Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The comfort of familiar ways

Tonight is Halloween. Or Hallowe’en, if you’re a pedant about spelling. Or even All Hallows’ Eve, if you’re obsessive about religious history. 

            Traditionally, All Hallows’ Eve was the night preceding All Saints’ Day, the dark night when the ghosts of the dead – the “hallowed” ones – returned to earth. All Saints was a time to honour the dead; All Hallows Eve was, in a sense, their time to take revenge on us still-living souls by scaring the bejabbers out of us. 

            I don’t know anyone who still believes that the souls of the dead flit among us on Halloween night. But we still enjoy the dressing up, the parading door to door, the make-believe world of ghosties and goblins. 

            It’s a comforting kind of ritual, a dip into a warm bath of familiarity. These emotions cling, long after reason takes over.

            When I was a small child, my mother sometimes read me a poem that began, “Little Orphan Annie’s come to our house to stay.” When she got to the terrifying refrain, “And the goblins’ll get you if you don’t…watch…out!” I always pulled the covers up over my head. 

            I have long ago given up any belief in goblins. Or ghosts. I’m not even sure that the dead have any existence after death, except in loving memory. But I still want to pull the covers up over my head, at times. 

            That’s an emotional reaction, not a rational one.


Beyond discussion

            More than we like to admit, we are creatures of comforting habit. 

            I no longer believe that a supernova decided to blink out right after pausing over a stable in Bethlehem. But I still enjoy singing, “O-oh, star of wonder, star of night…”

            I doubt if I ever did believe in zombies. But even so, back in the days when our own children went out trick-or-treating, I enjoyed teaching some of the kids knocking on doors how to act like zombies. (A bit like Stephen Harper.)

            I’ve been reading Johnathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind.He argues that most of us, most of the time, make our decisions and choices instantly, based on some kind of gut instinct. Then we use our rational minds to find ways of justifying our choices.

            Which is why intelligent people on opposite sides can talk past each other without ever connecting, let alone convincing each other. Because this is not about reason. It’s about emotion. 

            Some subjects evoke more emotion than others do. My former neighbour lived and breathed trucks. I preferred sports cars. But we could talk about our passions without feeling the other had to be wrong. 

            Religion, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to work that way. Linguistics professor Allan Gleason wrote a book, a few years back, noting that an evangelical pastor and a United Church minister could talk amicably about almost anything but their theology. If one was right, then the other had to be wrong.

            Something about the eternal truths we learned once, and possibly rejected later in life, makes it hard for us – for me, anyway – to accept that others may not feel the same way.

            I don’t believe in ghosts and goblins. But I don’t need to say so to every costumed kid who comes to my door.


Copyright © 2018 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca




So, last week, I played fast and loose with the known facts about what Jesus said and did. And – mostly – you liked it. 

            Indeed, Dawne Taylor wrote, “Brilliant column on the omniscient Jesus, Jim. LOL”


Tom Watson is a baseball fan: “When I think about what Jesus actually did or said, I am reminded of the baseball great Yogi Berra. A lot of sayings have been attributed to Berra, prompting Berra to claim, ‘I never said a lot of things I said.’ The people who later chronicled the life and times of Jesus were more interested in making faith statements than historic ones, so if Jesus had the ability to come back I suspect he might react the same as Berra: ‘I never said a lot of things I said.’ 

            “I find it amusing, too, that the [gospel] writers portray the disciples as having slightly less intelligence than a sack of hammers — they seem continually to be standing around saying, ‘Duh?’ making it necessary for Jesus to try to explain things to them in private. Can you, therefore, even imagine what it might have been like had he started talking about electrons and protons rather than fig trees?”


Judy McGillivray endorsed the notion of struggling with contentious issues, not just sweeping them under the carpet: “As a newly retired minister, I received two phone calls yesterday -- one from a young theolog who is having trouble breaking into ministry, and another from a person who is considering moving across Canada to accept an appointment. Both of my callers  expressed great concern about the church today, I guess this is a common theme in this day when fewer and fewer  folks are coming out on a regular basis. We do need to be creative and come up with a new way to be church.

            “Ahhh, a time machine -- if only we could look ahead 100 years…But as disciples of Christ it is our task to move ahead with the faith of a mustard seed, to be there doing Christ's work.

            “Jim, there are so many questions, but it is good to struggle with them.”


John McTavish takes a more traditional view: “I guess I am one of those who would insist (to use the phraseology of the people you have overheard speaking on the matter) that in Jesus God is fully embodied as a human being.

            “Still, to suggest that Jesus therefore knows everything because God knows everything surely contradicts the assertion that God is fully embodied as a human being in Jesus.

            “Jesus knows everything if God merely pretendsto be human. But if God truly assumes our humanity in Jesus, then surely God participates in our human ignorance, our human fallibility, as well as our human strengths. 

            “How this works out psychologically, intellectually, emotionally, etc. in Jesus' life at the age of seven, or twenty-seven, I have no idea. And thankfully the New Testament writers don't attempt to pry into such matters.

            “Still, theologically speaking, these same writers would seem to be saying enough for us to see the need to wrestle with both Jesus' full humanity and full divinity. Thanks for once again prodding us to think about these things.”


Laurna Tallman thought of that column as “a modern morality play in three scenes. It could be set in a sequence of other scenes, the way medieval pageants were presented. Then, they could be staged on caravans and trucked across the continent, playing in parks and in front of city halls and in other public places. How better to meet the needs of fundamentalists locked in their self-imposed Dark Ages? This could be a concerted mission of the church to the church, a rebirth of Reason in Religion.”


James Russell wrote, “I’d argue that all knowledge is of a particular time and culture. Also, that ‘empirical’ knowledge has, as time and culture advance, become a trickier concept than seemed the case when it was originally used. The question, really, is whether the changes that come with time and experience are better supported than the earlier ideas, or just ‘different’. Ideas that are mistaken are different from ones that are true, not just because they are phrased differently, but because they lead to different conclusions.”


Steve Roney also said that my column “implies that there are only two kinds of knowledge, empirical and some specified other.

            “But there are many forms of knowledge other than empirical knowledge: knowledge derived from logic, most obviously; a priori knowledge, like the principles of mathematics; or knowledge from revelation or inspiration. Most thinkers would hold all of these to be more reliable than empirical knowledge. Empirical knowledge can always be unexpectedly disproven by some black swan.”






I wrote this paraphrase of Psalm 24 long before global warming, climate change, and the anthropogenic threat to the survival of the planet. This week, an international commission states that 60% of all wildlife – all wildlife, not just the big African tourist draws -- has perished as a result of human activity. And the IPCC issues a grim warning, that we have about 15 years to turn the current progress towards our own extinction around. A reading from Richard Wagamese has these words: “We are everything.” This is one paraphrase where I think I was ahead of my time. 


1          Turning and turning, our pale blue globe 

burns bright in the blackness of eternity.

The Earth is the Lord's, and all that is in it --

All life embodied in the only home we know.

2          God created life in the oceans,

and nourishes it with nutrients from the mountains.

3          Trace the course of a river to its source;

Stand among the mountains and marvel. 

Who would dare defile this paradise? 


4          God sees through our deceit and pretense;

We cannot claim innocence with dirty hands.

We can only approach God with clean hands and pure hearts;

5          Then we will see a smile on the face of God,

Then will God's wisdom be evident in the world.


6          So seek the Lord in high and holy places;

7          Let the vast valleys throw open their arms;

Let the summits stand tall in pride,

For this is the home of the Lord!

8          With all the glory of the universe to choose from,

With all of creation quivering in expectation, 

The Lord of life picked this planet as home.

9          So throw open your valleys, O earth!

Spread wide your plains to welcome the Lord!

10         For the Lord of all creation lives here.


For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

                  And for those of you who like poetry, I’ve started a webpage http://quixotic.ca/My-Poetrywhere I post (occasionally, when I feel inspired) poems that I have written. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca,  or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blankemail(no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca(If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have been blocking my posts because they’re suspicious of too many links.

                  Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                  Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,”an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom

                  Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony”-- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet









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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: Rituals, Habits



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