Who Am I?

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.

Baptists, Eucharist, and History 6 – Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans

Posted: July 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Next we will move into a set of letters from the end of the first century or the beginning of the second century by St. Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius was born around 50 AD and was the second bishop of Antioch after Evodius. Some of the second and third century accounts have him installed as bishop by Peter and others by Paul. Whether or not that is the case, it does seem clear that he knew both of those apostles. It also appears likely that he may have ‘sat at the feet’ of John with his friend Polycarp.

As an interesting historical note, the ancient city of Antioch in which the followers of Jesus were first called Christian, which received much from both Peter and Paul, and which sent Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys to the gentiles, was greatly damaged in a siege in the First Crusade despite its large Christian population, was then captured by the Turks, and finally was conquered by Egypt in the thirteenth century. Under Egypt, the Patriarch was able to return to Antioch from exile in Constantinople. However, Antioch had been reduced to a much smaller town and the seat of the Patriarch eventually moved to Damascus where it remains to this day. In today’s post, we’re going to look at the letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans. I want to focus on chapter 8.

But avoid divisions, as being the beginning of evils. Do ye all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ doth the Father; and follow the presbyters as the apostles; and have respect unto the deacons as unto the commandment of God. Let no one, apart from the bishop, do any of the things that appertain unto the church. Let that eucharist alone be considered valid which is celebrated in the presence of the bishop, or of him to whom he shall have entrusted it. Wherever the bishop appear, there let the multitude be; even as wherever Christ Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful either to baptize, or to hold a love-feast without the consent of the bishop; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that also is well pleasing unto God, to the end that whatever is done may be safe and sure.

Ignatius begins with the admonition to avoid divisions. I did warn those reading this series that such admonitions permeate these writings. We see again the three orders drawn from within the priesthood of the baptized laoikos, the bishop with his presbyters and deacons. The eucharist is only valid when celebrated with the bishop present or with a presbyter present working on behalf of the bishop. And we see that the consent of the bishop was required for baptism and for the love-feast that was the setting for the eucharist.

The beginning of the second century was an interim period. Some still had the full feast. Others had only the eucharist without the feast. That shift began with Paul when he ordered the Corinthian church to cease the feast, eat before they gathered, and hold only the eucharist. He told them that because they were not sharing all as one. Some would go hungry while others would gorge themselves and get drunk. Their practice also seemed to be enflaming both pride in some and envy in others. Eventually the practice of the full love-feast faded away and the liturgy became focused on  the eucharist everywhere. At least that’s my take on the relevant texts and historical information that we have. I’m sure others have a different perspective.

I will also note something that I did not understand for a long time. I had understood catholic to mean universal. I picked that up along the way and it stuck for years. But that’s not the greek word that means universal. The word from which we derive ecumenical is actually the word that means universal. Catholic is probably best translated as whole or full. That will be important as we read along. Basically Ignatius is saying that where you have the one bishop of a place with the multitude of the people of God who live in that place gathered around him, you have the whole church or the fullness of the church. It’s at least something on which to reflect.

This letter is short and as always I encourage you to read the entire text. But we see in this short section that the eucharist is something of special quality and importance, that it requires the bishop, and if done improperly is neither safe nor sure.

Thoughts on Emergent

Posted: June 7th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ve read Julie Clawson’s post, Disappointed with Emergent?, and followed the replies with a fair degree of interest. I’ve thought about what I might say in a comment and it’s never really seemed to fit the focus and flow of the discussion or be something I could say succinctly. As I’ve thought about it, I’ve decided to write my own post at a tangent to her post and the rest of the broader discussion on the topic. I’m not involved with Emergent in any way, unlike many of the others who have posted. So my thoughts will be from a somewhat different perspective.

I became aware of Emergent probably about five years ago or so. It impinged on my consciousness not through a book, a search, particular sorts of questions, or anything like that. Rather, I was introduced to this particular conversation by a friend.  That friend had grown up, I gather, within the more or less typical southern evangelical conservative culture. There are the sorts of ups and downs we tend to expect in those stories, but it does include some ways of treating fellow human beings as a young man, flowing in some ways from that particular culture, that do still weigh on his conscience. Personally, while I can listen and accept that he is telling stories from his personal history, I cannot connect that person to the man I have come to know. I suppose that’s not surprising, really. Though I see myself as continuous with the person I was twenty years ago and more, I do know that so much about me has shifted so much that in some ways I’m hardly the same person at all. To one degree or another, that’s probably true of most of us. From what I understand, Emergent and related conversations had done a great deal to remold and perhaps even preserve the faith of my friend. I don’t want to speak too strongly, but I think he encountered it at a time where trying to continue to do what he had always done was no longer really possible.

We had come to know each other well enough that he knew my background and knew it was about as far from the story of the evangelical suburban childhood as you can get within our shared American context. While the forces of modernity that shaped and formed the Reformation still largely shape both the liberal and conservative branches of Protestantism, I was molded and formed culturally, spiritually, and practically within the postmodern whirlwind. I’ve been a Christian for about a decade and a half within the context of an SBC church. I don’t have anything bad to say about them. They are great people. I love many of them. But I’ll never think, approach life, approach God, or practice the spiritual dimension of my life as many of them do. I’ve tried on a lot of it to see what would stick and relatively little has. Yet these are the people who finally brought Jesus of Nazareth to me in a way that actually took root. I will always honor that.

I think as he came to understand my background, my friend was a little curious. After all, the Emergent conversation has spoken a lot about the postmodern or post-postmodern culture and the way it relates to Christian faith and understanding.  Again, I can’t really speak to the motives or thoughts of another, but I do think he wondered how someone like me would react to things within the emerging conversation (whether people were actually associated with Emergent or not). He pointed out a few articles on the Ooze to me. (I’ve never been fond of forums, so I never have read all that much there unless someone pointed something out and asked me to read it. If it doesn’t come to me in the form of email, text, or full text in my RSS Reader, the odds of me following something over time are vanishingly small.) He loaned me A Generous Orthodoxy to see what I thought of it. He pointed out some of the main voices in the conversation and I quickly found others on my own. My cultural and spiritual shaping were deeply pluralistic and relativistic. Those have both been altered by and through Jesus of Nazareth, but they very much remain my default position. They are a constituent component of the lens through which I perceive reality. It was strange to me to hear evangelical voices at least attempting to communicate and approach God in ways that were often akin to my native mode.

I thank him deeply for that. And not really for introducing me to the specific voices that he did, as much as by expanding where I looked to try to understand the God of this thing called Christianity. I was mostly reading Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, Brother Lawrence, St. John of the Cross and similar voices from the past. On the more modern side, the only two I read a lot of works by were C.S. Lewis and Max Lucado. (Yes, Max is the prototypical evangelical. But he’s also a great storyteller. And he tells stories about a God you might actually want to know and worship. I find a lot of people knock him simply because he isn’t other than who and what he is.) Notably, if I had not encountered this conversation, I don’t know if I would have stumbled across Dallas Willard, N.T. Wright, and Scot McKnight at all. And it was through Scot McKnight that I discovered modern Orthodoxy and that there actually were still people today who believe stuff about God and Jesus and humanity similar to what  those who lived and wrote in the first millenium of Christianity believed. I was becoming discouraged because it seemed that nobody actually still believed the stories and descriptions of God and tales of what it meant to be a human being that I found most interesting, provocative, and compelling. And it didn’t seem like many I heard today were actually describing the God I encountered and whom I thought I was getting to know.

Would I still be Christian if I had not encountered those modern voices above and others like them? I don’t actually know the answer to that question. I do know that my faith was wearing awfully thin. Even for me, it’s hard to constantly be among people who see God in ways you don’t and never will. I’m pretty used to not fitting in. That’s the story of my life. But a decade of it wears on even me, especially when the God most often described is the one that’s pretty typical in conservative evangelicalism. Further, I was questioning if I had done the right thing introducing my children to this environment and allowing it to shape them. (In all honesty, that remains an open question in my mind. You do the best that you know how to do at the time when raising kids and pray you don’t screw up too badly.) I didn’t learn anything about postmodern culture, of course. I’m as much a face of postmodern formation as any other you’ll find. But I did find a Christianity worth continuing to believe, perhaps not directly in Emergent, but certainly through the process and connections engaged in its conversation.

So am I disappointed with Emergent? No. I find it wryly amusing that some apparently expected some sort of revolutionary movement from the organization. There’s not a lot of room for revolution when threading between Scylla and Charybdis, though some engage in it nonetheless. Emergent says valuable things in a context where they often are not said. That’s useful. And it helps people navigate the fractured chaos that Christianity has become in ways that do not destroy faith. That’s valuable. Disappointment implies expectations. And expectations tend to tell us more about those who hold them than they do about the target or focus of those expectations.

Or at least so it seems to me.