Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Scripture Lesson on Fundamentalism (and how progressives differ from conservatives)

The seventh chapter of John offers some important insights into the nature of fundamentalism. Consider the following:

Now some of the people of Jerusalem were saying, “Is not this the man whom they are trying to kill? And here he is, speaking openly, but they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this is the Messiah? [This should be read as a dig at the religious authorities] Yet we know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.” Then Jesus cried out as he was teaching in the temple, “You know me, and you know where I am from’ [the implied meaning is, “So you think you know me and where I am from”] I have not come on my own. But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him. I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me” (7:25-29). 

Here some of the people are convinced that Jesus is not of God based on a tradition. A tradition which they have come to accept as fact: The Messiah will have an unknown, mysterious origin.

Jesus, on the other hand, claims to know God and be sent from God. If one could ask Jesus how he knows this I suspect he would say, “I just know.” In other contexts Jesus points to his works of compassion as evidence of his authenticity. But how did he know that he knew God? Jesus obviously trusted his “inner authority” and experience. He just knew.

As the narrative unfolds others base their belief that Jesus could not be the Messiah on scripture: Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” (7:41b-42) [Apparently this interpretation of scripture was so prevalent that Matthew incorporated it in his birth narrative in Matt. 2:5-6.]

So Jesus is rejected on the basis of tradition and scripture.

In the fundamentalist stage of my Christian pilgrimage I was taught what to believe. I was told this is what scripture teaches and this became part of my Christian tradition. So, on the basis of tradition and scripture I believed what I believed. This is how fundamentalism works. Scripture and tradition are used to support deeply entrenched beliefs one inherits from one’s group. The group, of course, can be family, church, denomination, peer group, club, political party, nation, etc.

As John’s narrative unfolds some common sense objectors to the closed-mindedness of the authorities raise their voices. The temple police refuse to arrest Jesus because, “Never has anyone spoken like this!” (7:46). Does this spark any inquiry or interest on the part of the authorities? The authorities reprimand them by appealing to . . . well, their authority: “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?” (7:47-48).

Next, Nicodemus raises a common sense objection based on scripture: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:51). This, too, is countered with sarcasm, a veiled threat, and authority: “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee” (7:52). How can we account for such entrenched thinking and closed-mindedness? Maybe a contemporary example can help.

According to a recent poll a full third of the Republican base believe that a military exercise called Jade Helm is really just a pretense for President Obama to take over Texas. Now, how is it possible that one-third of the GOP would believe such craziness?

Political blogger Kevin Drum asks that question and contends that most of those who said they believe it don’t actually believe it. He thinks that GOP pollsters simply used the opportunity to show their hate and distrust for President Obama, but deep down they don’t really believe the theory.

In other words, hate and prejudice are the driving factors that account for the poll numbers, not actual belief. I suspect this is true of many entrenched belief systems. We could also add fear and insecurity to the list. These components – disdain, prejudice, fear, and insecurity – keep people from honest inquiry and the genuine pursuit of truth.

Blogger Fred Clark at Patheos.com basically agrees with this, but he takes it a step further:

Over time, these kinds of tribal-cheerleading responses to pollsters and other catechists eventually become required responses. And thus, over time, the things that people pretend to believe as a “way of showing that they’re members in good standing” of their political faction become the things that members of that action actually believe. The fluff becomes substance — becomes dogma. And the tribe is transformed to conform to this new dogma.

It starts as almost a joke . . . But then the pretense becomes habit and the habit becomes doctrine. What begins as a flippant response to express tribal membership becomes what you must say to show that you are a member in good standing of the tribe. And then, after it becomes what every member in good standing is saying and must say, it becomes what every member in good standing actually believes.

Thus, according to Clark, members of the group actually end up believing what the group teaches, no matter how far-fetched it may seem.

I don’t claim to be able to psychoanalyze why a group becomes entrenched in their traditions and beliefs, but this closed-mindedness is the fundamental characteristic of fundamentalism. And herein is the basic difference between progressive and conservative Christians.

It’s not that progressives do not believe what they believe passionately. Many do. I do. But progressives are much more willing to say, “I could be wrong.” Conservatives are much more likely to appeal to their authorities – tradition, scripture, creeds, belief statements, etc. – to affirm what they already believe. Progressives may also appeal to such things (I do), but we are more likely to trust our “inner authority” guided by reason, common sense, human experience and struggle, and certain central values.

Progressives contend for values like compassion, forgiveness, love of neighbor as one’s self, commitment to restorative and distributive justice, the necessity of honest inquiry, and the humble pursuit of truth wherever truth can be found. These values transcend particular beliefs about God, the Bible, salvation, etc. As a progressive Christian I generally find myself more at home with compassionate humanists than conservative Christians, simply because we share core values rooted in acceptance of diversity and commitment to the common good.

The only things I am sure of are these values. For example, I am confident that love trumps all doctrine and dogma and that loving others is far more important than believing ideas about God. How do I know? I am convinced that this is what my “true self” (the Christ self) tells me. I, of course, can support this with a progressive interpretation of scripture, especially by appealing to the life and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. But ultimately, I just know.

(This article was first published at Baptist News Global)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Where Is Heaven?

Almost two decades ago I went through a crisis in my faith where the conservative Christianity of my early training left me dry and empty and wondering if I had made a huge mistake with my life. Rather than abandoning the faith, I discovered some “progressive” options that were more credible and transformative.

Surprisingly, an evangelical philosopher and theologian helped me with my transition. Dallas Willard’s book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God prompted me to rethink my views about salvation, the kingdom of God (which was the central theme in Jesus’ preaching and teaching), discipleship and the spiritual life, the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross, and the reality of heaven. This is a book progressives could benefit from. I certainly do not agree with all that Willard taught, especially his view on biblical inspiration, but I benefited immensely from his teaching at that critical time in my life. I wish more evangelicals would read Willard and interact with his teaching.

With regard to the reality of heaven, he helped me realize that heaven is not just up there somewhere, it is right here right now. He wrote,

The Old Testament experience of God is one of the direct presence of God’s person, knowledge, and power to those who trust and serve him. Nothing – no human being or institution, no time, no space, no spiritual being, no event – stands between God and those who trust him. The “heavens” [he noted that heaven in the Greek is usually plural] are always there with you no matter what, and the “first heaven,” in biblical terms, is precisely the atmosphere or air that surrounds your body. (p. 67)

Willard referenced biblical stories of how God spoke and appeared to human beings “out of heaven” noting that “in such passages ‘heaven’ is never thought of as far away – in the clouds perhaps, or by the moon. It is always right here, ‘at hand.’” Willard emphasized that God is not up there, but right here, and therefore constantly accessible and available.

Willard warned,

The damage done to our practical faith in Christ and in his government-at-hand by confusing heaven with a place in distant or outer space, or even beyond space, is incalculable. Of course God is there too. But instead of heaven and God also being always present with us, as Jesus shows them to be, we invariably take them to be located far away and, most likely, at a much later time – not here and not now. And we should then be surprised to feel ourselves alone?

Not bad for an evangelical don’t you think? These words from Willard came to me as living water when I was in a dry, parched land. At the time, I desperately needed to know that God was that close, and I learned from Willard that the world is immersed in the Divine and the Divine pervades the world. Very, very good news.

Today, I would attribute to words like “heaven” and “hell” more symbolical and metaphorical applications, but this idea of heaven being right here all around us and in us is very helpful. The progressive Franciscan priest and mystic Richard Rohr expresses the symbolic meaning of heaven this way,

Heaven is the state of union both here and later. As now, so will it be then. No one is in heaven unless he or she wants to be, and all are in heaven as soon as they live in union. Everyone is in heaven when he or she has plenty of room for communion and no need for exclusion. The more room you have to include, the bigger heaven will be. (Falling Upward, 101)                                                                                                
Where is heaven? Heaven is up, down, and all around. Heaven is where God is and God is the very Spirit in whom “we live, move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Heaven is now as well as later. It is where we experience conscious union with God and all God’s creation. It’s when and where we recognize that we all belong, that we are all connected.

Heaven is where we realize that the God who fills all space and is part of all that is, dwells in each one us as the eternal Logos/Wisdom who enlightens every person (John 1:9), as the Holy Spirit who leads us into the truth of who we really are (John 14:16-17), and as the cosmic Christ who makes God real in our hearts, engenders hope, and empowers us to love the way Jesus loved (Eph. 3:16-19; Col. 1:27; Gal. 2:20; Phil. 1:21, 4:13). 

An edited version of this article first appeared at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Jesus is not the same as Christ

A holistic, inclusive, compassionate, justice oriented Christian vision would be adopted by more Christians if more Christians more carefully understood and distinguished between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ. The appearance stories in the Gospels (probably a late developing tradition for they are absent from Mark, the first Gospel written) function to bridge the gap between the historical Jesus of Nazareth and the living, cosmic Christ, linking the two together. Christ, however, is not Jesus’ last name. Jesus is not the same as Christ, though Jesus is included in the cosmic reality of Christ.

In his excellent work, The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox describes it this way,

"Christ" means more than Jesus. It also refers to the new skein of relationships that arose around him during and after his life. . . . Paul frequently speaks of the Christ who dwells within him and within the other followers. When for example, he writes that among those who share the Spirit of Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for are all one in Christ Jesus,” he means something more extensive than the historical Jesus (Gal. 3:28). The Easter cycle, with all its harshness, joy, and impenetrability, tells of this enlargement of this historical Jesus story into the Christ story (p. 52).

This cosmic, collective, corporate divine reality known as Christ is not limited to Christians (we who are followers of the historical Jesus). Christians know and experience the character (love, compassion, goodness, etc.) of the cosmic Christ through the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but the Spirit of Christ is not limited to Christians. According to Cox “one of the most devastating blunders made by the church . . . was to insist that the Spirit is present only in believers.”

The Apostle Paul rarely references the historical Jesus. He speaks mostly of the cosmic Christ to whom we are united and in whom and through whom we live. We are in Christ and Christ is in us (Gal. 2:20).

In the Christ hymns/litanies of Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20 the cosmic Christ precedes the historical Jesus. In Colossians the ancient Jewish wisdom tradition, which was personified as a woman (Sophia) in some texts, is applied to Christ. Christ here is creator and sustainer of everything and the reality in whom all things will be gathered up and reconciled to God (“through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven”). The language here is poetic, mythic, metaphorical, and symbolic as all religious language must be.

What a big picture, grand story, universal, inclusive, kingdom of God kind of Christianity we would have if more Christians understood and made these distinctions! It is the cosmic Christ in whom we all “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Christ is the light that enlightens every person (John 1:9) and is the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate that enlightens the whole world to spiritual reality (John 16:7-11). Christ is the fullness of God who will ultimately gather up everything in himself/herself (Eph. 1:10) and draw all people into conscious oneness in God (John 12:32).

Franciscan theologian and mystic Richard Rohr expresses this beautifully,

The eternal Christ Mystery began with the Big Bang where God decided to materialize as the universe. Henceforth, the material and the spiritual have always co-existed, just as Genesis 1:1-2 seems to be saying. Although this Christ existed long before Jesus, and is coterminous with creation itself, Christians seem to think Christ is Jesus’ last name. What Jesus [the historical Jesus] allows us to imagine – because we see it in him – is that the divine and the human are forever one. . . . God took on all human nature [Jesus is the archetypal, representative human being] and said ‘yes’ to it forever! In varying degrees and with infinite qualities, God took on everything physical, material, and natural as himself. That is the full meaning of the Incarnation. To allow such a momentous truth, to fully believe it, to enjoy it in practical ways, to suffer it with and for others – this is what it means to be Christian! Nothing else will do now. Nothing less will save the world.” (Rohr, Daily Meditations, Dec. 18, 2014)

What a difference this vision makes in how we see the world and our place in it, and also in how we interpret and apply scripture. The Gospels, for example, blend and interweave together memories of the historical Jesus and proclamations of the cosmic Christ. When we understand this the Gospels make so much more sense.

For example, consider the saying of Jesus in John 14:6, which is not an actual saying of the historical Jesus, but a saying attributed to Jesus as the living Christ by the Johannine community: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is not true of the historical Jesus, but it is true of the living Christ, in whom and through whom we all live, breathe, and have our existence.

Christians know the cosmic Christ through the historical person of Jesus, but the cosmic Christ can speak, draw, enlighten, touch, and transform people through means, methods, and mediators other than the historical Jesus. Scholar and spiritual writer Brother David Stendl-Rast says it like this,

Our knowledge of Jesus is mediated through others. The Christ is us we know firsthand, even if we have never heard of Jesus. . . . In this sense one doesn’t have to be a Christian to know Christ. You know Christ when you know your Self [the true self, the Divine Self, the Spirit of Christ within]. . . . As people come to know their authentic Self, they become aquainted with the inner reality that Christians call Christ. (Deeper Than Words, p. 47)

We can come to know and experience the Christ Self in us through a number of different ways. For Christians, Jesus is the way and truth that leads us into a relationship with the Divine Life.

Consider also the story of Jesus walking on the water in Mark 6:45-52. It is highly improbable that the historical Jesus walked on water. This story is rooted in the church’s proclamation of the cosmic Christ, rather than memory of the historical Jesus. Some Gospel stories are clearly rooted in the history of Jesus of Nazareth; other stories (like this one) are predominantly related to the church’s proclamation of the cosmic Christ.

Mark’s storm on the sea draws from a rich tradition in the Hebrew scriptures where 1) the sea is associated with evil powers, and 2) God rules the sea. According to an ancient creation myth that shows up in the Psalms and the prophets, when God made the world and separated the waters from the dry land, God had to combat and subdue monstrous forces of chaos that lived in, or were identified with, the waters of the sea (Ps. 89:8-10; Isa. 57:8-10). Rahab was one of the names of the primal sea-monster, or perhaps a personification of the chaos itself, which God had to subdue. See especially Ps. 107:23-29, which may have been used to shape Mark’s story.

Also, Mark's version clearly draws from the Hebrew imagery and language ("I am"; "fear not"; going to "pass by") of theophany. God identifies God’s self to Moses as “I am.” “Fear not” was the first word generally spoken by God or an angel when God or angels appeared to humans. The “passing by” imagery comes from Exodus 33:18, 19 where God passed by Moses when Moses said to God, “Show me your glory.”

Clearly, Mark’s story draws upon Hebrew imagery to connect Christ with God’s engagement in the world and God’s people. We could call this story a Christophany. It is a story about the living presence of Christ with the church in times of distress and hardship.

It is a story for all time, but think how appropriate this proclamation would have been to the Christian community Mark was addressing during and immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. All chaos was unleashed. But have faith, proclaims Mark, the living Christ is present in the storm. 

The pre-Easter Jesus is the historical Jesus, the man Jesus whose life gives us a full picture of what a human life immersed in God, full of divine love and compassion looks like. The post-Easter Christ incorporates the human Jesus, but is a much larger and more expansive reality.

As a Christian I understand the cosmic Christ through the lens of the historical Jesus. I experience the Spirit of Christ as the spirit, character, passion, and compassion of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus provides my “objective reference point” (Steindl-Rast) for making sense of the Christ Spirit, the Christ within, the Spirit at work in the world, my faith community, and in my personal life. My true self, my authentic self is the Christ Self – the Divine Self living in and through me. 

Christ in me is my hope of glory (Col. 1:27). It is also the hope of the world. If only the Christ within every human being could be brought to conscious awareness and the divine love (which was incarnate in the historical Jesus) within each one unleashed, the kingdom of God would come on earth. 

(This post was first published at Baptist News Globel)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Southern Baptists, Racism, and Inerrancy

Writing in The AtlanticEmma Green attempts (and does so quite admirably) to navigate the turbulent history of Southern Baptists’ previous support of racism to their now vocal opposition. She notes that since 1995 the SBC has been publicly repenting of its history of racial discrimination, which marks a decisive turn from the denomination’s beginnings when it “helped define the history of American racism.”
Southern Baptists who defended slavery and then later segregation appealed to an inerrant scripture for their justification. Ironically, when Green spoke with pastors and church leaders in Nashville, most cited scripture as their justification for opposing racism.
While Southern Baptists believe that scripture is “truth without any mixture of error” it is obvious that Southern Baptists do not read the Bible without any mixture of error. Southern Baptists, along with everyone else, read the Bible as fallible, error-prone human beings who are about as likely to get things wrong as right.
Green also observes how Southern Baptists read the text with an emphasis on the individual. She spoke with SBC African American pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, who said,
Most of my African American brothers and sisters, we’ve had a group experience. Our experience in this country has been defined first and foremost by this pigment that we share. So when we have these conversations about how to make progress, African Americans go to group experience pretty quickly. We speak in “we”. And white Americans go pretty quickly to the individual and speak of “I” …
One of the things we have to repent of as a denomination or as conservative Christians … [is] the shrinking idea of justice down to abortion and homosexuality. There’s far more going on in the world affecting far more people that we also ought to be concerned about.
The issues Anyabwile mentioned that Southern Baptists should be concerned with included criminal-justice policies, education funding, and the alleviation of child poverty. This, of course, is not likely to happen. And why? Well, it’s back to the Bible.
According to Russell Moore, the head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), scripture is not clear on these social issues the way it is clear that racism reflects humankind’s sinful nature. Green perceptively comments,
Notably absent from the ERLC’s policy priorities are issues like mass incarceration or fiscal programs designed to support those in poverty. It’s one thing to aim to purge a man’s heart of ill will toward his black or white brothers in Christ. It’s quite another to try to rectify the after-effects of 250 years of slavery and decades of Jim Crow that followed.
Green observes how ironic it is for Southern Baptists to embrace the former and ignore the later for the simple reason that Southern Baptists have had such a defining role in shaping the history of racism.
Fred Clark, responding on his blog to Green’s article, argues that inerrancy and individualism were not mere impediments to racial and social justice, they were justifications for injustice. He contends,
Inerrancy is an artifice constructed to provide a way of reading the Bible to defend slavery … That’s why it exists. It enabled Southern Baptists in 1833 and 1845 and 1965 to cite pro-slavery proof texts in order to limit and trump the Golden Rule …
And the white evangelical ideal of individual salvation – a ‘personal Lord and Savior’ whose kingdom exists only in some otherworldly afterlife – was developed as a rationalization for the brutal injustice and denial of salvation [read social justice] that white Christians were determined to defend and endorse in this world and in this life.
Either way – as contributing factors or as justifications/rationalizations – the Southern Baptist belief in biblical inerrancy and over-emphasis on individual salvation continues to limit their participation in a holistic gospel that intentionally pursues racial reconciliation and social justice issues.
This blog was first published at the Unfundamentalist Christians blog at Patheos.com

The Sacredness of Doubt

It is unfortunate that the Johannine Thomas has come to be known by many Christians as “doubting Thomas.” Thomas, however, is no different than the rest of the disciples or for that matter, you or me. In the broader narrative where the encounter with Thomas occurs, Mary encounters Jesus alive and announces the good news to the disciples, but they did not believe her. When Jesus appears to them they are fearfully huddled in a locked room hiding from the religious establishment (John 20:19).

We are all doubters just like all the disciples. It is simply not true that all doubt leads to cynicism or relativism. Doubt is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld in a book titled, In Praise of Doubt, write,

“One can doubt big and important, or small and unimportant, things. One can harbor doubts about oneself, the world at large, or God. What these cases have in common is that they question whether something or someone is reliable, trustworthy, and meaningful – that is, whether something or someone is ‘true.’ Doubt and truth, in other words, are about relationships” (p. 105).

Healthy doubt is often the prelude to deeper relationships and a richer faith.

If the truth were told I suspect that many people who claim to have no doubts actually have any number of doubts which they have denied and repressed. It’s much easier to deny our doubts than do the difficult work it takes to face them and struggle with them by digging deeper into both our faith tradition and into our own carefully guarded souls.

The most exalted Christological confession in the Gospel of John is found on the lips of Thomas after his experience of Jesus alive: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). What is important to understand though is that this declaration is not a confession of belief in a propositional or creedal doctrine about the person of Jesus. That comes later when the creeds, whose primary purpose was to unify the Roman Empire, solidified belief in the metaphysical nature of Jesus as being equal to God.    

When Thomas says, “My Lord and my God,” he is not making a statement about the metaphysical nature of Jesus’ divinity. He is pledging his allegiance to everything that Jesus stood for and lived for on earth.

In the days when John’s Gospel was written, to proclaim Jesus as Lord was a very dangerous and subversive proclamation. Both “Lord” and “God” were titles attributed to the Roman emperor who was proclaimed as “Lord,” “Son of God,” and “God manifest.” The early Jesus followers were saying in essence: Caesar is not Lord, Jesus is Lord. They were declaring their primary allegiance to Jesus – to the values he lived by and the kingdom he proclaimed.  

Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). It’s important to understand that “to believe” in John’s Gospel involves more than belief. It includes belief, but it means “to trust in” and “be faithful to” the way of Jesus.

And in John’s Gospel “seeing” is a way of talking about spiritual experience, about being in relationship with God and being enlightened to spiritual reality. When John’s Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen” he means, “Blessed are those who have not seen in the way that Thomas has seen.” Clearly, we do not all “see” the same things or in the same ways.

Blessed are those who don’t see the way I see or you see, and yet walk in the way of Jesus and express the grace and truth he incarnated. Far more important than believing the right things is living the right way.  

Consider the mandate the Johannine Jesus gives to the disciples: “As the Father sent me so I send you” (John 20:21). Of all the qualities and characteristics of the life and teaching of Jesus that could have been mentioned, the Gospel writer highlights forgiveness (20:23). Forgiveness is what disciples of Jesus do. The giving and receiving of forgiveness may be the most important way we can extend the incarnation of Jesus into our families, churches, and larger communities.

If our doubts can lead us into a deeper connection to our faith tradition where orthopraxy trumps orthodoxy and into a deeper relationship with the Divine where love trumps doctrine then we may indeed find religion and spirituality life transforming. Good religion and spirituality make us good and compel us to pursue the good within ourselves and in our larger world, thus inspiring us to work for the common good of society and our planet.   

What you or I believe about some Christian doctrine such as the deity of Jesus or the virgin birth of Jesus or the metaphysical nature of Jesus will not amount to much of anything. But how we live in the spirit of Jesus, how we embody the compassion of Jesus, how we dispense the forgiveness of Jesus, how we incarnate the grace of Jesus, that is what matters and that is what makes a difference.  

This post first appeared at Baptist News Global Global