Friday, March 4, 2011

Reconciling tradition and contemporary insight: The role of the church

This is part of a series of essays exploring ways to honor religious tradition while making its message accessible and relevant to people today. It isn't officially endorsed by any group, it is an attempt to spark people to move forward with their faith. It draws on another essay sketching the outlines of two visions of the Christian message.

Too often we see important elements and individuals in religion 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 should 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?

Because some overarching themes became so ingrained and taken for granted in major swaths of the Christian traditions, people just assume what terms like sin and holiness mean and never really bother to explore them beyond the impression the receive from the environment in which their beliefs were formed. But what if there is more to it? What if a failure to take into account the original context of an idea or to ask how it might have been expressed today isn't just lazy, it shows a disrespect for the idea itself. It also means many people will find the idea sounds outdated or irrelevant, no matter how much its proponents shout and stamp their feet.

Let's continue from where we left off  and examine how a mystical approach to the identity, life and passion of Jesus can inform us about the Gospel and the role of the Church.

Having discussed the nature of the Gospel, attention must be turned to which view the Church endorses and hence the message it is sending out. Often this is a conflicted message because of the attempt to mystic and moralistic understanding of the vision of Jesus. Yet as mentioned before, the lines Jesus drew of who or who would not be part of the kingdom were tailored to each audience. They always seemed to put the people he was trying to reach on the outside, to challenge his hearers. Yet this idea that some have to be in and some have to be out, like many things, was then interpreted with the eyes of the flesh rather than the spirit, and hence there had to be ways of deciding who was part of the club and who was out.

Based on this way of thinking, the Church as a whole has generally opted to lean towards being exclusive, especially when it comes to the sacraments. Equating holiness with uniqueness for Jesus and those who vicariously share in it via his grace, it was (and is) therefore not for everyone. Sure, if someone is willing to commit to membership and participate in the rituals which draw the line between saved and sinner, between child of God and wretch, then one can have access. This was surely not intended to be harmful or a distortion of the vision Jesus had in mind, yet Jesus welcomed all to his table, regardless of belief or sin. Arguments supporting excluding people, either indirectly through language and implication as not being children of God, or explicitly by barring the non-Baptized from the Eucharist, seem to always rely on a view of the nature of God, Jesus and salvation which resorts to what has been referred to previously as moralistic, literalistic, superstitious Christianity, or Christianity as seen and practiced through the eyes of the flesh. In the mystic, symbolic, poetic view, or through the eyes of the spirit, this is a tragedy. For all are already children of God, all are rooted in the same nature as the heart of the cosmos, and all have the capacity to connect with divine consciousness. All are called, not to religion, but to the vision Jesus shared through his teachings.

To spell it out, in the moralistic view the path Jesus followed in becoming the Christ was unique, while we can only call on him to magically transform us by giving us by wiring our hearts for the sacred and stamping our ticket to heaven. We do this with the properly rituals in the form of thoughts, speech and actions, such as the Sinner's Prayer and Baptism. God is remote and alien, so we are through these rituals like foreign tissue being implanted into the divine body, but only if we use these rituals to dial up Jesus and take advantage of what is very limited time offer. Because the Eucharist is so holy and connected to God, it must be isolated as well, just as God is. It too must be kept away from the unclean, from the impure. It is magical and powerful and must be properly controlled lest God be offended. To allow someone who doubted, who openly disbelieved or who otherwise was not going to properly revere it to have access to it would, in such a view, be unthinkable. Also, people not Baptized are not officially recognized yet as children of God, so why feed them food that only true believers can really spiritually digest. Still another is that Jesus only shared the last supper with his disciples, which must mean it is only for the inner circle. Or perhaps, if they aren't members they don't get the privileges.

These and other arguments are anathema to the mystic perspective being sketched here. Through the eyes of spirit, since everything is of God, God may defy our intellectual comprehension and imagination but God is not remote, inaccessible or alien. God is simultaneously transcendent and immanent, the source, substance and sustainer of our existence, the basis our reality. We are never truly separated from God except through our spiritual immaturity and its resulting ignorance, the foundation of sin. That has been covered quite a bit previously (see the previous parts of this series), so taking that view already developed forward, the Church should not exist for its own perpetuation. Nor should it attempt to draw lines of who is or isn't worthy or ready or able to share in the vision of Jesus. The Eucharist represents both God's feast, which was a symbol of the Kingdom of Heaven, and of God's solidarity with humanity in its suffering. It represents someone who possessed an unswerving fidelity to the conviction that all people can grow and find their true depth in God and hence be transformed, just as he was. Therefore, the body and blood of Jesus take on a timeless dimension that points beyond himself to the Christ nature inherent in all people, and to their suffering. As
I once wrote:

Whatever redemptive power one believes is found in Holy Communion, it reaches out to all of humanity.  The breaking of the bread and the filling of the cup contain our collective suffering.  The wine isn't just the blood of Christ, because his blood was also the blood of a rural farmer shot and killed by a death squad.  His blood is the same which bleeds from a rape victim as she lies in an alley undiscovered for hours.  The bread isn't just his body, it is her body, and the body of the slave lashed by a petty farmhand.  Whatever power one finds in the blood of Christ, it isn't the holy body wash some may believe it is.  Whatever triumph one finds in his body, it is tempered as well as magnified by the very tragedies it overcomes.

Consuming the elements of the Eucharist, then, becomes a form of consuming grief.  Of opening ourselves to the human condition, including its most painful aspects as well as its most uplifting.  We consume the hate, the tragedy, the suffering in a genuine and full remembrance of the symbolism of the Last Supper.  And as the afflictions affecting others become more real to us, so increases our capacity to be more like Christ -- in his virtues and in his relationship with God, who we learn to see in every face. 

The Eucharist, which is symbolic of the universal vision of Jesus, does not belong to a religion, nor to the Church. Christianity may its home and the Church its custodians, but it, like Jesus' vision, belongs to all.

If the Church wholeheartedly pursued and taught and lived out a vision of Jesus and his Gospel akin to the mystic vision poorly and briefly sketched in this series of reflections, where the good news isn't about making more Christians or a childish version of "getting people to heaven", if it didn't see the creeds as litmus tests for beliefs but rather as symbolic affirmations of a shared faith, in other words, if the Church didn't insist that people look and act and think like them to be eligible for the good news it claims to want to share, Christianity and the world would be transformed. Those who are turned off by hypocritical moralistic pronouncement, the literalism of ancient myths, and the idea that they aren't good enough as they are, might actually be interested in what the Church has to say.  Such people would have the chance to see vision of Jesus as he intended. Not as a magic ritual to save them from the justice and wrath of a bronze age deity, but as the revelation of their true nature and capacity and the resulting opportunity to live fully and joyfully even in the midst of problems and pain and persecution. To be freed from a limited self and the world, in which we fail to live up to the glory and fulfillment possible by finding our grounding in God . To repeat from a previous description:

The vision Jesus offered was freedom. Total freedom. This was also rooted in the Hebrew tradition, so it’s no surprise this is how Jesus experienced and interpreted his revelation of God and how he manifested the Spirit of God. Freedom from suffering and illness. Freedom from slavery and captivity. Freedom from living under the oppression of corrupt or despotic rulers. Freedom from hypocritical religious leaders and divisive spiritual institutions which equate lists of rules with piety and holiness and which use fear and disgust as tools for conformity. Freedom from a sense of existential anxiety over the value or meaning of one's life. Freedom from insecurity and self-recrimination. Freedom from a false sense of self which limits our capacity to experience unshakable confidence and joy.

Baptism would for those who, having tasted this vision, want to go deeper in their walk, to begin the path of following Christ, from Christ's own Baptism to death and resurrection. To seek that same depth, that same grounding in divine consciousness, and its manifestation, its incarnation, even in the face of opposition from those still rooted in and dependent on the shallow world produced by the flesh, by the immature lesser self.

This truly universal perspective, which does not deny nor hide its historical or cultural roots, which endorses the depth and mystery of our existence beyond a strictly secular outlook, and which liberates the vision of Jesus from overuse and abuse of analogies and heartfelt sentiments taken literally and as doctrine, is not just more appealing to modern spiritual seekers, I truly feel it is more authentic and more challenging. It maintains the integrity of the overall Christian experience inherited from those who have gone before, permitting a more spacious and generous interpretation of their experiences and how they expressed them, and bequeaths a more meaningful and useful way of discussing and picturing the vision of Jesus to future generations. It does this without the need or basis for competing with other religions or their insights, that is, it removes the need for claims of superiority, yet it doesn't deny a unique and vital contribution to those who, rather than seeking meaning, are seeking to understand meaning, to find an expression for their insights. A contribution which includes an vision of hope for all who are abused and neglected, a vision of freedom, of justice, and mercy.

Time again to take a break. Hope to see you here again soon, when we will consider how all of this fits in the concepts like judgment. Be well.

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