John Bennison Words and Ways | 2017 Archives

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.

read more

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.

read more

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.

 

 

read more

Adios, “Dios”

Saying Goodbye to “God” in Sacred Text

 

A pdf copy to read or print is here.

Prologue: What Good is “God”?

 

In a single week recently, a born-and-raised Mancunian (that is, a citizen of Manchester, England) who’d become “radicalized” by a religiously inspired ideology about God, infidels and heavenly rewards blew himself up at a pop concert; killing and maiming dozens in what a terrorist organization called a response to the “crusaders” in the West. Almost simultaneously in Cairo, a bus filled with Coptic Christians on pilgrimage is sprayed with machine gun fire by ISIS-inspired terrorists, killing 28. Headlines in subsequent weeks have brought with it a familiar, repetitious and numbing effect to the point of ambivalent fatigue.

One can argue how much of the carnage is due to geo-political-economic conflict and age-old ethnic/tribal warfare. Or how much of it is a perverse and distorted religious crusade. But in the lethal mix of these human thoughts and actions, there is undeniably a humanly concocted notion of “God.”

In my last commentary, I suggested we might do well at this point in the journey to consider leaving behind the theistic notion of “god.” But before doing so, one might ask how did all the different ideas and conceptualizations of however you define that term arise? Was it humanly generated, or was it something that was planted in our consciousness by some supernatural force?

If one is able to even entertain the unlikeliness of that second option and consider the first, it raises a larger question by its implications. If “god” is, in fact, an idea, a notion, an invention, or even a figment of human imagination, what does that mean for all those attributes once accorded such a deity — or deities — of one sort or another?

OMG! If we were to delete both our traditional Western word and notion of “god” – not just as a supernatural being, but all the substitutionary replacement ideas we’ve concocted so far — from both our speech and thinking, what are the implications for such things we ourselves know and experience to be true in our own human experience? I’m talking about conceiving of such things as love, compassion, mercy, grace, reconciliation, forgiveness, even absolution, redemption, and salvation.

Just try experimenting with this intriguing idea: If one deletes that one word that — I would suggest — has become so laden and problematic from the best ideas we’ve come up with to try to express and describe that very term, can those aforementioned attributes stand on their own without it?

For our first experiment, let’s begin by turning to a well-known and well-loved gospel text; revered as sacred in the Christian faith tradition. In subsequent experiments we’ll explore the implications for other cornerstones of Christian faith like prayer, sacramental rites and ritual, even worship.

This is not easy. It makes me wonder if we’re shaking the foundations. If we remove what has been envisioned to be the central pillar, will the walls come tumbling down, leaving only rubble and dust?

But then again, we are the dust of the earth, and we return to dust. So consider if is a heaven on earth isn’t sufficient to fill the void, both now and for this time of simply being?

Have we reached a place in this journey, where we can look back on the littered path of human history we have trod, and sincerely ask what good is “God?” Might it not be better to simply leave an empty space, if we can tolerate such an idea?

 

Saying Goodbye to “God” in Sacred Text

 

In our Judeo-Christian religious tradition, the word “god” is biblically understood in theistic terms. Mono-theistic to be exact. That is, there’s only one “god,” Yahweh; who is the supernatural creator of everything, oversees everything, and will redeem everything in the end for those who keep covenant and believe. Along the way, there are certain ways we are to behave in order for the Almighty to make good on His end of the deal. A risen Lord, Jesus Christ / Messiah, is not only the example set for us, to emulate as best we can in word and deed; but the living proof, as well. How exactly he is still “living” is a matter of unending theological debate. But the “Spirit” of Yahweh presumably blows where it wills to sustain us in the meanwhile. And if we fall short (which we will, and do), the unmerited gift of grace will pick us up again, thank God; despite all our worthlessness.

There you have it. In a single paragraph I’ve summarized mainline, orthodox (i.e. “right-believing”) Christianity in a nutshell!

However, the premise is also the problem, which I’ve already laid out previously; so I won’t reiterate here. Instead, I’ll rephrase the question again, asking how we might take all the best attributes accorded our deity in all our wildest imaginings – e.g., love, compassion, mercy, grace, reconciliation, forgiveness, even absolution, redemption, and even salvation / “resurrection” – and see just how well they might stand on their own in nothing more than the deepest and fullest human experience possible.

For our first experiment, we’ll reconsider a portion of text considered sacred; a parable likely told by the historical Jesus, before being passed along and eventually recorded in Luke’s gospel (Luke 24).

There was a father who had two sons. The firstborn was more conscientious, even industrious. The other was more adventurous, and probably a lot more fun to be around. But he didn’t want to stick around, and took off. When some of his life choices caught up with him, he returned to face the music, tail tucked between his legs.

Little did he know that from the day he’d left, his father had been waiting at the gate with an aching heart, keeping a hopeful vigil. He’d spent his days glancing unceasingly over his shoulder, until he might one day see a familiar silhouette come over the far hill. And then all customary expectations would be tossed aside.

The injured party would rush to the would-be penitent as fast as his old legs would carry him with the sweetest possible homecoming gifts being compassion and mercy. No judgment or quibbling over what’s fair could be heard, let alone any recrimination. Deaf to any contrition on the part of the one as good as dead, the father’s only capacity was unbridled joy and elation. Where the best the penitent could have hoped for was forgiveness and reconciliation, there wasn’t time for anything but celebration. Why?

Because, sometimes there’s something more important than justifiable resentment, or fairness, or even faithfulness. In which case, consider just how untypically irreligious this story really is.

But further, the backstory to this tale is a universal story. It’s about journey and homecoming. And I’ve never known a better description of “home” than that place you can return, and – no matter what — they won’t kick you out. You’ll never be disowned or forsaken, despite your undeserving.

It’s about being lost and found. It’s about estrangement and being as good as dead; then being raised up again to rejoin life among those living most abundantly. So it’s about resurrection. And grace. Grace as mediated by the love one human being is capable of mustering for another.

And noticeably absent in this very human story of redemption and making something and someone whole again, is the handiwork of any divine figure or deity.

It’s about a kind of resurrection and grace as mediated by the love one human being for another. And noticeably absent in this very human story of redemption and making someone whole again, is the handiwork of any divine figure or deity.

 

Now, I realize and readily acknowledge I’ve arbitrarily selected a portion of the Bible that’s probably easiest to make my point. But we also know the early Christian church’s tendency to have moved such parables through its predisposed inclination and interpretation to a familiar type of adaptation; making an allegory out of such tales.

It all quickly became code language, where “God” played the part of the father, and the younger son represented the gentiles in the early Christian movement; while the role of the recalcitrant and resentful older son was played by the Judeans or the Pharisees that were at odds with those early believers at the time the gospel was written, after the fact.

As a result of such an allegorical application, some biblical scholars have conjectured the original tale may not even have originated with Jesus; while others view more of the layered approach, where theological motivations have modulated what was once pure parable for their own purposes.

While my little experiment to see how well the parable of the prodigal can stand on its own without divine assistance or even religious “contamination,” other parables attributed to Jesus clearly include a religious tone, if not presence. Allegorical interpretation is almost unavoidable in the parable of the Sower. At the same time, it’s worth remembering the religious figures in the Good Samaritan parable are cast only in a negative light. However, consider how the Parable of the Lost Sheep, can function just as well without any divine intrusion as does the prodigal son story.

 

What of the “Reign of God”?

 

But how can the “kingdom” parables – the majority considered original to the Galilean sage – possibly be reconsidered without including “God?” “The kingdom of God,” Jesus says, “is like a lost coin, a mustard seed, buried treasure, a pearl of great value, etc.”

Consider the fact that such a “kingdom” (now more often translated “reign”) is, of course, a vision of the human imagination; as conceived by the sage who sketched it for us, and the evangelists who recorded it. Further, the kingdom parables are always a juxtaposition of the way things are, and ought to be.

These parables are similitudes; meaning, they describe what it would be like if only those things to which we aspire came to pass, and with the human capacity we possess to achieve them. Consider this is what Jesus implied when he spoke of such a kingdom as this being imminent, or at hand; if only we were to use the eyes we already had to see, and ears to hear.

Clearly the Bible is a compilation of different kinds of recorded stories, covenant histories, theological treatises, gospel proclamations, letters, poems and sagas, and even hallucinogenic dreams, that are all intended to reflect two great mono-theistic faith traditions.

Over the different centuries of its compilation, the biblical narrative is a story of mere mortals arguing with “God,” wrestling with “God,” straying from “God,” returning to “God,” invoking “God,” pleading to “God,” swearing allegiance to “God,” giving thanks to “God,” loving “God,” cursing “God,” fearing “God,” fleeing from “God,” and — on more than one occasion — just being utterly confounded by “God,” and exasperated with “God.”

If one then considers the possibility that the notion of “god” described in the whole biblical story is the creation of a human document borne out of human experiences, it seems plausible to perhaps take another look at all those stories, and recognize how familiar they are when we recount all the ways in which we have dealt and interacted with one another!

In place of the word “God” in the foregoing paragraph, try the word “you” or “me.” Delete a supernatural deity, and see what’s left, or whatever might be really missing.

Then, if we come to the realization that “god” is really imagined and meant to be the representation of the best of ourselves — in relationship with one another — how might saying adios “Dios” in the journey we’ve undertaken not only un-encumber us a bit and quell some of the violence we inflict on one another in such a name and notion; but hasten, as well, the coming of that kingdom once, and so long, envisioned?

 

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

 

read more

Resurrection as Change, Part III: Deleting “God”

You can read or print a copy of this commentary here.

Prefatory Note:

 

“God is a direction.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was a German poet whose works contain many “God” references. Often when Rilke wrote about “God,” however, he was not referring to a deity in the traditional sense. Rather, he used the term in metaphorical ways. “God” is a forest in which we wander, or the “cathedral” we are building. “God” is not a thing, but an action, a creative process of an emerging reality of which we are capable of having conscious awareness. And, “Religion,” he once said, “is the art of those who are uncreative.”

So with this in mind, I ask myself, what of “God,” and religion?

 

The Problem with “God”

 

“God” has admittedly been for me a direction; but neither a destination, nor even a companion along the way any longer. As the poet suggests, if the notion of “god” is directional movement from a former past to the present now, then now is the time for me to at least leave the “G” word behind.

To do so, I admit, means passing up a veritable smorgasbord of choices: theism, deism, pantheism, panentheism, monotheism, etc.; while idolatry seems to lie in the eye of the perceiver. The usual alternative fare offered up usually runs the gamut from atheism to agnosticism. Instead I prefer avoiding the circular argument altogether, simply dubbing myself a non-theist.

I also readily acknowledge this is the place to which I have only tentatively arrived; and, for the time being, along the way. This is what I now understand. Though, looking back, it is the direction I have been travelling for a long time.

Some folks try to redefine the word, ”god;” so that they can still employ it with sufficient clarification that they mean this, and not that. But for me, it’s a little like equating resurrection with resuscitation; or trying to revive and reuse something that’s been recycled just too many times. Better to start from scratch and opt for a change in thinking that’s entirely new and next.

So what exactly is that term – and who are the gods of one sort or another – that have been left behind? Here’s what is self-evident to me:

We live in – and are a part of – a non-metaphysical world. As such, there is no supernatural deity, no separate divine being that exists apart from our own human imagination, consciousness and capacity to conceptualize one. What does that mean?

For one thing, it means there subsequently exists no grounds for any distinction between the sacred and profane, between a spiritual life and the ordinariness of this life; or the hope and promise of a next world and some kind of “life after death,” and escape from the temporal singularity of our own mortality.

It might take a second reading to unpack that previous sentence, and chew on it for a bit. In actuality, it has probably been decades in its formulation. But it arises out of many years in the study of this particular subject (it’s called theology), and those human-created forms of expression about such things (that’s called religion). Here’s a little backtracking to fill in the background:

Where belief in a pantheon of gods once existed to try to describe and make sense out of the chaos and incomprehensibility of what we pejoratively refer to sometimes as a primitive worldview, humankind has achieved enough understanding of the natural world, and logged enough millennia of recorded history, to know enough to have more than a hint of acknowledging the one-ness (or, non-duality, if you like) of all things.

What was previously a theological premise – constructed in numerous different ways, and inventing “gods” for everything under the sun, and even the sun itself for that matter – has subsequently become a scientific assertion. In this sense, it is why science has often now been dubbed the new and only post-modern religion.

As evidence, consider how such true believers recently took to the streets in a world-wide “March for Science,” to clearly reassert its primacy; and in the face of a dwindling number of doubters and detractors. The basic (scientific) assertion is that empirical knowledge and unimpeded inquiry will always and ultimately win out over reactionary, ignorant naysayers and holdouts. Where theories about how the world came to be and how it operates are sometimes a good bet, so-called “alternative facts” just don’t ultimately hold up very well when eventually faced with the plain, bald truth.

So, if what was once a theological task has been usurped or replaced by the worship of scientific inquiry, what’s then to be done with that term that is so generic that it begs definition as much as it lacks it: “God?”

 

Deleting “God”

 

I have previously suggested that this particular pronoun with a capital “G” has been so bandied about with so many different meanings and applications as to be essentially rendered meaningless. Instead of trying to resuscitate it – only to risk its misuse all over again – we might be just as well be done with it altogether.

In fact, I’ve asked a few scholars far more learned than I why they still capitalize this particular word, as if referring to a proper name, instead of the ideas they like to substitute for what usually ends up being some quasi-anthropomorphic throw away line. But in my estimation, they always seem to come up short. So here’s my take:

First, the idea of “god” is exactly that. “God” is an idea, a notion, a human invention or contrivance, if you will. But more so, it is a descriptive idea of whatever we empirically experience, and then subsequently seemed to have attributed to an entity of some sort. We’ve historically done so, in order to try to explain the whys and wherefores of our lives.

But furthermore, it is not an idea that was planted in our consciousness by some mysterious outside force. I strongly suspect there is enough unknown mystery to the universe, in and of itself, so that any infinity of space, and eternity of time, should keep us busy for quite awhile. It seems to me we don’t need to invent and domesticate such unknowns and make humanly devised deities out of them.

Instead, and for example: In the Judeo-Christian tradition, when we hear the story of Moses encountering a burning bush that speaks without being consumed, or the voice that booms out like rolling thunder with approval over Jesus’ baptism in the chilly waters below, it is not a supernatural occurrence, but wonderfully descriptive mythic language striving to express the deepest possible meaning of a fully human experience.

Did I always understand this, and believe this to be true? Well, since in our “oneness” it’s all one big ball of wax, I can say the answer to my own question is both yes, and no! But the one, fundamental and essential truth I have found is this: We live our lives by myths and metaphors. And the search for meaning compels and challenges us to discern which myths are true, and which are false. Human history is littered with the enactments of false myths that have proved lethal. If there is any lasting value to any religious tradition, it is in the colloquial retelling of those myths that express alternate and enduring truths.

We live our lives by myths and metaphors. And the search for meaning compels and challenges us to discern which myths are true, and which are false.

Deleting “God” in “Christ”

 

Raised and reared in one of the great monotheistic faith traditions, I was immersed in a sort of religious inheritance bequeathed to me by my culture, my ethnicity, and centuries of Western history.

This included learning and living out the great mythic stories handed down through what were regarded as sacred scripture; along with the rites and rituals that were employed to symbolically express our part of that heritage, with a doctrinal belief system mediated by an authoritative, hierarchical human institution called the Church. So revered and meaningful were these words and ways, that they have sustained flocks of people from crib to grave.

In a search for meaning out of mystery and chaos – which is essentially the true function of all religion and its mythic tales –seekers far and wide found what was understood and believed to them to be an encounter with a sense of meaning and purpose, a defined direction and final destination. In the Christian faith tradition, it became fidelity to “oneness with Christ,” redemption and salvation. Subsequently, of course, the results were a plethora of interpretations as to what that all might possibly mean.

So along with leaving behind the vestiges of a supernatural “god,” there has been the so-called “quest” over a century of scholarly debate for the historical Jesus; as distinct from an eternal savior “god” and “Christ” of faith. The life and teachings of a 1st century Galilean sage in the wisdom tradition of his own religious heritage was subsequently accorded the messianic title by the religious tradition that emerged following his death and burial (facts) and “resurrection” (a theological assertion).

It was somewhat amusing when a cable news network recently broadcast a series entitled, “Finding Jesus – Faith, Fact, and Forgery.” Really? I found it incredulous that the promo’s for the series featured the iconic character quoting “I am” verses from John’s gospel; enjoining the listener to “believe.” Most scholars I know concur that the vast majority of sayings attributed to Jesus in the 4th Gospel are the invention of the early emerging faith community. The series merely reiterated legendary accounts from the gospels, and perpetuated more forgery than facts.

Instead, I liken myself to a disciple of Jesus on the Emmaus road, as recounted in the tale in Luke 24. I’m one who has striven to recognize the one I now refer to as that Galilean sage, as “hearts burn within us,” in the remembrances of his likeliest words and ways. But like those earlier disciples, I do so when I regularly break bread with some fellow sojourners in a group we simply refer to as Pathways. In doing so, I acknowledge I am only able to imagine there’s a faint resemblance of someone long dead and gone, who is borne out in our reenactment of study and supping each month.

Even so, I accept the inescapable fact that with only the earliest and various memories of who that historical figure really was, we share much of the same fate as those who were only one or two generations removed from him. We all have our own Jesus figure. And whoever he was, the world in which that 1st century CE figure walked and talked with his own god-language and religious context remains only partially transferable and translatable to the time and place I live two millennia later. Things change. So, when it comes to any religious construct, the question is what — if anything — remains?

 

Speaking anew without “God”

 

One of the things that remains is some of the mythic language once used to describe that which is beyond our present capacity to fully express and explain the human experience. We have strong evidence that the most authentic sayings of the historical Jesus were likely the “kingdom” parables, and a sort of godly language used to provide a context for transference; and how to imagine this same world differently. It’s why I refer to them as the “parables of now and next.”

Did Jesus have a “theological premise” different from me, at this point; especially with regard to the use of the word “god?” Probably. If Jesus were alive today, would he view things differently, and express himself differently as a result? Maybe. But it’s probably the only reason it makes me wish I believed in something as fanciful as a Second Coming!

I have for a long time reflected on the richness of the language we have inherited from two millennia of this one particular religious tradition, and asked myself (quoting J.S. Bach’s great hymn), what language shall we borrow? What new language might I employ to better express the place I have arrived? How, for instance, might I use resurrection language for what is new and next; instead of trying to breathe new life into that which is dead and gone?

I’ve actually thought of resurrection this way for awhile, based on personal experience. I used to say I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived long enough to have died enough little deaths along the way, to experience the fact that life itself continued afterward. There was no “god” that raised me up again, but life itself; and those other mere mortals surrounding me, loving me, supporting me.

Ah, some holdouts might still try to postulate the idea of a deity that’s been accorded such an attribute, and say, “God is love!”

To which I might suggest we simply reverse the proposition and consider: No, love is my “god.” Or better yet, love is simply love.

In the next commentary, I’ll reflect further on experimenting with such a proposition, and explore how such notions can stand well enough on their own.

 

 

 

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

 

read more

Resurrection as Change, Part II

The Emmaus Experience of Transformation

To read or print this commentary in pdf format click here. To read the commentary, “Resurrection as Change, Part I” can be found here.]

 

“Situated by the River Thames and next to Lambeth Palace, London’s Garden Museum,” according to it’s website description, “provides a wonderful escape from the hustle and bustle of central London and is an ideal setting for a pre-dinner drink reception or a barbeque.” It all sounds terribly lovely.

When the venue was constructed centuries earlier however, it served as a different kind of refuge, known as St. Mary’s Church, Lambeth.  But in more recent decades, when church attendance waned and interest turned from things religious to gardening, the sanctuary was recently deconsecrated and converted into a horticultural museum.

In the course of renovation, an as-yet undiscovered manhole cover led to a crypt beneath the sanctuary floor. And among the thirty coffins was found a bishop’s mitre and the earthly remains of Richard Bancroft, head of the Anglican Church from 1604 to 1610. It was Bancroft who was selected by James the First to oversee the creation of the first English translation of the Christian scriptures, known as the King James’ Bible.

In the liturgical season some Christian faith communities still observe as Eastertide, it’s somewhat amusing to consider how an ancient building — with its walls still adorned with stained glass depicting some of those biblical stories — has so changed and been recycled and repurposed. And in the undercroft lie the fertile dust and bone of someone dead and gone who once presumably preached a gospel of resurrection.

While certainly not the most scholarly translation, it still seems fitting nonetheless to then read Bancroft’s version of this post-resurrection appearance tale; in which the words attributed to a risen Lord are clearly the fanciful creation of an early believing community.

Then arose Peter, and ran unto the sepulchre; and stooping down, he beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves, and departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.

And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.

And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad? And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days? And he said unto them, What things?

And they said unto him, Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, today is the third day since these things were done. Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulchre; And when they found not his body, they came, saying, that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive. And certain of them which were with us went to the sepulchre, and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not.

Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further. But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them. And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight.

And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures? And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven gathered together, and them that were with them, Saying, The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon. And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of them in breaking of bread. [Luke 24:12-34]

“Did not our hearts burn within us?” The Emmaus legend is about both the inevitability of change and the possibility of transformation. The unrecognized stranger — who draws up beside the two despondent disciples on a road that’s going to take them from a former place to someplace else – is portrayed as the only one who is unaware of all the changes that have just taken place.

The biggest change, however, awaits the two other sojourners when the eyes and ears of understanding are opened to see and hear what has presumably already been said and done previously by the Galilean sage, now dead and gone. In all the swift and varied changes of this world, the elusive goal of converting hearts and minds remains optional.

The Emmaus legend is about both the inevitability of change and the possibility of transformation. … In all the swift and varied changes of this world, the elusive goal of converting hearts and minds remains optional.

It’s akin to that other fanciful gospel story of the transfiguration. The human Jesus doesn’t really change in the presence a few of his dumbfounded followers; along with the visages of some ancient prophets who are long gone. What changes is the way he is regarded by those companions. Resurrection is not about any return of that which is already gone, but the transformation of one who is not yet fully present to the now, and next, and for the time being.

Consequently, I liken myself to a disciple of Jesus on the Emmaus road — who has striven to recognize one who I now refer to as the Galilean sage — in the remembrances of what were his likeliest words and ways; and as I periodically break bread with some fellow sojourners at a gathering we intentionally call Pathways. Admittedly, I am only able to imagine a faint resemblance of someone long dead and gone; but whose remembrance is borne out in our reenactment of study, exploratory dialogue and supping each month along the Emmaus road.

Even so, I acknowledge the inescapable fact that with only the earliest and varied memories of who that historical figure really was, we share much of the same fate as those who were only one or two generations removed from him. We all have our own Jesus figure. And whoever he was, the world in which that 1st century CE figure walked and talked with his own god-language and religious tradition remains only partially transferable and translatable to the time and place in which I live two millennia later. Things change. So, when it comes to any religious construct, the question is, what — if anything — remains? And what might be more meaningfully repurposed?

One of the things that hasn’t changed is the way in which common language is still best used to describe that which is beyond our present capacity to fully express and explain the human experience. We have strong evidence that the most authentic sayings of the historical Jesus were likely the “kingdom” parables, combined with a certain god language; and used to provide a context to imagine this same world differently.

Did Jesus have a “theological premise” different from mine, at this point; especially with regard to the use of the word “god?” Probably. If Jesus were alive today, would he view things differently himself, and express himself differently as a result? Maybe. But it’s probably the only reason it makes me wish I believed in something as incredible as a Second Coming!

But at the heart of those parables are the universal stories of ordinary life that can stand on their own, without any religious language whatsoever; and still remain sufficiently transformative to warm hearts. It is the reason I call them transformative “parables of now and next.” And it is in this sense that I ask what new language we might continue to employ to better express the place we have arrived, with so many changes, and for the time being? How, for instance, might I use resurrection language for whatever is new and next?

I’ve considered the meaningfulness and usefulness of the notion of resurrection this way, based on personal experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived long enough in order to have died a sufficient number of little deaths along the way; that I might not only experience restoration, but the deeper reality that life itself continues, with or without me. In those experiences, there was no “god” that raised me up again, but life itself; along with those other mere mortals surrounding me, loving me, and supporting me, both now and for the time being.

In this way, I’ve also thought of my own late father, now dead and gone. Over a half-century ago — and, following along within the apostolic succession of Anglican bishops himself — he had built a magnificent cathedral in the Midwest town in which I grew up. It was a grand testament to the orthodox Christian beliefs of his generation. It was even within that soaring space that he once laid hands upon my head, and ordained me to preach a gospel of death and resurrection.

But following his retirement, things changed. Interest in the mainline denominational packaging (those century-old traditions, rites and rituals) waned and the market for religious things went another direction. The property was sold off to a non-denominational mega-church that built a worship center three times the size of the original structure. And, the former cathedral was repurposed as a wedding chapel.

One thing remained, and was required to be maintained, as part of the sales agreement. It was the Resurrection Garden that had been installed as a columbarium, adjacent to the former cathedral. There the remains of some mortals, including my father’s ashes, have been interred; to simply return to the earth as part of another horticultural museum, of sorts.

And all shall be well.

 

© 2017 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.
To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of a Christian progressive click on Archives tab on the homepage.

read more