Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 1

Posted: June 8th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Elizabeth Esther wrote an interesting post about an exchange between Tim Challies and Ann Voskamp. If you haven’t read it, take a moment to do so. Especially as I read the comments that followed, I realized there seemed to be a pretty significant gap between the way I perceive and interact with the world around me and the way that others perceived the same. That’s not exactly a new experience for me, especially within a Christian context, but I still struggle to understand why. I’ve been mulling it in my mind and I think it goes back in part to basic cultural formation.

First, I hope everyone reading this post recognizes that whatever we term “religion” or its “non-religious” materialist (or, I suppose, possibly even non-religious and non-materialist) counterpart is not merely some private little thing informing a few edge beliefs and behaviors here and there within the life of a human being. Rather, those understandings, often operating well below any level of conscious thought, inform and shape our fundamental perception of reality and the ways we interact with the world around us.

Elsewhere, I have used pluralistic to describe my childhood cultural formation. It occurs to me, though, that people may not really understand what I mean. I also don’t reject the idea of relativism in at least some sense, but probably not as it seems to be commonly understood. As a starting point, I don’t accept and do not believe that every way of perceiving reality is a path on the same mountain, a piece of the same patchwork quilt, or any of the similar metaphors that are commonly used. That’s simply another overarching framework imposed on others as a way of forcing them to fit into your perception of reality.

Ultimately, the story it attempts to force on others is a pretty arrogant and coercive one. The story asserts that others only see a piece or a shadow of reality. They aren’t wrong, exactly, but if they could only see the whole tapestry or the whole mountain instead of just their little piece, they would be so much more enlightened. (I’ve never heard anyone present this perspective who did not seem to believe they were one of the enlightened ones who could perceive at least the existence of the mountain, if not actually see the whole mountain and all the paths upon it.) It’s simply a different way to tell other people — the ones who can’t see the whole tapestry or who do not even acknowledge the existence of such a tapestry — that they are wrong.

No, when I use the phrase pluralistic, I mean something much more straightforward. I look at those around me and I acknowledge that they have different ways of perceiving and interacting with reality. And those perspectives are actually different from each other.

Full stop.

I don’t attempt to force every perspective into a common framework of any sort or understand an individual perspective through the lens of an overarching narrative. I take every perspective on its own terms to the extent that I am able to do so. That does not mean I do not have my own perspective on this fundamental question about the nature of reality. I do. Over the course of my life, in fact, I’ve held a number of different ones. And I don’t take it for granted that the one I now hold is the one I will hold for the rest of my life. I believe I am getting at least a little closer to better understanding reality and don’t anticipate another drastic shift, but incremental change is almost certain.

In practice, that means that when I’ve explored, written about, or discussed different perspectives, I’ve done the best I could to first understand how that perspective described reality. When I’ve been exploring different beliefs, I’ve tried to spend some time living and acting as though those beliefs and everything they imply about the reality we inhabit were true. When I’ve simply been discussing other perspectives, I’ve tried to honestly and accurately compare them to the way I see things. I’m sure my success at those efforts has varied, but that’s my general goal.

I’ve read that incredulity toward metanarratives is a postmodern thing, so I suppose this perspective fits easily within the postmodern context of my overall cultural formation. Without any overarching framework, I simply take each view as it presents itself and allow it to have its own independent framework. Now that does not then imply that I believe every individual framework is somehow “right,” whatever that would mean in any particular context. In fact, since different narratives about reality are often radically different from each other, that whole idea strikes me as a really silly proposal. Is there even any common ground at all between a Hindu’s and a materialist’s perception of reality? If there is, it’s a pretty narrow strand. No, this simply means that I approach each perspective largely on its own terms and not on mine.

When I reached the point in my adult life when I acknowledged that as a result of some pretty negative experiences, I had simply discounted Christianity and never afforded it any true examination, I began slowly to attempt to do the same with it. (And that was always a struggle for me. I held a deep antipathy toward Christianity.)  It’s been almost two decades since that point now and the process is still ongoing. Christianity in our modern world is a truly confusing thing. It’s presented as a single religion, but when you approach it in the manner I describe above and simply allow the different groups to describe the God they worship in their own terms, there’s very little true cohesion or natural similarity. Different groups who present themselves as Christian (whatever that means to them) say different — and often radically different — things about God, Jesus, mankind, the nature of reality,  the purpose and effect of the Cross, and virtually everything else of any meaningful significance.

So what’s a poor pluralist to do?

I’ll explore that in the next post in this series.

 


Why I Am Not An Atheist 2 – Experience

Posted: May 25th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ll start with the central reason I’m not an atheist — my personal experience and perception of reality. That also happens to be the most difficult aspect to capture meaningfully in words. The most likely reaction to this post in the series will be that those who have experienced reality in a similar manner will understand what I am trying to express and those who haven’t will be less likely to understand. Nevertheless, I have to start here. I don’t uncritically accept my own experience. I’m not sure I ever really have — even as a young teen or preteen participating in something like the past life regression seminar my parents once hosted. Subsequent posts will explore some of the other aspects I have considered about an atheistic perspective. But it does seem to start here.

Those who have read my blog for a while know that I was well into my adult life before I would say my journey reached a point where the label “Christian” became one I associated with my core identity. I recognize that’s a much more complicated statement than the ones many people employ. In large part that’s because I refuse to simplify my story to make it fit some template of conversion. In a sense, one could say I became a Christian as an adult, but that statement would not carry the same meaning for me that it would hold for many. For instance, I have only been baptized once. I was baptized as a child and I hold that baptism valid, even if there were years in which I rejected it. In truth, my life held many intersections with Christianity, some positive and others negative. (The negative side includes being told to leave a worship service as a teen parent because my sleeping infant daughter was “disturbing” the service.) But my first three decades of life, as intimated in my opening paragraph, also included intersections with a number of other religions and expressions of spirituality as well. My journey doesn’t fit any simple paradigm.

I cannot remember any time in my life when I did not have some sense of the transcendent. I’m not sure if there’s any other way I can express that idea. By and large, most atheistic perspectives (and contrary to the way some Christians speak, there is hardly a single atheist perspective) are materialist in nature. Now, that’s not universally true. Some people describe Buddhism as atheistic and it’s certainly not a materialistic perspective. (Personally, though not named, the underlying ground of Buddhism in general — recognizing there is a lot of variation — looks a lot like the Hindu Brahman to me. But that may just be a reflection of my own past practice of a sort of Hinduism along with the fact that I’ve never actually practiced any form of Buddhism.) I can’t really say how personal experience plays out in the lives of anyone else, but that sense of transcendence meant that materialistic metaphysical perspectives never jived with my perception of reality even when I explored some of them. As a result, while I sometimes describe myself as a reluctant Christian and accidental Baptist, I never “struggled” with atheism the way I’ve heard some people describe their journey. A specifically Christian perspective did not and does not come easily to me, but atheism plays  no significant role in that difficulty.

Along with that underlying sense of general transcendence in reality, I have also had a number of specific experiences over the course of my life. Before I was Christian, I clearly remember the times in meditation when I would perceive the web of threads interconnecting reality with my own being. I’ve encountered spiritual powers and even when I was anything but Christian I had a sense (and I believe some more direct encounters) of the personal being I would now describe as a guardian angel. Even before I came to identify as Christian, looking back, I encountered and experienced Jesus. And though none of my experiences have been nearly as dramatic as Frederica Mathewes-Green’s conversion experience, I have heard the voice of Jesus. I’ve struggled finding any place in modern Christianity and if I had not personally heard Jesus, I’m not sure I would still be anything like a Christian. Those who have not had such encounters and yet believe are stronger by far than me. I have a deep and intuitive appreciation for the Celtic perception of thin places.

Of course, some atheists will classify such things as a part of our genetic makeup, something that was selected for survival. While The God Gene appears to have been based on some pretty shoddy science, I have no problem with the basic idea that there are genes that facilitate certain types of body and brain function. The fact that our bodies and brains mediate and shape our experience and perception of reality has always seemed self-evident to me. After all, I am an embodied being. I have no “self” apart from my body.

I suppose I could say that I don’t have a body as some sort of externalized attribute; I am my body in every meaningful sense. I would also say that I am more than the sum of the parts — that in some sense what I call “I” transcends my body — but interconnected with and flowing from those parts. The experiences that shape me are mediated through my body. My perception of reality depends on my body. And even my personality and internal being rely on my physical brain. Alter my brain and you change everything I would call “me.” Specifically, I do not believe I am a sort of “ghost in the machine” the way that Plato and others have hypothesized.

The fact that I am a fully embodied being in every sense does not then prove the metaphysical assertion that I am nothing more than the sum of my physical parts. Nor can my reality as what I would call an embodied spiritual being be extrapolated to assert the non-existence of unbodily spiritual beings. (I’m not really sure what word to use for that category.) And it certainly doesn’t say anything about the existence or non-existent of any sort of “god,” much less a panentheistic, transcendent source of reality such as that described in Christianity and Hinduism. (Christianity and Hinduism are very different from each other and in the “god” they ultimately describe, but they do both describe a panentheistic ground of reality.)

I do not find an assertion that since we can associate spiritual or mystical experience with activity in certain parts of brain which is facilitated by particular genes (assuming, of course, we are eventually able to demonstrate those relationships) that therefore those experiences aren’t “real” (which begs the metaphysical question about what is “real”) a convincing argument. It’s simply not a logically valid assertion. While I could probably construct a response from a variety of perspectives, there’s a simple and straightforward Christian response.

We are created as embodied spiritual beings in the image of our creator God with the potential for communion with God — a potential realized for all humanity in and through the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth and the union of the whole of human nature with the whole of the divine nature. As embodied beings, that potential is expressed in and through our bodies. So naturally, as we come to better understand our bodies, our genetic makeup, and the function of our brain we discover things consistent with our nature.

Of course, I can’t prove my overly simplified statement above either. Once we start making metaphysical statements — even metaphysical statements asserting materialism — we have left the realm of things that can be called science in the modern sense. That’s one of the things that bothers me about at least some of the so-called new atheists. Again, I have not read them extensively, but in at least some of things I have read, I’ve seen them describe certain facts I would also consider scientifically established. And that’s fine. But then they proceed to make atheistic metaphysical assertions as if those assertions were also scientifically established facts.  At best, they are not clear when they are describing science and when they are extrapolating from the actual science and explaining why and how that science informs their metaphysical perspective.

I will note that some of the materialist perspectives I’ve seen seem to express a sort of scientific determinism. I must note that I’m not a determinist in any way. That’s not to say that anything whatsoever could happen at any given instant or that I or anyone ever has experienced complete and utter freedom. There is an interrelatedness to all things in reality and that shapes the scope of possibilities at any given moment in any given place. But that does not lead to a deterministic reality where everything is nothing more than the sum of the parts and if we could fully understand all the parts, we would grasp the fullness of all that is. Whether Laplace or Calvin, science or theology, I reject determinism. I could be wrong, of course, but if I am at least I’m in good company.

So my experience of reality informs and has always informed my perception of that reality. And while I do not accept my experience uncritically, that experience has left little ground for atheism. As I warned in the intro, if you were expecting an apology against atheism, you’re likely disappointed. This won’t be that sort of series.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 12 – Forever?

Posted: July 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

It seems appropriate to end this series with the question of the unending nature of “hell.” The question for me is and has always been different than the one that I most often hear asked in my particular circle. I don’t believe in the concentration camp, so I’m not concerned about whether or not people will be tortured forever for finite transgressions. I don’t believe hell is a “place” where people are put and from which they can later be released.

Rather, hell is our experience of the unveiled love of God when we don’t want him, but cannot escape him. Hell is being consumed by our passions when we can no longer express them outwardly in a renewed creation. In many ways, we create our own hell. So the question becomes one of whether or not we will still be able to change. Will we be trapped deeper and deeper in our delusion and rejection of God? Is there no longer any hope for us at all?

The overall consensus of the Church is that it is possible for human beings to so twist themselves that they can never be whole. Bishop Tom Wright describes it as a point where we strive so hard to become an ex-human being that God tells us that if that’s what we truly want, so be it. I recognize and appreciate the warning inherent in that consensus.

But I have been touched by the love of Christ when I was not seeking it. As such, it is hard for me to imagine any creature so twisted that the love of God cannot ever warm his heart. I cannot imagine any delusion so complete that the light of God cannot eventually illumine and dispel it. And so I tend to gravitate to voices like that of St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac the Syrian, who also could not believe that the love of God would not win out in the end.

It’s not the sort of universalism that’s common today, which presents either a passive God who accepts anything or a coercive God who forces people into “heaven” whether or not that’s what they want. Rather, having felt the least shadow of the reality of God, I’m incredulous that there’s any heart that cannot eventually be touched and changed by his unveiled love. I once saw a video of an aged monk (from Romania, I think). In it he said something that has stuck in my mind ever since. He said, “All will be saved and I alone will be damned.” I find it difficult to put into words, but that perception of reality struck a deep chord in me. If there’s hope for me, there’s hope for anyone.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 11 – Assurance of Salvation or What Sort of God Do You Worship?

Posted: July 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

In the Christian circles in which I move, a question of “assurance” often surfaces. That was never a question that troubled me, so it took me a while to discern why it seemed to be an issue for so many. I finally realized that, like so many other questions, it was a matter of how you viewed ultimate reality and how you perceived God. To return to the metaphor of the two-story house, the assurance many people seem to be seeking is the assurance that they will be allowed onto the second floor instead of being locked in the basement. In this picture, God is thus perceived as the ultimate arbiter deciding who goes where. He might be an angry God who will let you sneak onto the second floor if you’re hiding behind his son so he can’t see you. He might be a fair arbiter measuring the balance of good and evil in your life. He might have a checklist and will let you onto the second floor if you have the right boxes checked. Or he could be the arbitrary and capricious God of hard Calvinism who had the secret lists of “saved” and “damned” drawn up before the whole show began. But in this conception of reality, some sort of God like that is at work. And in the face of such a God, people seek assurance that he isn’t going to throw them in the basement.

But I don’t believe in that God. I’ve never believed in that God. As I’ve outlined in this series, I believe there will be a time when all creation is renewed, the veil between heaven and earth is no more, and God is fully revealed as all in all. Most importantly, I believe in resurrection and everything that resurrection implies. I believe in the good God who loves mankind. I believe in the God who became one of us so that we might be healed and be able to be one with him. I believe in the God who is not willing that any should perish. I believe in the God who has done and is doing everything that can be done in love to save every human being. I believe in a God of uncompromising love. I believe in the God we see in Jesus of Nazareth.

But as love does not seek its own way and does not coerce, since I’ve become Christian I’ve understood that the question is not and has never been whether or not God loves me and wants me. God’s answer to that question is and has always been an unchanging and unqualified yes. The question I must answer with my life is whether or not I love and want God. And that’s a very different question indeed. I have believed many things over the course of my life. I have changed my beliefs more than once. I know I want to want this unique God. But I also know myself too well to be “assured” that I will never change. The more I get to know this God, the less likely such a change seems, but I can’t have present certainty about my own future choices and decisions.

My particular group of Christians has a belief which, in the vernacular, is often rendered, “Once saved, always saved.” I think I’ve come to understand that what they actually mean is that once God puts your name on the guest list letting you onto the second floor, he’ll never scratch it out. And I suppose, if that’s your perception of God and reality, it might even be a comforting idea. You don’t have to worry that your name will be taken off the “nice” list and placed on the “naughty” list for something you have or haven’t done.

But I’ve never found the “once saved, always saved” idea anything less than appalling, though it took me some years to understand the underlying reasons I reacted so differently. To me, this concept portrayed first a God of love who extends an invitation to all human beings and freely allows them to respond as they will. So far, so good. But having once given your assent to this God, he then forces you to want him from that point onward. He changes from a God of love to a God of coercion. It’s as though that one-time assent becomes permission to rape my will from that point forward. We are supposed to find true freedom in Christ, but this is not freedom.

I’ll also note that the sort of absolute assurance people seem to be seeking doesn’t exist in our Holy Scriptures. It’s not because God changes or hides anything from us. It’s because we change and we lie to ourselves. A theme we often see in Jesus’ parables is one of surprise by everyone in the end. There will be people “saved” who never fully understood that the life they lived was one of service and love for Jesus. And there will be those who had convinced themselves they wanted Jesus only to discover that they really never wanted him at all. That lack of certainty has never bothered me. In fact, I see it as inevitable. It doesn’t reveal anything arbitrary about God. In fact, that’s the only view that sufficiently allows for both the love of God and for our own free will and capacity for delusion.

As a final thought on this topic, I’ll note that while the truncated view of God and salvation may have “worked” to some extent over the last few hundred years, it’s losing any effectiveness it might have had in our increasingly pluralistic world. It once was true in our part of the world that the perception of reality as a two-story house with a basement was something of a cultural default. And as such, all you really had to do was convince people to take whatever actions you thought needed to be taken to punch their ticket to the second story. Those days are fading and we are entering a period that in some ways is more like that of the ancient world. Before I became Christian, I believed different things at different points in my life, but none of them included the caricature of heaven and hell from the two-story universe with a basement perspective. Most of the time I believed in some form of transmigration of souls. In my more Hindu periods, I perceived the fact that we are reborn more as a problem than not. At other times, I perceived eternal rebirth as a beautiful cycle of life. Regardless, though, the question, “Do you know where you will go when you die?” never had much impact on me. Nor does it have much impact on me now. I simply don’t believe that question has anything to do with the Christian concept of salvation.


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 9 – God All In All

Posted: July 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 9 – God All In All

If the Christian vision of ultimate reality does not revolve around a concentration camp in the midst of paradise, what does it then involve? As I discussed earlier in the series, God is seen as everywhere present, filling and sustaining all things. Although that is both the present and future reality, that glory is now veiled. We do not fully or readily perceive the reality of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

But that will change one day. It’s the tension between Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 11. On the one hand, the world is filled with his glory right now and has been from the beginning of creation. But one day, it will be filled with the full knowledge of the glory. It’s the image we see in Habakkuk 2:14.

“For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

As the waters cover the sea? My first reaction to that verse was that the waters are the sea, but as I learned more of the ancient Jewish perception of reality, I came to understand that the “sea” stood for chaos and evil. The “monsters” come from the sea. This is the image of God’s healing waters covering and healing a disordered reality as creation, which is already filled with the glory of the Lord, becomes filled with the full knowledge of that glory. We see similar imagery in Revelation when we are presented with the healing streams and are told there is “no more sea.”

If God’s all-sustaining glory is no longer veiled and suffuses all creation, then one thing is immediately apparent. We will all experience exactly the same ultimate reality. The glory of God, the light of God, the love of God will be inescapable. We will understand and perceive God suffusing all creation, even our own bodies. There will be no place we can turn where that will not be true. And if that’s the case, then we can’t speak of some people (or any created being) or places being treated differently from others. It’s not the case that some are punished and others aren’t.

No, the question becomes rather, “How will I experience the fire of God’s love? Will it be warmth and comfort to me? Or will it be a consuming fire?” We will not be tormented because we have been confined somewhere and tortured by some external agent. No, if we are tormented, it will be because we do not want God yet cannot escape his presence.

Or perhaps we will lock ourselves in our own interior world consumed by passions we can no longer express outwardly. I think of the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’ final Narnia book, The Last Battle. Huddled in the midst of a creation made new, with a feast before them, in the very presence of Aslan, they perceive themselves as in a dark, rank stable eating garbage and drinking dirty water. They will not be fooled again and render themselves incapable of sensing the reality around them. They are bound in delusion. I believe we all have the capacity for such delusion within us.

As I said earlier, hell cannot have the same sort of reality that creation – heaven and earth – has. It’s not a place where God is not, for no such place exists. It cannot be a place that is not renewed within creation. “Behold, I make all things new!” proclaims the Lamb. Hell can only be the experience of a renewed creation and of a God of relentless and consuming love by those who do not want either one and are not formed to live within that reality. The seeds of our own hell are within each of us. As the Didache opens, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.


Resurrection!

Posted: April 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Resurrection | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

It’s easy to be cynical.

I’ve been there in my life. In many ways, when deconstruction — finding and revealing the ideas and forces operating behind the facades — is part and parcel of your ongoing perception of reality, it’s hard to be anything else.

greed and violence and abuse they are not right
and they cannot last
they belong to death and death does not belong

Death does not belong. That is the message and the hope of resurrection. What we do, every act of compassion and beauty, will last. It’s not wasted. It’s not ephemeral. Love and life are the fabric and substance of reality.

you didn’t see that coming, did you?

Resurrection was a shocking surprise. It’s still shocking today! They didn’t see it coming and we don’t see it coming. Resurrection turns everything you thought you knew about reality on its head.

This is Rob Bell at his finest. Watch it more than once. The full text of his narration is also on his site as are options like an mp3 download.