, say, America’s war in Afghanistan. It is neither helpful nor appropriate to indulge the freedoms implied in the broad definition, when circumstances call for an outcome consistent with narrow application.

Likewise in the case of philosophy. The key question (above) is whether the putative philosopher is engaged in the particular study of an identified set of ideas about a big issue. As one moves away from that sort of thing, one appears increasingly likely to be engaged in metaphilosophy — in, that is, classical philosophy’s interminably indecisive dabbling in ideas about ideas, lacking commitment to delivery of working solutions within an appropriate timeframe.

One can belong to various groups; one can share interests with a wide variety of people. It will not be surprising, though, if a philosopher, vitally engaged in the study of a big question, has less in common with metaphilosophers in his/her university department, and more in common with poets, sociologists, and lawyers who have become engaged in some aspect of that same big question. In other words, “philosopher” will no doubt continue to be a term applied carelessly to anyone with a PhD in the field; but, again, for purposes of people seeking useful answers to big questions, there may be a world of difference between real philosophers and abstruse metaphilosophers.

If philosophy is reconceived as the focused pursuit of useful answers to big questions — spinning metaphilosophy off into, perhaps, a subgroup within the university’s departments of history or literature — then it immediately becomes somewhat less appropriate to adjudge philosophy, as a whole, to be a failure with respect to such questions. It also becomes clearer that it is OK if you have not mastered the classic philosophers. Instead, the question may be, how well is this or that contemporary philosopher doing, in his/her up-to-date struggles with the particular big question on which s/he is focused.

Assuming this reconceptualization of philosophy — along with a determined effort to present philosophical findings intelligibly — it could develop that, at some point in the future, philosophy will cease to be a failure with respect to the big questions. That is not to anticipate that philosophers will have all the answers, or that they will have magically ceased to reach conclusions rife with contradiction, error, and impracticality. It is just that, at such a time, their reconceptualized and more tightly focused discipline may at least have bridged part of the gap between what they do and what the world needs from them. Success in this regard may have arrived when the average person seeks guidance from a philosopher — rather than from a minister, astrologer, or self-appointed expert — because the philosopher’s guidance is more palpably based in a superior combination of science, experience, and reasoning, and less dependent upon random opinion.

Next Steps

This article has proposed a distinction between metaphilosophy (understood as the bloodless recounting or analysis of what various philosophers have said) and philosophy (understood as the immediate pursuit of conclusions on big questions within a realistic timeframe). That distinction does not imply that metaphilosophy is worthless. No doubt there are many purposes for which it is well suited. Among other things, the Internet offers tons of material on the history of philosophy, and of course there have been many books as well. Well-known examples include Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and Copleston’s History of Philosophy series.

Under the rubric of applied (a/k/a practical or popular) philosophy, one finds many (and potentially engaging) philosophical investigations of specific issues arising in the daily news. Such investigations span subjects ranging from health care to hate crimes. Here, again, such subjects can readily entail exploration of topics outside philosophy (e.g., law, in the case of hate crimes). One source distinguishes applied philosophy from accessible philosophy, where the latter consists of efforts to present the ideas and/or works of mainstream philosophers in more readily digested form. My own plain-English restatement of Plato’s Republic would be an example. Daniel Fincke and Brendan Myers offer related thoughts and materials. Philosophy Bites appears to be a recognized source of both applied and accessible philosophy.

Yet applied and accessible philosophy seem to be beside the point — the former, because it appears oriented toward small questions, not big ones; and the latter, because it appears to offer only a simplified route to understanding the ways in which philosophy has failed to reach useful conclusions on the big questions. In other words, the situation seems to be that (with or without accessible treatment) either we accept the rationality-based approach of western philosophy and its lack of convincing solutions, or we reject that approach and go with something else instead.

One rejectionist route is that of religion. Religious organizations and thinkers offer answers to big questions. These are not traditionally considered part of philosophy because they draw upon sources of alleged knowledge that are not open to rational analysis. For example, in Christianity, which has been the primary focus of debates on religion and philosophy in Western culture, key beliefs tend to require uncritical acceptance of unverifiable stories, presented in a scriptural book of mixed reliability.

Before turning to religion, the person seeking workable answers to big questions might consider adopting a single school of philosophy and making a go of it, warts and all — concluding (as one must also do in a religion) that the chosen philosophy has its difficulties and its quandaries, but is nonetheless time-tested and worthy for practical purposes. As a start in this direction, one might look at Wikipedia’s lists of Western and Eastern philosophical movements, along with Listverse’s list. Several of the items on those lists (e.g., existentialism, pragmatism, utilitarianism) appear capable of providing guiding principles sufficient to chart a course through many of the big questions. For instance, Koshal (2010, p. 105) construes Rorty’s pragmatism in these words: “[Pragmatism] maintains that unless we take something for granted we shall never settle any question . . . . The [propositions] we should rely on are those for which we have the most evidence for and little or none against.”

Where the chosen philosophy falls short, one might supplement it with eclectic selections from one or more other philosophies. A reasonable objective, in such an approach, might be, not to arrive at a single quasi-religious God’s-eye answer to all questions, but rather to develop conceptualizations that work and make sense for one’s own purposes. Unlike a religious approach, this objective would appear compatible with, and potentially open to, discussion with and learning from people who have adopted other philosophies.

As these suggestions imply, giving up on philosophy as a source of big answers does not necessarily entail giving up on philosophers as sources of good clues. Perhaps one’s personal philosophy is best developed inductively, starting with applied philosophical discussions of specific topics and allowing one’s reading and thinking to grow toward larger hunches and speculations.

It may turn out that there is not, and for the indefinite future there will not be, a single Bible-like compendium of definitive words, straightforwardly answering the big questions in terms satisfactory to a given reader. In that case, the point of this article might be that one need not therefore lurch to the opposite extreme. There may be strategies, oriented toward development of a working personal philosophy responsive to the big questions, that do not necessitate the undergraduate philosophy major’s bewildered stagger through a thicket of bickering eggheads. Ultimately, it is possible that a carefully reconceived profession of philosophy can succeed where today’s multifarious profession has failed.

Lying for the Lord: The Fundamentalist Christian Minister as B.S. Artist


Background: Lying For, or In, One’s Religion
Focus: Pathological Christian Lying
Case in Point: Debates with a Fundamentalist Preacher
The Core Epistemological Issue


Background: Lying For, or In, One’s Religion

In a previous post (How I Came to Be an Ex-Christian), I mentioned a term I had heard from some Mormons: “lying for the Lord.” I had experienced something similar as a fundamentalist Christian. The concept was that we wanted and were expected to present our Christian faith in the most positive light, so as to persuade others to join us and be saved. We would lie about what we were actually experiencing, so as to make our lives and beliefs sound superior and desirable.

As described in another post (Bible Study: John 1:1. The Bible Is Not the Word of God), we were similarly untruthful in our interpretation of scripture: we would ignore what it actually said, time after time; we would invent bizarre readings that would give us some excuse to claim that the Bible was what we wanted it to be. We were not at all honest about the scriptural difficulties arising from our mode of interpretation, choosing instead to force-fit biblical texts to our preconceived notions.

This urge to twist the religion in one’s preferred direction is not limited to fundamentalist Christianity. For example, Loren Franck discusses “Ten Lies I Told as a Mormon Missionary.” Further afield, in a New York Times editorial, Mustafa Akyol states that Islam traditionally considers it blasphemous to mock Mohammed, and treats such blasphemy as a capital crime — and yet such views are not based on the actual words of the Quran (Koran), but were rather invented and added to the Islamic religion by later scholars to serve political purposes. As another example, scholars (e.g., Obekesekere, 2004, pp. 253-254; Seshadri, 1992) have indicated that so-called Hindu fundamentalism is another modern concept invented for political reasons, and is supported by neither the texts nor the traditions of Hinduism.

This post focuses on Christian falsehood simply because that is where I have personal experience. In the posts cited above, I described my own growing awareness that we Christians were lying to ourselves and to others. I was not alone in becoming aware of Christian untruthfulness. For example:

  • Brother Ken at Burning Bush Christian Crusades suggests that professing Christians lie because they have ceased to fear eternal damnation and because they have lost their reverence and respect for God.
  • Jaimee at says that Christians embellish their stories and tell white lies, in mundane day-to-day interactions, for reasons such as immaturity, lack of devotion to God, rebelliousness, and desire to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.
  • Peter Davids concludes that Christians lie about sex in order to maintain a hypocritical denial of their own sexuality.
  • Jon Acuff proposes that Chrstians — especially pastors — lie “To hide what they’ve done or hide the fact they’re still not the person they wanted to be by now.”

The problem of lying has been acknowledged by Christian ministers, writers, and scholars. For instance:

  • In an article in Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer wonders, “Why do Christians lie about each other so much?” Stetzer points out that such behavior violates the Ninth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness [or “give false testimony”] against thy neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). That particular form of deception is distinct from the more general command of Leviticus 19:11: “Do not lie to one another.” Stetzer says, “We often give one another a pass when someone bears false witness because [we believe] they were being passionate for truth.” Stetzer seems to be correctly recognizing that Christians do not necessarily see God’s truth as forming a cohesive whole: they may decide that God would want them to defend a seemingly big truth by telling a seemingly small lie.
  • On the question of “Why Christians lie,” Jenny Rae Armstrong says, “I’ve had one too many friends leave the church because [their sincere questions were met] with a horrified gasp, followed by impassioned arguments that . . . came across as either ignorant or disingenuous.” Armstrong offers the example of political debate, where “we can get pretty worked up about those issues, defending our side at all costs, even when it compromises our character.” She suggests that such behavior, inconsistent with “the gentle humility with which Christians are supposed to express their faith,” arises partly from fear that the nonbeliever’s question is a good one to which the believer does not have an answer.
  • In an article in Relevant magazine, John Piper reviews a number of Bible passages and concludes that “lying may be acceptable in rare situations” but also that “the Bible never commends lying.” To the contrary, he says, “The mind has to be filled with falsehood-fighting truth”; the believer’s faith can conquer “the deceitful craving for esteem and safety and possessions that causes us to distort the truth.”

Google searches (1 and 2) led me, not only to the foregoing examples, but also to other writers who describe their own problems with and/or reasons for leaving fundamentalist Christianity. For instance, the unnamed author of the Path of the Beagle blog says he had been a creationist for 20 years; but when it came time to decide whether to send his kids to a Christian college, he ran into difficulties. The most upsetting discovery, he reports, was that “the people I had trusted the most — the conservative, Christian leaders at the top of the young-earth creationist movement — had been lying to me.” For him, this creation issue was “a real wake-up call.” Similarly, in an article on, Michael Runyan reports difficulties with creationism among numerous other problems in Christian belief. On the subject of truth, he observes that Christianity has “overvalued the exercise of faith, or believing in things without supporting evidence” that “allows for unscrupulous people to dupe others into accepting on faith a false promise or assertion.” Such remarks suggest that believers as well as nonbelievers may be best served by a determined orientation toward honest truthseeking.

Focus: Pathological Christian Lying

People are often tempted to lie to protect or to advance themselves. With some frequency, they also encounter opportunities to lie on behalf of friends and family members. In addition, it is quite common to lie, and to be expected to lie, in service of one’s employer, customer, or client. A person who has no employer, no friends, no surviving family members, and few personal interests or ambitions, will tend to have fewer opportunities and motives for lying. Another way to think of it: juggling more balls at once will tend to increase their likelihood of interfering or colliding with one another.

So it seems that, if you consider it highly important not to lie, you would be well advised not to acquire many obligations, connections, and interests. Conversely, as you acquire more obligations, connections, and interests, it seems you may find it helpful, indeed necessary, to lie more frequently, on behalf of yourself and others. Failure to lie on cue — that is, being honest with people — may tend to result in the loss of various acquaintances and opportunities. Despite rare pockets of deep (but not absolutely reliable) integrity, deception (including failure to disclose information that a fully honest person would disclose) tends to pervade interpersonal interactions.

The sources cited above, and my own experience, suggest that Christian faith is an important interest. Adding it to one’s life greatly increases the number of things to lie about. That increase is especially likely if one’s chosen form of Christian faith entails — as fundamentalism does — conflict or incompatibility with a vast number of people, ideas, and experiences arising in daily life. It can feel as if everything, everywhere, is set against the Christian fundamentalist. There is a fundamentalist response — that this conspiracy of nontruth stems from Satan — but such a dramatic explanation is not necessary, nor does it address the command’s expectation: regardless of satanic influence, do not lie. Period.

No doubt the situation becomes less difficult when one does not know, or seriously care, what one’s religious texts or leaders may say. Countless people have attended Sunday morning church services, year after year, with little interest in theology, philosophy, science, or other intellectual areas in which their professed faith raises major issues. That is, even within Christian fundamentalism — even within a specific congregation — people may vary widely in the extent to which they see any need to distort facts or avoid the truth. It is no doubt possible to avoid some lies by avoiding certain kinds of discussion or lines of thought. Not that such evasion would make one more truthful; it may be merely a means of simplification.

There are also, no doubt, many people whose limited mental capacity leaves them unable to engage in deliberate falsehood on matters of religious belief. People can have brain damage; they can be severely short of logical capacity; they may operate under pervasive misconceptions that somehow leave them unable to grasp seemingly elementary conclusions. In the terms used by Jenny Rae Armstrong (above), there may be a distinction between those who are ignorant and those who are disingenuous, although determined ignorance probably amounts to deliberate deception.

Much the same could be said about fear. Fear plays a great role in the deceptions practiced by many Christian believers. People can be so afraid of eternal damnation that they hesitate to question their faith or otherwise step out of line. For social reasons, likewise, people may have simply concluded that a dedicated pursuit of truth often entails serious risks to personal survival in this world.

A concern with pathological lying begins to emerge, then, among certain subsets of Christian fundamentalists. Those subsets may include people who would commit any evil in order to save themselves, and those (e.g., ministers) who have a demonstrated commitment to or investment in the assumed truth of their beliefs. Such people could be honest about difficulties with Christian faith, but choose instead to cross the line, using falsehood and even absurdity to deceive people. When you see such behavior continuing for years on end, you might fairly ask whether this person is thriving in Christian fundamentalism precisely because s/he has no serious problem with the level of falsehood required to persist in that kind of belief.

Sarah Sumner examines such thoughts in a Christianity Today article titled “The Seven Levels of Lying.” Drawing on work by Budziszewski (2011), Sumner suggests that the most objectionable forms of lying are No. 6, “You develop your technique” and No. 7, “You see it as your duty to lie.” Within Sumner’s analysis, even these worst forms of lying are understandable when they seem to be required to survive and thrive within a dysfunctional family or bureaucracy. And that, in the view of many nonbelievers, is precisely the nature of fundamentalist Christianity: a dysfunctional entity compelling and/or encouraging falsehood. Consistent with that view, Dromedary Hump offers these quotes from famous historical Christian leaders:

Often it is necessary to deceive, and to do the greatest benefits by means of this device, whereas he who has gone by a straight course has done great mischief to the person whom he has not deceived. [John Chrysostom]

We should always be disposed to believe that which appears to us to be white is really black, if the hierarchy of the church so decides. [Ignatius Loyola]

What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church … a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them. [Martin Luther]

But one need not revert to historical texts for illustrations. A search leads readily to the continuing stream of scandals in which priests, preachers, and evangelists deceive their congregations and the public about assorted financial, sexual, and psychological abuses. It does not appear that people of this nature would be good guides in the matter of how to live one’s life, much less the truth about one’s eternal salvation.

One often hears such people called “pathological liars.” But that does not seem like the right term. In an article in Psychiatric Times, Charles C. Dike (2008) notes that pathological lying (PL) is not a settled psychiatric diagnosis within the psychiatric profession’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). (See also Mark D. Griffiths in Psychology Today, 2013.) Dike suggests there is nonetheless some consensus as to the core elements of PL: “excessive lying, easily verifiable to be untrue, mostly unhelpful to the liar in any apparent way, and even possibly harmful to the liar, yet told repeatedly over time.”

Note, then, that — at least by that sense of the term — a good liar and a pathological liar are two very different things. The person who obtains success, wealth, and/or power by deceiving and manipulating people may have some other kind of mental health issue, but s/he would not be a pathological liar — would not be, that is, telling falsehoods that are “easily verifiably to be untrue” or “mostly unhelpful to the liar in any apparent way.” His/her success comes precisely because s/he is good at misleading people.

Pathological lying (PL) — like psychopath and sociopath — is a popular assessment, used in assorted and sometimes conflicting ways, sometimes based on knowledge and experience but often abused by people with poor training or no training in mental health. A search leads to any number of people who claim expertise on the matter. For example,

  • WikiHow defines a pathological liar as “someone who tells lies habitually, chronically and compulsively. It has simply become a way of life for this person, to make up things for a variety of reasons and eventually, the truth becomes uncomfortable while weaving whoppers feels right to them. This kind of lying tends to develop early on in life, often as a response to difficult home or school situations that seemed to resolve better if the child lied. It’s a bad habit, not a manipulative trait — this is how to differentiate a pathological liar from a sociopath who does seek to manipulate.”
  • LoveToKnow says, “Pathological liars are people who tells lies when there is no clear benefit for them to do so. An individual who is not a pathological liar may lie to avoid punishment or ridicule. He or she may be less-than-truthful to avoid hurting someone else. When the problem of lying is at the point where the person is unable to control it, that person is considered to be a pathological liar. Even though pathological lying isn’t listed in the [DSM], it is considered a disease by some experts.”
  • New Health Guide says, in somewhat similar terms, that “A pathological liar lies compulsively and impulsively, almost without thinking about the consequences of his action. He lies regularly on a spontaneous basis even if he gains no benefit from it, or even if he traps himself into it. A pathological liar cannot control his impulse to lie and it is usually a self-defeating trait.”

Those materials suggest several observations. First, it may be true that — as I was informed by a source that I have cited in another post — the ministry is one of the ten professions most likely to attract psychopaths. Especially when one enters the arena of wildly unrealistic and dishonest claims about Christian faith and practice, It may take a remarkably cold and clever manipulator to keep on preaching, week after week, without any concern for the kinds of problems that I have discussed in the posts cited above. It is certainly interesting to read the suggestion, by Pater Familias, that “many fundamentalist Christians become atheists in college or seminary.”

Of course, not every minister is a televangelist with a congregation of thousands. As I know from observing the work of the Lutheran minister for whom I was an office assistant during high school, many work for a pittance, struggling to keep their congregations going despite congregational politics and negative and sometimes abusive parishioners. Ministers of this ilk — and many of the confused congregants who spend their week ping-ponging among dissonant theories of what God wants and what they have been doing right and wrong — may come closer to the concept of pathological lying. They are not seriously attempting to manipulate anyone, and would rarely be able to do so. They are just trying to string together a chaotic pack of random ideas in a bid to say something that, to them, sounds good at the moment — even if it does strike the casual listener as grotesque self-deception. This behavior often entails great costs, in terms of time and money wasted and opportunities foregone, including other careers that the minister might have pursued, and more truthful (and, probably, more rewarding) ways of pursuing his/her religious calling.

Dike distinguishes pathological lies from other kinds of disorders (e.g., Borderline Personality Disorder) by their “elaborate, fantastic, or complicated nature.” That description does seem applicable to the tangled webs of doctrine, and the incredible supernatural entities and events, with which fundamentalists weave together their ideas about themselves and their world. Dike also distinguishes “the blurring of fact and fiction that occurs in PL” from “the absolute conviction” experienced by delusional persons — which is interesting, in light of the contrast between the extraordinary claims that contemporary Christians make about miracles and other supernatural events, and the limited extent to which they demonstrate real belief in such phenomena.

In several ways, then, it seems that pathological lying may serve as a relatively understandable (albeit informal and sometimes confused) diagnosis of the behavior practiced — indeed, encouraged — in fundamentalist Christianity. That impression would seem to apply especially to ministers and Bible students who waste enormous amounts of time trying to rephrase and repackage their beliefs in superficially credible terms.

This tentative impression should be cushioned, again, with the warnings that pathological lying is not an established psychiatric diagnosis and that, if it is to be used, one might consider it a call for compassion, not a charge of willful manipulation. Without denying the harm done by such beliefs, nor for that matter the positive aspects of religious belief and community, in these specific ways these people are confused and, for the most part, cannot be helped, but are rather left to help themselves, often by growing more relaxed and less serious about the most problematic aspects of their faith.

Case in Point:
Debates with a Fundamentalist Preacher

I had been vaguely curious about lying by Christian preachers ever since hearing about Marjoe Gortner, an evangelist who exposed fraud within the world of fundamentalist ministry, in a production that won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Film. I lost touch with that sort of thing, later in the 1970s, when I rejected fundamentalism as a route to spiritual truth — although I did hear, with the rest of America, about fraudulent and abusive priests and evangelists throughout the years to come.

Despite my rejection of fundamentalism, I remained in loose contact with several fundamentalists, including a few with religious training and/or positions in the ministry. I was moved to write this post after repeated Facebook encounters with one of them. I was not deeply acquainted with that preacher (referred to here as “Jack”) and his wife (“Jill”); but within my face-to-face experience they were generous, nonjudgmental, and basically kind people. As often happens, however, our online interactions tended to highlight differences in our viewpoints. It was harder to think of the person as a whole, and to disregard various absurd or offensive things that s/he might say, when written expression became our primary means of interaction.

I decided to write this post for several reasons. First, as detailed below, I wanted to wrap up that series of Facebook encounters with Jack. Over a period of months, I had concluded that Jack was wasting my time with insincere and sometimes ridiculous remarks. It seemed best to unfriend him, so as to eliminate that source of fruitless distraction, and to direct him to this post if he was interested in an explanation.

Unfriending Jack on Facebook did not necessarily imply ceasing to be friends in fact; that would depend on future developments. Indeed, it seemed that removing Facebook from the equation might actually be beneficial to the friendship. At this point, it could hardly hurt. So it seemed appropriate to compose this explanation, and to leave it to him to see if he could understand and respond appropriately to it.

Second, I decided to write this post because, as in other posts in this blog, I had prior personal experience that I thought might be useful to others. As noted above, I, myself, had been a lying inventor of bogus “explanations” for the problems that arise when one takes a fundamentalist approach to the Bible. In that role, I may well have contributed to the confusion and pain experienced by fellow believers. I certainly was not contributing to any real solutions. As I observed various things that Jack and Jill posted on Facebook, I became concerned at the damage that they, and others like them, might be doing. I had been hearing, for some years, about what might have happened if people had not looked the other way when they found priests and ministers misbehaving. It seemed appropriate, indeed obligatory, to speak up.

So, as I say, I found myself engaged in repeated disagreements with Jack and Jill on Facebook. In the early months, these were limited to the occasional expression of dissent on some random item. Once, for example, Jill posted something like this:


I don’t believe that was the actual item; it is just an illustration of the type of thing she posted. In this case, it was something about vaccines for children. She added a remark; as I recall, it was, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid!”

I was aware that some parents were afraid that vaccines were more dangerous than the diseases they were supposed to prevent. But as far as I knew (and as still appears to be true), adverse reactions were rare and generally less harmful than the diseases in question. Indeed, it appeared that those who refused to vaccinate their children could pose an unreasonable threat to others. So I posted a reply, saying something like, “Polio, measles, tuberculosis — who would want to go back to that?”

There were several similar exchanges. At some point, reviewing my Facebook history, I noticed that Jill seemed to have deleted some of the posts to which I had objected, including the one about vaccines. It occurred to me that perhaps I had sensitized her to the existence of alternate viewpoints of which she had been unaware — that maybe I had helped her to recognize the foolishness of some of the things that others had been telling her. It was gratifying to imagine that I might have introduced some caution into her sharing of potentially harmful advice with members of her congregation.

Meanwhile, it appeared, for a time, that Jack enjoyed online debate. That was not the impression he had given in person. When talking in person, he had sometimes dominated the conversation, going on and on about his beliefs. I understood his viewpoint — as I say, I had been a fundamentalist and a pre-ministry student myself — but he had not seemed reciprocally inclined to understand and explore my views. Since then, online, he had described himself as not being open-minded. At some point I concluded that he was, ultimately, the typical preacher, primarily interested in telling you what to think, and not very interested in learning whether his way might be imperfect or just plain wrong.

So, to continue with the example of vaccines, eventually I did come to realize that Jill had not in fact learned anything from my remarks about vaccines. She was still agreeing with Jack, months later, when he posted this on that subject:

I have been accused of being crazy because I do not use vaccinations for my kids or myself as a general rule. If I suggest other listen to why I feel this way, then words like medieval, barbarian, cave man, etc. are thrown around. The only argument for being totally for vaccination that I have heard is the elimination of polio, or smallpox.

This seems like a pretty good argument, though, right? Let us explore this argument for a minute. The argument, as I understand it, goes like this: If by vaccinations we can eliminate the deadly disease polio, then all vaccines are good and acceptable to be used on every child starting with the day they are born. . . .

Who oversees the production of Vaccines? Government. Did you just shudder? I know I did! . . .

So, really, am I really that crazy? You do what you want. I will not call you crazy, even if I know better. I will walk the path I have chosen, regardless of your choices and demonizing of my choice.

To me, it seemed that anyone who had looked into vaccines at all would know that they were tested individually. There was no simpleminded acceptance of any and all vaccines, across the board, merely because the polio vaccine worked many years ago.

It was also obvious that the government of the U.S. had achieved remarkable successes, in projects that nobody else was inclined to tackle. Examples over the previous two centuries had included the fighting of the Civil and World wars, developing a reliable post office, breaking up monopolies, building an interstate highway system, and landing people on the moon. The presidents pursuing such projects, Democrat and Republican alike, had enjoyed wide public support for such initiatives. Certainly there were major mistakes in those and other projects. But it made no sense to speak as though governmental involvement, in itself, would automatically imply poor quality in a specific vaccination project.

In that area of vaccines, and elsewhere, Jack did not seem motivated to look into the facts of the matter before telling others what to think. Instead, he was content to hold forth with an uninformed opinion, notwithstanding its potential to cause serious harm to less educated or less capable people, including his own children, who might be depending on him or looking to him for guidance. In the case of vaccines, he and Jill persisted in this approach despite his report (above) that numerous others had challenged it. He received those challenges, not as evidence that he might be mistaken, but rather as “demonization,” as though others had behaved inappropriately in pointing out real dangers in his words and acts.

Over the months, Jack challenged a number of items that I had posted on Facebook. He was not the only person to express disagreement with such items. In his case, unfortunately, the challenges did not entail reasonable give and take, where one would strive to understand the opposing viewpoint before trying to rebut it, much less acknowledge credible aspects of that opposing viewpoint. Here, again, Jack admitted that he was not interested in an openminded pursuit of truth. He demonstrated no willingness to seek truths that might be painful or inconsistent with his preferred beliefs. Nor did he demonstrate anything resembling Armstrong’s gentle Christian humility (above). He did not even make a serious attempt at logical argument. The situation seemed to be that he knew himself to be right, on a given issue; he accepted that others were too blind to perceive their wrongness; and he was not very motivated to demonstrate his rightness and their wrongness in much detail. He just contented himself with tossing out a few hints pointing toward his personal wisdom, and leaving others to find their own way toward him and his Truth.

I don’t intend those remarks sarcastically. In all seriousness, that did appear to be how he saw things. Moreover, his propensity to insulate himself from reality was not limited to people like me, or to venues like Facebook. He was also insulating himself from the patent facts of his own scriptures. Jesus was not known for his love of guns and his insistence on a right to carry weapons, to cite another of Jack’s predictable areas of interest. (Jack would go on to start a sporting goods store, so that he could sell guns for the Lord.) Jesus was also not famous for his views for or against particular politicians.

Indeed, a casual reader of the New Testament might conclude that Jesus’s tendencies often ran somewhat opposite to Jack’s. What Jack knew was not really Jesus; it was just the culture into which he, Jack, had been born, and the ways in which that culture had distorted Christ’s life and words for its own purposes. Jack seemed to be the kind of person who, born in Iraq instead of the U.S., would have defended his family’s version of Shiite or Sunni Islam with the same narrowminded indifference to truth, selectively adopting or ignoring facts and arguments as needed to arrive at his preferred conclusions.

A few examples may help to illustrate the situation. Consider Jack’s responses to a cartoon I posted on Facebook:


The cartoon could have said more — about the European wars of religion, for instance, and about the Spanish Inquisition, and about the behavior of conquering Christians in the New World, indeed about the history of Christian slaughter and torture going back to the time of Gregory of Tours, never mind the attitudes of people like Jack toward American behavior in the Islamic world over the past two decades — but the basic point was clear enough. Christianity has been secularized and restricted by relatively unsympathetic governments and societies in the West, and has thus become less of a threat in recent centuries; but its history presents grounds for serious concern that, if such controls were removed, people would once again be committing enormous atrocities in the name of Christ.

Jack did not want those things to be true of his religion. Like most fundamentalists, he was not very interested in the long and horrible record of violence committed by so-called Christians. He preferred to assume, as Christians have doubtless assumed for centuries, that his generation would be different. So in response to that cartoon, Jack posted several long tirades filled with tangential and in some cases nonsensical remarks. Each time, I replied with relatively brief rebuttals. I can illustrate the tenor of those exchanges with this excerpt from one of my rebuttals:

Jack, your remarks seem incoherent. I did clearly distinguish the fundamentalist branch of Christianity. See previous comment. It is self-contradictory to refer to the liberals as a mere “fringe” and then say they are responsible for causing wars: fringes do not have that power. Such a claim is also historically ignorant: there were virtually no Christian liberals at the time of the Crusades and the European wars of religion. Do present-day fundamentalists submit to secular government? Only by force. For decades, they have been seeking to make it less secular and more theocratic: Ten Commandments in public places, for example. Finally, I don’t know whom you’re accusing of defending Radical Islam; that’s certainly not me.

Of course, it would be easier to interpret that excerpt if I were to provide the words, from Jack, to which I was responding. Unfortunately, I can’t. That’s because, after several lengthy discourses, Jack decided to go back and delete all of his comments. I think that may have been the only time, in my several years of using Facebook, when anyone has done that. It seemed odd. Eventually, however, he did offer a bit of an explanation for this behavior, in a concluding post that ran to 419 words (i.e., the equivalent of nearly two double-spaced typed pages). Here is an excerpt:

If you feel I was calling you disingenuous, then that was not my intention. I said it seems disingenuous to hold all of Christianity accountable for the past actions of a few, then excuse a few Islamic groups using the past actions of that same “few” of Christianity. . . . I have not wish to further argue with you on the subject. If I would have wished to continue in the argument then I would have not erased the comments I have made. From any outside observer stumbling across this thread, It will appear you are the king of the hill on your Facebook page. If your goal is to stand uncontested in your opinions, then you have achieved it. You win. If you want to convince me that you have the right-headed thinking, then you will probably never win. I am as set in my ways as, I hope, you are in yours. . . . If you were offended by me calling you disingenuous, then I do sincerely apologize. . . . I am sorry I cannot do more for your complaints than this. God Bless you.

So, to paraphrase, Jack admitted calling me disingenuous, but also said he did not intend to call me disingenuous. What was disingenuous, he said, was to hold all Christians accountable for the past actions of “a few” — where Jack’s concept of a “few” can include a good chunk of the population of Europe. He did not clearly explain why he would remove his comments, but it sounds like he wanted to make it appear that I was arguing with myself. He started the debate, but then characterized my replies as “complaints” with which he was trying to offer assistance.

This did not seem to be the behavior of a sincere debater of belief. Frankly, given his repeated indications that he was set in his ways and intended to remain so, it seemed to be the behavior of a troll — of, that is, someone who had no genuine interest in shared pursuit of the truth of a matter, but who simply liked to provoke disagreements. It appeared that, when someone took the bait, he would treat their response as an invitation to share his own views at length — not for the purpose of genuine engagement or learning, but merely to preach.

That impression probably would have been too hasty, despite the absurdities in Jack’s argument, if we had just gone back and forth once or twice about that cartoon. It seemed less hasty, however, as the matter dragged out over the course of a week, each day bringing a new tirade. Some skepticism toward Jack also seemed appropriate in light of his reactions to a number of my other Facebook posts. Here is an example of a photo, to which Jack responded and I replied as follows:


JACK: Oh no! the poor fish! (as I am filling up on gas that is cheaper than it has been in years)

ME: Unbelievable.

ME: Jack, maybe I’m misunderstanding your comment. It sounds supremely ignorant. Do you not go fishing multiple times per week?

JACK: I do not go fishing several times a week, right now. I have been fishing several times a week, though. What about any of you guys? Do you people like to fish?

Nobody replied to Jack’s question. I admit: as my reply indicates, he was becoming tiresome.

On multiple occasions, as in that example, Jack started by questioning or ridiculing what I had posted — but then, when I challenged his remarks, he would try to change the subject, or would claim that it was all just a matter of opinion or belief, and there was no point debating it. But it was not a matter of belief: it was a matter of real-world actions and their consequences.

Such exchanges seemed to support the widespread perception that Christian fundamentalists use the Bible as an excuse for sociopolitical views that do not always make much sense — and that, if they were in power, they would behave as fools who (in the foregoing examples) would help to see the environment wrecked and the country ravaged by preventable disease. I would like to say that Jack was unusual — that other Christian fundamentalists, in other private and public communications, have displayed far more responsibility and common sense. Unfortunately, too often, that has not been the case.

The Core Epistemological Issue

This post has looked at the topic of pathological lying, and at the problem of lying among Christians; it has looked in more detail at a few exchanges I had with a fundamentalist minister on Facebook. Ideas presented here could, perhaps, be developed into an argument that fundamentalist Christians, or a subset of such Christians, or at least some fundamentalist ministers are pathological liars, or psychopaths, or sociopaths. There might be some truth to such an argument.

That, however, is not the point here. Fundamentalists like Jack do not need to be psychologically screwed up in order to become bullshit artists. As developed more fully in the posts cited at the start of this piece, the real problem is not that a subset of such fundamentalists have mental health issues. It is that fundamentalism, by its very nature, is opposed to the search for truth. To the fundamentalist, truth comes from the scriptures, and from what one’s preacher or other accepted commentator says about the scriptures. The result is a mishmash of views, ranging from the reasonable through the murky to the absurd. People are so determined to have a religion, or to defend the one they were born with, that they will accept an enormous amount of nonsense rather than be honest with themselves, and with others, about the real world and about what their own scriptures actually say.

Epistemology is, in essence, the study of what we can know, and how we can know it. The epistemological question posed by fundamentalist Christianity is whether one can reliably obtain factual knowledge, as distinct from mere opinion, from the Bible, from Bible commentators, and from preachers like Jack. Even if there were no scientists for them to disagree with, it would appear that the answer to that question must be no, else there would not be such a plethora of divergent Christian denominations and cults, each insisting that it alone has arrived at the correct interpretation of scripture.

In that light, the primary issue of pathology arises at the level of the culture, not of the individual. In other words, the real question is not whether there is something wrong with this or that believer; it is whether the culture of Christian fundamentalism is itself sick. Such a question could draw upon the reasoning of Erich Fromm (1955, p. 15). Fromm, reacting to Nazi Germany, pointed out that “the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

Needless to say, not everything that Christian fundamentalists do is automatically stupid or evil. Taking a cue from Fromm, one must recognize that even Nazi Germany achieved notable advances — in medical and public health research and practice, for instance (Proctor, 1999). The issue is not one of pure good and evil. It is, rather, that regardless of the outcomes achieved, the means employed are simply not acceptable. The point is not that one should prohibit Naziism, fundamentalist Christianity, or other forms of belief per se. The more appropriate response is surely to demonstrate, and to keep on demonstrating, with rationality and human kindness, that fundamentalists are relying upon a flawed and often destructive worldview, and that there are better ways.

The example of Jack highlights a consequence of fundamentalist Christian epistemology. If you already know what you believe, and if nothing is going to shake you from it, then much of what the world cares about is just a joke. A person like Jack can post silly remarks about fracking and fish because he is more interested in taunting and ridiculing intelligent people than in thinking seriously and speaking responsibly on sociopolitical and economic issues. He doesn’t know, and doesn’t care, about many things in our world, because his religion taught him that all he needs to know and care about is contained within the Bible (with, of course, certain homemade additions about guns and politicians).

Jesus seems neither to have written down his own words, nor to have solicited anyone else to do so. But apparently that is not important to those who claim to be Christlike. In the behavior of the fundamentalist, who wants to support his/her preexisting culture by highlighting preferred Biblical texts and by interpreting those texts in preferred ways, the actual person of the historical Jesus can be surprisingly unimportant — which is just what Kazantzakis indicated, near the end of a film that fundamentalist Christians abhor.

Philosophers and scientists do not appear to be very surprised that Christian fundamentalism, epistemologically and fanatically rooted in an ancient book, has produced substantial amounts of folly and evil. That is because philosophers and scientists spend whole careers struggling to achieve small advances in the very difficult project of figuring out what one can really know, and how one can be sure that one really knows it. People doing that kind of work tend to realize that there are no shortcuts. It takes work. Lacking any commitment to that sort of project, Christian fundamentalists are left to fire cheap shots at things beyond their understanding, and to demand that their schools, their states — if possible, their country and their world — be managed in ways consistent with their ignorance.


This post has observed that Christian fundamentalism has a problem in the area of truthfulness. The post began with a look at individual experiences and concerns having to do with lying. There was a glance at concepts of pathological, psychopathic, or sociopathic falsification. But the primary concern was that the problem of truthfulness is endemic to the faith — that Christian fundamentalism is built upon, and glorifies, the rejection of the human search for truth. The false hope, and claim, is that the Bible (as construed by one’s preferred scholars) gives the believer a pass, an easy out, a way of avoiding epistemological engagement with the things that concern mere mortals. Private and public concerns about honesty, science, life, and other people are all subordinated to the words of the biblical text.

And people live that way, year after year, century after century, proud of their imagined superiority or perhaps fearful for their salvation, but in any event never admitting that they are simply wrong. So I wind up with a clown like Jack, and many Christian believers wind up in private hells of falsehood and confusion, because their culture prohibits open, honest, and humble engagement down here with the rest of us, on the level of reality. The world is cursed with a horde of bullshit artists, some quite solemn and sincere (within the severe limits of what they are willing to contemplate), because that is precisely what their faith respects.

An Inquiry into Open Source Religion

I was thinking about some things I had written on the subject of religion, and about other things I might write. I realized, of course, that much of what I would write had probably already been said by someone somewhere. As always, however, there was the problem of finding that material and, perhaps, of recognizing it when I did find it — because people sometimes conceptualize and express ideas in terms that other people find odd, until they come to understand the writer’s starting point.

Somewhere in this reverie, I thought of the phrase “open-source religion.” I wasn’t sure exactly what that would be about, or even if anyone had used the term. I think my general idea was that there might be something like a wiki, somewhere, where people would pitch in and contribute bits of information to build up a sort of religion-by-consensus. That seemed to be how open-source work had progressed in other areas, notably the development of software.

Some Open-Source Religion Websites

A search led to an impression that, in fact, people had divergent ideas of what open-source religion might be. First, a brief Wikipedia article seemed to indicate that there had been open-source efforts within specific religious traditions (e.g., Judaism, Wicca). Even within those relatively narrow boundaries, there appeared to be some divergence. For example, within the Jewish religion, the Open Siddur Project seemed to be oriented toward building a database of Jewish religious materials, while the Open Source Judaism initiative seemed to emphasize an open-ended approach to the questions of what Judaism was and what people might want to do with it, or how they might develop it.

Judging from that Wikipedia article, other open-source religious efforts were not necessarily based upon any pre-existing tradition, but sought instead to develop religious materials and views through group participation and consensus. One such effort, calling itself Yoism, welcomed me to “the way of yo.” The name seemed like a bit of a joke — which, as I thought about it, would not necessarily be bad, except if it turned off people who wanted or needed something with some weight to it. The Yo webpages had an annoying habit of loading audio files that I didn’t want to hear, as I clicked around on my way to Yo’s “ten sacred principles” and “7 main beliefs” and “5 pillars.” What I saw, in these travels, was not an obviously open-source, wiki-style project: I just saw someone’s recitation of their ideas, with space to add comments but, on most pages, few comments actually added.

The other main open-source project identified in that Wikipedia article was The Community page within OpenSourceReligion’s website boasted over 1,200 members. The Forums page identified over 1,300 discussions, but these appeared to be aging with very little traffic.

There was another initiative on the well-known Wikia website called YouReligionWiki, stating that its contents included “476 articles about religions formed by our contributors.” In their Religions page, it appeared that some had posted materials on existing religions (e.g., Hinduism) while others had invented new religions. As an example of the latter, The Cult of the Mighty R! (selected more or less at random) was described as being focused on “the basic ideas of rebellion and revolution.” It seemed to be a somewhat frivolous enterprise; one of its “basic rules to live by” was “Thou shalt not judgeth another, unlesseth thy wisheth to be bitch-slappethed.” The prevailing concept of “open-source” applied in this website seemed to be, not that people were working together to develop religious beliefs or principles, but just that a workspace was being provided within which people could post whatever they liked and call it a religion.

Another effort, using another well-known website (in this case, Wikibooks), offered a start on an Open Religion book. It appeared to be the work of just one person, offering a skeletal introduction. It appeared to me, at this point, that a wikibook might be the sort of thing I was looking for. On closer examination, however, I had second thoughts. At the very early stages, with as few as one contributor, a wikibook would not enjoy the structured protections available in, for example, a Wikipedia article. There could be vandalism; there could be shoddy work; there could be arguments that the absence of a user base would leave unresolved. It tentatively seemed that a better approach would be to work up at least a skeleton text in a more controlled environment, and move it to a wikibook if a user base did form.

Hinduism and Open-Source Religion

I had noticed a blog post titled “Hinduism: An Open Source Religion.” That was an interesting concept. As I read the writer’s explanation, I wondered whether his/her interpretation of Hinduism conformed with established understandings. Wikipedia quoted the Supreme Court of India:

Unlike other religions in the World, the Hindu religion does not claim any one Prophet, it does not worship any one God, it does not believe in any one philosophic concept, it does not follow any one act of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not satisfy the traditional features of a religion or creed. It is a way of life and nothing more.

Elaborating somewhat on this, an article said,

There is no “one Hinduism”, and so it lacks any unified system of beliefs and ideas. Hinduism is a conglomerate of diverse beliefs and traditions, in which the prominent themes include:

  • Dharma (ethics and duties)
  • Samsara (rebirth)
  • Karma (right action)
  • Moksha (liberation from the cycle of Samsara)

It also believes in truth, honesty, non-violence, celibacy, cleanliness, contentment, prayers, austerity, perseverance, penance, and pious company.

Now, as a reader of the daily news, I was of the opinion that India, and many of its Hindus, were not in fact very good at nonviolence and such. I appreciated that Hinduism might have potential as an illustration of how an open-source religion could develop over time, and I suspected that a Hindu upbringing could facilitate flexibility toward diverse religious beliefs. But I also felt that nobody is holy — that everybody, whatever their background, would be capable of bringing some benefits and also some detriments to the development of an open-source religion.

Moreover, as an American ex-Protestant trained in law and somewhat exposed to Jewish culture, I was inclined to think that an attempt at open-source religion would want to remain open to discussion, debate, and refinement of one’s positions in light of new ideas. In this sense, I thought, the “open” within “open-source” could have a double meaning. Not only would one’s source code be open to inspection and revision, but also one would want to practice an attitude of openness.

In that spirit, I appreciated that Hinduism could indeed be viewed as in some ways an open-source sort of religion. It occurred to me in passing that Christianity could too, if one took account of the great variety of beliefs expressed by Christians of various conservative and liberal persuasions. Possibly spreading and internally inconsistent claims would be a tendency within any sufficiently large and old religion.

Structuring an Open-Source Religion

I recalled, from my childhood, that religions might condense their core beliefs into a catechism, defined as a book presenting a summary of a religion’s fundamental principles or beliefs, often in question-and-answer form. A bit of searching led, quickly enough, to catechisms of various religions, including Luther’s Small Catechism, versions (1 and 2, possibly identical in content) of the Catholic catechism, versions (1 and 2) for Hinduism, and versions (1 and 2) for Islam. These examples would barely scratch the surface of the world’s assortment of catechisms, but they seemed adequate for starting purposes.

Needless to say, such catechisms would differ radically on various points. But I suspected they, or other comparably brief summaries of various religions, would also agree on numerous points. For example, one Hindu catechism defined sin as “any action which intentionally causes suffering and pain to another being directly or indirectly,” and the Lutheran catechism indicated that sin included violation of the Ten Commandments, which could have the same effect.

It appeared that a catechism of an open-source religion (OSR) could present a primary or consensus view on a particular issue, and could offer supplementary elaborations to capture nuances of interest to various subgroups of followers. In the case of sin, for example, one might begin with references to harmful actions, offer a few examples, and then leave it to various people to add footnotes as they saw fit.

A search, and further browsing, led to many sources claiming to identify the key elements of a religion. It seemed that these authorities would not overrule Hinduism, for example: it would continue to be a religion even if its catechism lacked something that some expert considered essential. But it did seem reasonable to consult experts on what a religion should include. For present purposes, I decided to draw upon the descriptions of religion offered by Wikipedia, the Free Dictionary, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, an apparently influential law review article on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which promised freedom of “religion”) by Choper (1982), and the practical current interpretation of First Amendment law offered by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in Internal Revenue Manual 4.76.6 & 7.25.3 and IRS Publication 557. (No doubt there would be many other documents to consider for purposes of actually creating a religious organization.)

Beginning at perhaps the most abstract level, the Stanford encyclopedia identified a number of topics in the philosophy of religion, involving especially the existence and nature of God but also including Hick’s effort to synthesize religions. Unfortunately, I did not find this material particularly useful for present purposes. The Free Dictionary was closer to the mark, in a bare-bones way, with its indications that religion was variously defined as including belief in, reverence for, worship of, and/or obedience to a supernatural power or powers, or involving the cause, nature, or purpose of the universe; a way of life (in e.g., a religious order); observation of sacred rites and ceremonies; a set of beliefs based on the teachings of a spiritual leader; a moral code; and/or a formal or institutionalized expression of, or the set of people involved in, such beliefs or behaviors.

The Wikipedia article noted that religion had many definitions. It offered Buddhism as an example that might illustrate the reference, in the previous paragraph, to the nature of the universe, without requiring any deity; it added the topic of life after death; it mentioned the role of religion as a pervasive shaper of societies, and offered a further definition of religion as the full cultural reality emerging from behaviors mentioned above; it cited William James for a more individual and psychological concept of religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men” in relation to their concept of the divine. Wikipedia suggested that, perhaps because of religion’s role as a sphere of so-called intensive valuing or ultimate concern within the life of the believer, its adherents were typically not very swayed by scientific and philosophical arguments.

Choper’s law review article attempted, not to define religion per se, but only to try to account for the approaches that American courts have taken, or might take, toward the interpretation of laws that could affect freedom of religion. Choper said that, with relatively few exceptions (primarily for compelling public interests), the Amendment prohibited governmental impositions on or discrimination in favor of or against religious belief, conduct, or speech, including the nonverbal symbolic speech of religious ritual. Choper offered the example of a case protecting a worker from losing state unemployment compensation benefits after being fired for disobeying an employer’s order to work on the worker’s sabbath. For religions not postulating anything like the Christian God, Choper cited Supreme Court language focusing on “whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.” Choper argued, however, that the foregoing idea of issues of “ultimate concern” was too broad to support constitutional protection — that people consider all sorts of patently nonreligious matters to be issues of ultimate personal concern — and thus a better measure would have to do with whether the government is trying to impose upon religious behavior in ways that are believed to have “extratemporal” (i.e., post-death, e.g., eternal) consequences.

Finally, I came to the concepts of religion indulged by the IRS. The IRS cared about religion because of the tax-exempt status accorded to religious organizations. Publication 557 (2013, p. 29) stated that the IRS used two guidelines to determine whether an organization was religious. First, its religious beliefs had to be “truly and sincerely held.” Second, its religious practices and rituals could not be illegal or contrary to public policy. Without researching the question in detail, I guessed that a religious organization indulging homicidal doctrines would fail the “public policy” test. Internal Revenue Manual 4.76.6 indicated that the organization would have to be organized and operated exclusively for religious purposes. These would apparently exclude commercial or business purposes and political activities. (See also IRS Publication 1828. For religious (e.g., monastic) orders, see Revenue Procedure 91-20.) Consistent with Choper’s remarks (above), Internal Revenue Manual 7.25.3 adopted this definition of religion: “A sincere and meaningful belief which occupies in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the God of those admittedly qualifying for the [tax] exemption.” The document further noted that a belief in a supreme being was not necessary for this purpose. In a somewhat unclear reference to a Supreme Court decision involving a conscientious objector to military service, the Manual said that religious beliefs could be found “If an individual deeply and sincerely holds beliefs that are purely ethical or moral in source and content but that nevertheless impose upon him a duty of conscience to refrain from participating in any war at any time.”


This post briefly explores the concept of open-source religion, as it appears in various websites. The post observes that Hinduism has been described as, or analogized to, open-source religion, insofar as Hinduism apparently incorporates a rangy and potentially incompatible panoply of materials and beliefs.

It did not appear that general-purpose attempts to form open-source religions had achieved critical mass. I wondered what sorts of principles an open-source religion (indeed, any religion) might have to develop, in order to gain general acceptability as a religion. It seemed that catechisms from various faiths, supplemented by other ideas of what constitutes a religion, might help to answer that question. A brief look into various materials produced a collection of topics that one might take into account, for purposes of formulating the outline of a religion.

Armed with those materials, I decided to develop such an outline. The result will appear in a separate post.

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