Monday, December 28, 2009

The Need for an Inclusive Faith

I believe that the more inclusive one’s Christian faith becomes (or for that matter any religious tradition) the more transformative and real and spiritually healthy it becomes.

The more dualistic a faith is the more its adherents concern themselves with who is “in” and who is “out,” who is “saved” and “unsaved,” and in the more fundamentalist versions of Christianity this means separating those who are going to heaven from those who are going to hell.

Dualistic believing Christians employ different methods and criteria in determining who is in and who is out. The criteria may include church membership, baptism, believing certain doctrines, adopting certain formulas like saying the sinner’s prayer, etc. For example, I have a Christian friend who was labeled “unsaved” by some of his more conservative Christian friends because he doesn’t believe in the virgin birth.

Certainly I believe that church membership, baptism, Christian doctrine, etc, have their place, but I am convinced that a strong dualistic orientation toward life and God will only continue to kindle animosity and division. Dualistic religion is killing us—literally.

I don’t mean to suggest that our differences have no significance; they do and there is a place in religious dialogue to talk about them and even debate them in a context of mutual respect and friendship. The more inclusive I become, however, the less importance I attach to specific doctrines and the more I look for what I have in common with other Christians and persons of other religious faiths.

Priorities and emphases differ significantly between dualistic/exclusivistic Christians and those with a more inclusive orientation. For example, for many dualistic oriented Christians evangelism basically means getting other people to believe what they believe (which of course for many is the “only” way to believe) and converting them to their faith system, which is often connected to the afterlife—saving them from God’s wrath, hell, etc. and promising heaven.

For more inclusive oriented Christians evangelism means sharing God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, and inviting persons to become disciples/followers of Christ as the way to discover, experience, embody, and live God’s love and grace.

I certainly believe in life after death, but I also believe that God will never give up on a person. This gives a much different slant to God’s judgment, imagining it as more restorative and redemptive, and less punitive and condemnatory.

When I was more dualistic in my faith the key question was: Are my beliefs correct and how do I get others to believe the right things? Now that I am more inclusive in my thinking the key question is: How can I fall in love with an unconditionally loving God and share this love with others?

If our primary interest in Christianity is to secure our own fate (make sure we are going to heaven when we die), then our commitment to God is grounded and pervaded by our passion for self-preservation. Such self-interest is a far cry from the kind of self-giving love manifested through the life and death of Jesus Christ. Many dualistic versions of Christianity are simply Christianized versions of “the survival of the fittest,” prompting believers to embrace the faith out of self-interest or group solidarity (it’s important not to break the family/tribal circle).

When we impose our either-or mentality onto God, then God ends us looking awfully petty and needy. When we make “our” way God’s way, and then claim that it is the “only” way, we are not only trying to manipulate and force God into our way of thinking, we make God look as narcissistic and manipulative as we are. Richard Rohr observes that our tendency is “not to see things as they are, but to see things as we are.” We constantly project our fears and egoism onto God. Dualistic religion is more apt to fashion God in our image than more inclusive approaches.

Because religion is such a potent force in the world I think that the future of our planet hinges upon humankind’s capacity to grow up spiritually, to recognize the divisiveness and destructiveness of dualistic religion, and embrace a more inclusive gospel that really is “good news.”

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Leap of Advent

The Advent of Jesus marked a gigantic leap forward in the evolution of religious thought. Jesus broke old, unhealthy patterns of relating to the Divine which were rooted in our projections of fear and our tendency to transfer guilt. In ancient religious practice it was commonplace to offer up either a human or animal sacrifice in order to pacify and appease the deity. This was practically a universal pattern of ancient religious cultures—offering up the firstborn, the virgin, the best of the herd or flock to propitiate the deity.

Jesus related to and spoke about a God (Abba) of providential care and grace. His acceptance of “sinners and tax collectors,” his compassion towards the diseased, the demonized, and the destitute, his inclusion of those excluded, revealed a God who cares deeply about the oppressed, the marginalized, and the condemned of the world, a God of unconditional love.

And yet this was no mere sentimentalism. Jesus confronted and challenged the hypocrisy, rigidity, and self-righteousness within his own faith tradition, making himself a target for the wrath of the religious gatekeepers. He provoked both leaders and mainstay Israelites when he called into question their belief in a tribal, national God, contending that the God of Israel is also the God of the world. In righteous indignation he overturned the money tables in the temple, but his anger was born out of his love for God’s people.

Jesus reversed the pattern of sacrificial offering. Jesus’ death was offered up sacrificially for us, but not to God. Jesus’ Abba did not need to be bought off or propitiated. There is no salvation in redemptive violence, only redemptive suffering. Jesus became a scapegoat in order to end the terrible practice of scapegoating. He bore the hate, wrath, and cruelty of the religious, social, and political powers that be, absorbing evil in order to expose and exhaust evil, overcoming evil through love. He became a curse for us, in order to break the cycle and reveal the absurdity and evil of cursing one another. Jesus died, not to placate a wrathful God, but to reveal a forgiving God, who is committed to loving all people, even those who ignore God and fight against all that a good and gracious God stands for.

The “Advent” of God in the person of Jesus not only challenged old ways of thinking about God and old patterns of relating to God, Jesus’ Advent marked the beginning of a spiritual revolution, a conspiracy of love.

What is tragic is that in many versions of Christian faith we have moved backwards, distorting or ignoring the radical life and teachings of Jesus, interpreting his death in a paganistic way, making his gospel nothing more than a judicial transaction relating to acquital of sin-guilt and the guarantee of heaven, thus stifling the life changing influence of the salvific power of Advent. 

We need to recapture the redemptive significance of Advent proclaimed in the Gospels of the New Testament. No wonder the Synoptic Gospels speak of the heavens breaking apart and the Spirit descending on Jesus in the form of a dove at his baptism by John. This was Jesus’ formal entrance into his Messianic work. Only through apocalyptic symbols could the Evangelists adequately depict the significance of what was happening. A new age, a new era, a new world was breaking in to this age of “sin and death.” Jesus would lead the way through the darkness of hate and revenge, making possible forgiveness and reconciliation.

Only an angelic proclamation to shepherds, representing all the scorned and despised ones Jesus gave preferential care for, could signal the evolutionary leap of religious thought and potential transformational impact of Jesus’ Advent: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among all humankind, with whom God is pleased” (Luke 2:14).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Exploding Brains

Alan Jones, in his book Reimagining Christianity, shares the old story about two frogs. He calls them Bill and Ted. Ted lived by the ocean, Bill lived in a well. When Ted tried to explain the vastness and beauty of the ocean, Bill was impressed, but couldn’t get his brain around it, “You mean it’s so enormous that it’s half as big as this well?” Ted tried and tried to covey the hugeness of the ocean, but Bill, so impressed with his own little world, just couldn’t grasp it. In the end, Ted persuaded Bill to make the long journey to the ocean to see for himself, and after a series of adventures they came to a hill from which the mighty ocean could be seen. Leading Bill up to the crest, Ted finally said, “Now, open your eyes.” When Bill opened his eyes and saw the vastness of the ocean, its expansive shining presence, his head exploded in a thousand pieces.

This could be a parable for our time. I have experienced the explosion from both sides. I remember when a professor of New Testament tried to help me see the vastness of the ocean and my head exploded. I couldn’t take it; it was too much for my limited vision to grasp. I got angry with that professor and left that school; a decision I now deeply regret.

I am now that professor, not literally of course, but in my theological work as a Pastor and writer. I am trying to help Christians who stand where I once stood, who live in a well where I once lived, see the vastness of the ocean, and, as to be expected, I have on a number of occasions been showered with exploding brains. (What’s the old cliché? What goes around comes around).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

More Gracious than God?

In some of my conversations with Christians about theology I’m discovering believers who are far more gracious, inclusive, and compassionate than their beliefs.

A case in point: Baptists Today is currently running a series of articles on the topic, “Homosexuality and the Church.” People who have different perspectives have been assigned to present their point of view. The pastor who wrote the article for part 2 (November, vol. 27, no. 11 issue) set forth a theology of condemnation. The harsh, condemnatory language of the Bible was cited and argued that it is all applicable for today.

The reader was made to expect, based on the severe, wrathful, condemnatory language of the Bible cited, that the conclusion would be one of condemnation. And yet the author concludes (even though he has argued that the Bible, meaning God, condemns the homosexual with angry, vindictive language) that to fail to show compassion toward the homosexual is inexcusable. He even says: “The church should support legislation that would give homosexual persons equal rights in employment, housing, and public accommodations.”

Here is a situation where the pastor whose argument from the Bible is laced with condemnatory language is more gracious than his theology; the pastor shows more compassion and grace than the vindictive God he pictures and imagines God to be.

In my conversations with Christians I am seeing this again and again, namely, Christians more gracious and understanding than the God they profess to believe in and serve.

Amazing! Why not let go of a harsh, exclusive, judgmental theology? Otherwise, the gracious Christian who believes in such a God comes across as a much better person than the God he or she worships.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Large God Requires a Large Faith

We come to know God through both understanding and experience, which are always limited.

Think of the story of Moses standing before the God who appeared to him “in a flame of fire out of a bush” (Ex. 3:2). When Moses inquires as to God’s name, trying to understand God and wanting to explain who God is to his people, God responds, “I am who I am.”

The name communicates mystery and ambiguity. Why? Because a name cannot capture God; God can go by many names. To define God by a name would be to confine God to a particular expression of God’s self.

Later in the story of Moses’ relationship with God Moses asks to see (experience) God’s glory (Ex. 33:18). In the interchange between God and Moses God says, “And while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

What’s that about? It’s the biblical writer’s way of saying that we can only “see in part.” Our experience of God is always limited, because God is inexhaustible and his full glory is always hidden.

I would suggest that our capacity to experience God is greater than our capacity to understand God, but both are severely restricted in numerous ways.

This is one reason why all our creeds and faith confessions must be held tentatively, because God is so much greater and larger than our definitions, depictions, and descriptions of God. And so to insist that our understanding and experience, our explanations and expressions of faith are the only “right” ones is arrogant and misguided.

Because God is who God is our questions are more important than our answers. I love what Pastor Rob Bell did at his church (described in his book, “Velvet Elvis”); they hosted “A Doubt Night” where no question was off limits.

Why are questions important? Because they reflect humility and honesty; they allow God to be God instead of trying to make God conform to our image.

A large faith in a large God does not need answers to all our questions. When we allow God to be larger than what we can know, understand, or experience, we become larger too. We come to appreciate the mystery and paradox that is God.

I often wonder why people who insist that there is only one truth and they have it, want to settle for such a small “g” god.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Lesson in Discipleship

Here’s a quote from Michael Lewis’ book, Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life. Lewis it talking about his high school baseball coach:

“Most kids don’t get it” . . . By “it” he did not mean the importance of winning or even, exactly, of trying hard. What he meant was neatly captured on a sheet of paper he held in his hand, which he intended to photocopy and hand out to his players, as the keynote of one of his sermons. The paper contained a quote from Lou Piniella, the legendary baseball manager: HE WILL NEVER BE A TOUGH COMPETITOR. HE DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO BE COMFORTABLE WITH BEING UNCOMFORTABLE. “It” was the importance of battling one’s way through all the easy excuses life offered for giving up.”

I look for truth wherever I can find it. What is true and good is not confined to Christian sources; it can break out anywhere. I love this quote from Piniella. It’s true, not just in athletics, but in life; it’s basic to a healthy spirituality. I’m not talking about the “tough competitor” part, but the part about being "comfortable with being uncomfortable."

I think much of American Christianity is preaching a religion of comfort. Christ is offered as the answer to all our questions and the solution to all our problems. The Gospels, however, present Christ as one who creates as many problems for his followers as he solves. The call to die to our ego/self and take up our cross in obedience to Christ is a call to relinquish certain comforts. It involves learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Until we learn this lesson as disciples of Jesus we will mostly dabble in the faith. We will splash around in the shallows with the crawfish and water bugs, afraid to venture out into the deep water where the big fish live.

(The above article first appeared in "Connections" (Oct. 25, 2009); the bi-weekly newsletter of Immanuel Baptist Church (ibcfrankfort.com).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Reimagining God

Imagine a tight-knit community where people share joys, sufferings, concerns, and gossip. An outsider to this community listening in on their conversations and observing their life together would pick up rather quickly on their references and allusions to “Uncle George,” who seems to bind the community together.

Uncle George appears to be lurking behind all their interactions. A beautiful sunset prompts one community member to exclaim, “Isn’t Uncle George awesome?” Good news and celebrative events inspire feelings of gratitude toward Uncle George. Even in tragedy, the community turns toward Uncle George for help.

At the beginning of each week the community assembles at the Community Center. There is animated conversation and fellowship as they discuss the past week’s events and upcoming plans. When a bell sounds, the conversation ceases. Everyone descends down a stairway into the basement where a giant man in dark clothes stands with his back turned toward them, facing an enormous furnace.

When all are assembled he turns around. His look is stern and somber. His voice deep, he says, “Am I good?” They all respond in unison, “Yes, Uncle George, you are good.” He then asks, “Am I worthy of praise?” “Yes,” they all proclaim. “Do you love me more than anyone or anything else?” “We love you and you alone,” they reply.

His face is contorted and in a frightening voice he thunders, “You better love me or I’m going to put you . . . in here!” He opens the furnace door to reveal a gaping darkness. Out of the darkness can be heard cries of anguish and misery. Then he closes the door as they sit in silence.

After a time of reflection on what they just heard they leave and return to their life together in community. They talk about the wonders of Uncle George and they speak of his love for them as they live their lives the best they can.

But while they mention Uncle George’s love, there is beneath all the talk and interaction an underlying fear and confusion—sometimes conscious, sometimes repressed—but always present. This inner fear limits their relationships, preventing them from talking about their doubts and questions, and keeping them from expressing to one another their inner anguish and uncertainties. It diminishes their lives in myriads of ways.

Sound familiar? Sometimes it is necessary “to lose one’s religion” as a necessary step in nurturing a healthier spirituality. Reconstruction presumes some form of deconstruction. We may need to relinquish not only our sin, but our small, unhealthy, fearful images of God in order to cultivate and grow a more transformational faith—a faith that drives out fear and inspires real love of God and neighbor (1 John 4:16-18).

(Several versions of the above story are in print;  the story above was adapted from David Dark's book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything).