John Bennison Words and Ways | 2017 | November

If I Called Myself a “Christian”

A Call for a New Christology

You can read and/or print a pdf copy of this commentary Here.

NOTE: An earlier 2-part Words & Ways commentary in 2011 approached the question posed in the title, “What Kind of Christian?” Part I described at least two generally different kinds of Christians. There were the heaven-and-hell types that emphasize believing the right things in order to ensure immortality for one’s self; rather than the alternative negative consequence of eternal damnation. The second general understanding of Christian identity was what Marcus Borg (among others) called the “historical-metaphorical” approach; where biblical stories are not only understood within the context of the lives of the people experiencing them in a particular culture and community’s time and place; but is also conveyed with a language in which universal, divine truths are conveyed that run far deeper than mere transitory facts that only skim the surface. This second approach to the Bible (and “Christian” identity subsequently) is what I’ve always referred to it as the mytho-poeic power of biblical language that is universal and timeless.
Part II consequently considered what kind of Jesus had to do with which kind of Christianity? In the six years that have elapsed since writing those prior commentaries, I acknowledge how much further I have progressed.

 

To simply ask someone if they are a “Christian” is an incomplete and inadequate question. Yet such an inquisition has been asked historically for as long as this world-class religion has been around; in order try to separate the sheep from the goats, and true believers from heretics.

The only problem is, whatever distinguishes one from the other has shifted with the sands of social, cultural and theological evolution.  Consequently, the more appropriate question to ask is what kind of Christian might one be?

From the inception of this religious movement — emerging from its Judeo roots — there has been the need to interpret and describe which “Jesus” presumably got it all started. That’s why the earliest Christian communities each had their own version of who Jesus was, and what kind of follower one would consequently be; based on an interpretation of that particular historical figure as the “Christ.”

But can one claim to be a follower of certain kind of Jesus, without being enshrouded with so much of what traditional Christianity has overlain? What would that look like?

 

Mr. Jesus NLN

Let’s start with a few basics. If Jesus had a last name we don’t know what it was; but it certainly wasn’t “Christ,” and “H.” likely wasn’t his middle initial (i.e. “Jesus H. Christ”). It was instead an honorary title accorded a post-Easter Jesus by multiple early, emerging communities of believers struggling to figure out what to remember and believe about a 1st century Galilean peasant sage now dead and gone. Only subsequently would they be labeled “Christian.”

‘Messiah’ (מָשִׁיחַ,the Jewish term) or ‘Christ’ (the Greek translation, Ἰησοῦς) was, again, an honorary title that meant the “anointed” one; who represented the ushering in of future age and time to replace the less-than-perfect one in which humanity found itself immersed.

Right “Christian” beliefs (orthodoxy) came along to claim Jesus was (as is) the guy. The result has been a grand testament to the human imagination. Systematic theology, as it is sometimes called, is a magnificent human construct with many compartments that attempt to cover all the contingencies when it comes to explaining (or explaining away) all those “if-this, then-that” scenarios that befall humankind; in the face of the self-evident natural order of things, with the meddling hand of some sort of divine intervention.

“Christology” is the fifty-cent word given to the study of the personhood of the Jesus of history when combined with the “Christ” of faith; the former being as obvious and ordinary as your life or mine, the latter being a kind of theologized schizophrenia. The “dual nature” attributed to a human Jesus as simultaneously being both fully ‘divine’ and fully human makes a split personality out of Jesus. The result is all the dis-orders that emerge in the form of all the quarreling church councils and wrangling ecclesiastical/denominational antagonists. “Oneness” in Christ has been a pipe dream that has fallen sort of the one repeatedly envisioned the Jesus character depicted in the gospel accounts.

 

“One-ness” in Christ

Decades ago, when I was a young youth group leader while working my way through graduate theological studies, I’d strum the guitar while kids sat in a circle, singing,

We are one in the Spirit we are one in the Lord,
We are one in the Spirit we are one in the Lord,
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored,
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,
Yes, they’ll know we are “Christians” by our love. (my italics)

Peace and harmony was not a theological inquiry for these young folks, however. These were young people just beginning the maturing process of figuring out who they were. A better tune to sing might have been “I Gotta Be Me.” Much less a quarrel over Christology, it was more a matter of personal ontology. Who were they, and what would define them?

This is not a question relegated to only one life stage, of course. In fact, it was probably not dissimilar for the first puzzled and curious followers of a Galilean wisdom sage and mystic who extended such a precarious invitation to leave fishing and catch something that could feed them for more than a day. So instead of wrangling over if and how Jesus could have been “fully human, fully divine,” perhaps it is more than sufficient to look and see what it might find how this charismatic figure simply reflected the fullness of humanity.

Since the “two natures” of Christ has always been, at best, a divine paradox requiring irrational belief over human reason. More and more it seems far more informative – and potentially enlightening — to redirect and focus one’s consideration to what constituted his full humanity instead.

While there are several canonical gospel passages that place on Jesus’ lips a kind of messianic self-identification, I agree with those biblical scholars more learned than I that the historical Jesus never uttered such things.

 

Seeing Jesus again for the first time – or at least another way

The fanciful story of Jesus’ “transfiguration” in Matthew’s gospel (Mt. 17) is one of several places in scripture where Jesus’ divinity is meant to be made perfectly clear by the gospel writer; that is, at least in the eyes of his three followers who trekked up the mountainside with him to see Jesus’ face shine like the sun and his dusty robes turn as white as light.

Then a voice booms out from the clouds that was meant to sound just like the same one speaking when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan; since the message was at least the same one that apparently bore repeating, “This is my dearly beloved son, who brings me great joy, listen to him.”

There’s next to nothing I take literally in the Bible, except what Jesus literally means when he tells those who would follow not to believe in him, but to do as he does: to love one another, feed one another, forgive one another, bind and raise up one another, and value doing all that above all else.

Hence, in the latest English version of the Matthean story (The New New Testament translation), the story concludes with Jesus uttering this injunction: “As they were going down the mountainside, Jesus gave them this warning: ‘Do not speak of this vision to anyone until the Child of Humanity has risen from the dead.’”

Where subsequent believers have focused on what to make out of the part about rising from the dead in some literal sense, the non-literal meaning of the tale might better be appreciated in what is expressed in that title ascribed to the one who whom they now see and understand in a different light. Jesus’ identity as the “Child of Humanity” could be considered a shift in emphasis over any post-Easter Christological ‘resurrection’ of his subsequently professed divinity.

For a post-theist who has outgrown much of the standard dogma and doctrine of what it means to be a “Christian,” I have a different take on what kind of “Christ” (messiah) this weary world could use. In actuality, it may not be all that different from what that first century Galilean peasant sage had in mind. Here’s what occurs to me:

As an infant, almost seven decades ago, I was baptized and given a Christian faith identity when the ‘stigmata’ (the sign of the cross) was indelibly pressed on my forehead with holy in an anointing, of sorts. In the words pronounced at the time, I was “sealed as Christ’s own forever.” Decades later, I would go on to repeat the same initiation ritual in my priestly role, anointing hordes of baptismal candidates.

But after anointing each candidate – and even though it was not in the prescribed and authorized liturgy – I would add my own 5-fold blessing which I learned from an old, beloved colleague:

I bless your eyes, that you may see the face of Christ in all people.
I bless your ears, that you may always hear the cry of the poor.
I bless your lips, that you may speak nothing but the gospel of Christ.
I bless your hands, that everything you give and receive may be a sacrament
And, I bless your feet that you may always run to those who need you.

Only years later — after having travelled these pathways for many more years– have I come to place where I recognize a new Christology. It is one that, in fact, likely hearkens back to those earliest pre-Christian days; where in such a 5-fold blessing the name of Jesus No-Last-Name could simply replace the title “Christ” subsequently accorded him.

And furthermore, in doing so, there would be no diminishment to the blessing given, nor messianic hope of another world one day replacing the weary old one we’ve got.

 

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

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Beyond Dis-belief: The New Frontier

You can read and/or print a pdf copy of this commentary Here.

 

I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. — E. B. White

 

There was once a time in my professional career when I half-heartedly adhered to a belief expressed in one of my favorite Gary Larson cartoons, which I framed and placed on my office desk. As conflicted as I sometimes felt, it periodically drove me to recall my favorite E.B. White quote above.

Nowadays, here’s a subsequent question I’ve been pondering: How do I reconcile myself to the stark reality that I no longer hold certain views and beliefs that I once assumed and accepted, considered foundational, and held as sacrosanct?

In this post-modern, interconnected, diverse and globalized world that seems consumed by political divisions, international strife and – most recently – multiple natural disasters, there is a very human tendency to circle the wagons, hunker down, maybe even build an illusory wall, retreat and cling to what is presumably tried and true, and try to enjoy it. “I’m right,” I say to myself and to my circle of comrades who concur, “and how in the world can anyone else think differently?”

The problem is, the person who does see things totally differently thinks the same thing!

Seen in psychological terms, there may be two things going on. The first is what is sometimes referred to as “confirmation bias.” It is the tendency to seek, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs, viewpoint or world view. We all do this, of course; to one extent or another. It gives us a sense of order and identity out of what is otherwise confusion and chaos.

So, if I watch cable news, I’ll choose CNN or MSNBC. Still, Rachel Maddow is a bit too snarky for me; and Lawrence O’Donnell is too whiny and monolithic in his monologue; grinding the same axe until it gets rather dull and his “Last Word” isn’t. But Brian Williams is a witty guy with a thinly veiled viewpoint that pretty much aligns with my own. I’d never watch “Fox & Friends,” and conservative talk radio is absolutely anathema to any enlightened worldview, in my opinion.

Likewise, when it comes to things “religious,” I tend to cringe more and more at the utterance of any traditional “god” talk; or the mere mention or inference in any belief in a supernatural deity –v or deities — to explain the why’s and wherefore’s of the universe, and our place in it.

Our primitive ancestors lacked the reasoning and rationality that scientific knowledge has afforded us to explain such natural phenomena as earthquakes and hurricanes. So the mythic stories they left to us – not unlike our ‘sacred’ scriptures. They make for powerful metaphors to be taken seriously; but are hardly to be taken literally as still so often regrettably remains the case.

So now when live-coverage of natural disasters shows certain survivors expressing their gratitude to their “god” for having been spared, the obvious contradiction remains for those who perished. Not to put too fine a point on it, but what about the 3-month old infant, for instance, who along with ten other worshippers were crushed to death during a baptismal service when their church south of Mexico City collapsed in a recent earthquake?

Or, when I listen to our President give a speech where he threatens to totally annihilate millions of people, then concludes his bellicose remarks by bidding the “God” of “us all” to “bless” the United States of America, I ask what kind of a deity is he talking about? Is it the same one who unleashed the earthquakes and hurricanes, or remained powerless to stop them?

Such incidents only seem to confirm my bias and beliefs.

But the second psychological phenomenon that I sense is going on is “cognitive dissonance.” It consists of those lingering effects that have to do with the emotional and mental discomfort experienced when one is conflicted with regard to the opinions and beliefs one may struggle to still hold, and maybe even outwardly profess; while inwardly having the creeping knowledge those beliefs no longer hold any defensible validity. There are a multitude of worshipping Christians who still faithfully recite a 4th century CE creedal statement of beliefs; all the while cringing, with fingers and toes crossed. It’s called cognitive dissonance!

As I’ve illustrated, nowhere do these human psychological phenomena seem more readily apparent to me than in the two arenas of politics and religion; and both for good reason. They are the two primary places we long to call home. It’s our identity, our tribe and community). It’s where we’ve pitched our tents, or had them pitched by those who came before us; and in whose encampments we’ve constructed the way in which we see the rest of the world, and operate within it.

Would that it were an immovable rock of ages cleft for me and thee, we’d like to believe. But the ground has shifted beneath our feet; and the aftershocks continue to tell us we have already left those former things behind.

It only takes a few of such crises to arise for our confirmation bias to experience cognitive dissonance. Then we are confronted with what I’m convinced is one of the most difficult things imaginable for human beings; namely, to change one’s mind; or worse, admit one was wrong, or made a mistake. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, diehards (political or religious) are willing to do just that: die hard before admitting they were wrong; or at least wrong to continue down the same path of blind, irreconcilable beliefs. They constitute the multitudes sometimes referred to as the (religious) traditional true believers or (political) base.

Various religious traditions, of course, have offered sages and prophets to guide us in another, new direction; letting us know when we’ve strayed off-course. But they’ve also constructed hierarchical systems for confession and absolution to acknowledge and “process” this very prickly predicament for the penitent who might stray!

But there are yet other times when one moves beyond something that was once believed to be right, or true, or true anymore. Then it isn’t always so much a matter of transgression of course, but progression. The line between orthodoxy (right-belief) and heresy may be far fuzzier than some would like to believe. So-called “living” traditions (traditio, lit. passing down, passing along) has to do with something that presumably still holds water. But then there are other times when new wine just doesn’t work well with old wineskins (Mark 2:21-22, et. al.).

That is when the process of examining our confirmation bias and actually embracing our experience of cognitive dissonance can perhaps illumine a path of disbelief that can offer us something else, something more. A personal example:

I was born and raised in a mid-West town in the middle of the last century. While the Pottawatomi were the indigenous people to first inhabit the Kalamazoo valley (the city’s name means “boiling pot” in that native language), my tribe comfortably settled there as protestant Christians and conservative Republicans.

But it only took the tumultuous sixties for my Vietnam generation to experience a profound cognitive dissonance with our confirmation bias. My previously unexamined political viewpoint changed dramatically; while a low draft lottery number sent me scurrying off to my graduate theological studies with a student deferment. More than a draft dodger or conscious objector, I sincerely sought to re-examine and explore my religious worldview.

For the next five years, I delved into a deeper understanding of how my own religious tradition had evolved. I learned the extent to which our scriptures – deemed as being somehow sacred — were human creations; the results of interpreted human experiences, meant to bring orderliness and understanding to our lives. Bundled into this tradition as it developed were all the doctrinal apologetics; creating a systematic explanation of why we were to believe what we were to believe, and the church’s dispensation for the redeemed who remained faithful, or penitent and absolved!

Nearly seven decades ago, as an infant, I had been immersed into my family’s faith tradition through the salvific ritual of baptism. Over four decades ago, a bishop laid hands on my head, uttered a prayer, and ordained me a deacon, then later a priest. Before he did so – as the liturgical practice bade him to do — he asked me a series of questions, including this one: “Do you believe the Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary for salvation?” Dutifully, I answered, “I do.”

At the time, it seemed neither the time nor the place to equivocate and ask him to clarify what he meant by the sacredness of our great mythic stories by which we lived our lives; let alone what he meant by “salvation.” There was a presumed confirmation bias to simply be affirmed!

But nowadays, these many years later, I would experience too much cognitive dissonance to let it pass. Between then and now, there were all those intervening years in which I lovingly pastored a flock;’ where we not only regurgitated creedal confirmations, but also lived out the sacred stories we would tell and retell. We were – as best we could – those incarnated gospel truths, as best we could discern them. When it came to the teachings of the Galilean sage, I like to say, it was less a matter of believing them, and more a matter of simply living them.

In the recent past there was the distinction former adherents explained their exodus as opting to be “spiritual, not religious.” Nowadays, the emphasis is on orthopraxy (right action) over orthodoxy (right belief). So, I believe in orthopraxy more than orthodoxy, and little else!

Nowadays, I resonate with authors who write books like “Reimagining God: The Faith Journey of a Modern Heretic” (Geering), or “God’s Human Future: The Struggle to Define Theology Today” (Galston). What once may have been cognitive dissonance has led me to a new confirmation bias, beyond dis-belief.

As a self-described post-theist, I don’t believe in any sort of ‘traditional’ supernatural deity that represents the sum total of our human capacity to imagine such a thing. As such, I do I believe in any traditional notion of prayer to be addressed to a supernatural creator, intervener or redeemer when the ground shakes and the raging waters wash over us. I do not believe in what is most often considered the petitionary or intercessory function of prayer.

But I do believe in regularly remembering the needs of others, and my sense of response-ability to act. Hence, we re-collect our “Remembrances” in our monthly gathering, with these words, “With open hearts and willing hands, let it be so.” And, at the same time, I can be thankful and express gratitude for the blessings of my life, without attribution to anything more than the sanctity of life itself. I can find enjoyment in the joy to be found in my days.

The only quandary that has arisen as a result of having passed through the dissonance of dis-belief is this: As E.B. White once put it, my confirmation bias to confront and respond to the needs of our world can interfere with my enjoyment of it, and make it difficult to plan my day.

 

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

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Moral Imperative vs. Moral Equivalency as a “Religious” Inquiry

A Commentary in the Aftermath of Recent Acts of Violence, Domestic Terrorism & Yet Another Culture War

Danté’s Inferno

 

You can read and/or print a pdf version Here.

 

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” – Danté (1265-1321)

 

Not long ago, I received a group email message from an acquaintance. A devout Muslim, he’d written to his circle of friends to tell us he was leaving the country in a few days to undertake a pilgrimage known as the Hajj. The purpose of Ejaz’ message – and as part of his required preparations for his pilgrimage — was to ask forgiveness for any wrong he may have intentionally or unintentionally committed with anyone in his circle of friends and acquaintances.

Ejaz and I do not share the same religious tradition; nor – if we did – I suspect we may well not find ourselves in the same place at this point along our separate theological or scriptural paths of inquiry. But I understand and share the meaningful value to be found in the practice of this kind of penitential ritual and the humility required. So I replied briefly, assuring him there was no estrangement between us, as far as I knew; and that I wished him a safe journey and a meaningful experience.

My mind’s eye was then drawn to that familiar photo of the Hajj. I pictured one I knew, lost in that crush of pilgrims circling the Ka’bah. Swept up in a sea of common purpose and shared, reinforced beliefs, the experience has been previously described by others not only as an ecstatic emotional experience; but life-changing and life-affirming event to boot. It is a passage, of sorts; and an outward expression of a codified belief system that symbolizes how one should actually behave in one’s relationship with others.

About the same time I received the note from my Muslim friend, I could not help but think of those other images that were concurrently being shown in daily news cycle at the time; depicting another throng of strong believers marching together to express common purpose; this time in in Charlottesville, Virginia.

There were the neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups (one even known as “Patriot’s Prayer”), and their counter-demonstrators. There were those advocating violence, and others advancing the well-trodden path of non-violence. There were those explicitly expressing hatred for others, and those condemning hatred. There were those making pilgrimage to a monument they deemed sacred. There others who deemed their views and what that site represented to be a sacrilege to our nation’s holy writ; expressed in our Constitution, Bill of Rights, and our core cultural values.

But to be clear, hatred has only one “side.” As the present occupant of the White House likes to put it, “Believe me. You know it. I know it.” And Donald Trump ought to know it. There is no moral equivalency when it comes to denouncing and “hating” hatred. But there is a moral imperative to say so. And, to do so requires a pilgrimage and passage, of sorts.

There is no moral equivalency when it comes to denouncing and “hating” hatred. But there is a moral imperative to say so. And, to do so requires a pilgrimage and passage, of sorts.

The common thread to any such pilgrimage lies in the human experience of moving from the place of a former past that one has spiritually outgrown – so to speak – to a transformative place of becoming something else, something more.

It is about the act of praxis, of doing, what one presumes to believe will be life affirming; and subsequently life giving. In just such an exchange, it becomes the reciprocal act of giving and receiving. It is about saying “yes” to an imperative that originates from – and is driven by – a mode of conduct that stems from a codified set of beliefs.

In doing so, one is unequivocally and unavoidable compelled to define one’s conduct as either moral or immoral; as the outward expression of one’s belief structure. It is the “moral imperative” that requires such “passage.” In this sense, there cannot be any equivalency between the two. To accord equivalency to what one considers immoral (i.e. contrary to one’s mores) is anathema to one’s very being. A moral imperative expresses one’s highest values. And, in so doing, those greatest values are deemed “sacred.”

Only a few weeks after the act of domestic terrorism in Charlottesville – and only a few weeks before another throng of citizens gathered for a music festival in Las Vegas were gunned down by another domestic terrorist – a controversy erupted over professional athletes refusing to stand for the national anthem. “Taking a knee” instead — as an expression of protest over our country’s racial wrongdoings that have yet to be left to a former past — was condemned by some as disrespect for flag and country.

As school children, we all learned the inspirational story of Francis Scott Key’s words of victory and liberty. It occurred to me it’s worth noting our national anthem was borne of violent strife. And that — during the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 — one of only four casualties was an African-American named Priv. William Williams.

In addition, later, the same site was used as a military prison for Confederate soldiers and political sympathizers during our own civil war over state’s rights to perpetuate slavery.

And finally, is it just me, or doesn’t the gesture of “taking a knee” look an awful lot like the act of genuflection to something deserving greater reverence?

So, what makes a patch of earth, or a temple, sanctuary, shrine, statue or even a flag and national anthem holy, and something to revered? What makes it sacred, if not for the designation of it as such by the imagination of the human spirit to conceive of a hoped-for future than a former, would-be past?

Would not the answer to such a question elude us, if not for the moral imperative to act?

So, what makes a patch of earth, or a temple, sanctuary, shrine, statue or even a flag and national anthem sacred, if not for the designation of it as such by the imagination of the human spirit to conceive of a hoped-for future than a former, would-be past?

 

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

 

 

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