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.

Preserving Hope

Preserving Hope

One of my favorite classic films is an old Humphrey Bogart flick called “The Maltese Falcon.” It’s a masterpiece of film noir, all shadows stretched to the horizon and tight shots of faces full of secrets. I’ve seen this film what seems like hundreds of times. The reason I’ve been able to do so is because the film has been preserved for future generations.

In the case of a film like “The Maltese Falcon,” this is somewhat fortuitous. Most of the movies of that era were shot on highly flammable cellulose. To make matters worse, once stored, the film also degraded very quickly.

Fortunately, movements to preserve old films have been mostly successful at saving and restoring classic cinema. Some brilliant works that we know of (from magazine articles and radio interviews of the era) are gone forever, unfortunately. But many early movies have been preserved for filmmakers and filmgoers alike to continue to learn from and enjoy.

What we are doing for film today is what the Essenes, the Gnostics, the Jews, and early Christians did with their books and letters. They saved the works that spoke to their innermost yearnings. They copied them. They added their own commentaries, edited, rewrote, and passed the letters and stories around, creating spiritual concepts and asking existential questions that continue to weave us together (and, unfortunately, tear us apart) today.

Some of these words of encouragement and hope are found in a section of the Bible most people never read: Hebrews, which is somewhat unfortunately named, as the word “Hebrews” conjures a panoply of often negative images and stereotypes.

When this letter was written, however, the intended audience was a group of Jewish followers of Jesus who the author felt were stunted in their Christian spiritual growth. As what would become the Christian church developed, many early, Jewish followers of Jesus returned to non-Messianic Judaism, likely because of a trauma in their community. For the people addressed in Hebrews, that trauma was possibly the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.

The author is someone close to the congregation, yet not currently present, who both wants to encourage and admonish them. He writes that God will see them through their current dark times, and then says, “In fact,if you would remember your teachings, you would already know that.” It’s a bit of a dig, but it’s also encouraging because it was vital for these religious rebels to remember, as it is for us, that the path of light—The Way of Jesus—non-Roman, non-Paganized Christianity, is difficult, unique, and anti-establishment. There will be friction, and we will want to give up and go back to what’s comfortable. But Jesus didn’t do that, and through his Spirit, we today are also encouraged to persevere as we walk, talk, and act differently from the rest of the world. If we are truly following Jesus, our rhetoric is contrary to that of the status quo.

We could not follow Jesus—the political activist, social justice warrior, and revealer of our human/divine unity, if the stories about hope and God’s intimate activity in the world had not been preserved. We, too, must persist and ensure the spiritual stories (biblical and other) we are sharing are authentically preserved. Otherwise, future Christians might end up with Cecille B. DeMille’s, not Jesus’, version of the truth. In fact, this is sort of “Hollywoodization” of the Gospel is exactly what happened to Jesus’ movement. In the 4th Century CE, Romans usurped Christianity and changed it into a religion of human sacrifice, turning Jesus into the new Emperor and continuing to practice their old, cultish ways even while calling themselves Christians.

That was not Jesus’ original intent. The movement was never about him, it was always about the way Jesus pointed to God and revealed God in the flesh, with us, Immanuel.

The Way of Jesus (the original name of his movement), was about unbridled, unfettered, unconditional love. In fact, Jesus’ teaching is about a God that is so in love with the universe that it becomes the universe, by becoming each one of us. God incarnates in everyone, not exclusively in Jesus—that’s a Roman Imperial cult idea incorrectly imprinted upon Jesus.

Jesus’ story and teaching are about humankind achieving Christhood. This sounds strange to many Christians today, because we’ve been taught otherwise. But that’s the continued challenge of authentically following Jesus: Just because many Christians believe “Jesus died for our sins,” doesn’t mean that’s what Jesus thought or taught. In fact, if we just do a tiny bit of research online it’s very easy to discover that those ideas didn’t take root until nearly 400 years after Jesus’ death.

So, for those of us trying to return Christianity to its more Jewish, more authentic nature, we swim upstream, against 2000 years of misinformation and Catholic propaganda. It’s difficult. We often want to quit, because the entire exercise seems pointless. But we must remember to stay true to Jesus, and if we are indeed his followers, we must usurp the current Evangelical status-quo and remind everyone this story we celebrate throughout Advent is not about anything other than pure, unadulterated love breaking into the world.

The fortitude that takes requires us to maintain some serious hope. So, here’s some reassurance from the brilliant philosopher-author of Hebrews, who reaches out to us today from thousands of years in the past:

Hebrews 10.32-11.2 (NIV)
Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what God has promised. For, “In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.”  And, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.”  But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

Hope is not desire but expectation. Hope is not wishing for something good to happen but knowingsomething good is already happening—and that it is going to get even better! We hope for a better tomorrow because we understand that already, God is inspiring us to create the best possible today. That hope is found in the preservation of our sacred stories about Jesus, from birth to death.

Advent marks the beginning of the Jesus cycle, the start of the Christian year. Ours is a story that begins not with a big bang or trumpets blaring but with a tiny whimper in a lonely manger, as God is born, shining a light of hope so brightly that people from the farthest reaches of the earth immediately begin to follow. May our lights shine as brightly.

I’ll leave us with Paul’s blessing from his letter to the church in Rome, a prayer of hope based on the absolute conviction that God is with us, right here, right now:

Romans 15.13 (NIV)
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Monday Meditation: A Thanksgiving Poem

Monday Meditation: A Thanksgiving Poem

As autumn lifts its lazy head
and shakes the leaves
forming winter’s bed,
I, too, awaken.

The chill in the air
is a refreshing slap
that tracks me back
to mindfulness
and considered acts of kindness.

We’re told to be thankful
for this or that,
but in truth,
I’d rather bury myself
under the mat of leaves
so graciously laid
for the start of winter’s nap.

Yet, awoke I am
and more aware
that too many people
don’t want to care
about you or me.
Fear of the other
makes them want to flee
the long, dark nights
of winter’s strangled light.

Thus, thrust into
a snap of cold
that wraps my soul
as a shrink-wrapped scroll
of perfect, preserved hope,
I turn my focus
to the lasting warmth
of the spark of God
that ignites all souls,
and leads me through this
troubled world.

The winter months
are not a blight
but a chance to begin anew;
to start our days with thanks and grace
and spread more love, it’s true.

Night cannot last,
cold shoulders warm
as everyone
around the globe reforms.

Remember, awakened ones!
Every human is sourced the same,
from the flames of stars
whose last explosive breath contains
everything we are:
cosmic lights of love flickering gently,
leading us home to God’s unconditional warmth,
and eternal loving shalom.

Humanity of the Saints

Humanity of the Saints

Psalm 31.23-24:
All you who are faithful, love the Lord! The Lord protects those who are loyal, but pays the proud back to the fullest degree. All you who wait for the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage.

Psalm 148:14
God raised the strength of his people, the praise of all his faithful ones—that’s the Israelites, the people who are close to him.

Today is All-Saint’s Sunday, and this year I’ve been wondering, just what is a saint? Someone who does good things? We all do good things now and then, I would hope. Many people dedicate their entire lives to doing good things. If being a saint means doing good things, then how many good acts does it take to become a saint? I’m asking for a friend.

What is a saint? Someone who lives a life of sacrifice? How much sacrifice? Mother Theresa type sacrifice, Pope Francis style sacrifice, or not-eating-fish-on-Friday sacrifice? Martin Luther sacrifice or Jesus sacrifice? Does any sort of sacrifice qualify one for sainthood? In that case, congratulations, parents, we’re all saints.

Saints conjure images of piously perfect people. That image is reinforced by dictionaries that define a saint as someone who is “distinct because of their special relationship with God”—Moses, or Joan of Arc, for example. Saints are special. A saint’s heroic deeds are memorialized in illuminated stained glass windows of ancient, mystery-filled cathedrals. Yet, all the saints—including Jesus—were human. In some cases, their saintly being only developed after a lifetime of hedonistic (Augustine), sometimes sociopathic (Saul’s relentless pursuit of Jesus’ followers) behavior.

My all-time favorite reformed hedonist is St. Augustine, or as I like to call him, the man who destroyed Christianity.

In his autobiographical Confessions, Augustine recalls the significant portion of his life when the theft of a Pear begins a downward spiral of debauchery, licentiousness, and gambling. Augustine wrote that he often committed these acts merely because they were considered “wrong.” He didn’t really want the Pear, he just wanted to take it because stealing was forbidden.

Augustine concluded that his character was inherently flawed. He then decided we must all be inherently flawed because after all, none of us can resist the temptation to do something forbidden. Augustine used the story about Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as the root cause of all our bad behavior.

I’ve written elsewhere about how mistaken Augustine is because his interpretation is Pagan, not Jewish. Today, I want to focus on what caused his change of being, for Augustine does change his behavior (if not necessarily his thinking). His enlightenment came one evening when he heard a child’s voice telling him to read Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, chapter 13.13-14:

Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 

Paul’s sentiment hit the hard-partying Augustine like a jackhammer the morning after too many shots of rye at the local pub. While reading the passage, Augustine had a mystical experience that changed the way he thought and acted—a literal “sinner to saint” experience.

Now, while I’m not a fan of Augustine’s theology, I love the passage about his epiphany so much I adapted for our opening prayer today. Here it is in classical English (Augustine originally wrote in Latin):

Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; and behold,
Thou wast within and I without, and there I sought Thee.
Thou was with me when I was not with Thee.
Thou didst call, and cry, and burst my deafness.
Thou didst gleam, and glow, and dispel my blindness.
Thou didst touch me, and I burned for Thy peace.
For Thyself Thou hast made us,
And restless our hearts until in Thee they find their ease.
Late have I loved Thee, Thou Beauty ever old and ever new.

Augustine’s realization that God’s love is found within turned his world upside down. Suddenly, Augustine experienced God as the essence of being alive. He heard, saw, and emanated the unconditional, all-accepting love of God.

What I find most interesting about Augustine’s experience is that even after his powerful transformation, Augustine remained a beautiful contradiction. He urged clergy to release their slaves, but also thought God would pick and choose people for salvation. He was a champion of critical thinking, and even formulated a pedagogy for teaching critical thinking to children, yet he interpreted the book of Genesis literally and believed all Jews would be converted to Christianity at the end of time.

You win some, you lose some.

Like Augustine and Paul, we’re all a little bit saint, a little bit sinner. Being human is a rollercoaster of decision-making. I’m not a fan of “good” and “bad” labels. Every decision has a consequence. What Augustine realized is that we can make decisions from one of two places: the selfishness of our Ego, or the selflessness of God’s consciousness. Augustine encourages us to “tune in” to God, which then moves us always toward actions of love and compassion for the communal good.

Saints aren’t born naturally. They’re created by a lifetime of fumbles and forgiveness; of self-reflection on being human and the being of God; and a willingness to let go of our fears, misconceptions, and certainties to be filled with the only universal truth: We are all the beloved oneness of God.