It gets harder every day to explain my spirituality to others. I am a follower of the Master Jesus, and an independent priest. But am I a Christian? Many would say no, because I have unorthodox beliefs.
C. S. Lewis argued, in Mere Christianity, that “Christian” should mean someone who claims to hold to the “Christian doctrine”. He was arguing against those who prefer to use “Christian” as a word meaning someone who is loving and charitable. Lewis would prefer us to say of a baptized scoundrel, “he’s a bad Christian” rather than “he’s not a Christian”.
But what, exactly, constitutes “Christian doctrine?” At one time, we could identify the earliest Christian creeds and doctrines and insist that a Christian must claim to believe them. But with the emergence of early Christian writings such as the Nag Hammadi texts, our view of what early Christianity looked like is changing. Early Christians were a much more diverse bunch than originally thought. From the very beginning, there existed apostolic groups with radically different notions of what Jesus message was.
I would tend to call myself a “gnostic” Christian, but this is misleading also. No Christian group actually called itself “gnostic”. This was a catch-all phrase for several groups that differed considerably with each other. There are a few common features of “gnosticism”, such as the emphasis on individual enlightenment, that are appealing. Then on the other hand are the strange cosmologies and a very negative attitude toward the material world.
“Mystical Christian”, “Esoteric Christian”, and “Hermetic Christian” are also possibilities, but seem to conjure up strange images in the modern mind.
So, what do you think is the best self-label for an “inner” Christian in the modern world?
I ran into this article the other day on cracked.com. It’s normally a humor site, but this article by David Wong is actually extremely perceptive and intelligent about unraveling the atheist/believer conflict. I highly recommend it as required reading for anyone attempting to debate religion.
One of the greatest religious thinkers and debaters of any age was my patron Thomas Aquinas. His particular strength was his ability to put himself into the minds of his opponents. He could understand, and explain their positions even better than they could themselves.
People are much more willing to listen to someone who they believe truly understands them. On the contrary, feeling misunderstood is one of the greatest obstacles to communication – especially in a contentious situation. David shows a remarkable ability in this article to understand the mindset of both sides of the equation.
The link is here
Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell. I bought this book on Audible (Amazon’s audio book company) for several reasons. First of all, it was very high on the best-seller list in spirituality and secondly because the subject has always appealed to me. In fact I was in the middle of writing a piece on much the same subjects. I’m extremely glad I picked it up.
While I would approach the subject slightly differently than pastor Bell, this book will be appreciated by someone who wants to take a fairly conservative and orthodox view of the Bible and yet is troubled by the exclusivist teaching of some fundamentalist and evangelical branches of Christianity.
Using a good assortment of scriptures, historical notes, stories and excellent prose, Bell makes a Christian case for being at least OPEN to the ideas of a limited hell from which people can be redeemed, for eventual universal salvation, and the real presence of the kingdom of God in the here-and-now.
I’ll give a brief example of his prose. After quoting a ream of scriptures to the effect that God desires the salvation of everyone, and that God’s purpose cannot be ultimately resisted, Bell summarizes like this:
Once again, God has a purpose. A desire. A goal. And God never stops pursuing it. Jesus tells a series of parables in Luke 15 about a woman who loses a coin, a shepherd who loses a sheep, and a father who loses a son. The stories aren’t ultimately about things and people being lost; the stories are about things and people being found. The God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever.
It’s true that Bell qualifies his points quite a bit, needing to walk a bit of a fine line to stay within the conservative biblical view. Still, his questions alone have been enough to make his book extremely popular, and extremely controversial. People who find exclusivist Christianity limiting but who still love Christianity feel quite liberated that someone has finally spoken to them. And plenty of people in the exclusivist branches of Christianity seem very threatened. And that’s probably a very good sign.
I’d highly recommend the book to Christians who’d like support for a more enlightened version of the Christian tradition, and for non-believers who could use an example of Christianity that isn’t all about sending other people to hell.
The picture below links to a short video intro on the book
The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller. This book, by a unique Presbyterian minister, is a deep look at the parable of the prodigal son from a traditional Christian perspective. It’s a short work, but brings wonderful and deep insights into understanding this parable.
For example, while much is always made of the tremendous grace and love of the father in the parable forgiving his wayward son. But less is usually made of the “good” son who remains faithful. I Keller’s mind, this son is actually the primary focus of the parable. Self-righteousness and moral strictness are actually a GREATER danger to our spirituality than laxity and rebellion. The sinful and rebellious son realizes his mistake and is welcomed back into his father’s presence. But does the self-righteous son ever get over his anger and return to the party? Jesus leaves us not knowing. And his words are directed at the pharisees listening, and the the pharisees of our own day.
The self-righteous son never really loved his father. He keeps to society’s conventions and rules only for self interest. He hopes to inherit his fathers wealth, and the return of his brother is not at all welcome.
Before this parable, Jesus has told to others, the lost sheep and the lost coin, in which someone goes out to search for the missing. And who should have been searching for the prodigal son? By right, and by love, that should have been his older brother. But the brother stayed safely at home, comfortable in his own righteousness, like so many religious people before and since. Keller’s insights on this problem are keen.
Jesus’ teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today to not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, then they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think.
Although Keller puts his conclusions in more traditional Christian terminology, the fact is that both the rebellion of the younger brother and the self-righteousness of the older brother can be traps and manifestations of the ego. In integral terms, the younger brother is pre-conventional and the older brother is conventional. Neither is post-conventional. Neither has overcome their own small selves to reach divine grace.
The book is an excellent examination of the traps of religiosity, from a Christian perspective.
The Middle Word
Rabbi Irving Greenberg
Living in the Image of God
Jewish law envisions a future in which all human beings are treated as infinitely valuable, equal, and unique
The following is the first in a two-part series:
There is a fundamental principle of Judaism that accounts for all Jewish ethics, including the obligation to love your neighbor as yourself. The Talmudic sage Ben Azzai suggests that this axiom is the Torah’s statement that “God created the human being in God’s image … man and woman God created them.” The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) spells out the implications of this concept. Judaism holds that–to paraphrase the American Declaration of Independence–all humans are created in the image of God, and therefore they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights and dignities, among which are infinite value, equality and uniqueness. Let’s explore what these three concepts really mean.
INFINITE VALUE: An image of man has a finite value. A Picasso sold for $30,000,000 plus; a Van Gogh for $82.5 million. But an image created by God is worth incomparably more; it is of infinite value. That is why the Talmud states that “To save one life is equivalent to saving a whole world.”
If a life is infinitely valuable, then it must be treated with great concern and care. No precious work of art would be left outside, exposed to the elements. Thus no image of God should ever be allowed to lie on the street, homeless and freezing during winter. Similarly, it is worth spending hundreds of thousands, and indeed millions of dollars, to medically treat and save the life of an infinitely valuable person–meaning, everyone.
EQUALITY: In the Jewish tradition, God is described in images ranging from a powerful warrior to a comforting mother. But it is understood that no image is literal or fixed, and no image is intrinsically superior to the other. To present an image of God as the preferred (or fixed) image of God is idolatry. All images of God (that is, all humans) are equal. Thus the claim that whites are superior to blacks, or males are preferred to women, or members of one religion are truly the image of God and the others are not, is equivalent to idolatry.
UNIQUENESS: Images of man are meant to be replicable. The normal assumption of all stamps, all coins, all reproduced photographs is that one is identical to the next; that is because they are images created by human beings. However, says the Talmud, an image created by God has this distinction: The Holy One creates all human beings from one mold (Adam and Eve), yet each one is different from the other. Not even identical twins are identical. To see people through stereotypes violates the fundamental dignity of the other person as a unique image of God.
The world that we inhabit degrades these fundamental dignities. Poverty and discrimination, legalized slavery and oppression, cultural stereotyping, and human neglect are rampant–but they are incompatible with the dignities of the image of God. Therefore, the Jewish tradition insists that this status quo be fundamentally restructured. We are commanded to work for tikkun olam, to perfect and transform the world until it fully respects the image of God in every human being. We must overcome poverty and hunger, which contradict the infinite value of the individual. We must overcome oppression, because racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, etc., all deny the equality of the other. We must overcome war, which is essentially fought by destroying infinitely valuable images of God with abandon. That is why Isaiah prophesied that “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and they will not learn war anymore.” Isaiah promises that death itself, the ultimate denial of our unique, irreplaceable value, “will be swallowed up in eternity,” that is, overcome.
In short, the Jewish dream of tikkun olam includes the ultimate triumph of life over death and the realization of a world in which the full dignities of every individual are respected, nurtured, and developed. This is the Messianic Age in Jewish tradition. Incorporated into Christianity, into Western culture, and into certain variants of Islam, the Jewish revolutionary promise of world transformation has proven to be extraordinarily liberating and shattering of the status quo.
How shall we live until the final perfection is achieved? The answer of Jewish law and tradition is that we should respect the image of God to the maximum possible degree in all our conduct. Tzedakah, the obligation to help the poor and the hungry, stems from the fact that the needy are equal and infinitely valuable. Lashon hara (evil speech) is prohibited (even if the facts asserted are true) because the talk degrades the image of God in another other person. Sexuality is the search for physical and emotional confirmation of our uniqueness and infinite value–as well as that of the other. Thus, all mitzvot (commandments) can be seen as attempts to nurture the dignity of every human being in the image of God. Judaism is the way of life of Jewry, the community that tries to live by this higher standard–until we achieve tikkun olam, the perfection that will make universal the infinite value, equality, and uniqueness of all human beings.
from belief net.
As I sat down to write a continuation on how the Bible came to be distorted into something more than it was, I would first direct the reader to my previous posts on the topic of bibliolatry. Those posts can be found at:
What probably bears some mention is the effect that the Protestant Reformation had upon this issue. I have to be cautious here, because of my Catholic background, of simply writing the whole Protestant Reformation off as a colossal mistake, so let’s be clear about how necessary it was that SOMETHING had to change.
The authority structure of Christianity had become extremely rigid by this time. The Dynamic Quality of the Spirit mentioned in the earlier articles had solidified into authoritarian structures of Static Quality, and these centered around the persons of the Pope and his Bishops. While not formally declared infallible until Vatican Council 1 centuries later, the Pope was regarded as having divine power and prerogative to dictate the truth in religious dogma and moral practice.
It was clear, particularly to the more educated class of men who had access to the texts of scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers, that the doctrine and practice of the Church was becoming more and more removed from the Dynamic Quality of the teachings of Jesus. Rather than embracing the uncertainty and ambiguity of Dynamic Quality, however, the Reformers opted for a somewhat unfortunate alternative – opposing one form of artificially absolute authority with another artificially absolute authority.
Episcopal Bishop Spong, whom I suspect I’d have a lot of disagreements with in many areas, nevertheless describes this situation very cogently:
“Martin Luther, on seeing corruption he could not ignore at the heart of the church, moved to challenge that which he felt distorted the gospel. He sought to confront the authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy with Holy Scripture and in this manner to recall the church to the purity of his perception of the New Testament vision. Luther wanted to purge his beloved church of superstition, clerical manipulation and false doctrine. His was a crusade which began in a sincere religious conviction…. When Martin Luther countered the authority of the infallible pope, he did so in the name of his new authority, the infallible Scriptures. This point of view was generally embraced by all of the Reformation churches. The Bible thus became the paper pope of Protestantism. Protestants historically have matched every extravagant papal claim with an equally extravagant biblical claim.” (“Hope and Fear in Ecumenical Union” – John Shelby Spong)
Historical circumstances, in other words, forced the Bible into an impossible position. It could not simply be regarded as sacred or inspirational writing, but had to be artificially invested with an infallibility equal to the Papacy it was challenging, in order to provide believers with the static certainty they craved in their religious beliefs. But that certainty comes at a rather high price. Quoting from Spong again:
“Hiding behind claims of revealed truth that were not allowed to be questioned and of infallible authority that could not be challenged, Christians have condemned Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, Freud and many other great breakthrough thinkers in the various fields of an exploding human knowledge. Seeking to protect power and authority, Christians have had to be literally dragged by the knowledge revolution into the 20th century.”
I believe, on the contrary, that while the static documents of the Bible are invaluable – the heart of “faith” is not to clutch resolutely at a supposedly infallible standard. That is not faith, but fear – terror of the foreign territory into which God might lead us if we allow it. True faith, on the other hand, is to imitate the pilgrimage of Abraham and follow the lead of God, without knowing the destination in advance.
The whole foundation of Christianity is based on the idea that intellectualism is the work of the Devil. Remember the apple on the tree? Okay, it was the Tree of Knowledge. “You eat this apple, you’re going to be as smart as God. We can’t have that.” – Frank Zappa
Zappa, of course, wasn’t the first to find God’s behavior in Genesis 2 absurd. Shortly after Jesus, the Christian Gnostics read the Genesis account and saw something entirely different than what the orthodox saw. To them, it was obvious that the God of Genesis 2 was a bully – ignorant if not downright malevolent. To them, it was basically this “God” of Genesis 2 who was the REAL devil, and the serpent was sent from the true God to deliver Adam and Eve from Ignorance. The Gnostic “Testimony of Truth” put it in words Zappa would probably have approved of:
“But what sort is this God? First he maliciously refused Adam from eating of the tree of knowledge, and, secondly, he said “Adam, where are you?” God does not have foreknowledge? Would he not know from the beginning? And afterwards, he said, “Let us cast him out of this place, lest he eat of the tree of life and live forever.” Surely, he has shown himself to be a malicious grudger!”
But other mystical interpretations of Genesis pick up on additional subtleties. It is not simply wisdom that the fatal tree gives Adam and Eve – it is dualistic knowledge – categorical knowledge. Good vs. Evil. Light vs. Dark. Ultimately – myself vs. everything NOT myself. In other words, the developed Ego. The story in Genesis is basically the story of humanity rising above animal awareness and developing self-consciousness; a story repeated in the psychological development of every subsequent human being. Thorough the ego, humanity not only becomes aware of good and evil, but also life and death. We come to understand, anticipate… and dread our own mortality.
This is our “fall”. But it is a fall UPWARDS. The Ego is our only vehicle upwards toward transcendence, but it also can become our prison.
And so, in one important sense, the intellectual, categorical, dualistic mind IS an obstacle. Not because it allows us to question dogma or doubt doctrine, but because it isolates us from the rest of the universe in a prison of concepts, tortured by the suffering of remembered or anticipated pain and death and annihilation. The ego is our hell, and our only salvation is that the ego is temporary. To live forever in our present state would indeed be a grim fate.
Every mystical tradition recognizes that the intellectual mind is an obstacle to be overcome in the spiritual path. Zen masters give their disciples torturous, insoluble mental puzzles (koans) to trick the mind into exhausting itself. Yogis practice for years to quiet the noise of the mind. In Christianity, “contemplative prayer” involves a long discipline of focusing the mind on divine emptiness.
John Wren-Lewis, an atheist mystic, describes his experience of awakening from the conceptual world into emptiness:
“Now all the judgments of goodness or badness which the human mind necessarily has to make in its activities along the line of time were contextualized in the perspective of that other dimension I can only call eternity, which loves all the productions of time regardless.”
The Church of the Holy Archangels is an independent ministry in the process of affiliation with the Home Temple under the jurisdiction of Bishop Lewis Keizer.
In form we are part of the Independent Catholic movement, with lines of authority from most if not all of the surviving branches of apostolic succession. We administer the sacraments to any who wish to receive them, without membership or doctrinal requirements and without charge.
Our understanding of the spiritual world is not bound by any one tradition, but is influenced by many traditions, including orthodox Christianity, Gnosticism, Vedantism and other Eastern philosophies, and the teaching of various Esoteric Schools.
In the process of looking up a few universalist writings, I ran into a very interesting bit of writing from a liberal Quaker. First, a recap of a few universalist ideas:
The basic argument for universalism is quite simple and powerful – Human beings are finite. Because they are finite, they are only capable of finite good and finite evil. To suffer in hell eternally would be an INFINITE punishment. Since God is just, he could never insist on or even allow an infinite punishment for a finite evil. To do so would be infinitely unjust.
Traditional Christianity responds by making the concept of hell a bit more sophisticated. God is not throwing us into hell or keeping us there. We reject God, and that rejection IS hell. God cannot interfere with our freedom, and so we are free to continue to reject God and remain in hell forever.
Now I quote from the Quakers:
“I had rejected the image of a wrathful, powerful God anxious to punish the wicked in the fires of hell, but I was left with a benevolent but feeble God who had no choice but to destroy the ones he loved. Hell was another Holocaust, where once again millions would be thrown into the furnaces while God stood by powerless and defeated. When confronted with the inconsistency of an all-powerful God incapable of accomplishing his desire, I drew a careful distinction between what God wanted to do and what God was able to do. God was not free.”
“I defended our freedom to reject God–but denied God’s freedom to reject our rejection. Acknowledged that God can have mercy on whom he will have mercy, and compassion on whom he will have compassion, but I quickly defined the persons and situations in which God could be merciful and compassionate. My God was shackled, powerless to act.”
“This shackled God was not the God of Jesus.”
(From If Grace Be True: Why God Will Save Every Person. Philip Gulley & James Mulholland.)
This idea that God is free to reject our rejection of him also works into their view of the crucifixion. Quoting again:
“Calvary was not the fulfillment of a divine plan. It was not the final installment on a cosmic debt. It was not necessary to satisfy some bloodthirsty deity. The crucifixion was the cost of proclaiming grace. The more insistent Jesus was on God’s grace, the more likely was his eventual death on the cross. His death was a human act rather than a divine sign. People, not God, demanded his crucifixion."
“God did something glorious in Jesus. His resurrection settled once and for all the question of God’s attitude toward his children. God has determined to love and redeem. In the crucifixion we said no to God, but in the resurrection God rejected our rejection. This is the triumph of grace”
I found this point of view quite refreshing.