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).