shift in paradigm

If you know much about me at all, it is clear that over the last 3-4 years I have changed my views on a few things. It would take many posts to go over the ins and outs of each of these changes, but, as I reflect, I think much of the change can be summarized as a shift in paradigm.

Growing up I used to see life as the picture below.

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Truth was clear, and all the correct beliefs were filed away neatly, and could be pulled out at any moment. As seen in the picture above, this belief system had clear boundaries which made is simple to tell who was “in” and who was “out”.

The goal was to first solidify your beliefs, then organize them, and then try to convince others that all your views are correct. In other words, you are trying to get everyone else outside of your way of thinking to come inside.

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Then something happened…

this whole system no longer worked for me.

I find it quiet interesting that some have (and continue to) suggested this happened because I fell of the wagon, turned my back on God, truth, Scripture, the Spirit or was offended or hurt by someone. (Usually this is because I see things differently then they do and they aren’t sure how to handle it).

The fact of the matter is, that this shift took place while I was seeking after God’s direction, attending church on a regular basis, and attending a conservative Bible College. What happened wasn’t that I walked away from truth, but that I wrestled with the answers that were given and being given to me and found them lacking.

While it began with a few small changes, it soon became clear that the whole system or way of operating didn’t work…it didn’t make sense…I didn’t just need to change a few beliefs, but I needed a completely different way of understanding life.

I needed a new paradigm.

Instead of a “truth box”  life is much more colorful, interesting, dynamic, and complex. Instead of the goal being to try to make my beliefs stronger and then convince others I am right, I see life much more like a journey towards growth, and growth always requires change.

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What this means is that I do not see things the way I did before and I think this is a good thing.

We all start somewhere, but hopefully we don’t remain there. Hopefully we will grow, discover, come to better understandings of God, the universe, creation, purpose, meaning, the sacred etc.

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Maturity is not about solidifying all of our beliefs exactly as they were five or ten years ago, but about learning to be open – we will not see things the same way and that’s actually a good thing.

We start somewhere, but then we move.

This also means that the place we are at, will not be the place we will be at in another 5 or 10 years.

Now, in honesty, this is usually not an easy transition and often it brings with it a sort of disequilibrium. The old system or way of seeing doesn’t work and it can throw us off or put us in a tail spin of sorts. It is during this time of disequilibrium, where we choose. We choose to either go back, chuck out everything because it’s just to complex, or we fight to move forward.

Going back is safe.

Giving up is simple.

Going forward is strenuous.

In my experience, going forward can often be a major struggle, but it is worth every ounce of effort!

I now see life as a serious of movements. Each step we change, grow, and see things in different ways.

Life is more complex, truth more inclusive, and love more expansive.

As part of this process, I also see God as the force that is drawing us forward into more love, inclusion, justice, and compassion.

I think it is quite a beautiful thing!

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Where does the Devil come from?

In reading through the Christian Bible  (the New Testament), it is easy to picture Satan as an evil being who is God’s archenemy.

Texts such as Acts 5 and 26 suggest that Satan is not only other than God, but counter to God. For example, we read in Acts 26:18, “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God”. Clearly this text is suggesting a force of “darkness” that is working against the powers of “light”, but the view of a cosmic battle between good and evil was not the commonly held view in the Hebrew Scriptures, in fact the idea of a Devil is nowhere to be found in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.[1]

How did the idea of a Devil come to dominate the Christian mind?

Cartoon-Devil

In Chapter four of The River of God, Dr. Riley explains the evolution of Judaism from monism (a belief that the world is unified) to dualism (the belief in a comic battle between good and evil). For much of the time leading up to the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish people, along with all the surrounded ancient Near Eastern cultures, had no teaching or belief of a Devil, demons, or an eschatology including a heaven or a hell.[2] Texts such as Ps 78:69 which states that God, “founded the earth forever” and Ps 93:1 “the world is firmly established; it will not be moved” reflect the commonly held belief that the world would exist throughout eternity. In other words, they had no belief in the end of the world – what is called eschatology.

Concerning the beginning of the Hebrew dualistic view, Dr. Riley writes, “Such a cosmic dualism does not enter the River of God until the Persian invasion of Mesopotamia in the sixth century BCE. Before that time, all of the cultures of the ancient Near East lived in a world more or less at peace with itself”.[3] The conquering of Babylon by the Persian Empire brought with it Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism was a dualistic way of seeing the world in which there were two cosmic powers at war with one another, each with their own following of angels or demons.[4] While people who lived in the ancient Near East had a belief that the world was created out of chaos or already existing matter, Zoroastrianism brought a new view that the creation of the cosmos was brought about by God as a “battleground” where God and the Devil would fight for the loyalty of humankind.[5]

This duality took root very slowly in Israel after the return from Exile, and the majority of Jews still believed there was a most supreme God who lorded over other lesser gods or angels.[6] As dualism increased, people began to see that evil was the result of some form of lesser beings that choose to go against the most powerful deity.[7] Evil was now understood to be  brought about by Satan and his demon followers.

One of the clearest examples of this evolution in belief is found in comparing two Hebrew texts: 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1. The text from 2 Samuel, which was written before the exile, states, “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah’”. I Chronicles, written after the exile states, “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel”.

So which is it?

Did God incite David or was it Satan?

This is a problem text for many who hold to an inerrant view of Scripture, but I think it clearly shows the evolution of belief among human history.

Dr. Riley shows that the idea of the Devil grows tremendously in the inter-testament period, and by first century, the idea of a Devil had fairly well solidified into the minds of many. This solidification was so dominant, as shown in Acts 5 and 26, that it’s impossible to understand the Christian Scriptures without the view of a Devil, demons, and a cosmic battle that will finally end with the destruction of the world and creation of a new one.

 

 

[1] Gregory J. Riley, The River of God (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 102.

[2] Ibid., 91.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 95.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 100.

[7] Ibid.

Lent – the death of the old and the rebirth of the new

So this Lent season I have been thinking about what Lent means to me and what it says to the world we live in today.

I was not raised to pay much attention to the church calender. Of course Christmas and Easter were always a big deal, but following the church calender through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and ordinary time where never on my radar.

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Lent is that time of year where Christians prepare for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Often times this comes with giving up something in observance of this season.

I have specifically been thinking about the time between Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter.

What happened in this time is one major faith shift.

I have gone through some pretty major faith shifts, but the biggest faith shift has been my picture of God.

I still remember very clearly not long ago someone on pastoral staff at a church who was suggesting that God brought about a recent hurricane to judge the “wicked”. This person quoted texts in the Hebrew Scriptures (Christian Old Testament) to prove that God had done this before and that God was doing it again.

I also remember during this time wrestling through different texts, their interpretations, and who God was when an old friend firmly tried to “rebuke” me (that’s a Christian way of saying your wrong) and declared that we should not wrestle with the Bible or God but we are to accept both as it is. Really? What this person was actually saying is that I needed to accept their interpretation of Scripture and their picture of God.

I also remember during this time hearing from an influential lay leader at a church that not only are Muslims wrong, but that they are evil and Christians need to be aware and stand against them or else they will take over our nation. This person had a very clear picture that America is a “Christian” nation and that any other religion is our enemy to be fought against.

I also remember during this time hearing from several about the importance of getting people to say a “sinner’s prayer” so that they do not go to hell and burn throughout eternity.

I remember thinking through these four examples (and many others) and realizing that I just don’t see things the same way. Each of these examples could be argued (and were) using the Bible. I didn’t have the words, or the theology, but I was going through a season of Lent. The old way of seeing and understanding God had died – I just hadn’t made it to Easter yet!

Jesus was suppose to be the Messiah (anointed one) and the Savior who was suppose to free Israel from the Roman Empire. Palm Sunday is a clear example of this as the people shouted Hosanna which means “Lord save us” – literally they were anticipating salvation from the Roman Empire just as God had saved them from the Egyptians in the book of Exodus and from the Babylonians during the Exile (587-539 BCE). So to them Hosanna clearly meant Lord save us from the Roman empire.

This makes perfect sense. As they understood God was a mighty warrior who conquered and defeated their [Israel’s] enemies. Yahweh was a God who brought about calamity, commanded genocide, and fought for Israel and would send people to hell in a moments notice.

Here comes Jesus, the one who was suppose to represent all of the descriptions above. Jesus would to be a mighty warrior who would conquer and defeat Israel’s enemies, the Romans. Jesus would bring peace to Israel through violence and the sword and would condemn to death those who oppose him.

  • Palm Sunday – people celebrated and expected this Jesus.
  • Good Friday – this Jesus was put to death.
  • Easter – Jesus was resurrected and shows a new way of seeing God.

I have recently heard that each serious Christian has one primary text that acts like a lens through which they read the rest of the Scriptures through.

During this time, and today, one of the biggest texts that I use is found in Colossians which says, “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God”. Also a similar text found in Hebrews 1v3, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…”.

I understand not everyone believes that Jesus is divine, but it’s difficult to argue for a more beautiful way of seeing God. The one thing, above all others, that makes Christianity unique, is this idea that God entered into our humanity and showed us who God is and how to be fully human.

Now, I realize a lot of violence, destruction, oppression, and hatred have been used in the name of Jesus (much like it has been used by a few Muslim extremist today), but when one reads the life and teaching of Jesus it is very difficult to get a picture of a God who is violent, vengeful, angry, full of hate, and ready to torture people throughout eternity.

In fact, it seems to me that one gets the exact opposite picture of God. In my experience there are many people who do not believe in God, and when they talk about the God they do not believe in, I realize that often I do not  believe in that God either.

What does this mean for today?

I wonder if we need a season of Lent in our culture. I think that there are some very horrible and destructive ways of seeing God that should be put to death.

I have a feeling, that there is a growing number of people, like myself, for whom the old ways of seeing God no longer work. These people have entered into a Good Friday, and similar to the first followers of Jesus, it is easy to experience a disequilibrium of sorts.

During this time it is tempting to through the whole thing out the window (this is what the first followers of Jesus did and what we often do as well). While some are atheist because this seems to be the most rational way of understanding the world, I think some people are atheist because they have been presented with a god that doesn’t make sense and that is actually not worth worshiping and have rejected this god.

I think the invitation during this season of Lent for today is to hold on and continue the journey. While you may have gone through a Friday, the promise is that Friday does not have the last answer – Easter is just around the corner!

What is the Bible?

It is my belief that many of the divisions and debates within the Christian community can be funneled down to one simple question.

What is the Bible?

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How one answers the question determines so many other things that it is important to take the time to consider this question.

In my experience, whenever I am in a discussion with someone who disagrees with me, I often find that it is rooted in a different way of answering this question. For example, many who argue in a literal six day creation most often believe the Bible to be inerrant, while those who believe in evolution view the Bible differently.

Most know this, but the Bible is not a book, it’s actually a collection of books written by well over 40 different authors (many of which we do not know of), and written well over the span of a millennia. This means that there are many different genre’s within including: myth, poetry, history, wisdom, narrative, parable, prose, and some really obscure stuff called apocolytpic literature found in Daniel and Revelation.

There are many ways to answer this question, but I think most of them can be placed into three primary categories – each one also as a wide spectrum within.

1. The Bible is the inerrant Word of God.

This is the view I grew up with, and because of this it is the one I am most familiar with. As I mentioned above, people with this view have many small nuances, but most who hold to this view would see the Bible as without error.

Where they do not agree is whether the Bible is without error in it’s current English, the original languages, or the original writings called autographs – it gets very slippery here because a large number of people hold that the original writings are inerrant, but we don’t have any of the original writings (what we have are copies of copies of copies of copies etc).

Now, when pressed on issues like grammar, punctuation, etc. these people tend to lean away from thinking all of these things are without error, but are rather mistakes made by humans as they copied these texts.

These people tend to read the Bible literally. In other words, they believe in a literal Adam and Eve, a literal Noah, ark, and global flood, they usually believe Jonah spent three days in the belly of a fish, etc etc. They will tend to take any evidence that suggest certain aspects of the Bible to not be historically accurate as a threat – something they will defend vehemently.

When some suggest that the Bible contains historical inaccuracies and the impossibility of reading everything in the Bible literally, they tend to think that Satan (again a literal demonic being) is trying to blind people from the truth and that scholars and scientist are themselves  deceived, are deceiving others, or both.

2. The Bible is one big myth.

Many in this category see only two options: option 1 or option 2.

Many people will often think that either the Bible is historically accurate or it cannot be trusted. They may even have respect for the Bible, as a sacred writing for a religious community, but often view the Bible as a bunch of made up fairy tales.

In my experience, most people in this category tend to focus on the irrationality and inaccuracy of the Bible to show that it is just old stories made up by people who lived hundreds of years ago. They will point out that the Bible is archaic, old, outdated, and…come on…we live in the 21st century people!

3. The Bible is inspired by God

This is a very nuanced approach (as they all are), but overall people who hold this view tend to believe that God was working and continues to work through the Bible – it is inspired in ways other books are not.

These people believe that the Bible is not a scientific textbook, but is more accurately a faith book.

These people teach that the Bible is not always historically accurate, but also understand not everything must be historically accurate in order to present truths. They also understand that much of the Hebrew Scriptures were passed down orally for centuries and they were far less concerned with be perfectly historically accurate as they were in learning and retelling their stories while conveying the deeper truth within – whereas those of us who live in the 21st century often think of a picture or photograph (which shows every single detail), it is more accurate to think of a painting – both are true, but they do not show the exact same thing in the same detail.

These people think science and faith can go hand in hand, and are not afraid when science suggest that the way we interpret the Bible may be wrong.

These people also see that the Bible is not one singular voice, but rather a plurality of voices, each one bound by their culture, cosmology, worldview, etc. The Bible actually contains different perspectives and even different ways of seeing things – they would argue that this is to be expected in a book that has been written by so many different people spanning so many years.

Where do I stand?

I would fall into the third category and if I was asked what the Bible is I would respond by stating:

I think the Bible is a collection of books written by humans as they interpret the divine.

Inspired by God, written by man.

Because of this, we see human fingerprints all over the Scriptures. Some perspectives found within are more accurate than others. I do believe God was working through the limited understanding, cosmology, and consciousness of each of the authors – just like I believe God is still working through each of our limited understanding, cosmology, and consciousness.

In the pages of the Scriptures I see the divine pulling humanity forward into a greater consciousness, a greater awareness of what is right and what is wrong, how to live a fuller life, how to better take care and love others, how to live more economically and sustainably.

This way of thinking shapes the way I see the world at this moment.

I believe God is pulling us forward into greater consciousness.

The invitation is, will we enter into the growing expanse, or will we fight against it?

 

 

 

Why am I still a Christian?

In 2007 David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons came out with a book that I still think is applicable today called Unchristian.

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Using research from the Barna Group, this book showed the statistics of how people view Christians in America. Here’s a list of the ways many viewed (and I think accurately continue to view) Christians:

Hypocritical

Antihomosexual

Judgmental

To pushy – proselytize in ways that turn people off

Sheltered – I think specifically anti-science and narrow minded would qualify here.

Right wing politics – overly political, tied to partisan politics.

I resonated with this in two ways. First, this was becoming the way I also viewed many Christians. Second, because when I got really honest, I have been all of these things and something was shifting within me.

So, for a while, and from time to time since, I have thought about throwing out the word Christian and calling myself  – a follower of Jesus   – or something else (maybe just spiritual).

But, at the end of the day, I was raised and still very much am a Christian.

I think the struggle is how to be a Christian without the above labels.

While I am certain I am still hypocritical and judgmental at times, I have become open and inclusive of my LGBTQ friends, I am very open to the ways science guides us as we learn how the world came to be,I don’t view the Bible as inerrant, and right wing politics is…well…a little scary at times (this is true of either side to an extent).

In fact my change in these areas has led me to numerous encounters where people think I am falling off the wagon, heading down the road to relativism, forsaking the truth, replacing the authority of the Bible, and worse some suggest I am no longer Christian.

So, my question then is;

What does it mean to be a Christian?

I have done a fair amount of reading church websites online, and often I will find a part titled beliefs. Usually there is a long list of things that people who attend that church believe in which supposedly make them a Christian.

The problem is, what if you cannot check all of those things off?

What if you think some of (or many?) of the places where they believe to be really clear, you see as muddy and unclear? What if you disagree and see things differently? How many points can one disagree with and still be welcome there? And if I am still welcomed there and yet I don’t believe all of the stuff, can I still help serve and lead?

So, back to the question…what does it mean to be a Christian?

Well, in the first century, people who followed the ways and teachings of Jesus were called followers of “the Way”. Eventually they were called “Christians”, which was a derogatory term given by others to suggest these people who were followers of the Way were trying to be little “Christ’s” – imitators of Jesus.

I believe that to be a Christian means to be one who follows the teachings and life of Jesus.

In other words, I try to imitate Jesus.

When the temptation arises to throw out the label of Christian because it means different things to others than it means to me, I am reminded that I am actually trying my best to imitate Jesus – of course I am failing miserably most of the time.

While I am often tempted to distance myself from many of the people who label themselves Christians, when I read the life and teachings of Jesus I am inspired!

Who could be a better role model than him?

What did Jesus teach and do?

Jesus taught his followers to love others, forgive others, to show compassion and mercy when others don’t deserve it, to challenge those in leadership positions who live hypocritical lives and who look out for their own selfish agenda’s. Jesus taught us to trust in God, even when we are not sure how things will pan out. Jesus taught us that sickness is not the way God wants things and evil should be combated. Jesus taught us to welcome the oppressed and marginalized and to speak out on their behalf. Jesus taught us to work for peace in self sacrificial and non violent ways while we subvert the institutions that keep the elite in power and others in poverty.

Who struggled the most with these teachings?

The religious leaders of the time.

Why?

Because he was suggesting a very different way of being and living in the world. A way that serves others, embraces the outsiders, and while it can work within religious institutions, the way of Jesus can just as easily work outside of these institutions. In fact, he even taught that oftentimes these very institutions can work against this (e.g. Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath).

In essence, those who struggled most with Jesus were those who had clear definitions of who was “in” and who was “out”. These leaders were the sole interpreters of truth and the gatekeepers of this truth, and Jesus was breaking down all the walls -suggesting that those who they claimed were “out” were actually “in” and those who claimed were “in” may not actually be. One can quickly see why this would be an affront to some.

The crux of the teachings of Jesus was that you will know his true followers by the fruit that they bear – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self control. You will not know them by what they mentally assent to, or what they confess or say they believe – it’s the outside that matters because one can pretend or hide the inside, but our external actions actually reveal what’s inside…ouch!

Instead of a long list of beliefs one must check off, I think it is more accurate to ask ourselves if others see us as people who are self righteous, bigoted, homophobic, hypocritical, unforgiving, gatekeepers who tell everyone whether they are “in” or “out”,

or

Do people see Jesus in us?

John 13:35

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

 

LGBTQ inclusion – my personal journey

Last week a second mega church came out for full LGBTQ inclusion (You can watch a video of the pastor of Eastlake Community Church in Seattle here – it’s a wonderful video totally worth the watch).

Time magazine recently came out with an article titled How Evangelicals are Changing their Minds on Gay Marriage.

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It’s pretty hard to overstate the importance and effect of the great shift that is going on in the Christian world. Of course it has caused massive debates and splits among families, friends, congregations, and even church denominations.

I was taught that gays and lesbians are living in “sin” and should be confronted with this truth. In my church tradition (and many that I was surrounded by) the LGBTQ community were thought of as another issue and reason for the relativism and decline of morality in American society.

I am fully open and affirming and believe that all LGBTQ people should not only be welcomed in our churches, but their marriages should be blessed and they should be allowed into all levels of leadership within church.

How did I get here?

It’s a long journey but I will try to highlight the major points.

First, I was on a personal journey where I began to ask questions and wrestle through many of the assumptions, doctrines, and worldviews that was passed down to me as a child. I came to very different conclusions on a number of issues which I think lead to an openness to question and wrestle through homosexuality.

Second, I met with a gracious friend who challenged many of the assumptions and reasons given to me as to why homosexuality was wrong. While I knew my journey would eventually take me to engage with this, this shoved it into the forefront and I could not longer ignore or postpone it’s importance.

Third, I read through and researched the half of dozen Scriptures that have been used to teach homosexuality is wrong. I realized several things. Jesus never spoke about homosexuality. The few Scriptures (and it’s amazing how few there are) that are translated into English as homosexuality have nothing to do with two adults in a committed relationship of fidelity. There’s a lot I could go into here, but the first century had no context for a committed, adult, same sex relationship. Sure they had a context for male prostitution, adult men raping young boys (pedophilia), and same sex relations outside of committed relationships most often in the form of an act of worship to a god, but they did not, and could not fathom what we currently know as homosexuality in the 21st century.

Fourth, I took time to listen to those on both sides of the debate (and in many areas in the middle). I did this by reading books, articles, blogs, and listening to the very real struggle of those who have endured years of shame, guilt, and oppression by people including the church. I’m lucky and thankful that I live in a time where information is much more available than has ever previously been. I learned that science shows that same sex attraction is not just a choice (I’m sure I did not willfully choose to be attracted to the opposite sex). I also learned, to my own shame and guilt, of how destructive the church has been to so many esp in the form of reparative  therapy (conversion therapy). I heard story after story of those who were taught that same sex attraction was wrong and tried to fix it, pray against it, and go through months of different counseling and therapy sessions which did not change them. If it really was a choice, why would so many willingly go through hell? It just didn’t make sense.

Lastly, I sought forgiveness for the ways I had been a part of shaming and excluding people from the church. I had done this in many ways, but I know there was at least one person in particular that I treated in a very self-righteous manner.

In the end I concluded that I cannot be certain about a whole lot of things, but I am personally under the conviction that God loves and accepts everyone, including people in the LGBTQ community completely as they are and invites us to do the same. I committed that if I err, I would err on the side of love, compassion, and inclusion since these are the main ways I see God and want to reflect this to others. I also witnessed the ways that God and Scripture were used to shame, guilt, oppress and exclude these people from God’s love, and reflected upon the ways I had been a part of this as well. In all of these ways it just seems to be to be so contrary to the way and teaching of Jesus.

I will not exclude people – this includes anyone who is queer. I will be a part of a church that not only blesses same sex marriages, but also allows anyone in the LGBTQ community into leadership and service at the highest levels of the church. Since this journey started, I have met many wonderful people in the LGBTQ community including fellow seminarians, friends, leaders, and pastors who are doing some wonderful work in the world. If this is you…you inspire me!

In the mean time, I think we should be full of grace to those who differ on this.

It is a difficult process to think through and complex in nature, especially if you are like me and were taught homosexuality was wrong all your life. I hope we can lay aside name calling from both sides (e.g. bigot, heretic, anti-christian, homophobic, self-righteous) and allow God’s spirit to work in the lives of our friends. I think we should still push this forward as it is important and causes so much pain and grief, but we should do so with grace and humility and not anger or hatred. If you are on this journey and still not sure what you think, my encouragement to you would be to continue on the journey (it takes time). Explore all angles. Read books, watch interviews, look at science, the Scripture, and the reasoning behind it. Talk to your LGBTQ friends, if you don’t have any, find someone and listen to their story (this above all else, will be the most helpful).

May we have love, grace, and compassion with others as we journey into the future.

What I learned from a Rabbi

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent last week in a class learning from a Jewish Rabbi, a Muslim scholar, and a Christian theologian.

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One aspect that I found most interesting (I was  slightly aware of before) came from the Rabbi.

While Judaism and Christianity have much in common (much of our sacred texts), we have been shaped very differently.

The Rabbi talked in story and narrative as he described Judaism and I realized I am really drawn to this way of teaching (I was reminded that Jesus was a first century Jew and spoke mostly in parables). Afterwards I spoke briefly with him about why Judaism takes such a different approach than Christianity and he talked mostly of the different ways the Hebrew tradition, language, and culture engaged the world and the way Greek tradition, language and culture engaged the world.

I increasingly see how Christianity (most of it at least) has been largely shaped by a Greek, rationalistic and either/or way of thinking. While I’m sure this can be played out in many ways, what most intrigues me is the way it plays out in reading and interpreting our sacred texts.

The Rabbi spoke about the midrash way of reading the Hebrew Bible. In a recent meditation, Richarh Rohr wrote:

“The best Jewish approach to scripture study was called midrash; they struggled with the text, unraveled it, looked at its various possible meanings, and offered a number of interpretations that often balanced and complemented one another. There was never just one meaning, or one certain meaning that eliminated all others.”

I find this so refreshing and insightful!

Much of Christianity has been shaped by Greek thinking and we have approached our sacred texts in such a way as to uncover the “one and only truth” behind it. So we argue and debate, but not in the same way as the Jewish tradition does. While midrash  is flexible and invites exploration and questions that is open to different ways of interpreting the text, much of the Christian tradition is closed, rigid, and invites only certainty, uniformity, and one way of interpretation.

I have bumped up against very conservative/fundamentalist Christians from time to time who do not seem to be able to understand that Scripture must be interpreted. For some, their motto seems to be, “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” (I was actually in a church service where the pastor made this exact quote…wow!).  Some are not aware of their personal lenses and since they cannot separate their lenses from the text it leaves little room for disagreement or different views.

I think there is much we can learn from our Jewish friends as we learn to wrestle with our own sacred texts. I hope and pray that we can find the grace and insight to disagree without labeling others as “heretics” or “outside the faith”. As I have engaged people of different views, both within and outside of my tradition, it has shed light on different ways of seeing that I never would have thought about before. This has been hugely beneficial and I think Judaism has much to teach Christianity concerning this.

Inter-religious dialogue

What do you get when a Muslim scholar, a Jewish Rabbi, and a Christian theologian enter a classroom together?

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I week long of great dialogue, learning, and at some points tension.

I just got back from a week long intensive with more than 50 students from various backgrounds including Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and other. Personally, this was such a great experience and a total privilege to be able to learn from the other students and the professor’s who were all wonderful!

I decided to write a reflection. This is not at all meant to be an exhaustive list of what, why and how to do inter-religious dialogue as there are already so many great resources out there, but is meant to highlight the most important take-a-ways for me personally.

Why

It almost goes without saying, but we must first ask why. Why is inter-religious dialogue important and why are we doing it?

There can be multiple answers to this question, but I realized that the aim of inter-religious dialogue is to better understand others.

There are so many false assumptions (e.g. Muslims are violent, all Buddhist are peaceful) that are torn down and stripped away as one listens to others exactly what and why they hold their beliefs – let’s face it, though we live in a very pluralistic culture most of us are still fairly ignorant of most other beliefs…myself included.

It is my personal conviction that violence would be greatly diminished if we better understood others. The fact that there are people from various religions (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, other) all working for peace, human flourishing and dignity, and environmental issues has been so encouraging for me!

Not about conversion

Proselytizing has absolutely no place in inter-religious dialogue. If one party is there to try to convert the other, this will make inter-religious dialogue impossible because we will debate instead of dialogue.

  • Debate – where one tries to win an argument or convince the other(s) they are wrong – often emotional and heated.
  • Dialogue – where one tries to better understand the other, their beliefs and why they hold them. They listen and ask questions without the need to say they are wrong.

Be true to who you are

While inter-religious dialogue cannot happen when one is there to “convert” the other, it is also not productive when the goal is consensus. This was one area that I really grew in. The goal is not to unpack all the areas we agree on alone.

If you think about it this makes sense. If you’re comparing two or more books, yet only compare all the areas they are similar, no one will really see how they are different and unique. In order to better understand others, we must be able to see the areas we disagree or where we see things differently – this is essential and we should not shy away from it. We can still get along and learn from others without agreeing on everything as long as their is mutual respect.

 We all have our own lenses

Even when in dialogue, we must realize that we have certain lenses which we see the world through. Some of us have very negative experiences of other religions. Some of us have only positive experiences. Some of us have no experience of other religions or have only read about other religions.

We should be upfront in admitting our own biases and lenses the best we are able (I’m certain we do not see them all) and be open to having those lenses shaped or formed differently.

There is diversity within each religion

The more I have interacted with people of other faiths, the more this has become apparent – it’s true within my religion as well.

Just because one Muslim states their beliefs does not mean that all Muslims think that way. Now, there are some places of crossover, but we must be slow to assume just because we talked to a few Muslims we understand the Islamic tradition in its entirety.

One of my professor’s shared that it’s not enough to know which religions are at the table (i.e. Christians, Jews, Muslims etc), but to know which Christians, which Muslims, and which Jews – there is wide diversity within each…I think this was another major growth for me.

No one person can speak for an entire religion, the best we can do is to speak about our own religious tradition through the lenses we have.

We become better followers of our own religious tradition

As we better understand others, we better understand ourselves. Also, I have often found places of blindness, false assumptions, or areas where a completely different perspective has enhanced my faith journey – if we just talk to those who agree with us we greatly limit ourselves.

Every time we engage in inter-religious dialogue, in formal or informal ways, we gain experience and wisdom. This is both true of dialogue with other religions, but even of those who see differently within one’s own tradition.

Inter-religious dialogue enhances intra-religious dialogue.

By talking with people of other faiths who believe differently than I and who see things from a different perspective, it has helped me talk with people within my own tradition – Christianity.

The majority of my dialogue is within Christianity – I think it’s unfortunate that we polarize so many issues all while trying to kick the other out (I recently had someone tell me I was not a Christian because I did not believe all the things they did in the way they did…they wanted to debate and not dialogue and it also shows how easy it is to become insulated within a small religious sub culture).

I was raised believing a small stream within the Christian river was Christianity – the older I get the more I see that there is vast differences (historical and present) within my own tradition.

These differences include: evolution, whether the Bible is perfect, whether someday God will suck a small select few of people away from the earth, who is saved and what that even means, what heaven and hell actually are, is there truth in other religions and if so to what extent – the list could go on and on.

My interaction with other traditions is still very limited and I am still very ignorant about a great many things, but the more I talk with others, the more open and full of grace I become. It also makes it easier to work with others for what really matters – the healing and peace of the world!

I end with a quote from Richar Rohr,

“The ecumenical character and future of religion is becoming rather obvious. Either religion moves beyond its tribal past or it has no chance of ‘saving the world’!”

 

 

drawn to the ancient

So I attended a few different church settings these last few weeks and I noticed a few things about myself.

When I was able to pick, my choice would surprise most.

IMG_0876

Yes, this is a picture of the church I attended. What comes to mind?

Likely traditional, rote, archaic, boring, ancient…maybe even Catholic?

Though it was not a Catholic church, it was an Episcopal Church which is the closest you can get. (I have come to admire many Catholics, esp those of the contemplative or mystical tradition – funny thing is I grew up believing they were not Christians)

For some time I have been torn…conflicted I think because I am drawn to both ancient and yet modern at the same time. I enjoy reading or watching Rob Bell or Fr. Richard Rohr both equally as much.

I could say much more about this, but I think the most intriguing aspect is that I have come to believe that our future lies in our past. I am slowly discovering the power of the liturgy, Eucharist, liturgical calender, past saints, and ancient practices that lure.

No, it’s not an instant gratification or Damascus experience, but more closely resemble water flowing over a rock – slowly carving away all the rough edges. (and if I’m honest sometimes it is uncomfortable or awkward, I think because I am so unfamiliar with it?)

What I find interesting is that many of the past Mystics seem to have been far more open, progressive, and ecumenical than many religious people today. They tapped into something (or better Someone) that was truly beyond comprehension – true Mystery.

My conclusion?

The current and future religious and cultural landscape is shaky – like a small boat amidst a massive storm.

We are moving from modernity to post-modernity. The rational ways of interpreting everything seem to be coming up short. The Enlightenment has taught most religious people to have predetermined answers to all the questions and to have all beliefs and doctrines organized and filed away neatly so they can be brought out at a moments notice.

The problem is we are moving (or have moved?) to a post-Enlightenment world.

Now, I do not think that means that we throw out our intellect, but rather it suggests that we must stretch our thinking further and deeper while at the same time realize that our rational mind cannot comprehend everything – there is more going on here.

As I  journey, I am wonder if some of the things needed to navigate these tumultuous waves lie in a pre-modern world.  I suspect that there are treasures that have been found by people who have journeyed before us (maybe even a long time before us?) that are important, even necessary, for us as we step into the future.

Most of this is not my own original thoughts, but a compilation from others as a part of my journey. Recently I have been reading one of the best books  you have never read by an Author named Ian Morgan Cron. Here are two mall excerpts as the author compares the times of St Francis of Assisi to our current times:

“Francis (St Francis of Assisi) lived in the gab between two historical periods – the middle ages and the pre-Renaissance – the opening days of modernity. We are living in the synapse between two moments in history as well – modernity and post modernity. People in Francis’ time felt the same anxiety that comes from living in a rapidly changing society that we do today.”

“Another similarity between the Middle Ages and today has to do with the state of Christendom. In Francis’ day the church was hemorrhaging credibility, it was seen as hypocritical, untrustworthy and irrelevant. Some people even wondered if it would survive. Clergy were at the center of all kinds of sexual scandals. It had commercialized Jesus, selling pardons, ecclesiastical offices and relics. Sermons were either so academic that either people couldn’t understand them, or they were canned. Popular songs ridiculing the church and clergy could be heard all over Europe, the laity felt used by the professional clergy, as if they were there to serve the institution, not the other way around. The church had also become dangerously entangled in the world of power politics, and war. Some fringe groups were beginning to say that you couldn’t be a Catholic and a Christian at the same time. Disillusionment with the church inspired many people to turn to astrologers and other alternative spirituality’s…To top it all off Christians were at war with Muslims.”

The future will no doubt involve a humble, open, compassion spirit that see’s opportunities and not dead ends.

The future will demand people to enter into ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue like never before, while being open to those who are not religious at all. (how can we work for peace together? end hunger and poverty together? etc)

The future will involve new ways of seeing and being…it will involve large amounts of creativity.

But most of all the future will involve an anchor that keeps one grounded and I think we will find this from the past.

I don’t think most churches or religious institutions need better coffee, a slicker website, a bigger band or a more hip/trendy pastor.

I think we need authentic spiritual guides who have done the hard work of uncovering the past and yet are creative enough to bring it into the future in a fresh way.

Well..at least that seems to be my take on it.

 

A bridger

So I have written on my personal struggle of confusion, uncertainty, and how the future seems often unclear.

What I have learned from this is that I am not alone…there are many of us.

I think there are a growing number of people (mostly young adults) who are going to bridge some gap between the old and the not yet.

Thomas-Creek-Bridge-Into-the-Unknown-by-Bill-Ratcliffe

Now, I don’t assume to have the answers, but I have heard from several people within the last several weeks that I am a bridger. At first it didn’t really mean much, but this week I met with someone who brought this up for the third time and something stuck.

I don’t know what it means specifically for me, but I have some hunches on generalities and what it may mean for many of us.

My hunch is that there is a growing number of people who are frustrated with the way the religious and cultural landscape has been and currently is. We are not ok with simply accepting a belief system that has been handed to us – we are finding many answers lacking and would much rather converse with someone who thinks differently than be taught precise answers to predetermined questions (oh, I should also add that many of these are answering questions that few are still asking).

I think there is a growing number of young Christians who resonate more and more with the spiritual but not religious group and have personally experienced places where religion was used for violence, coercion, domination, exploitation, marginalization and oppression.

There seems to be a growing number of young people who care more for what they stand for than what they are against and want to work for peace, reconciliation, healing, equality, and justice. I would much rather work with an atheist or a Muslim for peace than to debate why I think I am right and they are wrong – it’s just not that interesting to me.

What about church?

I think many of us bridgers are still drawn to an understanding that there is something more – there is a God, Divine, Reality, Creator, Energy (whatever word you use) and we are drawn to this. We tend to see beauty and sacredness in all kinds of places and that includes outside of the church walls.

I think most of us still have a desire to build rhythms and patterns in our lives, to engage in rituals, prayers, meditations, spiritual readings that cultivate an awareness of the Divine and a sense of awe and wonder.

The problem is church has often (though not always) been either a social club or a lecture hall which either invites one to be a member (with a membership card, group language, and group dress codes – I have heard from so many that oftentimes church has clicks that are hard to break into) or teaches one what to think and believe for the purpose of convincing everyone else around them of these things.

I wonder if it is not religion, God, and church that we are ultimately turned off by, but it is how religion, God, and church have been handed down to us.

In other words, I’m not ready to forsake all these things, but I do think many of us feel the way these things have been packaged no longer works. We appreciate the many great things that have been given, yet we cannot simply continue to pass them along as they stand.

I see two choices

1 – ditch the whole thing because it’s a mess

2- build a bridge

Build a bridge from our experiences, thoughts, knowledge, and desires from what we have been given to what can be.

Build a bridge from an exclusive, self righteous, anti science, pro violence way of being to an inclusive, humble, non violent way of being that seeks to be as intellectually honest as possible.

Build a bridge where faith is not about having all the right answers  but where doubt, questions, and uncertainties are welcome and reflective of a mature spiritual life.

Build a bridge with people of different religious affiliations, different religious traditions, and those who claim no religious affiliation – not to “convert” them, but because this is what we want to do and find life in doing (i.e. loving the other).

Build a bridge from the past traditions, rituals, prayers, books, sacred writings, to a way of speaking, seeing, and being that makes sense to a post modern 21st century people.

The main struggle of course, is that the future is unclear – it’s unclear because we have yet to create it!

Does this make sense?

If so, maybe you are a bridger.

 

the in-between space when the old no longer works and the new is not yet clear