Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Living Faith

There can be a vast difference between a living faith and adherence to a system of religious beliefs. In the Gospels faith has nothing to do with doctrinal beliefs about Jesus, and everything to do with trust in Jesus as a mediator of God’s grace and love.

For example, a woman suffering with a chronic bleeding condition that rendered her unclean according to Jewish law believed that if she could just touch Jesus’ clothing she would be healed. She obviously held to a popular cultural myth that claimed that the healing powers of a healer (there were other healers in the ancient world besides Jesus) extended to the healer’s clothes.

When she touched the garment of Jesus healing power went out to her, without Jesus intending it. Jesus told the woman, “Your faith has made you whole” (see Mark 5:25-34). There is no suggestion at all in the biblical account that she believed Jesus to be the Messiah or anything like what later Christians meant when they ascribed to Jesus the title, “Son of God.”

In this story faith constituted a simple, humble, and risky (the woman risked the hostility of the religious authorities because everyone she touched in the crowd she rendered unclean) act of trust in Jesus as the mediator of the healing power of God.

A living faith enables us to be sensitive to God’s presence and connects us to the renewing, healing grace, forgiveness, and mercy of God. It is not some doctrinal or dogmatic belief about Jesus; it is, rather, a child-like trust and vulnerability that opens the disciple up to the dynamic presence of the living Christ.

Years ago, early on in my spiritual journey, I thought that what one believed about Jesus was what changed a person. I was wrong. The evidence is fairly conclusive. Some of the most doctrinally certain Christians can be the most difficult to get along with. Confident in their beliefs “about” Jesus, they lack the love, grace, and humility “of” Jesus.

A Christian belief is what we think and endorse about some aspect of Christian teaching (God, Jesus, the Bible, etc.) at a particular stage in our faith journey. As we grow in love and grace our beliefs change. If our beliefs never change this is probably a good indication that we are stagnant and are not growing spiritually. I have discarded many of the beliefs I once held, but my faith is stronger today than it ever was.

I am not suggesting that faith is devoid of all belief or intellectual content. There is something to be said for a reasonable faith, as opposed to a blind faith or one that lacks intellectual credibility. But faith does not deal in certainties and reason alone does not open us up to God. Certitude is usually rooted in fear, which explains why some people become so defensive about their beliefs.

“We see through a glass dimly,” says Paul in his great exposition of love in 1 Corinthians 13. There’s no infallible experience of God: no inerrant Bible or infallible tradition or perfect anything. But we can and do experience love and love is foundational and essential to the nature of Divine Reality.

A living faith exposes us and makes us receptive to the Divine Love that pervades the universe—a Love that Christians believe became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.

Intellectual assent or doctrinal belief in God, Jesus, the Bible, heaven, or anything else does little in and of itself to change us. It is our experience of love that frees us from our ego, opens us up to the Mystery, and is transformative in our lives and relationships.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Doing What Is Right May Mean Being Ineffective

Charlie Pearl, Staff Writer for the Frankfort State Journal, recently interviewed Wendell Berry in the aftermath of Berry’s decision to move many of his personal papers (which measure 60 cubic feet in volume) from the University of Kentucky archives. Berry, who is known for his passion for the land and for environmental issues, made the decision after the university accepted a $7 million dollar donation from the coal industry for a new basketball dormitory, agreeing to name it Wildcat Coal Lodge.

Berry said that he was willing to live with the university’s “manifest lack of concern about surface mining in Eastern Kentucky and its ecological implications, its implications for the forests, for the survival of the wild creatures and maybe preeminently for the rural people there that a land grant university is mandated to look after and help,” noting that this form of mining “is literally hell for the people who live near those mine sites.” Berry said that he was willing to live with their lack of interest in these things, but when they accepted the coal money and agreed to name the dormitory after the coal industry the university “passed over from indifference to manifest alliance with the coal industry.”

When asked if he had “any hope that mountaintop removal mining will stop before all the mountains are gone” Berry said: “Of course I hope it will stop . . . and I have publicly stated my willingness to do what’s necessary to stop it (including) doing nonviolent resistance.” After remarking that there wasn’t much room to be optimistic that this would happen, Berry says something quite profound and important: “I don’t think a person has a right to protest or work for change on the assumption that the effort will be effective. This is whether it’s right or not.”

The real issue, the heart of the matter, says Berry, is whether or not it is right. It’s not about effectiveness; it’s about integrity and doing what is good, just, and right.

I have sometimes wondered why I am doing what I am doing—challenging dualistic, exclusivistic, heaven and hell oriented Christianity in the context of presenting a more holistic, inclusive, and gracious understanding, rooted in the unconditional love of God.

In a Bible Belt town, where there is a church on every corner, I have certainly made more enemies than friends. (I don’t consider them enemies, but they consider me an enemy, or a messenger of Satan, as someone recently called me).

I have little chance of being effective. Many of those who sympathize with this message will not dare stand up to their family and friends; the pressure to conform to traditional beliefs and practices is too great.

I guess I’m doing what I’m doing because if I didn’t I couldn’t live with myself. Preaching, teaching, advocating, and writing about an inclusive gospel is the just, good, and right thing to do.

I have little hope of being effective. The church I pastor will probably lose more members than it gains. I probably will not see much difference in the community. Traditional, dualistic beliefs are deeply entrenched here. No matter. There is a kind of peace that comes when you do what you believe in your heart is right.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Church and Patriarchy

Spiritual writer Richard Rohr has observed that in recent centuries most churches have been on the wrong side of most human reformations and revolutions, until after these reformations succeeded. Consider the issue of civil rights: Many churches in America remained silent, while many others either overtly or covertly worked against just legislation and practice. There were, of course, Christians like Martin Luther King, Jr. who led the charge, but these constituted a minority.

Western Christianity has evolved largely into a matter of the head. This took the form of highly academic theology in Europe, and in America it was expressed through a narrow, dogmatic fundamentalism. In both forms Western Christians seemed to show little interest in the things that Jesus of Nazareth was passionate about.

Any version of Christian faith that shows little interest in issues such as human suffering, inclusivity, poverty, political and spiritual oppression, planet care, and care for the outsider lacks credibility and authenticity.

Today, churches seem to be the most formidable institutional structures resistant to egalitarian roles for women. In the early 1990’s I pastored a church in Eastern Kentucky where our female choir director was not permitted to lead congregational singing because to do so, the deacons argued, would usurp male authority. Still today few evangelical churches ordain women into pastoral ministry, or for that matter, even elect or appoint female deacons or elders.

Sara VanScoy is a medical doctor and psychiatrist who served 11 years in the Air Force. She earned a master’s degree in divinity (summa cum laude) at Bethel Seminary in Jonesboro, Arkansas in May 2009. Though praised by her professors for her gifted preaching and teaching, she can’t even get in the door of a church to be considered for a pastoral position. In a recent article by religious professor Anne Eggebroten in “Sojourners,” Sara told Anne: “It’s sad, really, that the only place in my entire life that I have experienced gender discrimination is the church.”

Even in some mega-churches, like Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California where John MacArthur is pastor, you will find only male pastors, deacons, and elders, along with specific teaching that women are to live in submission to men. In 1987 the “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” was formed to counter the influence of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus and the newly-founded Christians for Biblical Equality.

Isn’t it sad that Christians have to fight these battles? The solution, I believe, is not to abandon Christianity, but to reform it.

We must allow the fresh wind of the Spirit of the living Christ to blow away these patriarchal structures, as well as all oppressive, exclusivistic, and dualistic beliefs and practices that have become encased in many forms of institutional Christianity.

The God Movement, proclaimed, embodied, and expressed through the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, is among us. It is even within us (Luke 17:21). We need eyes to see and a will to respond.

God needs women and men today who will have the courage to challenge the religious powers that be and become selfless instruments of peace and ready conduits through which God’s unconditional love can flow out to the world.