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Rediscovering what I believe

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Posted: Friday, June 8, 2007 10:00 pm

Faith is a life-long journey. It is reshaped by the events of our lives and the world in which we live those lives. Where I am in faith and practice today is not where I expect to be tomorrow or where I have been yesterday.

Such a reality leads me to pay attention to my life every day, the good and the bad, the desirable and undesirable. All are a part of who I am and who I am becoming. It is journey marked by change and excitement; also by some trepidation and yearning for the security of the past.

First, let me define what I do not believe. Some convictions I have held dear at some point in my life; others I have always carried with a bit of discomfort.

Creation and the domination system

The Apostles' Creed begins, "I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth."

Certainly they came about by some means. Lacking scientific insight and sophisticated instruments, the people who gave us the Bible attributed the reality of the world to the God they worshiped, as have many cultures.

The Hebrew/Christian tradition is unique in that the world does not result from divine violence. Rather, it is the intentional creation of a divine being who also seeks to be worshipped and obeyed.

Scripture tells us that harmony results when divine order is followed. That is, when men obey God, women obey men and children obey both men and women. Genesis 38 gives us the story of Tamar, who failed to bear male offspring before her husbands died.

The account describes a culture where male members of the family/clan/tribe make life-and-death decisions regarding the lives of women. Such order is also clear in Exodus, 21:22. It is the domination system that assumes male genitalia are a source of wisdom conferring the right to dominate those on the level below.

If the Judeo/Christian tradition gave priority to Genesis, one where women and men appear to have equality before God, our history would be quite different.

The rest of the commandments, especially nine and 10, which warn against coveting and seeing a wife as a male possession, appear to be directed to males, who would have responsibility for enforcing these commandments and dealing with offenders.

I no longer believe these things.

I believe that the world, the universe or universes, came into being through a series of incidents which may or may not have been designed and guided by a divine mind. The biblical universe does not begin to comprehend the scope of the galactic systems, of which earth is a small, small part.

It is natural to want to explain how it came to be. In the pre-scientific age, it was faith in a supernatural being that explained these things. Today we search with space-based telescopes and spacecraft sent to other planets.

We cannot apply a biblical template from the first century to our contemporary situation.

Men superior to women?

In ages past, systems of faith provided the structure that supported the domination system. The Hebrew/Christian culture has interpreted this order of creation to support the domination of females by males. The Apostle Paul states this clearly in Ephesians 5:22 and I Corinthians 11:3 (and following verses).

Other New Testament references appear to support male/female equality, such as Galatians 3:28. However, this understanding never was a dominating force in Christian culture.

In my early years, I grew up in a congregation and denomination where men sat on one side of the church while women and children sat on the other. Women had no vote in congregational affairs except as they were able to influence their husbands. Women did not become voting members of judicatory assemblies until after I was ordained in 1961. There are denominations today that continue to restrict the leadership of worship to men.

I no longer believe in the system that grew out of it. I choose rather to celebrate the gift of the world, a world that is both wondrous and awful. Wondrous in its beauty and diversity, in its resources and life-giving ecological systems; awful in its earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, floods and other destructive forces.

Are humans made in the image of God?

It is my observation that we tend to believe that "people like us" carry God's image, while people in other lands, other skin tones, languages, religions and customs do not.

It is difficult to face the fact that portions of scripture justify genocide and crimes against humanity. When we do not believe people carry the image of God, we feel justified in doing violence against them.

Christians in this nation have mounted a powerful campaign against abortion because it supposedly takes the life of one created in the image of God. Yet we go to war and report body counts with pride.

This history of violence is clearly reflected in our scriptures (Numbers 21:1-3 and 31:1-12; Deuteronomy 2:34 and 3:1-6). Under today's guidelines for international behavior, such actions would be called genocide or war crimes.

At this point in my life, I can recite the First Article of the Apostles' Creed only with my fingers crossed. This does not absolve me from responsible engagement with my environment. My familiarity with Jesus and His ways leads me to ask important questions as I interact with my world.

As a consumer of non-renewable resources, what is my responsibility to future generations? How do I live so that I value the lives of people in other nations, especially third-world nations, as much as I value people in this country? What does it mean to follow Jesus, who had "compassion on the multitudes" as he fed the hungry crowds?

The challenge is to ask how I can be a responsible citizen of the world as I experience it in all its complexity. What values will guide my life in relation to my fellow inhabitants on planet earth and to the planet itself? This, rather than doctrinaire, closed-end statements about creation, is where I find myself today.

My task as a follower of Jesus is to discern what that means for me and the choices I have the privilege of making.

Robert Mattheis was pastor of Lodi's St. Paul Lutheran Church for 20 years until 1994. That year, he was elected bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod, where he oversaw 215 congregations from Porterville to the Oregon border and east to Elko, Nev. He retired from the synod in 2002.

Mattheis, 71, still lives in Lodi with his wife, Janet. Their daughter, AmyJo Mattheis, is pastor of Way of Christ Community in north Stockton.

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