A Quantum of Surrender

A Quantum of Surrender

Mark 1.9-13
About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”  At once the Spirit forcedJesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.

After the Holy Spirit descends upon him, Jesus makes a beeline for solitude. Look closely at Mark’s language. “AT ONCE the Spirit FORCED Jesus out into the wilderness.” It’s as if Mark senses that as the heaven’s opened and the Holy Spirit descended, Jesus underwent a fundamental change of being

Mark is, of course, playing a bit of a literary game here. By sending Jesus out into the wilderness, he reminds his Jewish readers of their people’s own time in the wilderness. He is also not-so-subtly making his case for Jesus as a new Moses, who also headed for the hills after his God encounter.

While Mark gives Jesus’ desert time short shrift, Luke expands on the details to remind his readers that nothing Jesus did was possible without his complete and utter reliance on God. 

Mark wants us to recognize God’s presence as the force that changes the course of our lives. Yet he also acknowledges that once we give into the Spirit, we will also need time to contemplate what has just happened to us.

Luke, as he so often does, builds on Mark’s foundation and creates the desert temptation sequence to also remind us that even after our baptism, we will be tested. There will be adversaries and adversities to overcome. Luke tells us to hang on to that baptismal moment of complete oneness, complete surrender to God. 

As we read the temptation scene, notice that Luke has Jesus respond to each of Satan’s temptations with scripture, both as a rebuke and as Jesus’ way of staying focused on God. 

Luke 4.1-21 (CEB)
Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 

Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”

Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.” 

Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”

Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.”

After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity. 

Until the next opportunity—Luke’s cue that this battle is never over, so we should always remain alert and steadfast in our faith. We should never forget to surrender to God’s light, which eradicates the darkness in our souls and our world.

Luke finishes his account of Jesus’ confrontation by having Jesus travel to the synagogue to make an astounding declaration:

Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 
because the Lord has anointed me. 
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, 
to proclaim release to the prisoners 
and recovery of sight to the blind, 
to liberate the oppressed, 
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

At that point, Jesus drops the mic and says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”

Notice how Jesus comes out of his wilderness time: anointed to preach good news to the poor, to open our soulsso we can see God, and to liberate the oppressed. 

Liberation. Liberation is the result of wilderness time. When we enter a spiritual wilderness and finally get over ourselves, God pushes all our ego out of the way and liberates us from any of the chains binding us to, for lack of a better word, Satan—the adversary.

Now, I bristle at the idea of a devil pitchforking us into evil deeds. But Satan is an essential character in the desert sequence. We must wrestle with what he represents. To be clear, I do not believe in the idea of universal puppet masters, whether called God or Satan. Those aren’t the ideas the biblical authors wanted to convey, either. The ancient Jewish people, like Jesus, understood Satan as a metaphor representing the idea of adversity. Anything that prevented someone from living a God-bearing life was considered ha-satan, a block to spiritual Oneness with God, a break in the covenant.

As followers of Jesus, we must also enter the wilderness to face our adversaries, our own ha-satans. Lent is an opportunity to let God utterly obliterate our egos as we enter deep moments of self-reflection and confession. 

In that ego-less wilderness, we realize that only the power of God flowing through every quantum bit of our being can defeat the greatest adversary we will ever face, the only thing Satan every truly lords over us: fear. Fear of others, fear of a changing world, fear of the unknown, fear of helplessness, fear of fear.

Our egos are afraid to lose control, so the temptation to rule the world, or have endless wealth is attractive. It appeals to our fear of lack, of never having enough. But, in the desert, Jesus shows us that in his ideal for humanity (which he calls the Kingdom of Heaven), God is the ruler and has just one rule: love each other. 

It is the knowledge that not us, but God’s love through us,is what defeats our fear that inspires us to continue to rage against fear’s machinery of intolerance, corporate greed, and the “us against them” mentality so prevalent in today’s civilizations. 

There are soon to be nine billion of us on the planet. Can you imagine the change we could achieve if even one percent of us started consciously entering the desert wilderness every day, allowing God to control every interaction, every thought, in every moment? 

If we just spent a few intentional moments of every busy day in the wilderness with God, we might be able to achieve Jesus’ dream of a united world guided by God’s unconditional love.

I’d like to share a poem by Ann Lewin that I think beautifully describes why we willingly travel into our own spiritual wilderness every year. May it inspire your Lenten journey as it has mine.

“Lent” by Ann Lewin
from Candles and Kingfishers: Reflections on the Journey

Lent is a time to travel
Light, to clear the clutter
From our crowded lives, and
Find a space, a desert.
Deserts are bleak: no creature
Comforts, only a vast expanse of
Stillness, sharpening awareness of
Ourselves and God.

Uncomfortable places, deserts.

Most of the time we’re tempted to
Avoid them, finding good reason to
Live lives of ease; cushioned by
Noise from self-discovery,
Clutching at world’s success
To stave off fear.
But if we dare to trust the silence
To strip away our false security,
God can begin to grow [holy] wholeness in us,
Fill up our emptiness, destroy our fears.
Give us new vision, courage for the journey,
And make our desert blossom like a rose.

Swing Away!

Swing Away!

Luke 6.27-38
27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you. 
 
32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate. 
 
37 “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.”
 
Luke 6.46-49
46 “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? 47 As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. 48 They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. 49 But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”
 
I played Little League baseball when I was a kid. Back then, it was an opportunity to learn the game infield and out. Over the few years I played baseball in my little Midwest cornfield town of DeKalb, Illinois, I experienced every position on the field. Except pitching. They put me on the mound once. I threw the ball, it went way outside, and that was the end of that.
 
Even that short experience taught me something. While each position is unique, one rule holds true for them all: go for it. Jump for the fly ball. Put your body in front of the guy trying to steal a base. Swing at everything that could possibly be a strike. Throw a lousy pitch. Go for it. 
 
If you miss, you miss. But at least you tried. And why try? Because, catching that fly ball, blocking that runner, landing the bat squarely on the ball and hearing that satisfying “thwack” as wood and leather react to a well-placed and powerful swing… that doesn’t happen unless we’re willing to swing and miss.
 
I know it’s a tired analogy. But it’s so true, especially concerning what Jesus outlines as right living in the passages from Luke. Jesus sets an ideal standard that seems impossible to achieve. And perhaps it is, but that’s not Jesus’ ultimate reason for teaching these principles. 
 
Jesus himself is exemplary, the perfection of the ideal. As humans, we might only rarely achieve the same perfection, if ever. But that’s not Jesus’ point. Becoming the ideal, while a noble purpose, isn’t as important as striving to become the ideal. Unlike in baseball, where you’re out after three strikes, striving for a higher standard of spiritual living is more nuanced. If we strive to think and act like Jesus, I think we’re going to be more loving, accepting, caring, compassionate, sacrificing people. 
 
The entrepreneur Jay Samit once said that “There is a huge difference between failing and failure. Failing is trying something that you learn doesn’t work. Failure is throwing in the towel and giving up. True success comes from failing repeatedly and as quickly as possible, before your cash or your willpower runs out.”
 
Think about something you love to do—perhaps playing the piano, a sport, creating art—any activity that brings you pleasure. Now, remember when you first started to learn that activity? You were terrible at it. None of us are pros at anything the first time we try it. 
 
I remember playing piano scales for hours and constantly messing up. But practicing the scales over and over allowed me to play them more proficiently. I learned the correct way to move my hand, which fingers had to hit which notes in which order to fly up and down the keys smoothly, and that took years. Even after all that practice, I still make mistakes when I play. We all do because nobody’s perfect.
 
I don’t think God wants perfect. God is already perfect. If we are physical manifestations of and cosmic explorers for God, then why does God need any more perfect?  God wants experimentation. God wants explorers. Lovers. Dreamers. People who make mistakes. People who don’t give up.
 
Jesus tells us God loves us just the way we are: broken, imperfect bits and all. 
 
If we are serious about pursuing the ideals Jesus sets out for us, we should be prepared to fail many times over, because Jesus tasks his followers—us—with a very difficult and demanding way of being human. We should expect to learn from those failures because the lesson learned from every failure is a success. Look closely again at what Jesus says:
 
27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you. 
 
The list is ludicrous and meant to be so because it shocks us into the reality that our “normal” human conduct is 180 degrees out of sync with Jesus’ vision of a peace- and love-filled world. The fact we hear a statement such as “love your enemies” and immediately respond, “that’s impossible, they’re my enemies,” reveals just how profoundly we ignore Christ’s directives and God’s universal flow of Love.
 
Love your enemy, do good to those who hate you, don’t take arms against interlopers, give people in need everything you have. The list seems insurmountable, yet, why would Jesus give us this list if he didn’t think it was at least approachable, if not ultimately attainable? It’s all difficult to believe, and exceptionally challenging to practice, which is why Jesus admonishes those who ignore him:
 
32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. 
 
I think it’s funny that later in Luke Jesus says, 46 “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”  I’ll tell you why Jesus. I’ll tell you why we don’t do what you say: because it is contrary to everything human evolution has programmed us to believe about ourselves and each other. We don’t do what you say because we’re afraid. Afraid to fail.
 
Turn the other cheek? Ha! If I do that and fail, I’ll be killed, my food will be stolen. and invaders will pillage my land. Love my enemy! Ha! If I do that, my enemy will kill me and pillage my land.
Give away my coat AND my shirt? Ha! If I do that, then my enemy will kill me and take my pants, steal my food, and pillage my land.
 
Our instinct is to survive at all costs. But Jesus teaches us how to do more than merely survive, he shows us how to live more fully as interconnected God-beings
 
Trying to live like Jesus: healing the sick, redistributing wealth for the poor; trying to think and act like him in order to give everything over to God, stopping to consider the big picture idea of the kin-dom of Heaven, reaching out to God for inspiration all the time—these are the actions of students, disciples, followers, believers
 
Putting Jesus’ teachings into action is like playing the scales when learning a musical instrument, or swinging away at a baseball. It’s hard. We mess up a lot. We whiff it now and then. But the more we practice, the more facile we become until finally, we’re playing an entirely new tune and connecting more often than not.

Spirituality Trees

Spirituality Trees

After our discussions about postmodernism and cultural relativism, I’ve been thinking about the roots of faith, both my own and in general. What I am discovering is that personally, a few core beliefs form the roots of my current spirituality tree, the trunk of which is simply love my neighbor. 
 
Over the decades I have also pruned many ideas to make space for new growth. That’s a pretty natural part of any spiritual journey, I think, but it’s occurred to me that postmodern faith is like a spirituality tree. 
 
Subjectively (see what I did there?), trees are one of the coolest lifeforms in the universe. From a tiny seed, these majestic beings spend their very long lives constantly embracing the sky. Yet, the boughs of leaves we see outstretched to a welcoming firmament only exist because of the root structure mostly hidden underground. 
 
Without a secured root system, the tree might wither and die. At the very least, an insufficient root system will stunt the tree’s growth, because roots not only anchor a tree, they also provide its nourishment.
 
The Bible is filled with imagery about deep-seated roots. Root imagery in the bible is about the type of foundation on which we build a faith solid enough to endure a hurricane, yet flexible enough to withstand an Earthquake. It’s about finding an absolute anchor in God, even as the specifics of “Believing in” God might (should) change over the course of our lifetime.
 
Here’s Jeremiah’s poetic description about keeping our faith rooted in God:
 
Jeremiah 17.5-8 (FromThe Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter)
This said the Lord:
Cursed be the man who trusts in humans,
and makes mortal flesh his strong arm.
And he shall be like an arid shrub in the desert,
And he shall not see when good things come.
And he shall dwell in scorched places in the wilderness,
A barren land that cannot be settled.
 
Blessed be the man who trusts in the Lord,
And the Lord becomes his trust.
And he shall be like a tree planted by waters,
And by a stream it sends forth its roots,
And it shall not see when the heat wave comes,
And it’s leaves shall be lush,
And in drought year it shall have no care
And never cease from yielding fruit.
 
Jeremiah proclaims that we should stay rooted in God because God has never and will never let us down. In fact, our sense of firm faithfulness, our commitment to God, comes from that knowledge. This sense of commitment—especially God’s unwavering, loyal commitment to us, is the spiritual root of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Here’s another example, Psalm 80.8-9 (CEB):
 
You brought a vine out of Egypt. 
You drove out the nations and planted it. 
You cleared the ground for it; 
then it planted its roots deep, 
filling the land.
 
Psalm 80 is a communal prayer, written during a catastrophic time for the Jewish people (there is debate about just what the catastrophe was). The prayer serves as a reminder of God’s enduring commitment to God’s people, and of the people’s unwavering love for God. 
 
From Egypt, to Babylon and beyond, the Jewish people always remained faithful to God, and time and again, their faith cleared a path for God’s beloved people, whose faith roots are among our most ancient. This unwavering love for one another is of the roots of Judaism. We are to love each other as God loves us: without question and with unwavering support.
 
The sentiment is also reflected in Buddhism, and I share it with you because I find it helpful to study the intersection of all the world’s magnificent faith traditions. I especially think there is cosmic truth in the common threads that weave throughout Buddhism and Christianity.
 
For example:
 
From the Dhammapada 23.333
(Translated from Pali by F. Max Muller, The Sacred Books of the East, Volume X Part 1)

Pleasant is virtue lasting to old age, pleasant is a faith firmly
rooted; pleasant is attainment of intelligence, pleasant is avoiding
of sins.

 
This is one of the things I love most about Buddhism. Its structure isn’t about heaven or hell, but rather it’s about an inner peace that leads to compassionate action in the world. This peace leads to the awareness of the interconnectedness of all being. This often creates a more holistic approach to being in the world.

I believe Jesus appreciated Buddha’s sentiment and preaches a similar ideal: If you act a certain way, life will be pleasant for everyone involved! It sounds glib, like just make happy happy joy joy and wish the world’s problems away. But think about the things Buddha and Jesus ask of their followers: Be firm in your faith! Be intelligent! Be compassionate! Care for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant. Those actions result in a peaceful world. If we live a transcended life in Nirvana, don’t we naturally become the people who create Jesus’ reality of heaven on earth?
 
Of course, everything is not pleasant. Even the idea that our faith is to be firmly rooted is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, a strong faith foundation provides comfort and hope in the worst possible circumstances. On the other hand, a too-rigid faith structure prevents new growth. We often become too comfortable with one variety of spiritual fruit, so we quit feeding ourselves anything different, especially something we may not like. 
 
I believe that our spiritual roots should hold us firm, especially in times of trouble. But, we must also regularly prune the tree and make room for the sprouting of new ideas and experiences. Culture and language change drastically over time. The practices and words we use to experience Oneness with God must necessarily evolve with our understanding of the universe.
 
Our spiritual ancestors in the Bible didn’t have access to the scientific language and imagery we take for granted today, and that for many of us is intensely spiritual. They couldn’t look at a picture from the Hubble Space Telescope and be brought to their knees by the sheer majesty and beauty of an infinitely expanding universe. When I look at the billions of realities piercing the inky black light wonderland that is the cosmos it’s as if I am looking directly into the heart of God.
 
Science helps me approach the cosmic wonder of the Bible with language that is finally truly cosmic. All sorts of scientific language forms the trunk of my spiritual tree now. Science, not the Bible, is how I came to process theology, the idea of God as the Conscious Universe—all of it in constant motion, in process, and everything in every reality all the being of a God fully aware of what’s going on. If our ideas about faith are too rigid, we might miss the nuanced new ways God reveals its being.
 
Okay, one more tree analogy (actually, a simile this time): Ultimately, I strive for a spiritual life that looks like the rings on a tree: layer upon layer of new experiences, new cosmic knowledge, new understandings of the astounding way in which God is part of the fabric of my being—of your being, of all being, a discovery that still sends shivers down my spine when I think about the magnitude of it.
 
Each of us is a spirituality tree in a complexly entangled web of other spirituality trees, all branches of God, our anchor and cultivator.

Progressive, Postmodern Christianity Part 3: Unconditional Love

Progressive, Postmodern Christianity Part 3: Unconditional Love

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been considering the development of both progressive and postmodern Christianity. We took a look at “The Eight Points of Progressive Christianity” and agreed with the ideal that God’s love is all-inclusive.

Understanding that it is impossible to do anything in the postmodern world without irony, we’ve distilled some postmodern ideas into a couple of mindful mantras:

Postmodernism requires a constant state of incredulousness.

Metanarratives are subjective.

As a reminder, a metanarrative is any attempt to objectively define reality: God created the world, and the universe started with the Big Bang, are both metanarratives.

Postmodernism’s incredulousness isn’t about merely rejecting everything status quo. Facts are still facts (for as long as they remain that way). The sciences are still foundational to our understanding of reality. The practice of science is a flexible framework that allows for adjustments in thinking as discovery proves or disproves a theory. In that way, science is a postmodern discipline. 

However, science, like religion, also attempts to describe the totality of reality, a task the postmodern world regards with contempt because reality is subjective. My reality as a white middle-class male affords me the luxury of writing this blog. My reality is very different from the slaves working the Coltan mines in the Congo. Consequently, a universal narrative about life, the universe, and everything that satisfies the curiosity of every human being on Earth? Even Jesus couldn’t accomplish that.

He’d have an even more difficult task today when we’re all talking from very subjective realities on Facebook and Instagram. Many of these stories are compelling accounts of intense spiritual awakening, from every faith on the planet. The generations of people who have matured in the age of social media are more interconnected, than ever before even while focusing on acceptance of individuality. In fact, individuality is encouraged. Our young people have also already created an alternate economy, directly buying and selling each other’s goods without warehouses and middlemen and corporate structures.

The use of social media is changing the world, but not in the apocalyptic way so many prophets (most of them old white guys) declare. Instead, I see social media as the great unifier. Is Facebook filled with vitriolic hate? Yep. Are we all saying horrible things to each other on Instagram? Yes, for now. But I also see a couple generations of people who have Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Atheist, Agnostic, and Buddhist friends. Importantly, this array of ideologies is incorporated into individual belief systems. I’d wager that most people today practice a plurality of spiritual ideas that help guide them as compassionate, interconnected beings.

I see a generation of humans who, to a person, are fed up with the current state of the world and refuse to buy into its toxic metanarrative. They are much more accepting of each other’s metanarratives, while also creating, I think, a much better narrative for a postmodern era that requires cultural relativity—the knowledge that our understanding of civilization as a whole is limited to the concepts created by our own civilization.

For example, Western Europeans tend to believe all civilizations should look and act like Europe. Arabians think all civilizations should look and work like Arabia. An inability to accept that both cultures are equally impressive and terrible led to the horrors of the 20th Century. The relativism of postmodernism should, at least in theory, prevent those sorts of global conflagrations.

The social media generations are avoiding this modernist trap, yet I seldom see this new sense of interconnectedness reported on the same news that is more than happy to tell me another teen was goaded into eating a Tide Pod by “Facebook.” As if Facebook is some entity unto itself that’s ruining our children. Facebook is nothing more than the people who use it, which is why we should be focusing on critical thinking skills more than ever. Unfortunately, many of the people using Facebook are remnants of the old colonists who thought they could violently impose their cultural values on others. For them, the idea of cultural relativity is horrifying.

There’s an ancient story about Darius the Great, king of Persia when its borders stretched from east to west. He was studying the cultures of the empire and had inquired about funeral rites. In Greece, at the extreme western edge of the empire, they practiced cremation. A tribe in the outskirts of India practiced funerary cannibalism. When each heard about the other’s practices, they were horrified. That’s cultural relativism. We accept what we are familiar with as the status quo and ideas or practices that make us uncomfortable become unacceptable.

Christianity has operated on that principle to an absolutely horrific effect for two thousand years. Crusades. Inquisitions. Burnings at the stake. Christianity has been so far removed from Jesus as to make us largely unrecognizable as his followers.

Metanarrative is a large part of modern Christianity’s problem. In America, we have lost the Agape metanarrative of Jesus. He talked about a love so intense that it commits us to one another eternally. The idea of Agape love in the Bible is one of unconditional, unwavering commitment from God to us and back again. Jesus tried to explain that this commitment is unbreakable, no matter what. The idea behind his resurrection is that God is so committed to us that even physical death doesn’t break our bond. 

Postmodernism gives Christians a chance to make up for the historical and continuing abuses of our religion by finally doing the only thing Jesus ever asks: Love unconditionally. He never says, “make everyone a Christian.” He wouldn’t say that because he and his audience were all Jews. He never even tells his disciples to go turn everyone Jewish, a more likely scenario. He doesn’t say, “Go save everyone’s soul, or they will forever be tormented.” No. All he ever humbly asks is for his followers to love unconditionally, the way he does.

In an age that rejects metanarratives, but must still agree on a framework for civil society. I think unconditional love is a great foundation on which to start building.

Progressive, Postmodern Christianity Part 2: “Progressive” Christianity

Progressive, Postmodern Christianity Part 2: “Progressive” Christianity

Last week, we began discussing postmodernism, which demands a more subjective approach to the overarching stories that connect us as human beings. These epic tales—think the creation of the universe in the Enuma ElishGenesisThe Gospel of John, Big Bang or String theories—are called metanarratives. For postmodern religion, this means a more accepting, pluralistic tone. I’m not sure that postmodern religion’s demand for subjectivity and the idea that non-Christians are eternally tormented in Hell are compatible.

So, people of postmodern faith are not typically “my way or the highway to Hell.” (See what I did there?) There are a diversity of beliefs at work in postmodern religions. For example, within postmodern Christianity, which I think is somewhat inappropriately called “progressive” Christianity, some people believe in the need for “salvation,” and others don’t. Living with, accepting, even while we do not understand, each other’s belief systems should be the goal. 

I’ll also add it is very much the mantra of our denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

I don’t love the term “progressive” Christianity because most of what is deemed “progressive” is actually very ancient thinking. This attitude of respect for one another’s (often massive) ideological differences is present throughout the Bible.

Exodus 23:9 (CEB)

Don’t oppress an immigrant. You know what it’s like to be an immigrant, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

Hebrews 13:2

Don’t neglect to open up your homes to guests, because by doing this some have been hosts to angels without knowing it.

Galatians 3:28 

There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Jesus wanted to create heaven on Earth. He knew the first step was to convince people to accept each other the way we already are because that’s how God accepts us—as we are, warts and all. So, I think the Bible already presents a postmodern argument for subjectivity when dealing with each other. In fact, the Bible claims God demands we open our hearts to guests. I certainly believe that an open heart is key to a transcendental, here and now experience with God.

So, if our concepts are actually ancient, what then is progressive Christianity? The answer to that, of course, is subjective, and in defining progressive Christianity, we dance around the same trap any postmodern thinker strives to avoid, which is that by defining something we create or feed a metanarrative.

In fact, the patheos.com website, which is usually full of Jesus as leftist ideas and theology, gets ensnared in the metanarrative trap. On the very first paragraph of their page, “Who are progressive Christians?”they write:

“If someone told you that they were a ‘progressive Christian’ what would you think that meant? Do you think that they are people that only are Christians on the surface? Or people that are bringing Christianity into modern times? What do these so-called progressive Christians believe and does it follow what the Bible teaches for believers?”

Well, there’s the first metanarrative—the Bible. This site, which many consider one of the two leading websites for progressive Christianity, attempts to convince people that progressive Christians care about whether or not what they believe is “biblical,” whatever that means. 

From a postmodern perspective, even this definition of Christianity is too narrow. But wait, it gets worse. Also, from the same webpage:

“Progressive Christianity can be scary and foreign for more traditional Christians, but many things remain the same throughout. We all believe that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are the way to Heaven, and that Jesus is our Savior.”

Okay, let’s put on the brakes there. That is a HUGE metanarrative. It’s the Catholic narrative, in fact. Not that there’s anything at all wrong with that. It’s ametanarrative. In postmodernChristianity, I think we would say something like, “Progressive Christianity can be scary for more traditional Christians, but we believe what everyone in the Bible ultimately teaches: Love each other unconditionally. Everything else is commentary for the journey.”

Later in the article, though, they do hit upon what I would agree are some fundamentals for postmodern, progressive Christianity, even though, again, fundamentals are subjective.

“Today, Progressive Christianity is a dynamic movement within the Christian faith that is marked by a willingness to question tradition, a tolerance of diversity, and an emphasis on social justice and environmental advocacy. Progressive Christians deeply believe in Jesus’ teaching to love one another. As such, compassion, justice, mercy, and inclusion are core values of the movement. Progressive Christians support same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights in general and affirm LGBTQ relationships. Many denominations also ordain LGBTQ clergy. “Progressive Christians are also more comfortable with pluralism. They typically do not attempt to evangelize others and recognize the validity of other religions and belief systems.”

That sounds more like what I believe, and what we teach here at The Current. It’s all about love. Love is our metanarrative, even as we leave room for each other to define what “love” means as the basis for our postmodern faith. We’ll talk about that next week as we conclude this series.

We might ask why we bother creating a metanarrative if postmodern society rejects metanarrative anyway? Because societies organize around metanarratives. I do not think any postmodern philosopher advocates for the eliminationof metanarrative. Our nature is to create narratives. They are the organizational blocks of civilization. 

In the postmodern world, we hope to do a better job of accepting each other’s narratives and working to integrate them into our dealings with one another. Think about Christians, Muslims, Jews all living in one place, practicing each other’s faiths, not proselytizing or converting each other, not throwing rocks and firing rockets at each other, just respecting each other and living and prospering together. That’s postmodern, and ironically, was real, for a while, 1500 years ago in the Middle East. Once again, something old is new. Which, again, is why I am not particularly fond of the term “progressive” Christianity.

Yet, since humans insist on creating connecting narratives, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the way progressive Christians are defining themselves. It’s fascinating to watch the instantiation of a metanarrative and consider in real time whether or not it leaves room for postmodern deconstruction.

On the progressivechristianity.org website, they list the “Eight Points of Progressive Christianity.” Let’s just take a look at them and discuss them point by point.

From ProgressiveChristianity.org https://progressivechristianity.org/the-8-points/

“By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who…

  1. Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life;
  2. Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey;
  3. Seek community that is inclusive of ALL people, including but not limited to:
    • Conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,
    • Believers and agnostics,
    • Women and men,
    • Those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
    • Those of all classes and abilities;
  4. Know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression
    of what we believe;
  5. Find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes;
  6. Strive for peace and justice among all people;
  7. Strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth;
  8. Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.”
Progressive, Postmodern Christianity

Progressive, Postmodern Christianity

Part 1: I Remain Incredulous
“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.” ― Harold Pinter
 
“Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” 
― Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge
 
My mom was a terrific cook. She started sharing her skills with me when I was very young and she began simply, with scrambled eggs. Throw some eggs in a dish, beat them up, cook them and voilá, delicious food! 
 
Of course, a couple of cooked eggs isn’t that exciting. Once I got the hang of not overcooking them, Mom taught me how to add seasoning. Salt and pepper always make a dish more interesting. Then, I started to add chives, salmon, different types of cheeses. I still add a little milk and then beat them fluffy. As I gained experience, I took ideas from different recipes I discovered and mashed them up into something new and delicious.
 
Postmodernism is like that. Postmodernism takes all sorts of ideas, from an endless array of disciplines—theology, sociology, history, physics, medicine, education, the arts, etc.—and mashes them up into new things.Then, it takes those new things and mashes them up into other new things. 
 
Postmodernism is a batch of scrambled eggs that is never finished, to which we’re constantly adding stuff.
 
We talk a lot about being a “postmodern” congregation but what does that mean? As we discuss postmodernism over the next few weeks, you’ll begin to see that the question is itself absurd, for the truly postmodern rejects absolutes, core beliefs, and meta-narratives. However, having a round-table discussion about postmodernism is very postmodern. One of our goals is to break the Modern era paradigm of “Leader/Follower” and instead enable everyone to share their unique and valuable perspectives so we can learn from each other’s knowledge.
 
“Truth” is largely subjective. The idea that there is a single “truth” for all society has proven patently false, and been revealed as profoundly physically, psychologically, and socially damaging. One need only consider the treatment of the LGBTQ community over the past century to see how inhumane it is to think there is just a single, universal normative for human behavior. In our Postmodern era, the idea that anything can be boiled down to a single epistemological (the theory of knowledge) or ontological (the study of the relationship between being, becoming, reality and existence) truth is ludicrous.
 
The quest for a universal norm developed because for millennia, “normal” has been defined by those in power. Whatever someone in power did was normal, anything another person did contrary to the norms of those in power was labeled abnormal. Michel Foucault famously pointed out this systemic flaw when he wrote, “knowledge is not objective, it is distorted by power.”
 
Postmodernism formally developed in the mid 20thCentury as a reaction to the Enlightenment era idea that all questions, no matter how complex, have a singular solution common to everyone in society (often called a metanarrative). That view developed because a similar concept had led to the development of the scientific method. Intrinsically this is a brilliant attitude that has led to centuries of discovery about the workings of the universe and still serves us well today. Science has been the foundation of the progress of civilization since the Industrial Revolution. The Enlightenment led to practices that taught us how to harness the universe’s natural resources to take advantage of electricity and magnetism, the foundations of our current technological, Postmodern era.
 
Enlightenment era thinking, and the quest to find the final key to every puzzle, enabled scientists to peer ever more deeply into the structure of matter, revealing a microcosmic quantum reality that has made us question the very nature of reality itself. 
 
However, that same scientific method cannot be applied to society as a whole. The idea that all the world’s problems could be distilled down to universal solutions comes from a privileged power perspective. For the majority of the Modern era, non-white males were treated despicably. So, any fundamentals being sought were inherently flawed because they were only fundamentals for a very narrow segment of society.
 
Now, we are starting to understand that what is real and true is much more subjective than we thought. Maybe there are nouniversal, objective truths. Perhaps reality is perceptionand is different for every observer. Therefore, no two of us can possibly share any foundational universal truth. We can agree on subjective truths—be kind to each other, don’t kill, gravity makes things fall (on Earth), but we cannot ever agree on the meta—the objectivetruth, if such a thing even exists. Which I doubt.
 
In The Gospel of John,a wonderfully mystical and deeply thought-provoking tale, Jesus and Pilate have a terrific discussion about this idea of objective truth (the Bible is a lot more postmodern than it’s given credit for).
 
This is a bit of a mashup from John 18 and 14, in reverse order. Who says we can’t make new narratives from pre-existing biblical texts? It’s exactly what the authors of John did!
 
John 18.33-38a (NIV)
33Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
35“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
36Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
37“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
38“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. 

Well, earlier in John, Jesus has already answered this question, but in a way that allows for subjective interpretation, even today:
 
John 14.6-7
6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really know me, you will know b my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
 
What Jesus means by this answer is a matter of much debate, which again underlines the idea that truth is subjective. Jesus was so ahead of his time he was postmodern! In fact, one could claim that Judaism was postmodern before the modern world ever came to be, as the only absolute truth in Judaism is that God loves unconditionally and so too should we. Everything else is commentary. That’s a pretty postmodern outlook.
 
Unfortunately, the eons of time passed have eroded our ability to live with the uncertainty of fluid truth or even accept more than one opinion about a subject! (Within reason: the Earth is provably not flat). 
 
The Enlightenment, and all the exciting scientific discoveries Enlightenment era thinking enabled, inevitably led us to a 20thCentury that was all about chasing the elusive purple dragon of objective truth—democracy is the best form of government, for example. That’s not a universal truth. Postmodernism is more subjective.  Where modernism sought a singulartruth, postmodernism seeks a multiplicityof culturally sensitivetruths.
 
Still, that definition of postmodernity adheres to the ancient subject-object paradigm that underlies much of the world’s racial, gender, and economic inequalities. It’s in that area I believe postmodern, progressive Christianity can be helpful, because Jesus attempts to teach us how to view the world not as subject-object, but simply as God, This God, in everything. This is God, that is God, and God is all there is. God is subject, object, and beyond. God is within us. Therefore, we, too, are beyond subject-object relationships. Or can at least strive to so be.
 
The implications of postmodernism for people of faith are game changing. Sharingknowledge and experience is vital. There is always more to learn from one another. We understand we do not have the answer,we only have an answer thatleads to more questions, to inventive and imaginative interpretations of the magnificent intricacy of being, becoming, reality and existence that is just This moment, This person, This era, This idea, This God.
The Divine Journey

The Divine Journey

Matthew 2.1-12 (CEB)
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” 
 
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote: 
You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, 
by no means are you least 
among the rulers of Judah, 
because from you will come 
one who governs, 
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
 
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.
 
11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
 
This story speaks to the heart of what it is to be human. Like the magi (a hereditary Mede priesthood), we are explorers. We are happy to make a discovery by one route and return home by another, for there are things to learn along the way. 
 
From the time we could walk any distance without being eaten by a wild animal, we started exploring our world. Out of Africa, we spread across the entire globe, cataloging everything we discovered and preserving it for future generations. We astonished our children with stories of travelling vast distances and drawings of exotic animals. First orally, and then, after we invented writing, in manuscripts, codices, and books, we recorded our experiments. We discovered tools, cooking, building, reading, math, medicine, and philosophy. We created civilization.
 
We have been exploring for over 200,000 years and still, we wonder why we’re here and what the point is, if any, to being alive. We seek deeper and more meaningful answers to our existential questions by sending mechanical magi into space in hopes of meeting other seekers of truth. We still follow the light of the stars and hope they will guide us to God.
 
Like the magi, we are all on a spiritual journey toward oneness with the Ultimate Light. I have come to consider that our purpose as human beings might be as the explorers we so naturally are. What if we are all on a journey of discovery for God? What if being, and all the things we learn and do throughout our lives, is part of an infinite array of information gathering for God, the meta-consciousness of all realities?
 
What if we are God’s Magi?

Let me tell you why I’m pondering this. First, it helps to know that the Magi were akin to the high council of the Persian empire. They were profoundly religious and created Persia’s civil laws based on their religious ideas. The Magi were also solely responsible for choosing the next Persian king.
 
So, it is a delegation of Persian kingmakers, most definitely travelling with a caravan and all the oriental pomp and circumstance of the era, that go to see Herod. That they were seeking a Jewish baby was significant and rightfully threw Herod into panic. Rome and Persia were not the best of friends, Herod was getting old, and anti-Roman sentiment was high in the region.
 
Yet, even as political motivations drove the Magi to Bethlehem, once they saw Jesus, I think their motive changed. War was coming with Rome sooner, not later (in fact, it would start about three years after Jesus’ birth). A baby wasn’t going to help them. Yet, still they bowed, offered gifts, and worshiped the presence of the God they knew so well (Daniel was the only non-hereditary Magi, and Judaism played an important role in Persian religion and culture). 
 
As so often happens on a long journey, the Magi discovered a new path that enticed them to veer off in a completely new direction–not returning to Herod, but instead heading right toward God.
 
I’ve been playing a videogame lately that embraces the idea that the journey is more important than the goal.
 
No Man’s Skyis the first game in many years that has completely captivated my imagination, and for one simple reason: the only point to the game is to explore the universe. That’s it. There is no evil overlord to eliminate, there are no enemies (although some of the animals can be aggressive). It’s you and your spaceship and an endless, procedurally generated universe.
 
Without getting too geeky, procedurally generatedmeans the game uses math to create everything in it every time you boot up: planets, plants, animals, minerals—each galaxy has a unique fingerprint, and each planet has unique flora and fauna. Most video games are pre-programmed. Everything in the world is created by artists and there is a fairly straightforward path through the game, with a series of goals the player must complete to move on.
 
This is not so with No Man’s Sky.
 
You begin the game with a spaceship and a portable multipurpose tool for mining elements like carbon and oxygen, or metals like copper and silver. Most of the game is spent travelling around planets, scanning flora and fauna, and cataloging itin a galactic compendium that anyone playing the game can see. It’s fascinating, gripping, and compelling. 
 
The joy of discovery present in the game is just awesome, and the first time you enter your spaceship and fly out into space the effect makes you feel like a little kid in a Spielberg movie who just saw an alien for the first time. It’s simply magical.
 
The game is so good, in fact, that I convinced my brother who hasn’t played video games since our Atari 2600 days (“more than one button is crap!”), to give it a shot. 
 
He’s now almost 200 hours into the game.
 
The other day he and I were comparing notes about our No Man’s Sky journeys, and I found the conversation an interesting metaphor for the spiritual journeys the Magi traversed, and we all undertake as well. 
 
My brother and I play the game very differently. He collects and stores things. I travel lightly and often. He has about 20 ginormous cargo freighters, which he keeps organized in a list on his phone. I have two freighters I recall now and then when I feel like sending them out on missions. Otherwise, I move around the universe, gathering as I go whatever materials I might need to keep the ship flying or to do something interesting (there are lots of alien artifacts strewn about). Every now and then I report into a space anomaly that loves to examine and study all the data I bring it.
 
Interesting concept, yes, bringing the space anomaly data?
 
Because of our different gameplay styles, my brother and I have had quite different yet equally fascinating experiences. Sharing those experiences with each other helped both of us think about new approaches to the game and revealed valuable information about some of the species we’ve met.
 
After we talked for a while, I realized that humans, in general, are sort of playing No Man’s Sky for God. Each of us is on a different journey. When we share our stories, we all benefit from one another’s unique experiences. And because we are literally the substance of God consciousness, every story in our lives is automatically shared with the  original explorer, God.
 
So, between the magi story and the joy of playing No Man’s Sky, I’ve been thinking that at least part of our purpose for being is merely to explore; to branch out and discover new places, people, and things. We innately find such joy in exploration. We are so drawn to the mysteries of the oceans and the vastness of space, perhaps there is a purpose behind our curiosity.
 
We are naturally inquisitive beings, 7.5 billion of us. I think that thirst for knowledge exists because we are an essential part of God’s process of becoming. We are God’s magi ,sent across universes and realities to live without boundaries. We exist—everything exists—to experience the wonders and mysteries of an infinite, procedurally generated reality. Living into that concept, my friends, fills every day with Spielbergian awe.
 
Amen.

Preserving Peace

Preserving Peace

Isaiah 26:12 (CEB)Lord, grant us peace, because all that we have done has been your doing.

On the way home from church the other day I heard a story about the riots in France, over their proposed new gas tax. The scene is horrifying. Swarms of yellow safety jacketed people are sledgehammering buildings, incinerating cars and splaying graffiti all over the Arc de Triomphe.

Graffiti on the Arc de Triomphe! At that moment I was utterly French and appalled at the idea any of my countrymen would deface the Arc.

For me, the Arc represents everything France has historically stood for: liberty, equality, fraternity. One for all and all for one. France has always been the bastion of real democracy, the true light on the hill, whether we Americans want to admit that or not. And nowhere I was imagining a scene from one of those Purge movies, the Arc wholly covered in layers of graffiti, Paris burning in the background, the Eiffel tower’s ribs molten metal, twisted and broken.

Then the light changed. As I stepped on the gas pedal, I snapped out of my dystopian reverie and gasped as I realized what had just happened: listening to a news story, I immediately went to the worst possible scenario. I even went beyond the destruction of Paris and imagined the defaced Arc as the first sign of the apocalypse.

I didn’t see footage of the riots until Saturday morning, a couple of days after I first heard the story, and it was like watching a nightmare come true:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2YCTUm8qSw

Even as we began Advent discussing hope, my first reaction to the riots was not to seek God’s light, not to remember exactly what I said last week—that hope means knowing God is already doing something good, right here right now, but instead to presume darkness would win and we’d destroy each other. That’s not very hopeful.

Our species is stuck. A couple hundred thousand years of evolution, now fortified and enhanced by a dystopian mass communications network, has programmed us to always look on the dark side of life. Our instinct is to presume the worst. We are suspicious not only of strangers, but also of friends, family, and country. Everyone is hiding something. Deals are made to be broken. Facts are superfluous to the truth. Orange is the new black.

It’s no wonder the world is at constant war. If we cannot trust each other about anything, how can there ever be peace? If our every thought is on the inevitability of dystopia, how can we ever imagine, much less create, utopia?

Fortunately, every now and then people come along who see the world differently. I believe these people are inspired by God to show us a different destiny, a future more in line with the flow of the universal consciousness of love (God). We often refer to these people as Prophets. Moses, Isaiah (one of my favorites), and of course, Jesus, whom Christians refer to most often as Son of God (a political rather than spiritual statement), but Muslims call a Prophet (both a political and spiritual statement).

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a Christian refer to Jesus as a prophet. Yet, as we journey to the manger this Advent, I have found it powerful to consider Jesus in this way because, unlike Isaiah and the rest of the First Testament prophets, Jesus proclaims a utopianf uture, which he calls the “kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus even shows us how to create this utopia—here and now—in a simple and efficient way: Love God with all our hearts, minds and souls, and love our neighbors and our enemies as ourselves. That’s it! All we have to do is change everything we are! Easy!

However, Jesus also teaches (and shows) us that creating utopia isn’t easy, even for him. He was vibrating at God’s frequency, in perfect tune with all creation, yet stillsuffered along with the rest of us—which, not coincidentally, is what’s powerful about the Jesus as God and as us metaphor.

We need to practice a little more and constantly focus on retuning ourselves to God if we are ever to get out of this dystopian rut. As the body of Christ in the world, we must also assist each other in overcoming the contemporary programming that all is lost. We must be aware for one another of what we say, think, and do. We must encourage each other to focus on Christ’s conviction that our world ends not in hellfire and brimstone but in the intense love of a God who has promised since the beginning of time to never, ever let us go, because God is with us, Immanuel, now and forevermore.

Amen.