Sunday, April 24, 2011

He Is Risen

Jesus Christ is risen indeed

Today, as my Facebook page is rife with joyous exclamations of resurrection and hope, it seems appropriate to contemplate the meaning of Christ Resurrected.  I have no issues with Jesus crucified. I’ve studied enough to be satisfied that, as best we can know, a man named Jesus existed in first century Palestine and quite likely was crucified by the Romans (though no actual first-, or even second-, hand evidence exists). But to accept a literal resurrection with as much confidence as I’ve accepted a literal crucifixion requires a whole different order of questions and criticism.  I’m not one of those scientism-thinkers who relegates any story of the miraculous to the fairy tale pile.  Just because miracles aren’t likely and aren’t explicable when they do, doesn’t mean they are impossible—that’s kinda the definition of miracle, after all. So I leave open the possibility that this guy Jesus did not only literally die but also bodily resurrect.  I think, however, that it is highly improbable and take the line of least resistance—I will only accept a literal miracle when more likely explanations don’t exist.

Many people take the CS Lewis approach to Jesus and say he must be exactly who we’ve decided he said he was (a substitutionally atoning deity, sacrificed on our behalf) because otherwise he was either a liar or insane—as if those are the only options.  Since we can’t believe that Jesus would either lie or be insane (just think what that would do to our doctrines!), we must therefore accept that he is the dead and resurrected God-Man.  Um, yeah, the dead and resurrected God-Man.  Just like the dead and resurrected God-Man of the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Celts, the Hindu, the…. Yeah, dead and resurrected god-men were quite popular in the thousand years before and after Jesus.  Even non-deities like Roman emperors and Greek heroes were talked about as resurrected and coming back in glory. So, thinking of Jesus’s death and resurrection as somehow different, more literal, than all those is pretty crazy to me.

Which all leaves me with the question—who was this Jesus, then?  What was his purpose?  My working hypothesis has been that he was a singularly human teacher who preached a wholly loving God that didn’t need sacrifice or legalism for atonement.  A teacher whose primary and perhaps only message was an overwhelming and transformative experience of this God found through and resulting in the love and service to one’s fellowman.

What a comedown from a resurrected deity!  So commonplace!  Why, Jesus would be no different than Buddha or Lao-tse or even Mohammed.   And not significantly different than the later Jewish prophets of his own tradition. The shock of the idea pointedly illustrates the elitism and entitlement tendencies of Christianity as surely as the fervor with which Christians insist that Jesus is a dead and resurrected God-Man wholly different than all the others.

And all of the clamor of “my god is better than yours” distracts completely from the radical, transformative, salvific Truth taught by every single one of those prophets and resurrected god-men:  recognizing one’s divine worth as wholly loved cannot help but lead one to love others with that same radical grace.  When you know you are loved, you cannot do anything else but love.  In our denominational tribalism, we fight tooth and nail for the doctrinal correctness of our particular formulation of that Truth to the extent that we ignore the Truth itself. 

We are loved.  We are wholly, completely, totally, unequivocally, inalterably LOVED by the Very Being who creates the universe.  We need do, in fact, cannot do anything to be lovable, to be loving, to be loved.  We are loved, we are lovable, and to the extent that we understand our loved-ness, we are loving.  And that really is amazing, radical, transformative, and capable of bringing peace to all mankind.  No matter who teaches a message of Love, under what name, the result is the same.  Recognizing the love brings more love to the world. 

When the love of God enters the world, Christ is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sin and Repentance II: Separated from God

[comment]  "Sin" just means an act that separates us from God (usually an immoral act). The concept of sin is theologically sound, even though for psychological reasons, we carry the emotional baggage which is socially implied in the word: rejection by God, by everybody because you are a "sinner". The idea of God being merciful only makes sense when we take into account that we return to Him as a source of unconditional love. Sin exists because of our free will....

Scott Morizot said...

If Christianity is true, then describing "sin" as something that separates us from God has the character of the absurd. As the Psalmist cries, there is nowhere we can go where God is not. As Paul declares in Athens, in God we live and move and have our being. As he writes in Colossians, everything subsists in and is contingent on Jesus.

Nor does sin have the solid character of an independent "act." Missing the mark involves action, of course, but it's more of a failure to reach the goal. How do we fail? Here the NT is abundantly clear. We fail to love. And because God is love, when we do so, we do attempt -- consciously or not -- to distance or separate ourselves from him.

But we can't actually be separated from God in any sense. If we could, we would simply cease to exist. But non-existence -- however much we strive for it -- lies beyond our power. Moreover, it's a struggle to even maintain the illusion of separation. God keeps pursuing and piercing our bubble. Adam (which simply means 'man') hides only to hear God asking him where he is. Jacob grasps for all he can hold only to find himself wrestling with God. Moses flees, but even on the remotest mountain encounters God. Israel is unfaithful, yet like Hosea with Gomer, God remains faithful and ultimately becomes the faithfulness of Israel in Christ.

Man turns from his only source of life and is enslaved by death. And even there, God follows him.

No, if it's possible for a human being to separate themselves from God, then Christianity is not true. And if it's not true, it's a waste of time and lives.

I'm not really trying to pick on anyone, but it seems to me that too many Christians today speak sincerely, but injudiciously.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sin and Repentance I: Disgusting to God

I had the following conversation with Scott Morizot of Faith and Food:

[The Heretic]  I’m still struggling with the idea of Sin. I’m still too steeped in the Augustinian idea of Original Sin that condemned me before I was born and the Evangelical idea that sin makes me so disgusting to God that he can’t look at me without the Jesus sunglasses. I don’t accept that those ideas are correct any longer and I am coming to see that there are some other much healthier ways of defining sin (thanks for all your blogging on Orthodoxy) but there is still that knee-jerk self-hatred when I see the word sin or try to request mercy for myself. Sigh.

[Scott replies]  I can empathize. I long struggled trying to grasp what Christianity really meant by that word, though for very different reasons. I did keep hearing explanations like the ones you mentioned, but since I was an adult without any real predisposition to accept them, they mostly got the Spock raised eyebrow reaction from me. (Internally, that is. My life has conditioned me to be able to smile and nod pleasantly even if I believe you’re completely off your rocker.) I also intuitively distrust an approach that basically says that before you can be a Christian, you first have to somehow feel bad about yourself. It can be effective, since most of us have done things over the course of our lives about which we feel badly, but it’s manipulative and paints God in a bad light. 

Almost everyone in any tradition will tell you that the Christian concept of ‘sin’ is most closely tied to the idea of missing the mark. Most people, however, don’t even notice that the statement begs the question: What’s the mark? For Christians, the ‘mark’ is, of course, love of God and others (which is one thing, not two separate things) and union with Christ. So when we miss the mark, we fail to love as human beings should and we try to distance ourselves from God. 

When we repent, then, we keep turning back to God and we keep trying to love. But we’re not good at it and we usually get ourselves and others all twisted up and damaged. So when we pray for mercy, we are asking for help and healing. God offers both in overflowing abundance. He gives us himself (or as much of him as we can bear) to help us. 

The Jesus Prayer, in particular, simply asks for mercy because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t actually know what sort of help we need most of the time. In fact, we sometimes don’t want the help we truly do need. Sometimes we’re afraid of being healed. We are often impatient, but God’s not in a rush. I try to remember that fact.

 (reposted from the-jesus-prayer-18-repentance with permission)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

It's All in the (Renounced) Name... Or Not

[comment]  I don't know that you'll find as much relief in abandoning the label as you might think. ...[T]here is more than a rejection of a label involved, including yet another schism between you and the community of faith that, imperfect though it may be, has guided seekers for centuries. I just don't like accepting the hegemony of their "Believe this or you're out." I want to respond to them, "No, I'm not out, and you're not out, either. You reject me all you want: I'll not reject you."

Anyway, I'll say to you, "No, you're not out. Call yourself whatever, but you're not out, and Christ isn't done with you yet." :-)
No, I'm not Out but I want to be In in a whole different way.  You are a new reader so you probably haven't read enough of my story to know that I've already deconverted entirely about twenty years ago and only this last year and half come back to the Christian name.  So I know pretty much exactly what I can expect to find without using the label. 

It's not like I've been involved in a local church and been part of a physical faith community that I am now going to abandon.  This blog is my faith community and I'm not going to walk away from it.  Nothing external is going to change at all, nor is most of the internal stuff—I'm not leaving any of my barely-even-within-yelling-distance-from-the-box views on spiritual matters. 

The only thing that changes is the expectation I have perceived (most likely only from myself) that I conform to or rebel against conventional, stereotypical American Evangelicalism. Usually I like to live in that sort of tension—or, if like isn't quite the word, keep finding myself in that tension—but after all the work I've done this last year making peace with my demons, well, that sort of tension is just not something I am capable of thriving with for a while.

I certainly have HUGE issues left with Evangelical Christianity that will need to be addressed if I am to continue growing and not continue dying.  I am committed to working through them, eventually.  I want to exorcise enough of those old demons that I don't feel like I got kicked in the gut every time I hear my friend say, "Praise Jesus" when anyone else would say, "Oh, that's so great".

Should I have had any illusion about the existence of unexorcised demons, yesterday enlightened me!  My daughter's theater company rehearses at a local church campus.  We moms hang out in the church coffee shop.  A church member came in to solicit our attendance at a yoga class she is starting up during the rehearsal time.  I have been missing my yoga classes so I got excited—until she listed as her credential that she was Holy Yoga certified and explained how regular yoga is bad but Holy Yoga is good because there's all in English and with Christian music and prayers.  I heard her every word like a fist to the chest.  Yeah, I still got issues.

The whole point of the work of my last two years has been to tame the demons enough so that I can heal the schism between me and the two-thousand-year tradition of faith.  I have done loads of work finding out just what that ancient tradition is—since it is definitely not merely today’s conventional American Evangelicalism projected backwards in time, as I had been taught—I have spent thousands of hours reading hundreds of thousands of pages about the history of Christianity, theological history and debate, and the development of various streams of Christianity.  I probably have a graduate degree worth of education, if only I’d got academic credit!  
It is time for a “summer break” to rest and recoup from the work.  And as long as I continue to call myself Christian, I can't let go of the immediacy of the struggle.  After the hell of my last several years, learning to accommodate my hysterical illness, a need to rest is something I take very seriously.

This rest, different from previous times in my life, is one I can now take knowing that I have found a peace with Jesus and the Christian God that I never had before—as a Christian or as a heathen.  This is definitely giving myself a chance to "rest in the Lord" rather than a "shaking the dust off my feet" as it was when I ran howling into heathendom twenty years ago.

[comment] …as I read my comment again I'm afraid it looks like I'm dismissing the urge to step back and give oneself some breathing room, to distance oneself from harmful associations. I understand all that. 
But as you said, a lot of our healing can best be done in community, and I do believe that God has people within fallible Christian communities who can support and with whom seekers like ourselves can engage in the Christian mission of helping the hurting, etc. Here's the danger I alluded to: you might well be able to accept them if they're still calling themselves Christians, but ceasing to call yourself one might well sever some relationships or close some opportunities.
Ah, good, I was hoping you weren’t trying to tell me to “stay the course, fight the fight” without recognition of the natural rhythms necessary to success.  Because that would have inspired a whole ‘nother kind of sermon right back at ya.  Now I can address your larger point:  the mutuality of working, living, growing, and healing in community. 

I so deeply agree with you that I see your point as one of the rock bottom foundations of my continuing journey with Christianity—with or without taking on the name.  I have been deeply scarred, irretrievably bent/shaped/changed by Christianity. Learning to live with those scars, healing the remaining wounds, thriving in my own now-quirky way, is only possible by being in community.  In so many ways, deepest healing can only come at the hands of those that hurt—maybe not the exact people but those who represent them for me.  I cannot consider myself truly healthy until I can participate with my whole self in that community that taught me to be only part of myself. 

Finding myself, stopping the worst of the continuing damage, could only happen by stepping out of the Christian community and embracing heathendom in all its secular, passionate glory.  But having found that God is also a heathen, I needed to find that God could also be Christian.  That has been the great success of my last two years.  I found myself at a heathen as well, and will eventually need to find that I can be a Christian.  But that work is for the future.

For today, I have found it ironic—inspiring many a chuckle at myself—that, while I am demanding so insistently that I am relinquishing the name of Christian, I have subscribed to a half dozen new blogs (all overtly and directly Christian), started a new Pandora station on my iPhone (Mahalia Jackson), and also just bought myself a new Bible (that I’m actually reading without undue PTSD).  I may not claim the name anymore but I sure haven’t run very far away!

Monday, April 11, 2011

I’m Not a Christian Anymore

At least, not in any recognizable or meaningful way.  According to most people who care about such things, I haven’t been a Christian for a long time anyway and my insistence this last year in using the name Christian has been an offence—even with the Heretic disclaimer prominently attached.  I am not changing my doctrinal positions (I had none anyway) or a faith in God (I tried atheism before and that just didn’t work well for a mystic). Nothing about me has changed at all, just the name.  I’m still debating whether to rename the blog or not.

I cast myself as a Christian Heretic a little over a year ago as I was working through the process of integrating my religious past with my spiritual present.  In that time, I’ve made peace with the Christian God, found a sense of Jesus that suits me, and stared down the darkest and meanest of my inner demons. It’s been a hell of a year.  Embracing the Christian name was a big part of my journey.  It gave me the ability to work from within my heritage instead of fighting myself as an outsider.  I did so much work that I just need to rest.  My soul is battered and bruised and needs to spend some significant time in Gilead

There is a balm in Gilead

To make the wounded whole; 

There is a balm in Gilead

To heal the sin-sick soul.

And I don’t think I can do that while keeping the name Christian.  Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of my Christian community is online and remarkably supportive of my heresies, I have nonetheless felt a constant pressure to conform, perform, reform.  Simply to stand my ground feels as though it requires a continuous effort to hold against the current of conventional thought.  This is not an indictment of any of my readers.  You have all been uniformly fabulous, gracious, kind, and loving.  More so that I ever expected when I began blogging.  In fact, this pressure is probably all in my own head, the result of yet-unresolved issues.  But I need to quit holding an identity whose very name triggers these internal pressures. 

I need to rest, regroup, recoup, not to continue breaking down old strongholds.  That will come someday but, for now, I need a long sleep.  So I am stepping outside the Christian identity, back to the place where I meet Grace without any baggage. I long for a time when I can be comfortable being a Christian solely on my own terms, without needing to challenge the paradigm, but that day is not now.  Now, I can’t seem to be a Christian without feeling the desire to get all up in the face of conventional institutional religion. 

My insistence on using the word Christian to describe my spirituality has become a boxing-in of myself rather than the freeing, whole-self inclusive soul-expansion that it has been.  The word itself feels like a weight pulling down from the backside of my chest. It is time to let it go.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

On Suffering II: Permit Your Pain to Become the Pain

Permit Your Pain to Become the Pain

Your pain, deep as it is, is connected with specific circumstances.  You do not suffer in the abstract.  You suffer because someone hurts you at a specific time and in a specific place.  Your feelings of rejections, abandonment, and uselessness are rooted in the most concrete events.  In this way all suffering is unique.  This is eminently true of the suffering of Jesus.  His disciples left him, Pilate condemned him, Roman soldiers tortured and crucified him.

Still, as long as you keep pointing to the specifics, you will miss the full meaning of your pain.  You will deceive yourself into believing that if the people, the circumstances, and events had been different, your pain would not exist. This might be partly true, but the deeper truth is that the situation which brought about your pain was simply the form in which you came in touch with the human condition of suffering.  Your pain is the concrete way in which you participate in the pain of humanity.

Paradoxically, therefore, healing means moving from your pain to the pain.  When you keep focusing on the specific circumstances of your pain, you easily become angry, resentful, and even vindictive.  You are inclined to do something about the externals of your pain in order to relieve it; this explains why you often seek revenge. But real healing comes from realizing that your own particular pain is a share in humanity’s pain.  That realization allows you to forgive your enemies and enter into a truly compassionate life.  That is the way of Jesus, who prayed on the cross: “Father forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24). Jesus’ suffering, concrete as it was, was the suffering of all humanity. His pain was the pain. 

Every time you can shift your attention away from the external situation that caused your pain and focus on the pain of humanity in which you participate, your suffering becomes easier to bear.  It becomes a “light burden” and an “easy yoke” (Matthew 11:30).  Once you discover that you are called to live in solidarity with the hungry, the homeless, the prisoners, the refugees, the sick, and the dying, your very personal pain begins to be converted into the pain and you find new strength to live it.  Herein lies the hope of all Christians. 

(excerpted from The Inner Voice of Love: a Journey Through Anguish to Freedom, Henri Nouwen)     

Part 1

Sunday, April 3, 2011

What is a Samaritan?

And behold a certain lawyer stood up, tempting him, and saying, Master, what must I do to possess eternal life?  But he said to him: What is written in the law? how readest thou?
He answering, said: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind: and thy neighbour as thyself.  And he said to him: Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. But he willing to justify himself, said to Jesus: And who is my neighbour? And Jesus answering, said:

So there’s this gay bar on the way into a big town.  It’s a popular spot for wild-eyed crazies to lounge in the shadows and prey on the hated sinners as they come out of the bar.  One night, there is a man lying beaten and unconscious on the curb in front of the bar. 

Jerry Falwell is being driven into town for a conference, sees the scene, and demands that the driver turn around. “Find another way into town; what will people think if they find out I was in this part of town where the gay bars are?” 

Rick Warren drives his own fancy rental car past the bar but doesn’t even see the man in the street because his mind is occupied with his upcoming launch of the new reality series “After the Sermon with the Purpose-Driven Preacher.”

Along comes a wealthy Pakistani Muslim with strongly rumored but unconfirmed ties to Al Qaida.  He tells his cab driver to stop.  He gathers up the unconscious man and directs the cabbie to the nearby Sisters of Mercy Hospital, where the hospital determines that the man has no identification and thus no insurance.  The Muslim slaps his Visa card down on the counter, “Insurance is no problem.  I will pay his charges.  Make sure he has a private room and the best of care.”

Which of these three, in thy opinion, was neighbour to him that fell among the robbers?  But he said: He that shewed mercy to him. And Jesus said to him: Go, and do thou in like manner. (Luke 10:25-37)