Thursday, February 24, 2011

Two competing visions: What I do and do not find appealing about Christianity

Unfortunately, my thoughts on this earlier today were crystal clear, but I was not in a position to take them down. I hope my memory can do them justice. This is another part in what has essentially become a series on my current religiosity. This essay will likely have parts broken down and repeated, perhaps with elaboration, in the (near) future. So if you want a glimpse of my vision of Christianity could be and should be, strap yourself in. This is going to be a long one.

To begin, I am not one of those who is clinging to Christianity. Some who are dubbed to be "liberal" or "progressive" Christians have remain with it because they grew up with it, stayed with it, and are fond of it; they see themselves as trying to rehabilitate it, perhaps keeping some elements on life support. That isn't me. I grew up in what many would call a fundamentalist set of churches, the kind where you have really hard core right wing politics and an emphasis on a literal interpretation of the Bible, where other religions and even other denominations were typically seen as "of the devil". I don't say that as an insult, nor do I wish to denigrate anyone who practices their faith in this way. But it didn't work for me, and as I got older it worked less and less. I eventually went on hiatus from religion, and like many in a position like mine I had this hidden assumption that if the version of Christianity I had known was inadequate, they all were. Eventually I drifted from lapsed Christian to atheist.

Atheism was one the best things that ever happened to me on my spiritual journey. I was not clinging to or harboring anything from my previous religious beliefs. While it wasn't my intention, atheism gave me more or less a clean slate to work with on matters of faith. When after a time I decided to venture back into serious questions about meaning, life, etc. beyond the walls of non-committal agnosticism and haughty cynicism toward religion, I started off as a secular seeker. I thought I could start from scratch, mining religious traditions for truths to be freed from barbaric superstition. Then I encountered Buddhism and the concept of religious humanism. It was my first inkling that there were two major frames at work in the human mind and in the debates over religion. One wants certainty, clearly defined phenomena contained in rational and readily described categories, things which are uniform and predictable and easily subjected to the grossest forms of empirical verification, phrased in math and historical statements; the other allows for ambiguity, creativity, and paradox, engenders humility and wonder, allows for things beyond our ability to fully grasp, pin down, or control, phrased in metaphor and poetic language.

While both of these tendencies coexist in each of us and are both useful and necessary, I was definitely wary of the latter. But I started to realize that I (as well as many atheists, fundamentalists and mainstream religious people who fixate on the former way of seeing the world) was misinterpreting concepts like spirituality. Buddhism helped transform me into a spiritual seeker, a spiritual Buddhist, and then as my ability to tease out depth in the latter way of seeing things slowly developed, I became a religious Buddhist. I was also learning about people involved in interfaith activities, especially Christians who were engaging in respectful research and dialogue. I started to realize I could never fully benefit from the Dharma, from the teachings and insight imparted by the Buddha, if I did not make peace with my former religion and many of the concepts that I had fled, along with their rhetorical baggage. What I found was amazing. For example, one of my early inspirations in this area was Brother Wayne Teasdale, who wrote an entire book about mysticism as the heart of all religion. In doing so he painted a picture of God and Christianity that may be at least partially familiar to many (but not nearly all) folks in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Anglican communities, but which was alien to me.

To appreciate the kind of picture that started emerging from (and cannot be entirely attributed to, or blamed on if that's how you see it) authors like Br. Teasdale, it is necessary for me to paint a picture of religion as I had known it growing up. While I may use a hint of hyperbole, it is accurate in scope and feel. It is stripped of its usual language and described how many people actually kind of think it works even if they would never phrase it this way:

Such a view says that everything but God is tainted and corrupt and disgusting. God exists apart from everything else, out there somewhere beyond normal existence, and He is ticked off. He hates corrupt things, He hates the world, and that most certainly includes you. He's a good God. He doesn't WANT to hate you, He would prefer to love you. But you make Him sick. You offend His holiness, which trumps everything else. His holiness vaguely connects somehow to being perfect and not making mistakes and not breaking lists of rules, which is fine because He made the rules and it is not in His nature to break them anyway.

YOU, however, break these rules all the time. You've probably broken them have a dozen times in the last few minutes. Plus you inherited a weakness and guilt from your paternal line (through the men in your lineage), so even if you could live a perfect life obeying the lists of rules (which you can't), you're already pre-stamped as offensive and unworthy to God. So to fix the problem humans made, God, being so good, sent a piece of himself into our world and into a young woman who had never ever had sex so it could walk around in a human suit and serve as a living human sacrifice, which is apparently what God needs to not send you into never-ending punishment, because apparently that is also in His nature. So after a brief life, the piece of God in a human suit is tortured and crucified to satisfy this requirement of cosmic justice. And don't bother wondering how human suit's mom managed not to sin until marrying age or why you couldn't just be horribly murdered to pay off your own debt rather than having to be sent to eternal damnation, or else you're just violating more lists of rules you wretch! (The answer is basically that you aren't worth enough to pay off what you owe.)

Anyway, then that piece of God that had been in the human suit used His powers to mostly stitch the suit back together and walk around in it some more before floating up into the sky and taking a seat next to the main body of God (known as the Father) and the Father's throne. Another piece of God, a wispy ethereal form, was then sent to take the place of God-in-a-meat-suit until it was time for that piece of God to climb back in the human outfit and judge everyone on whether they had properly understood and obeyed a specific interpretation of a single religion from the Middle East.

Your only hope is to say the right magic formula (the Sinner's Prayer) and go through the right magical ritual (Baptism). God didn't have to do all that to save your evil worthless hide so that makes Him extra good and holy and shows just how much of a pile of excrement you really are. Your only hope of escaping the doom of judgment that will cast this world and nearly everyone in it into a never-ending sea of fire is to make sure you stamp your ticket for the boat ride to heaven, where you will get the chance to express your undying gratitude by planting your lips on God's pearly white behind forever and ever.

It is this view of Christianity, by the way, that is taken to be "true" Christianity by most atheists who openly oppose religion and what they think they are mocking or debunking when they deride the religion. Gee, from where could they have gotten that idea? Now, as a caveat, I am not mocking Christianity here. I see value and truth in the Paschal Mystery, for example. But when you strip a lot of the surface material away, what I described is how many Christians understand their religion on a visceral level. And while some may say that anyone who rejects this view and speaks for another is just demonic, let me say that I believe that the kind of horrid perspective I outlined above is what is demonic; it comes from the vilest, weakest, and least loving aspect of a twisted and tormented heart. It is ugly and vulgar and speaks to the most violent, fearful and intolerant parts of the human mind. It is, to be brief, reprehensible. No effort should be spared in dispelling this notion.

So that brings me back to the shock and awe I felt as I learned that Christianity had so much more breadth and depth to it. I started to get an image of Christianity in which God was not a big-guy-in-the-sky, that Jesus was not just a piece of God wearing a human suit. It was like night and day. Here is a glimpse of the new picture that was forming:
This new view (it turns out much of it is actually very old and goes back to the beginning of religion) says that God is the source of reality, the substance, spark and sustainer that perpetually renews existence. In God we live, move and have our being. God is beyond the idea of "person" or "non-person", and is certainly not less than a person. We and the rest of existence come from God, are in essence composed of that which God is, and our closest conception of what God is has been summed up as love. A kind of love that far exceeds erotic or brotherly love, and whose closest analogy in our daily lives is that of a parent. God's love for us is non-negotiable and without exception. God is the fundamental pattern and rhythm of what we perceive as the universe, the tune that all of nature dances to and which we try to describe with science and art. God is that which chemistry gives birth to when it becomes aware. God is life itself. God can be found in our collective consciousness, calling to us from that spaciousness in the core of our being, our heart. God sees us and the rest of the world as good, as worthwhile, as beautiful.

There are events and choices which we can control and those which we cannot that can create a sense of separation from our truest selves, from our deepest nature, from harmony with our experience of our existence. These are referred to as sin. The teaching of original sin, that there are conditions into which were are born that we have no control over and which cause such a sense of dissociation from our wholeness and capacity for enduring fulfillment and immutable joy, has merit. There also intentional acts and circumstances which can similarly lead to or reinforce such a state. Our hearts become insensitive ("hardened")  and we are closed off from the infinite depth to which they grant us access. Based on the times in which they were living many ancient people wrote lists of activities that they felt would cause or worsen such a state or in some cases reflect someone already in such a state; some of these lists no longer make sense out of their original historical and cultural context. To repent is to see the error of looking for lasting wholeness, contentment and joy in superficial things, to change direction. When appropriate repentance includes reconciliation with those we may have offended or injured, and attempts to make amends for the consequences of such actions.

We make these errors because we forget or lose sight of our inherent wholeness and beauty, the same wholeness and beauty that is inherent to everything in existence. We start to believe in our shallow experiences and construct a lesser self, a misleading sense of identity. This creates and existential hole in our lives which gives rise to cravings which in turn can lead to selfish behavior as we forget our mutual existence with other and with nature. Therefore to "get right with God" isn't about appeasing some tribal sky deity on an imaginary throne, it is to seek holiness, that is, the most complete and perfect form of wholeness, which in turn is part of God's nature and therefore our own existence. By searching our hearts we can find and experience this holiness, this wholeness, as we reorient ourselves to our ground of being. Part of spirituality is to outgrow our spiritual immaturity, to be reborn or reunited to an awareness of our true nature. While initially this is visualized as approaching some Other that is completely separate from us, it is later realized as a recognition of our connection to our shared greater reality.

This is not about making Christianity soft, or feel-good, or "New Age-y". When I was in fundamentalist churches and later as an atheist I used to think that anything short of the cruel, vengeful version of Christianity was just a "watered down" version of the real thing. Now I see it the other way around. The language used to describe the vision of Christianity depends on the age in which one lives. In the current age, while we can honor and appreciate language that is 1,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 years old, we must also appreciate that it has to be interpreted so that we don't miss the intent and meaning behind such language. To use a contemporary context to (mis)understand such language, and to insist that the cultural elements from other eras and ancient societies have to be shoe-horned into modern times, is to miss the point of what the writers were experiencing and sharing. There must also be room for spiritual growth and insight in a tradition. Even Jesus taught, "You have heard it said... but I say to you..." (Matthew 5:17-48).

We cannot know precisely what Jesus said because he did not write any of his teachings down. It was years after his death before any of the Gospels, canon or otherwise, were written. We do know there is a consistency and a common logic, feel and inspiration to certain dialogue attributed to Jesus the scholars tend to agree are probably an accurate reflection of the spirit of the teachings of Jesus even if they are not all his exact words. Some elements in the various Gospels were intended for particular audiences, such as Messianic Jews, Hellenistic Jews, and Gentiles. Later this was interpreted through a Roman perspective, an Egyptian perspective, a Byzantine perspective; and even though these insights were not included within the canon of the New Testament, they are recorded in many crucial texts and preserved in many liturgical practices which have been influential in shaping the Christian tradition.

The idea that this process of reception (of tradition and revelation) and interpretation (and reintegration) has stopped, or should stop, is simply a matter of denial. It is a reflection of a form of idolatry. God, Jesus and his teachings must be encased in stone (or as I've suggested "carbonite", as I am a Star Wars geek). Frozen in an idealized image, forever out of reach, forever trapped in the forms that an imagination conjured millennia ago, their power is stripped away. No "living God", but a vanity shaped by human hands, there is no power to surprise, to provoke, to challenge. God is reduced to lists of rules and theological reflections. The overly familiar images and language becomes sterile, and they make the way we speak or think of God lazy: "Almighty God", "in the name of Jesus", "who with the Father and the Holy Spirit", etc. Many have an idea that they just use these things because they are Christian, but what if we took away those convenient, easy and familiar words and the handy reactionary assumptions of theology that they hide? Many Christians would greatly benefit from such an extended exercise -- to really explore what their beliefs mean when they can't just reference the familiar depictions of the Bible or tradition.

For example, the most meaningful views of the Paschal Mystery for me involve the idea that it represents solidarity with humanity. That, as Fr. Thomas Keating and others suggest, God joins us in our suffering. This makes sense if we are part of God, and if God is love. It's a tragic yet beautiful image. A corollary to the God in solidarity model is that God, that love, appeared to broken and killed, but love, the source and substance of all, is beyond death.  It is eternal. It may dress in different forms according to patterns of causality, but it is indestructible.  Since we are from this source, our deeper nature is the same. God joins us in our suffering because we are aspects of the divine, never to be separated, and neither life nor past, present or future can change this. This image and its message go beyond arguments over historical proof and validation.

In the substitutionary atonement and appeasement models, Jesus had to be sinless and therefore a perfect sacrifice without blemish. Jesus had to be born of a virgin to avoid the blood-curse of original sin, and he had to avoid all of the things on the lists of rules to remain sinless. His divinity at birth would be unique to his role in this scheme. This would have been a useful teaching for many people in a past era, to fit with their understanding of cosmology and justice. In the alternative being described here, to say that Jesus was sinless would mean he never lost focus on God and his awareness of his connection to the universe, to his mutual relationship and dependence with all of creation. It is from such an inner disposition that his holiness emerged, from whence his compassion and love sprung. It is this spring that he offered people that wells up from eternal life. One realizes that they are part of something which transcends any particular passing form. Jesus tries to convey how we can realize that we also are, have been, and always will be one with "the Father" just as he is. As I heard recently, (but cannot place), the cross was not about changing God's mind. It was about about changing ours.

It's just a rough sketch, but what a difference these two perspectives on the meaning and message of Christianity makes! For many people, the idea that God is something more profound than an anthropomorphic super-being who is part ultra-nanny, part cosmic vending machine, and part eternal judge is hard to wrap their heads around. The idea that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves and is always seeking reconciliation and renewal with us, whether we believe in God, whether we are religious, and despite anything we have done, is hard to believe. The idea that by cultivating an awareness of the depth of our lives and the universe around us, we can actualize our full potential as human beings despite the circumstances of our lives, that we can have the same insight and influence as Christ, and do even greater things, is beyond belief. 


A result of such revelation is that despite our condition we can be truly moved to genuine compassion, to learn to have patience with ourselves and others. Imagine that, a religion which is based on bringing this "good news" to those who need it most, to make a real and meaningful connection with the sick, the poor, the broken, the outcast, the unwanted, the unclean, the criminal, the lonely and those otherwise disenfranchised. A faith that isn't jealous or in competition with other religions or philosophies but seeks to work with them in common ground to heal the world one person at a time, and through such transformation and healing foster peace throughout the world.

As I said, this isn't quite as nice as what I had in my head this morning, not as spontaneous and maybe not as complete. But I think it gives at least a glimmer of the vision of Christianity that I find attractive. Whether one thinks it is just a dream or whether it can ever be fully realized, it's a vision worth sharing.

4 comments:

  1. You were right that it was rather long...but i enjoyed it nonetheless! I identify with each part of your description of Christianity and the spiritual journey you've gone on. I share a similar background and was able to easily recognize the truth in your "raw" version of what fundamentalists believe. (and what they believe about someone who hold beliefs such as yours!)
    I really appreciate the beauty of what you shared in seeing spirituality/Christianity in a new light. It opened my mind to new ideas and lifted my spirit. I have been in a questioning phase for a while and it is funny (because i never could have accepted this idea before) but sometimes i almost feel like "God" has led me here. I always thought it was only Satan that could offer these kind of "new-agey" (as you put it) tones of spirituality.
    I appreciate learning from you since you have gone much further along this road than I have yet. You went through atheism. I respect that (i wouldn't have been able to say that only a year or so ago...but now i find myself with the same thoughts and questions and objections. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Hello Jessica, nice to meet you. I think part of the problem is that there is this idea that you can't take sin, or atonement, or the cross, etc seriously unless you do it in the way in which many people are familiar, with the underlying assumption that this is always how people have viewed it. Some of what I write is newer but quite a bit has ancient roots.

    I don't pretend to get it all right, and in the series that developed out of this post (to try to make more sense of it), I really want to convey that I am not trying to rewrite Christianity or make it "soft". It can be confusing and frustrating. But I also think that can be a sign of actively engaging with the Bible, tradition, etc, to really be working on it, rather than just passively accepting what one thinks everyone else expects or assumes. I'm glad you found my long rambling essay useful. Be well.

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  3. "To begin, I am not one of those who is clinging to Christianity. Some who are dubbed to be "liberal" or "progressive" Christians have remain with it because they grew up with it, stayed with it, and are fond of it; they see themselves as trying to rehabilitate it, perhaps keeping some elements on life support."

    I found this essay interesting. You have a lot of valuable interesting tings to say. I have a problem with this quote above. I think perhaps a lot of Americans turn to a liberal view of theology because it's some last ditch effort to stay i the faith. I don't think that's true in Canada for example where more liberal theology is typical of most Canadian Christianity. In Europe has a 500 year old liberal theological tradition and many Chruches in Germany for example are the original liberal denominations.

    The real problem I have with it is that it doesn't given credit to liberal theological types for thinking. It's a version of the atheist line (there I go with my perennial war agaisnt atheism) it very much reminds me of their "enabling" line. Liberal theology is enabling fundamentalism. That's obvious nonsense because fundies think liberal are satanic.

    It assume liberalism is not the older tradition and it is. Liberal theology has never been arount keeping a dying Christianity going.

    btw that whole assertion that Christianity is dying is bull shit. It's not much better shape THAN IT'S detractors want us to believe.

    You are not giving enough credit to liberals to see for themselves and decide for themselves an have concupiscence of their own to find their liberal convictions regardless of what they feel about the larger tradition.

    We do think for ourselves.

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  4. I specifically said "some".

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