Where Christianity Got it Wrong

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  (John 12v24)

Today is Good Friday, the day Christians remember the death of Jesus on the cross. What does this mean for us today?

Christianity has tended to focus on correct beliefs; if you believe the right things about Jesus or God then you will go to heaven when you die. The more I read about Jesus, the more this seems off, and not just a little off – way off!

During our Lenten series at One Church, we have been exploring the idea of the True Self and False Self. Most of this language comes from a Monk named Thomas Merton, but Richard Rohr has also been influenced by Merton and has written extensively on this topic.

Rohr defines the True Self as the part of you that knows who you are and whose you are, although largely unconscious.[1]

The False Self is who you think you are,[2] and is driven by our ego.[3]

Our True Self/False Self is about our identity. Our False Self can be seen as a mask we wear – usually as a result of our experience with suffering or humiliation. Our False Self isn’t inherently bad, it’s just not accurate – it’s not who you actually are.

Where did Christianity get it wrong?

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that a large part of Christianity got it wrong. There are healthy and unhealthy forms of Christianity, just as there are healthy and unhealthy forms of all religion. Unhealthy religion gets it wrong in that instead of revealing the False Self (our ego), it enhances it!

Rohr argues that our central task as humans is to “consciously discover and become who we already are and what we somehow unconsciously know.”[4] Jesus taught us that our True Self is “a treasure hidden in a field,” and the False Self is “a house built on sand.”[5]

The goal of healthy religion is to reveal the True Self and uncover the False Self, or as Rohr writes, “almost all religions say that you must die before you die.”[6] This, I believe, is what Jesus was getting at in the gospel of John where he talked about how the grain must die in order to bear much fruit.

Christianity, however, has tended to enhanced our False Self – what many call the religious False Self (I often joke that the religious False Self is like the False Self on crack – it’s nasty!). Concerning the religious False Self, Rohr writes:

The religious False Self is the best and most defended self of all. When God has become our personal and group lackey, we can hate, oppress, torture, and kill others with total impunity. The religious False Self can even justify racism, slavery, war, and total denial or deception and feel no guilt whatsoever, because “they think they are doing a holy duty for God” (John 16:2). The ego [False Self] has found its cover, so be quite careful about being religious. If your religion does not transform your consciousness to one of compassion, it is more a part of the problem than any solution.[7]

We can easily see the religious False Self throughout history at it has caused a great amount of pain, suffering, violence etc., all in the name of God. We can see the religious False Self at work in Christianity today in the way that Christians hold their views. When a person believes their way of interpreting, believing, understanding something is the “one and only way” then you can be sure the religious False Self is at work. When a person feels compelled to tell someone else why they are wrong, deceived, or heretical, you can be sure the religious ego is at work.

The religious False Self wants to appear right or correct and will take any differing view as a threat – in reality it is a threat to their ego. (Note: when most people react negatively against religion, I believe they are reacting against the religious False Self. They see through the masks and don’t want any part of it.)

What does all of this have to do with Good Friday?

As I mentioned above, healthy religion invites us to die, but it isn’t a death to our physical bodies, but to our False Self. “Anything less than the death of the False Self is useless religion. The False Self must die for the True Self to live, or as Jesus himself puts it, ‘Unless I go, the Spirit cannot come’ (John 16:7).”[8]

Good Friday reminds us that death precedes resurrection.

Yet, we must also be careful about resurrection, for our beliefs about resurrection can also reflect our False Self.

Up to now, it has been common, with little skin off anyone’s back, to intellectually argue or religiously believe that Jesus’ physical body could really “resurrect.” That was much easier than to ask whether we could really change or resurrect. It got us off the hook – the hook of growing up, of taking the search for our True Selves seriously.[9]

Unhealthy religious bolsters our False Self (religious False Self) instead of leading to the transformation of our identity (discovery of the True Self).

In order to discover our True Self, we must expose our False Self and allow it to fade. When you have met someone who has allowed their ego (False Self) to fall away and has discovered their True Self, you have found a person who is more open, forgiving, patient, kind, compassionate and who is able to act from a place of peace because they are grounded (they have build their house on a rock – the True Self – and not on the sand – the False Self). Anytime we react to something, we can be sure that it is the False Self. Anytime we take offense, we can be sure that it is the False Self. As we become more aware of this False Self, we can consciously choose not to react or take offense – this is the path to maturity.

Healthy religion leads us on a path toward maturity, toward the transformation of the self. It is much easier to argue about theology or correct beliefs than it is to do the hard inner work of transformation (exposing the False Self). Let’s be honest, it’s a painful process – hence why Paul called all who follow Christ to take up their cross.

 

Questions:

  1. How have you seen the religious False Self at work in the world?
  2. How have you seen the religious False Self at work in yourself?
  3. Are you willing to do the hard work to expose the False Self and allow your True Self to emerge?

 

Remember: this is a long process. As you begin this journey you will become increasingly aware of your False Self (usually seen when you take offense or feel compelled to argue). If your like me, you will see this religious False Self all over the place – know you are not alone! Just remember, God is patient with all of us. Have compassion on yourself and others for this is the path toward transformation.

 

 

[1] Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, vii.

[2] Ibid, viii.

[3] Ibid, xvi.

[4] Ibid, 12.

[5] Matthew 7:26

[6] Ibid, 59.

[7] Ibid, 61.

[8] Ibid, 62.

[9] Ibid, ix.

 

Guest post: The Beautiful Empty

Below is a Lenten devotional written by a good friend of mine, Mark Johnson. Mark, along with a core group of people, will be planting a new church in Scottsdale, AZ and are planning to launch in September of 2017!  (You can learn more here.)

The Beautiful Empty

Life is supposed to be happy, isn’t that what we are told? As Christians that idea is especially true, because Jesus came to give us life, and life MORE abundantly, (John 10:10). Not only are we supposed to be happy, we are to be happier than all those non-believing skeptics in the world out there.

But if the truth be told, there is an unquenchable gnawing in the pit of ourselves that we all feel. No manner of religious duty or thought can seem to remove it. No sporting events, shopping sprees, sexual experiences or eating binges can touch the pulse like reminder of that lost feeling on the inside of us.

For the bulk of my life I ran to some sort of sexual experience, whenever that emptiness was agitated.

In early December of 2007 just months after a colossal crash and burn in my life, I was offered the opportunity to go to a counseling center in the mountains of Colorado where a renowned Christian therapist had a thriving practice and ran group and individual meetings on a daily basis.

I was there for two weeks.

It was beautiful there, also cold and more snow than was believable. I actually saw an Elk walking down the street of the small town of Buena Vista, Colorado as I drove in for my therapy session one morning.

On the third day of my sessions my counselor asked me if I had ever seen the movie A Beautiful Mind, I told him I had, but not since it had come out some six years previous.

He gave me this homework assignment.

“Go back to your room tonight and watch this movie about a crazy genius and as you experience it, do it in the context of where you are in your life right now.”

I did not know if I should be offended, flattered or worried, but nonetheless I took on the challenge. I mean how many times in therapy are you asked to do nothing more than watch a movie?

The film is about John Nash (Played by Russell Crowe) a Nobel Laureate in economics who we see struggling with schizophrenia in his early days at Princeton University. It follows his life forward as he marries, has a child and continues to spiral into his grand delusions.

You do not realize until later in the film, (spoiler alert) that some of the characters in the movie are only figments of John’s imagination, they are friends that only his mind can see.

When that part of the movie became clear to me, I began to cry, which turned to weeping, and ultimately ended in sobs that sounded like I was harming an animal, of some sort, on my side of the cabin.

 

This deep emotional response came as I realized that there was a reason for John’s “friends” that although they were a result of serious mental illness, they were in fact still helping John cope with a life that he could not deal with. His pain was so intense that he made up another reality to make everything feel better.

In keeping with my assignment, I did as I was asked to do and related this to the situation I found myself in that day.

For the first time in my life I saw that no matter the pain and misery my addiction had caused, in a very real sense, it was a secret friend that had helped me attempt to deal with the realities of my life.

Not in any sort of healthy way mind you, however, when I was beginning to feel worthless, stupid, out of sorts (empty) my old friend helped me steer clear of what was insurmountable pain.

This realization was one of the many crucial truths I embraced that led me towards freedom over my crippling addiction.

This highlights what I call the beautiful empty

There is something within all of us that remains empty no matter our attempts to fill it.

This includes God, work, people, and any and everything else.

I grew up believing that accepting Jesus in my savior was the one thing that would cause me to be completely fulfilled in my life. Unfortunately that is just not true.

The truth is, as Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, 12 At present we are people looking at puzzling reflections in a mirror. The time will come when we shall see reality whole and face-to-face! At present all I know is a little fraction of the truth.”

We all have questions that are unanswerable, and deep longings that remain unfulfilled, even if we tell ourselves otherwise.

We have an empty place that will never be filled.

There remains an unmentionable sadness in the inner workings of every human being that is mostly ignored, but we get glimpses of it in art and music and poetry, or when tragedy hits us right between the eyes.

I believe that people with extreme addictive issues simply feel the world too deeply, or in other words, try as they might they cannot drown out the voice of that empty place.

So, what in the world would possess me to call that emptiness beautiful?

In my personal experience it is ONLY when we begin to embrace that emptiness, and see it as a beautiful part of our existence, that we can more fully become the people God wants us to be. A people who have less regard for themselves and more for those around them, a people who can and do experience God, not only through the ancient writings but in the faces of the humans they see everyday.

A people, who have swollen, bleeding hearts of compassion for every other person on earth, no matter their station, sexual preference, color or crimes.

It was the musings of the undeniably brilliant Blasé Pascal that gave

C.S. Lewis the quote “We live with a God shaped hole in our hearts” the full quote goes like this:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)

It appears that the empty feeling is not unique to modern culture.

And though I love the sentiment, I disagree with the notion that God has any desire to fill that infinite abyss within us.

It is the Beautiful Empty that constantly reminds us of our frailty and our equality with the rest of human kind.

If we allow it to, it will keep our prejudice and judgmental attitudes in check. It will fuel our compassion for one another and we can truly be the people of a second and third and fourth chance for others.

This is what happened to me as I reimagined what I considered to be my ugly emptiness and began to see it as a beautiful thing.

If we begin to see that longing as less of a life sucking black hole that we constantly try to ignore, and begin to see it as a beautiful reminder of who we truly are I think we will be of all people, most happy.

Lent, is of course the perfect time to do that. Let the suffering of Christ that is highlighted in this season allow you to embrace that painful, beautiful emptiness, that is the constant of the human condition, and find God there.