Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 3

Posted: August 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This next post in the series has been a long time coming. So if you want to review the earlier posts in the series, here are links to them.

I ended my last post with the question I often hear posed by other Christians to each other and sometimes even to me. What about the fate of those in groups who believe things about God that are wrong? That group could and probably does include all of us, after all. That question seems to flow from the odd obsession within at least parts of modern Christianity about whether or not this or that group or this or that individual is “saved.” I can’t really discern the source of that obsession. I could speculate, but it would be pure speculation. I understood immediately the old Romanian monk I once saw in a video who said (in subtitles) something like, “All will be saved and I alone will be damned.” I don’t understand most of my fellow American Christians on this topic at all.

I do think it has something to do with the way so much of Christianity has externalized salvation and damnation as something done to humanity by God rather than something that (at least when it comes to “damnation“) to a large degree we collectively do to ourselves. Do we turn to Jesus of Nazareth, follow him, receive healing, and find our life, our only life, in God? Or do we turn away toward death and dehumanize ourselves?

We are saved together, but we are damned alone” is a truism of the Christian faith. In one of his podcasts, Fr. John touches on this inescapable nature of Christianity. It’s a podcast worth pausing for ten minutes and absorbing, especially if you’ve externalized salvation and damnation as something done to you rather than with you.

I still find The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis one of the best illustrations of this principle at work. I think it’s important that anyone reading this understand something of my spiritual situation when I was eleven and twelve years old. (I don’t remember exactly when I read the Narnia series for the first time, but it was one of those years.) I was living inside the loop in the Montrose area of Houston. I was then attending a Catholic school, St. Anne’s, after having attending many different public and private school in various parts of the country. I was not Catholic, though I guess I would say I identified as Christian, having been baptized some years earlier. I sometimes attended youth group activities at South Main Baptist Church. I also have distinct and vivid memories of receiving communion at an Episcopal Church, though I don’t recall which one. However, I also remember attending Hindu and Jewish ceremonies. My parents hosted a number of different events, including a past life regression seminar that also imprinted itself on my memory, and we hung out with a lot of different interesting people.

On my own, I was also practicing transcendental meditation nightly. (Sadly, I never managed to levitate, though I did learn some really good relaxation techniques that continue to serve me well.) My parents also ran a small publishing company and a small press bookstore. I helped out at the bookstore and there were books on palmistry, numerology, and runes among other things. I absorbed them and became pretty good at them. My mother had starting reading tarot when I was much younger and it had always fascinated me, so I also learned tarot reading (a practice I continued though increasingly sporadically until my early thirties). I also dabbled in astrology, mostly out of curiosity, but even modern astrology gave me some insight into the way the ancient mind regarded the heavens.

So it was in that context I read the Narnia series. I caught some of the Christian allusions, of course, but not all of them. I did, however, love the series — especially Aslan. Later in life, as I truly encountered Jesus again, I think I recognized him most because he resembled Aslan in the ways that mattered. First, consider the plight of the dwarves.

Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.” But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said:

“Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

Damnation is not something Jesus inflicts on us. We do it to ourselves. I never really found this vision described in Christianity until I stumbled across Orthodoxy. I imagine it persists in other places as well, but not the ones I traveled. And yet it corresponds precisely with the ancient Orthodox perspective. We can stand in paradise in the unveiled presence of the God who is everywhere present and filling all things and we perceive it as torment instead. God does not hate some of us and love others. He loves us all. But some of us cannot stand to be loved. And most particularly, when we fail to love, we turn ourselves into creatures who cannot bear to receive love — especially the fire of God’s unveiled love.

And then there is the case of Emeth, the Calormene warrior, who has sought Tash his whole life. In his one words, he says:

“For always since I was a boy I have served Tash and my great desire was to know more of him, if it might be, to look upon his face. But the name of Aslan was hateful to me.”

Jewel, at one point in the book, describes Emeth in the following way.

“By the Lion’s Mane, I almost love this young warrior, Calormene though he be. He is worthy of a better god than Tash.”

And indeed he is. Emeth describes his encounter with Aslan.

“But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

Of course, if pushed too hard there a variety of ways the metaphor can collapse. Nevertheless, there is a truth in that scene so deep that it imprinted itself on the soul of even that young preteen exposed to so many different things. I almost despaired of finding a modern Christianity that actually taught the above before I stumbled onto Orthodoxy. (Actually, Catholicism is returning to that same belief after a medieval detour. I’ve now read their Catechism. But that was not immediately clear to me since older views linger among Catholics on the street.)

So it’s from that perspective I can on the one hand say that Calvinism describes a God I consider unworthy of worship, much less love, and at the same time freely acknowledge and point to Calvinists whom I believe are some of the best Christians I know. (Hopefully nobody is using me as a measure, since they are easily better Christians than me. I’m still trying to figure out what that even means.) I feel no tension between those statements. From my framework, they can both easily be true.

It’s in a similar vein I find myself bemused by the current Christian debate contrasting belief and behavior or actions. Both sides of the debate seem to fall into the same trap — treating them as somehow different. They aren’t. It’s impossible for us to act in any given moment in any way that does not express and expose our true belief about reality. We act out of our beliefs and our actions in turn shape the way we see the world. It’s a process of continual reinforcing feedback. Now it’s possible to desire to believe something different than we actually do. It’s also very common for us to express beliefs different from the ones we actually hold (and which manifest in our actions) either because we think that’s what we should believe or because it’s what we want others to think we believe. It’s also certainly possible for us to regret our actions and wish to change accordingly. But in the moment, when I speak or act, I am expressing the beliefs I actually hold at that moment in time. We all understand the father pleading to Jesus for his son, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.

I will note that the more I experience and get to know this strange God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the more incredulous I become that his love could not eventually warm even the coldest and most twisted heart. Like St. Isaac the Syrian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and others, I find I’m unwilling to assert that the dwarves have no hope. It may be that they don’t. And if true, it breaks my heart. But in the Resurrection, Christ has broken the bonds of death. It’s no longer the nature of man to die. And don’t we say that where there’s life, there’s hope?

I find it horribly sad that so many Christian sects today will not pray for the dead. Almost as sad as their refusal to accept the prayers of those who are alive in Christ, though they presently sleep in the body. I’m not sure I really understand the reality they perceive, but it’s clearly different from the one I see. But then, too often today the Resurrection is presented as little more than an afterthought, not the very substance of our faith.

And that concludes this brief three part look into the way at least one modern pluralist handles our Christian pluralism. I’m not sure how many people might find it helpful or interesting, but perhaps some will. Let me know if there was any point on which you think I might not have expressed myself clearly.

Peace.


Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 2

Posted: June 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 2

I concluded my first post with the question, when faced with the myriad forms of modern Christianity, what’s a poor pluralist to do? On the surface, at least, the answer is relatively straightforward. I didn’t and still don’t don’t treat Christianity as one religion. Instead, just I had always done with different systems and practices of belief, I learned to approach each stream called Christian on its own terms as something distinct and unique. After all, they are.

I’ve noticed that a fair number of people, if they are more than superficially aware of the diversity within the umbrella labeled Christianity, seem to expend a degree of energy trying to somehow reconcile the different systems of belief, determine which one is right, or somehow try to find some kind of reductionist, minimal common ground. That’s always seemed odd to me.

If someone says they believe differently than I do or than some other groups does, and I attempt to say that actually they believe pretty much the same thing, then I am attempting to assert power over them. Different beliefs at this level are different. As a rule, they cannot be reconciled with each other.

An individual effort to, through reason or emotion, determine which one is somehow right or correct is focused on the wrong question. If I cared to do so, I could probably write a pretty good logical defense of that umbrella of theological systems of intellectual belief within Christianity called Calvinism. I could probably do the same for many others. I could also find ways to shred and deconstruct many of the same, but at the end of the day, what does any of that matter? After all, I’m not trying to conduct some sort of scientific experiment. I’m not conducting a survey of religion for credit at a university.

I’m trying to determine who offers a description of the reality I experience that seems to more accurately capture my experience. I’m trying to discern who describes a God I am willing to worship and in whom I can find my life. Simply discovering that something is, in at least some sense, intellectually coherent, even if correct, is useless.

Finally, if you strip enough things away, I suppose we could find the common ground between Hinduism and Christianity and call them one as easily as we could strip things away and distill Christian belief to some sort of essence. But what does that accomplish? I haven’t actually made Hinduism and Christianity the same thing. They are still quite different. Instead I have created this new perspective on reality, even if I have not given it a name, which consists of the common beliefs between the two with everything else stripped away.

My approach is not really as difficult as it seems. We know from surveys and studies that between 30k-40k distinctly identifiable Christian denominations and non-denominations exist. That sounds like an unmanageably large number. How could anyone possibly explore each and every one of them? Well, the answer is that nobody ever could, just as no-one could ever possibly explore the path of every guru within Hinduism, past, present, and future. But there are factors that serve, in practice, to reduce those numbers.

First, there are a great many instances of distinct belief within that overall number that consist of a single group not connected organizationally with any others (often described as non-denominational) in locations around the world where I don’t live. As a simple matter of physical location, I don’t need to concern myself about those in my personal exploration. Of course, that leaves a large of number of traditions, denominations, associations, and local non-denominations, but the list is not as daunting as it seems.

Even within those remaining, they tend to aggregate into streams. Now, I do not mean that those who hold themselves distinct within a particular larger stream, such a Calvinism, are all the same. They aren’t. There can be quite a bit of variation and diversity. But that variation and diversity may not matter to me. For instance, I determined early in my exploration that the Calvinist God is not one I would ever worship, nor would I ever agree that lens accurately describes the reality around us. Once I understood that, the distinctions and variation of the individual denominations and non-denominations within that stream became largely irrelevant to me.

For very different reasons, it quickly became apparent to me that the broad Charismatic stream did not mesh with my perception of the Christian God and our reality. I would be hard-pressed to explain to anyone the differences between the different churches in that stream. I’ve read parts of the Book of Mormon (from a literary standpoint it’s pretty dreadful, so I’ve never made it through the whole thing) and otherwise learned enough about it to know that I’m not interested.

As a result, I’ve spent most of the past two decades exploring the streams that flow from Luther, from the Anglican Communion (including those coming out of it from people like the Wesleys), the pietists, and Roman Catholicism. Not too many years ago, I discovered the distinct nature of Orthodoxy and found within it many of the things I had not found in other streams. I didn’t even realize I was searching for some of them.

There are, of course, specific ideas and beliefs I reject because they simply do not factually describe the world. I do not mean to imply that sort of our discernment of reality and perception of things as they are doesn’t matter. It does. The modern “Young Earth Creationist” hypothesis is one such example. And I don’t particularly care if it’s being stated by a Baptist or an Orthodox (and I’ve read and heard it from both of those and many more). I’m not going to believe it. I also don’t spend a great deal of energy on the matter.

But most beliefs are not subject to such simple analysis and categorization.  The strands are woven into a basket and the whole basket must be examined and, if possible, tried.

In a lot of ways, it was Jesus who had worked his way into the chinks of the walls I had established against Christianity. I had not been looking for a new belief system. I was not exploring Christianity, especially at first, because I was seeking to understand reality. I had an understanding of sorts which had been disrupted, but not exactly overturned, by this strange Christian God. In a lot of ways, I’ve always been looking for the stream that actually described something I could recognize as the God who met me, who came to me.

Still, there are a lot of people in those thirty to forty thousand denominations and non-denominations. When I say something like Calvinism does not describe a God I would ever worship, what does it say about those within that Calvinist stream? What about those in the many different streams I do not accept? To me, that’s only different in degree from the question about those within Hinduism, or Buddhism, or any of a host of different rivers of belief. I’ve written about that here and there in the past. In my next post in this series, I’ll try to touch on it again.


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.

 


What is the source of our oneness?

Posted: June 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Eucharist, Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Once again, I would appreciate any thoughts, comments, or reactions my words spur in anyone who happens to read this. Incorporating and responding to the thoughts of others is one of the ways I process thoughts, and the thoughts in this post are certainly less than complete. I’ll start with the paragraph from 1 Corinthians 10 that lies at the center of my thoughts.

Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

The above is from the NKJV, which is generally the English translation I prefer. Before I continue with the threads of my thoughts on the above, though, I think I need to discuss the Greek word, koinonia, especially as Christians have traditionally used it (including the tradition of its usage in the Holy Scriptures). The NKJV usually translates koinonia as communion, the best English word for the sort of intimate fellowship or rapport that the text seems to be trying to convey.

Other English translations most often translate koinonia using other words like fellowship (without qualifying it with intimate or another similar adjective), participation, or sharing. I can only speculate on the reason. In some cases, it could be as simple as a belief on the part of the translator that our level of literacy as a people has declined so much that those reading won’t have any understanding of the text unless a simpler word is used. If that’s the case, I would say it is better for a text not to be understood at all than to have its depth and richness stripped from it.

While it might be possible to translate Shakespeare into “simpler” language, you could not do it and preserve the integrity of his writing. Nuance, richness, depth, and poetry — the very things that make Shakespeare’s works great — would all be lost. If I would not treat a great literary work in that manner, why would I do that to a text that, as a Christian, I consider holy and sacred?

It’s also possible that the modern, Western emphasis on individualism has increasingly led translators to shy away from the scriptural language of oneness and union — both with God and with our fellow human beings. If we use weaker language, we get to control the boundaries of that union. We can wade in the shallows and call it swimming.

I also note that much of the modern, English speaking Christian world consists of sects most heavily influenced by Zwingli. They have almost completely conceded to the modern secular perspective. With them the matter of this world is ordinary and while it might represent something sacred or spiritual the idea that the physical might actually participate in the divine is almost verboten. It’s possible that translators approaching the text from that perspective might, consciously or otherwise, wish to weaken the scriptural language of communion. (And to be honest, Calvin was also more on the side of Zwingli than he was on the Cranmer and Luther side of the Protestant Reformation divide. He refused to take things quite as far as Zwingli did, but he’s certainly closer to Zwingli than anyone else.)

It could be any of those reasons, a combination of them, or something else that has not occurred to me at all. I don’t know. But I do know that most of the translations use words that lack the particular oomph of the English word communion. I’ll provide an illustration of that point by providing the NIV translation of the same passage I quoted above.

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (1 Cor 10:14-17)

It’s not that the translation is wrong, per se. It’s just weaker than the NKJV. It does not convey the same sense of intimate union.

How then are we to understand this intimate union, this communion, this koinonia? I think one image is that of John 15. We are all branches of one vine — the vine of Jesus. It’s a union that allows no independent or separate life — either from Jesus or from each other. We are all part of a single plant in that image. Does a branch participate in the life of the vine? I suppose it does, but is that really the language we would use to describe that relationship? I don’t think so.

Of course, the ultimate image, I think, comes from John 17 when Jesus prays that we be one with each other as the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father. And he prays we have that degree of communion so that we might then be one with God. In other words, the image of koinonia given to us is the koinonia of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That image is beyond my ability to grasp, but the edges of it tantalize and fascinate me. It’s been pulling me ever deeper into Christian faith for more than fifteen years now. And I have a feeling it goes well beyond the sort of thing we use the word fellowship to describe. I have fellowship to some degree with my guildmates in World of Warcraft. Fellowship describes the relationship in fraternal orders and bowling leagues. It’s the language of voluntary association.

The scriptural image of koinonia runs much deeper and is enormously more intimate. It’s the language of one plant, one body, and the oneness of marriage. It transcends our images of unity, yet is very different from other transcendent paths of oneness. In some forms of Hinduism, for example, the ultimate goal is to lose our personal identity in union with Brahman. In Buddhism, the goal of Nirvana also involves relinquishing personal identity. But the Christian God exists as complete union without any loss of personal identity. God is revealed in three persons — Father, Son, and Spirit. Everything that can be said about the Father other than the ways he is uniquely Father can be said about the Son and the Spirit as well. And yet in that complete unity, they never lose their own unique personhood. Similarly, as we seek communion with each other and with God, it’s a union that preserves our own unique identity. Christianity is an intimately personal faith, but it is not at all an individual faith. I think many today have confused the two.

When I think of this passage from 1 Corinthians 10 in light of John 6, I find I simply don’t understand why so many Christians today accept the framework of Zwingli’s secular division of reality. Yes the bread and wine is and remains bread and wine. But when it is the cup of blessing and the bread we break, it is also the body and blood of our Lord. How else can we understand the language of communion without distancing God from our world and from ourselves?

And it is ultimately the communion of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ that is the only source of our own oneness with each other. There is a seriousness surrounding it. As Paul also mentions in 1 Corinthians, some are sick or have even died because they were participating at the table in an unworthy manner.

Thus, those who seek to find ecumenical common ground by reducing the faith to its lowest common denominator and glossing over the differences in the ways we use what are sometimes even the same words will ultimately fail. Any oneness we have lies in the bread and wine, in the body and blood. But when we approach the table, we need to be approaching the same God. I find that’s what most modern Christians don’t want to admit — that they actually describe different Gods. Some are more similar than others, but they are all different. And some are so radically different from each other that there’s no way to reconcile them.

Maybe it takes a true pluralist to look at modern Christian pluralism and call it what it is. To the extent I have any role or function, maybe that’s my role. I don’t understand why other Christians don’t seem to see that truth when it’s so blindingly obvious to me. I honestly don’t get it.

If nothing else, maybe someone reading this post can explain that to me.


Behold the Man!

Posted: April 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off on Behold the Man!

I was looking through some things I had written in the past and ran across the following reflection on Pilate. It was written to be performed during a Good Friday service. One of the many layered themes in John’s gospel is a recapitulation of the creation narrative leading up to the new eighth day. On the sixth day in the Genesis 1 narrative, God created mankind. On the sixth “day” in John, we find Pilate declaring, “Behold the Man!”, as Jesus recapitulates our story and becomes the true Eucharistic man, the faithful man — all the way to the Cross.

Formed and shaped as I was growing up, I’ve also always been struck by Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” Of course, for Pilate, truth lay in the strength of the Roman sword. Power was the only “truth” that really mattered. Still, our modern world is now at least as pluralistic as ancient Rome. (And it’s no less besotted with its power.) And within that pluralism, “truth” is … difficult to discern. Truth according to whom? Very likely, that’s probably one of the reasons I tend to use words like “reality” instead. And here again, John’s gospel was helpful. Jesus, after all, says that he is truth. If you follow him, obey his commands, and grow to know him better, then you will know Truth. And when you do that, truth will not bind you or destroy you, as it will in so many other contexts. No, when you perceive reality through the lens that Christ offers, when you follow him and obey his commands, then and only then will the Truth set you free.

Behold the Man!

“Qui est veritas?” That was my response to this man’s impertinent claim. ‘Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to him?’ Utter nonsense! “What is truth?”, I asked. And to that question he had no reply. In fact, he has had little to say at all.

The Jewish leaders claim this man calls himself a king. It’s the only charge they bring against him, aside from some meaningless prattle about blasphemy against their god. I asked him if it was true, did he really believe he was some sort of king? His answer? Nothing but a bare acknowledgment that I had spoken. So arrogant! These Jews all display
such arrogance. If we’re going to discuss ‘truth’, then in truth I would gladly crucify them all. That would end their incessant rebellion. But no, I am expected to maintain the Pax Romana or pay the price of failure. And peace has been in short supply of late.

Truth … who cares about truth anyway? Position. Influence. Money. Power. Those matter. But truth? It means nothing. Often less than nothing.

My wife fears this man is a god or has been sent by the gods. Dreams can certainly be portents at time, but just look at him. Beaten, bloody, and helpless. Surely a god could save himself.

Still, I did see and hear his many followers loudly praising him a few days ago. If I crucify him, they may riot. Yet if I release him, this mob surely will. The flogging failed to quell their blood lust as I hoped it might.

How then shall I resolve the issue? I’ve already tried to release him. The mob demanded the murderer instead. And I’ve declared his innocence more than once. As far as I can tell, it’s even true that he’s innocent, yet more evidence of the uselessness of truth.

Hmmmm. If I present the mob their beaten ‘king’, I’m certain they’ll yet again demand his execution. Their priests and leaders have made certain of that. I could then wash my hands of the matter, crucify this fool, and place the blame on them. If his followers then rise up, it will be against the Jewish leaders. The Jews can fight amongst themselves and leave Rome out of it. Yes … that may even satisfy my wife’s concerns. Perfect.

Just look at this Jesus. Such a fool, angering the wrong people at the wrong time. Pitiful. Behold the ‘King of the Jews.’

Behold the Man!


Evangelical Is Not Enough 10

Posted: February 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Evangelical Is Not Enough | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Evangelical Is Not Enough 10

The tenth and final chapter of Thomas Howard’s book, Envoi, stresses that all Christians engaged in this discussion are, or should be allies, and not enemies. While some embrace modern Christian divisions and pluralism (unfortunately including my own SBC denomination as illustrated in a recent issue of the SBTC Texan), most Christians recognize the wrongness of the place in which we find ourselves. We know what the Holy Scriptures say about divisions, about love, and about communion, and we recognize that we’ve fallen so far that it’s hard to even tell how to begin to heal all that we have done. Howard suggests three things that must be accomplished if we are ever to return to something like what we should be as the Church.

First, Howard suggests we must return to the episcopate. “Pastors need pastors.” Having largely been a part of loosely association congregational churches, I sense a great deal of truth in that. As you study the history of the Church, you cannot help but be struck by the way the bishops held us together through their communion with each other. Oh, there were bad bishops. And there were times that the people (the laos) had to stand against and reject heretical bishops — even meeting in the fields rather than in the church. But those form the exception rather than the rule. Most of the time the bishops were the glue. St. Ignatius of Antioch’s vision of the fullness of the Church (it’s catholicity) centered on the bishop surrounded by his presbyters, deacons, and people largely held true for many centuries. Until we all begin to return to that vision, catholicity will certainly remain out of reach.

Second, Howard insists the Eucharist must return as the focal point for Christian worship. Again, I think he’s right. That has always been the center of Christian liturgy. Always, that is until recently when some turned the liturgy of the Word into the focal point. That was an error of enormous proportions and impact. It turned our worship into something like the synagogue worship of rabbinic Judaism or the mosques of Islam while simultaneously making it less than either.

And third, Howard suggests that a return to the Christian year would be beneficial. It would put us back on the same ground, telling and living the same story, redeeming time and making it present. And we would all be doing it together.

Howard’s book has been a good, easily read introduction to the deep history and practice of the Christian church. I have a hard time judging how well he speaks to his target audience of evangelicals. Even though I’ve lived among the evangelical tribe for years, I’m still often surprised by them. I suppose I am one since I can’t really say that I’m anything else, but I’m still often bemused.


For the Life of the World 33

Posted: February 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 33

The series now moves to sections 2-3 of the seventh chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter seven.

The second tendency consists in the acceptance of secularism. According to the ideologists of a “nonreligious” Christianity, secularism is not the enemy, not the fruit of man’s tragic loss of religion, not a sin and a tragedy, but the world’s “coming of age” which Christianity must acknowledge and accept as perfectly normal: “Honesty demands that we recognize that we must live in the world as if there were no God.”

I’m not sure how prevalent the above is today within Christianity. It’s hard for me to judge. However, I have a sense that the above sort of reaction, unlike the rise of pluralism, has declined. That’s not to say that any of the many purely secular perspectives are on the decline. Rather, as the statistics indicate, people are increasingly comfortable selecting “none” as their religion rather than trying to blend the two as Fr. Schmemann writes in the above.

It is true that many who do still believe in God in some sense have absorbed and accepted without question the secular perspective on the nature of reality, the mistaken categories I mentioned yesterday. I think that’s true in all sorts of Christian churches, denominations, non-denominations, and parachurch groups though perhaps the tendency is stronger in some than in others. But it’s not the sort of “nonreligious” Christianity described above. And I think that may be the natural outgrowth of Fr. Schmemann’s next point.

And first of all, secularism must indeed be acknowledged as a “Christian” phenomenon, as a results of the Christian revolution. It can be explained only within the context of the history whose starting point is the encounter between Athens and Jerusalem. It is indeed one of the grave errors of religious anti-secularism that it does not see that secularism is made up of verites chretiennes devenues folles, of Christian truths that “went mad,” and that in simply rejecting secularism, it in fact rejects with it certain fundamentally Christian aspirations and hopes.

In an essay in the appendix, Fr. Schmemann traces the above in more depth. I’ll probably continues this series into the appendix. I had recognized the above to some extent, of course, but he traces it farther back than I’ve ever managed to do. When we fail to recognize the origin of the secular perspective, though, we end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as Fr. Schmemann basically says above. He then has a beautiful long paragraph where he follows the implications of failing to recognize the connection between Christianity and a secular perception of reality. It’s too long to quote and excerpting would mangle it. If you ever get the book itself, make a point of reading this chapter slowly.

The only purpose of this book has been to show, or rather to “signify” that the choice between these two reductions of Christianity — to “religion” and to “secularism” — is not the only choice, that in fact it is a false dilemma. … What am I going to do? what are the Church and each Christian to do in this world? What is our mission? To these questions there exist no answers in the form of practical “recipes.” … “it all depends” primarily on our being real witnesses to the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit, to that new life of which we are made partakers in the Church.

In other words, the only thing to do is to strive together to become Christian. Or so it seems to me. Fr. Schmemann’s closing thoughts for this chapter and book are beautiful. I don’t think I can add any meaningful comment to them.

The Church is the sacrament of the Kingdom — not because she possesses divinely instituted acts called “sacraments,” but because first of all she is the possibility given to man to see in and through this world the “world to come,” to see and to “live” it in Christ. It is only when in the darkness of this world we discern that Christ has already “filled all things with Himself” that these things, whatever they may be, are revealed and given to us full of meaning and beauty. A Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him. And this joy transforms all his human plans and programs, decisions and actions, making all his mission the sacrament of the world’s return to Him who is the life of the world.


For the Life of the World 32

Posted: February 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 32

The series now moves to section 1 of the seventh chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter seven.

Whatever the achievements of the Christian mission in the past, today we must honestly face a double failure: the failure to achieve any substantial “victory” over other great world religions, and the failure to overcome in any significant way the prevailing and the growing secularization of our culture.

In a strange way, both of those threads are tightly interwoven throughout my childhood formation. As Fr. Schmemann has noted elsewhere, “secular” is not a synonym for “atheist”. They are not expressing or addressing the same concept, though there is a fair degree of overlap between the two. One thing I find fascinating is that Fr. Schmemann saw these forces at work and correctly understood them before I was born. A lot of people have looked back and interpreted what happened during the part of the cultural turn that marks my life, but I’m not sure I’ve encountered many who saw it and understood it as it was happening. Fr. Schmemann did.

In regard to other religions Christianity stands simply as one of them, and the time is certainly gone when Christians could consider them as “primitive” and bound to disappear when exposed to the self-evident “superiority” of Christianity. Not only have they not disappeared, but they show today a remarkable vitality and they “proselytize” even within our so-called “Christian” society.

Of course, I’m not sure that many people would even call our society “Christian” today, but his point above describes my life. I grew up studying, learning, and practicing everything from Transcendental Meditation to palmistry to numerology to past life regression to astrology to tarot to Hinduism to Taoism. (Buddhism didn’t attract me as a child.) Yes, Christianity was in the mix, but I’m not sure I would even describe it as a prime contender. Nor am I talking about some sort of teenage exploration. I had experienced, practiced, or explored to some degree all of the above and more by the time I turned thirteen.

In fact, that perspective on reality was so much a part of me that I have never been able to grasp the common evangelical assertion that Christianity is not a religion. Of course, part of that is the shallowness behind the evangelical version of the assertion. The various reasons given usually lack depth. It’s one example where evangelicals have exactly the right idea, but don’t seem to grasp why it’s true. I began to really understand the reason for that assertion (both in terms of today and in the context of the ancient world) from some things I heard from Fr. Thomas Hopko. And then, of course, this book has really helped clarify the idea for me — probably better than anything else I’ve read or heard. But my “default” formative perspective still sees Christianity as simply one among many religions. It takes real effort for me to overcome that lens.

I believe it was GK Chesterton who wrote: When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything. The experience of my life has certainly been evidence of that truth.

As for secularism, nothing shows better our inability to cope with it than the confusion and division it provokes among Christians themselves: the total and violent rejection of secularism in all varieties of Christian “fundamentalism” clashes with its almost enthusiastic acceptance by the numerous Christian interpreters of the “modern world” and “modern man.”

At it’s heart, secularism involves wrongly dividing the world into categories like “nature” and “supernature” (and possibly dismissing the latter entirely), “profane” and “sacred”, “material” and “spiritual” rather than the proper categories of created and uncreated. Whether they embrace or reject the “supernatural”, most Christian groups today have accepted that manner of perceiving reality. And that drives the confused response.

The object of mission is thought of as the propagation of  religion, considered to be an essential need of man. … But what are these “basic religious values”? If one analyzes them honestly, one does not find a single one that would be “basically” different from what secularism at its best also proclaims and offers to men.

You see this in the common approach to “evangelization” today. The goal is to “convert” others into what you are. Further, our secular society professes much the same “values” in many (though not all) areas as Christianity. (That’s not entirely surprising, since I think Fr. Schmemann is correct in his insight elsewhere that the “secular” perspective of reality has its roots as a Christian heresy.)

It sounds like a paradox, but the basic religion that is being preached and accepted as the only means of overcoming secularism is in reality a surrender to secularism. … And it is really amazing how little difference exists in the religious self-consciousness of members of confessions whose dogmas seem to stand in radical opposition to one another. For even if a man changes religion, it is usually because he finds the one he accepts as offering him “more help” — not more truth.

Oddly the SBTC magazine recently had an editorial decrying exactly that tendency, that people today don’t really care all that much what a particular church or denomination teaches or believes. I have to admit, living in the wilds of Christian pluralism, I tend to share that attitude. I’ll check to see if a place is too obnoxious in their statements about the proper “role” or “place” for women and steer clear of them. If they are stridently anti-evolution or even anti-science, I’ll tend to give them a wide berth. And if they are nutty in their interpretation of and focus on “end times” I’ll keep my distance. Beyond that, Christianity has become so fragmented that I don’t really expect any coherence or place any particular stock in “denominational distinctives”.

And in this general religious decline, the non-Christian “great religions” have an even greater chance of survival. … Have not Oriental wisdom and Oriental mysticism always exercised an almost irresistible attraction for religious people everywhere? It is to be feared that certain “mystical” aspects of Orthodoxy owe their growing popularity in the West precisely to their easy — although wrong — identification with Oriental mysticism.

Why? Because if you are looking for a religion that “helps” then Buddhism or other Eastern religions can certainly offer that to you. They may “help” better than Christianity, and certainly better than much of what Christianity has become in the modern pluralist West. People are flocking today both to other religions and to no particular religion at all.

It is a very serious question, indeed, whether under its seemingly traditional cover certain forms of contemporary Christian mission do not in reality pave the way for a “world religion” that will have very little in common with the faith that once overcame the world.

If anything, we’re simply farther along that path today.


My Church History Perspective 5 – Translation and Textual Criticism

Posted: December 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments »

The two threads of the problem of translation and the impact of modern textual criticism strike me as interwoven with the work of history in different ways. Any work of translation, of course, is an intrinsically historical effort. Language is closely correlated with culture. So before an idea can be expressed in a different language, it must be understood in the setting of its original context. However, because different languages operate in different cultural contexts and historical settings, operating sometimes under very different assumptions, there is often not a clear expression of an idea from one language in another. Modern textual criticism, on the other hand, often seems to be used against actual historical evidence, as if working from texts alone one can somehow divine the “truth.” I wanted to touch on both topics, at least briefly, in this series.

The work of translation is, as I already mentioned, a fundamentally historical work. The success and accuracy of any translation effort depends on the correct understanding of the text that is being translated. Since idiom and cultural assumptions permeate any and every text, if you do not properly understand those assumptions and the idioms that flow from them, you will misunderstand the text being translated. Obviously, if you don’t correctly understand that which you are translating, the odds of correctly translating it are significantly worse.

But the task is even harder because it is impossible to approach any text without your own presuppositions. The more important the text is to you, the more your desires will influence your translation efforts. Modern translators of biblical texts into English try to overcome some of those biases by assembling teams of translators. However, that simply trades the individual bias for a group bias. No translation effort is ever free from that sort of bias. That’s why it’s always good to research a translation and understand which Christian tradition or group produced the translation. It’s a particular problem now due to the radical division and pluralism of belief that exists in Christianity today.

Sometimes translators simply ignore history. For example, there are those who decided that the Apostle Junia mentioned in Romans must have been a male named “Junias” despite the complete lack of any historical evidence that such a male name ever existed and over the clear historical tradition of the Church about Junia. Why did they reach that conclusion? Because they did not believe a woman could have been an apostle. The bias of the group drove decisions about the translation of the text in direct opposition to the overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary. However, translation bias is not usually as blatant as that. Typically, it’s more subtle.

Modern textual criticism, on the other hand, is much stranger and much more driven by the biases and goals of those performing it. I think I’m too “postmodern” in my formation to understand a perspective that believes you can “objectively” determine much of anything by studying texts. It’s this discipline, for instance, that has promulgated the widely held belief that the Gospel of Mark was written first and even that there is some mythical “lost” document that Mark and the other synoptics used as a source. There is no historical basis for either claim. Every patristic source we have states that Matthew was written first. Moreover, there would have been no motive for the ancient writers to lie or distort the truth. There is no evidence that the order itself was important to them. They were simply reporting the tradition they had received from the apostles themselves or from those who had known one or more of them.

The question then, is really why the modern textual critics wanted Mark to be the first gospel written? And when you ask that question, you begin to unravel a tapestry that allowed some in that group to place Mark in the second century, and remove all the gospels from an apostolic source. That’s not a widely held belief anymore from what I can tell, but the idea that Mark was written first, developed as a linchpin for that effort, persists nonetheless.

Bias also creeps in through variations in the ancient texts. If you read the notes in the translation of the Holy Scriptures you use, you might see notes to the effect that the “oldest” texts do not contain this or that bit of the text or that they say something different. Our initial reaction is to believe that the “older” texts are the more accurate, but that’s a reaction based on modern assumptions. In the ancient world, the texts were generally produced by hand. It was a long, laborious process and much depended on the skill of the transcriber. Given that texts were always less trusted in an oral culture, a poor text would be quickly identified and set aside while a good text would be used. Thus the oldest surviving texts are more likely to be poor copies that were little used while the better texts were much used and thus did not remain intact. If something exists in a broad array of old texts, there is no reason to reject those texts simply because one or two older ones have something different.

However, even among the best copies there are some variations in the text. But that doesn’t seem to have bothered anybody in the ancient world. They expected it and treated it as completely natural. If you read patristic sermons, you’ll encounter places where they note that the text they are reading says this, but they’ve read it differently elsewhere, and then they’ll tend to explore points in both variations. Later, as the texts were translated into other languages, you’ll see points made from the nuance of the language of the translation that go beyond the meaning in the original. Christianity has always believed that the Spirit speaks authoritatively through the text in any language and, as long as it is consistent with the tradition of interpretation, has had no problem with nuance arising from the translation itself.

The obsession with determining exactly what text is “right” is a purely modern one. And it most often seems to be a way of disputing or rejecting traditional interpretations and asserting novel interpretations instead. There is actually no such thing as a truly “conservative” (in the traditional sense of the word, not in the way it seems to be bandied about today) Protestant. But then, most people today (at least in the US) don’t use “conservative” or “liberal” in anything like their original sense. I’m not sure there is any consensus on what the new meanings of the words are because they don’t seem to be used in any consistent fashion at all. Most often, they seem to be used either as pejoratives or to describe the group with which you associate. If that group uses one of the words, then in that context, the word means the things that the group says and the other word describes everyone else.

Or at least, so it seems to me.


A Pluralist Lost In Christian Pluralism

Posted: November 29th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

I often have a difficult time expressing my thoughts about the myriad strands of Christian belief without saying things that are prone to be misunderstood. I doubt this attempt will be any different. But I’ve had a variety of thoughts swirling around my head lately and it’s time to reduce at least some of them to the written word.

It’s hard to understand what is meant by the label ‘Christian‘ today. On the one hand, modern Christianity seems to be almost as diverse and varied as the many paths we lump together under the label ‘Hinduism‘. However, on the other hand, modern Christians for the most part assert that within their pluralism they somehow remain ‘one faith‘ even as they make assertions about God, man, and the nature of reality that utterly contradict each other. Even in Hinduism, the various paths generally share some common basic assumptions about the nature of reality. That is not always the case in modern Christian pluralism.

I have a theory that many people are raised and shaped primarily within one perspective on the nature of reality. It might be some sort of an essentially materialistic perspective or Hinduism or Buddhism or a particular flavor of Christianity. Though they might change that perspective at some point over the course of their lives, they tend to take the assertions of the paths they adopt more or less at face value. Since it is common today for the myriad Protestant paths to claim that the various Christian paths are essentially the same faith, it seems to me that there is a shared assumption among Christians and non-Christians alike that the claim accurately reflects reality.

I was not raised within any one perspective, however. Throughout my childhood, my mother was actively searching and exploring a wide variety of things. While I sometimes label my default perspective relativistic pluralism, that’s really more of a non-label. As a result, when I found myself drawn almost inexorably toward some sort of faith in Jesus of Nazareth fifteen years ago, I did so as someone who had wandered through many beliefs and practices through the first three decades of my life. If I was anything, I was a pluralist in the truest sense of the word.

It’s difficult to describe life without an overarching narrative (or with one that shifts fairly easily) to those who have never experienced it. It does mean that I don’t usually try (or at least try for long) to fit things into a predetermined framework. Rather, I more or less experience different perspectives as they are described. Some perspectives I try on lightly. Others I’ve held more tightly. But I don’t generally try to make any perspective fit into some mold. I just let it be what it is.

So at first, I accepted the assertion that Christianity is a single faith which is essentially the same across all its denominations, sects, and schisms. However, that assertion only holds up if you don’t look too closely at the different paths within Christian pluralism. They are actually very different from each other in the most basic elements. They do not say the same thing about the nature and being of God. They do not say the same thing about the nature of man. And thus they do not say the same thing about the nature of reality. Even when they use the same words (as they often do), when you look through the lens of particular paths, you find they don’t actually mean the same thing when they use those words.

What’s a poor pluralist to do in the midst of that confusion? What do you do when people say they believe the same thing when they obviously don’t?

For a while I tried to treat Christian pluralism the same way I approached Hinduism as I explored and practiced some of the different paths within it. That “worked” on some levels for a while. But the more I learned about the Christian faith and its different modern paths, the more dissonance that created. As diverse as it is, Hinduism does share some common sense of transcendent reality in Brahman, both the substance of all that is and more, but in an impersonal way. There is some basic, shared sense of karma, the transmigration of souls, and other common elements that provide some coherence within the pluralism of Hinduism. I found no such commonality within Christian pluralism.

A few years ago, a friend loaned me A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren. My friend was curious how someone with my background and formation would react to the book. On one level I liked it. (And I’ll point out that I generally enjoy the things Brian says. I haven’t read a great many of his books because I don’t think he’s primarily speaking to people like me. But I have read some and I do follow his blog.) I naturally try to appreciate the positive within various spiritual paths as I try to inhabit them to a greater or lesser extent. However, I found the book … incomplete. Brian never seemed to fully inhabit the various perspectives explored in the book and, as a result, while he does lift some positive aspects from each, the book never reveals the deep dissonances between the perspectives.

Instead of trying to somehow reconcile the different Christian perspectives or pick the aspects from each that I liked in a sort of Christian syncretism, I began to try to simply look through the lens of some of the different paths within Christian pluralism (nobody could ever inhabit them all) and decide for myself if the path described a God I could not just worship, but love. For it was the love of Jesus and a love for Jesus (and for the ways that Jesus formed and changed people in perplexing ways) that had drawn me into Christianity. It’s that same love that keeps me within it, almost as if I’ve passed the event horizon of a black hole, though the center of this gravity well is purest light.

As I did that, I discovered that a lot of the different paths described a fundamentally unlovely God. They described a God I didn’t even much like, much less love. And I’m not interested in worshiping a God I don’t like and can’t love. And so in discussions, I began saying things like, “Calvin describes a God I would never willingly worship, much less love.” Of course, people read such statements and interpret them to mean that I don’t believe that, for instance, Calvinists are Christians. I don’t know how to avoid such interpretations, but I don’t have any ability to judge who is or is not a Christian, and would never assert anything along those lines. I don’t even know how to judge if I am or am not Christian. I’m not even sure what that means. The only thing I can say is whether or not a given perspective describes a God I could or would ever worship. I’m not making a statement about others. I’m making a statement about myself.

I tend to use Calvinism in my illustrations because in its purest form (which I know most people don’t actually hold) that perspective is simultaneously widely considered somehow “orthodox” while at the same time is utterly repellent to me and antithetical to everything I see in Jesus and believe about God. I don’t even particularly care what arguments people can construct about its rightness because I don’t care if it’s right or not. If Calvin was right, then I’m not Christian, will never be Christian, and utterly reject that God. Calvin described an evil God. Obviously, I don’t believe he was correct or I would not still be pursuing Christian faith.

I could use Mormonism in my illustrations since I find its description of God and reality completely uninteresting also, though not quite as repellent as Calvin’s. However, most Christians don’t consider that sect Christian, so the illustration would not have the same impact. (I’ll point out that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints actually agrees with other Christian traditions that they teach something entirely different. They just disagree over who is correct, not over whether or not it is different.)

That reminds me of a joke I heard recently. It was a takeoff on the Four Spiritual Laws, that begin “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” (I had to look them up, but the joke was funny even without knowing what they are.) These were the two spiritual laws of Calvinism.

  1. God hates you and has a horrible plan for your life.
  2. There’s nothing you can do about it.

It was funny to me anyway.

There are several general things I feel I can now say about Christian perspectives. If your perspective does not describe a God who is unfailingly good, I’m not interested. I may struggle to truly believe that God is good at times, but I’m not interested in trying to have faith in any personal God who is not good. If your God is not love, a good God who loves mankind, then I’m not interested. If your God is one who has a problem with forgiveness and who must have all debts paid by someone, I’m not interested. Like Jonah, I see a God who overflows with mercy and forgiveness, even when that mercy irritates me. For in truth, if God does not overflow with mercy, on what basis can I pray, “Lord have mercy” and expect to be heard? I look at Jesus and I don’t believe that God has any problem with love, any problem with forgiveness, or any great concern about his “honor.” The question is never if God loves us or if God forgives us or if God is doing everything he can (without coercion) to “save” us. The question is on us. Do we want his love? Do we want to assume our proper place in creation or do we want something else? How will we choose to experience the fire of God’s love? As warmth and comfort? Or as a “consuming fire”? God has shown us who he is in Jesus of Nazareth. That’s not the question. The question is who and what do we choose to be?

So many modern Christians seem consumed with trying to prove that they are right that few seem to pause and ask if the God they describe is worth loving.

However, I don’t presume that I have any ability to judge individual people, whatever perspective they say they hold. I had an aunt who was a lifelong Presbyterian (though I had no idea for much of her life that that perspective was “Calvinistic” or even what that meant) and who was probably a better Christian than I’ll ever be. I have a friend who claims to lean toward a “Calvinistic” perspective (though I’m not sure how to reconcile that with what he actually says and does) but who is again a more faithful follower of Jesus than I’ll probably ever be. Knowing what I think I know about Jesus, I would also be shocked if he were not working to “save” those within Buddhism, Hinduism, or other perspectives, even if they never overtly claim a faith in him. I don’t set boundaries on the work of the Spirit. But I think there is a lot within modern Christian pluralism that makes that work more rather than less difficult.

I’ve written the above without even touching on my long-standing interest in history, how Christianity is fundamentally a historic faith (in that we claim that God acted within the context of history in Jesus of Nazareth), nor of the historical disconnect within most of modern Christian pluralism. If I ever decide to explore it, that’s a separate post. Hopefully, in this one I’ve made it a little clearer how I approach faith within Christian pluralism.