Sunday, March 6, 2011

Reconciling tradition and contemporary insight: Prologue

This series of essays was inspired by an original single essay on the consequences of how one thinks about traditional religious language and imagery and some of the pitfalls that go along with it; it was a haphazard collection of thoughts that attempted to record an earlier and more orderly thought process. The series has been a way of fleshing out and exploring out the original essay and the original topics were: Who was Jesus? Was he was without sin?, Who was Jesus? Did he "die for me"?, Does Jesus save? Can we call on Jesus?, How do we connect to Jesus? What is the "good news" and who is it for?, Connecting the vision of the Gospel and salvation and debates about faith vs. works, The role of the church, and How to live, meeting God, and judgment. You can use this index to help you jump back and forth between the essays, but keep in mind that each builds on what was said before, starting with the original pilot essay. The basic idea is that they would form the basis for future essays which explore the picture began with these original installments.

 Before you read any of them, please bear in mind the context in which they are written and the purpose they were intended to serve. First, they were written by someone who came of age in churches which were largely what we would refer to today as heavily conservative evangelical fundamentalist churches which claimed no denominational affiliation. I ended up abandoning and eventually completely disbelieving all of Christianity. Having begun the process of rediscovering it, both through my own practice as well as through the writings of various priests, monks and theologians, I have been inspired and troubled. This is most evident in these essays. They are in one sense a way to expose and expunge much of the baggage still lurking below my regular thoughts, clinging to traditional words, phrases and images like leeches. Some of the fiery rhetoric used to burn it off may be offensive to some, although my intent is never to mock or ridicule Christianity. Far from it. It is a most genuine and sincere attempt to deeply and truly take Christianity seriously.

Going along with the first point, I do subscribe to (and discuss) the idea that religious language and imagery must be free to challenge and inspire, as a starting place for our spiritual development and maturity rather than a narrowly defined set of boundaries that limit such growth and are ends unto themselves. I also subscribe to  the idea that we should not look down on others for not having the same understanding or for not getting the exact same thing out of such material as we do (see the essay
"Caveman Og and the problem of religious mystery"). As a  commentary I read a few years ago by a Buddhist master said you have to believe the Pure Land is a real place, then you can move to Pure Land as metaphor, then you can see that it is both and yet beyond both. To start with metaphor only is to not fully grasp the teaching. I can't cite where, though I think it was a tiny book by Thomas Merton on how to read the Bible, but I also recall an admonition that we should avoid deciding ahead of time how we will react to imagery, including that in sacred literature, and only find that narrow way acceptable. One day a passage may make sense in a more literal way, and on another it might not. But in either case to try to pin it down by saying there is only one preset meaning for everyone and every time misses the value of such imagery.

That leads us to the next thing to keep in mind: I am coming at this from a Buddhist perspective. I am not trying to stitch Buddhism onto Christianity, nor make Christianity into Buddhism. But sometimes the best perspective for seeing problems or new possibilities is from a different angle. Besides, while there are analogous ideas and terms to Buddhist teachings in the Christian tradition, much of it has been buried and forgotten by all but a limited group of theologians and seminarians. It is not readily accessible to most laypeople. Moreover, part to the challenge here is to really question our latent assumptions about what we really mean by invoking common Christian language and images, so using other words and symbols can prove useful. For example, Jesus is the son of God. (OK, what does that mean?) He is God incarnate. (What does that mean?) He is God made flesh God and fully human. (OK, but what does that mean? How does it work?). Eventually, one runs out of other familiar expressions to restate the same thing, forcing one to look at what they actually think is going on, even if they normally didn't take the time to spell it out in plain words.

That brings us back to an earlier point and on to the next: I am not trying to impose my own take on all of this as the full, complete and sufficient way to understand Christianity. That would be stunningly absurd and egotistical. It would be nice if we could just stick to the idea that we keep learning and getting new insights from our religious words and symbols as we grow and leave it at that, but people being people, we start to come up with a sketch of what we really think it all means, often in the form of a subconscious script or cheat sheet which tends to go unexamined. I feel some of these scripts can degenerate into problematic assumptions and lead to beliefs that I (and others) find disheartening or disturbing. Hence I try to strip away the sugar coating and get to what many folks actually mean when they talk about their faith. I don't claim that this meaning is universal for any movement or denomination, but neither is it merely a cheap straw man or facile caricature of certain streams of thought in Christianity. My bluntness may also contribute to some of the hard and uncomfortable parts of the essays which I have no doubt many will find offensive. I apologize for any insult one may perceive, but it is difficult to really get to the heart of some issues without framing them in a way that risks making people uncomfortable.

Which brings us to a final couple of points. I go pretty hard on things like the appeasement and atonement models of the Passion early on because of how I feel they have at times been misused or abused, so as you read through the essays it may seem like I have no time for the notion of atonement, for example. But hopefully as you proceed through the essays you will see this isn't really true. I didn't want to write a whole book on the matter, so it is left to the reader to discern where I am trying to make a contrast for the sake of illustration and when I truly reject something wholeheartedly. I do generally try to make it clear, but at times my meaning is merely implied. Nor should one think that my sketch is complete. Far from it. Hence, one would have to look at what is being written on topic A and then ponder what it might mean for understanding topic B, which is really the ultimate goal: to help me clarify some of my own thinking and inspire others to attempt to do the same. In future essays building on this initial series I plan to examine specific prayers and the like to give a better idea of how the incomplete and bare-bones sketch in development might look in practice. As with all my writings, take what is useful and leave the rest.


  1. I hope you don't mind if I link this blog to my own site. You have some very good insights into what can be a long and bumpy journey. Sometimes the sign posts are in a far different language than we might ever have anticipated.

    Colleen Kochivar-Baker --- Enlightened Catholicism

  2. Sorry that I missed a comment and that my reply is so very late. I think I was super-busy and then not long after my blog was out of commission for a while. Every so often I find one of these ignored comments. But I recall we did connect by email.

    Long and bumpy certainly describes it, and to be honest, I can't say that I've ever found a language that makes sense to me in terms of religion or spirituality. Then again, it might help if I weren't spiritually deaf.

    I regularly visit your blog, and it is well done with a specific audience and purpose in mind. It's just too bad that so much of what you report and comment on has to be, well, so painful and frustrating. I know you've written about why you don't leave the Roman Catholic Church, but I have to think at times it is a sore temptation.

    Best wishes to you.


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