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Thursday, October 20, 2016

What might the Church look like without a steeple, without a door?

The churches where I live are experiencing highs and lows. Most have decreasing congregations, and whether they are so-called Bible-believing churches or more liberal mainline, it doesn't seem to matter. The Southern Baptists have for the past few years come into New England with an influx of leadership and money and are attempting a large church planting effort. Hundreds of small churches are being seeded here in New England. But these are pitiful efforts (just speaking honestly). They involve grabbing some Bible believer and trying to make a pastor out of him (it is always a man). The congregation might just be his family. A cynic could be forgiven, I think, for suggesting these plantings are an effort to show the hand of God on some spreadsheet handed around a table back home in the more fertile fields of the South: See! The Hand of the Lord is at work in New England!

New Englanders have voted with their feet. They do not like going to church. Not on Sunday, not on Wednesday, not on any day of the week ending in "y." Though they might still have some vague reverence for the Bible they do not read it. They do not know its contents (that might be a good thing as it does contain some bits that are contradictory and less than what most consider "Godly" acts).

Is it time to double down and thump our dusty Bibles? Or has that time simply passed? I say that the time has passed.

There has been some nascent efforts to bring a virtual church to the masses. Most have failed. Today's pastors just do not think it Biblical. They see the Church as having to be physical, having to be a place where physical bodies congregate and where the sacraments can be administered, such as baptism. They are stuck in the sola scriptura mode of thinking. They have made an idol out of the Bible; it has them in shackles.

It is my opinion the time has passed for the physical Church. If the Church is to continue it has to be re-made, totally; it must not even resemble the Church of the past hundred or so years. It must be spic-span-tastically re-done. For the Church to evolve it has to contain the following characteristics:

  • Relegate the Bible to archive status;
  • Create different models for different types of people;
  • Use the internet to create a network, local and international, of friendships and co-workers;
  • Rely on local models for local face-to-face interactions;
  • Become flexible in terms of meeting places and ideologies and times.

When creating that list I could not decide on what the future Church needed as far as leadership structure was concerned. Top-down? Bottom-up? Who would be the spiritual leader and how would it be decided? Who would structure the workings of the church? How would this work itself out? Not sure. So I leave that for another day.

The central focus is on the second bullet point (I will skip the first for now as it is the most controversial, but for a peek at how some see the Bible in a modern light see the blog: ) Different models for different types of people is a key point. In thinking about this I wanted to describe within the context of a metaphor how this might work. I've settled on the image of a forest.

We have a scene before us, from a bird's eye view, a large tract of wooded area, softwoods, hardwoods, streams with gullies and hilltops. Depending on the type of person you are, you can view this forest differently. There will be searchers, educators, poet-artists, builders, philosophers, biologists, climatologists ('ologists of all stripes). To strip the classification down to a core grouping, let's say they are:

  1. Educators
  2. Builders
  3. Poets
The Educators are within our forest church to teach and to learn. They point out the different meanings inherent within the areas of the forest, make analogies, and offer references to past teachings that further the understanding of the whole.

The Builders take the material of the forest and build new things, new buildings, new structures, that hold together and offer shelter and safety and opportunities to grow.

The Poets reveal the hidden dimensions of the self and how the self inside the forest is not really a self, but everyone; they take us by the hand and show us hidden paths that seem to be not paths leading outside us but paths leading within.

The map of this church/forest is not the Bible: at least, for us in the New Church it isn't; we don't always use the Bible for our map. Sometimes we do. Some of us choose a canon within a canon, like Luther did, and use that to show that our New Church is much like the old, or at least not quite as dissimilar as some say it is. But it is rarely used as the only map. Rather we live in the forest, and find our way by experience, by living there, by noticing things, by being aware.

But how is this Christian? Mustn't we still use the Gospel as our base? Well, yes. But the Gospel comes from the Spirit, through Jesus. We can see the Gospel in Buddha--yes, yes we can. We can see the Gospel in Lao-Tsu. We can see the Gospel in every nook and chink of space and time. But don't we have to emphasize that others are wrong? That others don't knock at the correct door? No. We actually don't. Not if Jesus is in fact the Christ, we don't. So stop worrying so much over it. Let it go. Let the question remain, and the answer pass away like a morning mist.

What if instead of studying the Bible on Wednesday nights, churches studied Dostoevsky? Or Melville? Or Goya? Or Mozart? In art we are shown ourselves, as we are and as we might be. We see the forest for the trees. And instead of studying Dostoevsky in some building which needs electricity and heat we meet in a Google Circle? Or a Facebook group? What if instead of a tithe we funded a Go Fund Me page for people in need, some we know, others we don't? What if instead of meeting on Sundays listening to a sermon on Jonah we met to repaint the homeless shelter? Or to repair someone's roof? We use the materials in our forest to build something and in so doing we create relationships and meaning in our lives.

What if some of us walked through our forest and discovered hidden meanings of who we are and what we were meant to be? The forest begins to teach us something of ourselves and our relationship not only to each other but to the world of nature. Some might see comparisons to what the Buddha taught, or Lao-Tsu.

And what if instead of handing someone a tract and asking if they know Jesus, we sent a Facebook friend request and shared an article about some bill making its way through a Congressional subcommittee (okay, not everyone is as interested in the machinations of Congress as I am).

I tend to think each Circle Church (tentative name) would evolve in its membership through time. Some would become almost evangelical in nature, its members wanting a traditional discussion of the Bible. Most would shunt the Old Testament aside and other than some mention of Jesus' words and a key teaching by Paul they would tend to the here and the now. Questions would arise. And that would be a good thing.

Questions are key for the new Circle Church: answers are to be avoided, at least hard and fast answers. We need to become familiar with living in the question. With answers we tend to pretend to know; and with this pretense we become hardened, and we fail to feel the "living waters" flowing over us. The trick is to be soft, squishy soft, to feel that sense of wonder that comes when you realize how little you know.

The danger is that we point fingers at others more answer oriented, those who see the Bible as a fundamental, as the literal Word. We can argue--we will lose. We will lose because you cannot, and should not, destroy someone's sense of mystery. The Bible, though some will see it as becoming an idol, is the touchstone for many. Leave it. Answer others with a question if need be. A question furthers the journey onward and leaves a space for others to come to you.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

What is required of us, as Christians?

Is Evangelical Christianity the worst evil ever manifested by humanity, as averred by a recent online article? No, I do not believe that. I put that in there to manifest not its inherent evil but to 1) prod the reader; and 2) to bring up the underlying premise of that article: what is required of a Christian?

The blog's author, CK Ratzer, basically states that nothing is required. Christ has given his Grace once and for all and the Law is without effect (this is the antinomian view, from anti=against; nomos=law). That is the Good News. He then postulates that Evangelical Christianity preaches a "mixed" gospel, one of repentance and grace, then one of required action, action that never accumulates into goodness, but is a cause of guilt and shame and never-ending judgmentalism.

Anyway, I didn't want to argue what he has already argued. Read the article and see for yourself.

As to what is required...

We know that "repent" is a mis-translation. It may well be, as is often repeated, the worst translation in the Bible. The Greek is "metanoia," and it means a total transforming alignment with God. Not a feeling of sorrow for one's past transgressions with corollaries about never walking that path again. But let's say we have "metanoia'd" and we are born again into a heart-to-heart with the Creator-God. What then?

One might imagine a life lived sinless, expectation-less, without further wish fulfillment. Can you imagine such a life? Neither can I.

What I imagine is a life when one might experience the joy of metanoia, but it would be fleeting. It would be maddeningly short-lived, but it would remain in one's memory. It would have been life-changing; and we would always want it back.

How do we then live our life? Do we say, I'm born again so I am saved? Now to tell the others? What of my sins, which I know full well I'm going to commit, despite Paul's assurance that we can put it all aside? [And what do I think sin is? I think sin should more be defined by weakness, a failure to live one's life as one wants to live it in accordance to our joy in metanoia.]

Does sin/weakness mean I am no longer saved? Jesus said, Go, be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect. Paul said, basically, that the flesh is weak, the flesh sins ("nothing good dwells in me"), and but that the flesh isn't the "I" who sins but only the weakness of the flesh. Huh? This I think, is silly, and wrong. (As to my personal view of Paul's letters as scripture: they aren't. Paul apparently thought he was in the End Times and so I think he was attempting to be an apostle for Christ, to lead people to Christ, to explain things, but not speaking as God's Word: Why would he think of his letters as scripture if it was the time of Christ's return?)

It is weakness that lives in me, even after "metanoia." We are weak. But Grace has nothing to do with weakness. And it has nothing to do with belief (which I think really should be translated more as "trust"). A God that depends on belief --a rational, mental activity-- for being saved is not a God that I can imagine. No, belief would have nothing to do with it. It is a full-on trust; and this trust can be conceived (must in fact be) as acting on those who have no capacity for rational thought: the comatose, the mentally-handicapped. If a person with an IQ of 40 cannot be said to be saved then what is being saved for? God cannot require rational belief in order to save someone. I certainly reject such a God.

In order to envision trust, imagine a sleeping body floating in a pool. The person is incapacitated and held up by only a hand, the hand of another standing by the person's side. If the hand slips away, the person's body flips over, drowns. The mind does nothing for the grace. It is only the trust of the person for the other holding him/her that saves.

The person's body in the illustration is not an actual body: it is the person's oneness. Call it soul, spirit, essence. It does not rely on thought. It relies on the hand supporting it. The spirit trusts the hand of God. I think it might be this when we experience metanoia, joy. We sense it, profoundly, and at once. In the Now! [It should be mentioned that I believe it to be important to stress the "it might be this" of our little hypothesis...we have too much of the "this is that" kind of nonsense: we suppose, we guess, we wonder...we don't know squat.]

The weakness of the body --what others might call sin-- of ourselves, continues unabated in this life. We never get stronger. We can never rely on our actions to save us. Some have suggested that since we are sinful creatures we can confess our sins and then go on sinning...only to confess again. Once saved, after all, saved forever, right?

We are always floating in the pool. Always weak and almost drowning. The metanoia keeps us from drowning, the trust in the hand that holds us. To say as we just have, that we can confess and then go on sinning just misses the point: we are always sinning; we are always weak; we are always floating and in danger of drowning. Always. Being saved isn't like removing us from the pool. I know a lot of people think that it does, that we are then saved and we don't sin anymore, that we can just climb on out, say Whew! and be done. That just seems silly to me. It isn't the world that I know, at least.

I like this metaphor of floating, almost drowning, because the next question comes up quite naturally: Why do we drown? No, really drown, or die, or suffer? Where is that mysterious spirit hand then, eh?

Well, we die. We are all going to die; it is our fate. We don't like to think about it. We pretend we are going to live forever. Someday our last breath will be taken. We are saved --we experience metanoia-- in our life, while we live; it is not about any hereafter. It is about the Now! And perhaps every day there is suffering for us; there certainly is suffering all around us.

There are two human emotions that have the capacity to join us all together: Love, and Suffering. Both can have elements of selfishness. Love can veer toward desire, can be all-consuming to the point that we shut out the rest of the world. But Love can be enormous, can be world-wide in scope, it can be amazing. And strong! Suffering too can be identity focused. We are in pain and we think of ourselves and how we don't want to feel this way. But when seeing others suffer, and seeing them thus we feel their pain, we are drawn to them in that suffering: it is painful and it is awful in a way that is the complete opposite of Love. It reminds me of the taijitu symbol (yin-yang), opposites but inhabiting the whole.

The fact of our human suffering does cause many to reject God, reject Christianity. This may be wrong. We Love; we Suffer. This is being human. There is no escape. What is required of us, as Christians? Perhaps it is merely this: to Love, and to Suffer, and to reach after what joins all of us, the Now!, the metanoia, the joy.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Who are you, and what am I?

The philosophy of self is one of those nitty-gritty subjects that Hume and Kant and Descartes liked to discuss. What is the self? And why is that at all important?

It is important to me personally in that a main tenet of my religion--which up until a few years ago (not sure how I would describe it today...perhaps progressive Christian) would be described as evangelical protestant--was that one needed to be "born again." Also, obviously, having a belief in the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal savior. Other creedal beliefs were also thrown in (the Bible being inspired by God, the miracles of Jesus, the virginity of Mary, the belief in scripture).

So that was "me." But what if "me" were not me? What was the "me" of me? If anything? If I could not answer that question, then in what sense could I say, for instance, that I was an evangelical Christian? That I was born again, that I was destined for union with God? If I could not answer that question, it seems to me, then these questions all became moot. And so the idea of Self is of particular importance...for anyone who holds certain faith questions near and dear.

First: Can I say what I am not? I think so; I am not a chair, not that hat hung on a post, not that cat linking its paws. I sense things, and this gives me a pretty good idea that I am a something that can be said to be not-that. (Maybe Hume and some others would disagree.)

Second: My idea of Self is mental. If I lose a leg, or both, or an arm or a finger, heck, a gall bladder too, I still can consider myself a self. This is a mental thing, the self. Unless we are transferring to the mind (whatever that is) merely the actionability of the brain, which can be considered just another organ, albeit one that houses the self. Is the mind merely the brain's activity or is it something else? Who knows? Let's assume it is the brain's activity since how in the heck are we going to prove otherwise?

Third: The self is my mind. But...the mind varies. And from what I read it varies quite a bit, that a "unified experience" only lasts a few seconds in the human being [Galen Strawson 1997]. We shouldn't assume that we are only one self; we might be multiple selves, even if these multiple selves are so closely related to one another that they blend continuously into one another (or seem to). From this it seems clear to me that we are indeed multiple selves. Certainly the "I" of my tenth year is different than the "I" of my twentieth year. It is very likely that each minute of each day of our existence has within it multiple selves. I doubt very much if the "I" of ten minutes ago is the "I" of my now.

Fourth: We are contingent beings. By this I mean that we can consider ourselves to be "what we desire to be" or even "what we desire to believe" or we can consider ourselves the net result of our decisions: we are the self of an act of decision. So we could say that that gentleman was the guy who decided on that occasion to sign up for the army and eventually become a veteran. Also, since employment is another popularly held view of our "self" he could be considered the gentleman who got his degree in electrical engineering while on a G.I. bill. Any decision we make really could work. But here is the rub: our decisions are contingent on many factors, pressures, that one day to the next change (and remember that we are probably different selves moment to moment). That would make our idea of self contingent. We become agents of chance, of our environment (and our natural tendencies, which though genetic, can still be agents of chance since we are from our birth chance creations through the machinations of DNA).

It is also important, too, to see ourselves as within a group, especially as within a religious group or cultural group. A Stanford encyclopedia article (to be read here if you wish) points out that there is new literature on the societal pressures that go into making one's idea of self. This seems common sense to me: the groups we belong to pressure us to conform to an identity; this pressure causes us to make decisions and to create in consequence a view of our "self" though it is only contingent on something outside ourselves (whatever "our self" can constitute).

The same article cites Velleman (1989) that shows that our desire to act in a certain way is influenced by how we predict we wish to act. Here:

Our desire to understand what we are doing, at the moment we are doing it, is usually satisfied, since our predictions about how we will act are themselves intentions to act, and hence our beliefs about what we will do are “self-fulfilling expectations”.
Thus we are what we wish ourselves to be. We want to be that hero depicted in some book and we base our expectations of our self on the prediction that this is to be our fate.

All this is to say that we are not what we seem. We live our lives pretending to be someone. Pretending to be part of one's chosen group, but that choosing itself was a result of some contingency. In the end we are fluid. The Tao Te Ching, in its first chapter:
The Way - cannot be told.
The Name - cannot be named.
The nameless is the Way of Heaven and Earth.
The named is Matrix of the Myriad Creatures.
Eliminate desire to find the Way.
Embrace desire to know the Creature.
The two are identical,
But differ in name as they arise.
Identical they are called mysterious,
Mystery on mystery,
The gate of many secrets. [A.S. Kline tranlator]

Could not this be speaking of the Self? Matrix of the Myriad Creatures?

But, so what? This question: When can I say I have achieved Myself? When can I say "I believe this!" or "I am born again!" We are acting, pretending, that we are making rational decisions that create our own being, and that this being is unchanging somehow (though we all recognize the mutable nature of being).

Am I born again? Do I believe in Jesus, the Christ? Am I the person who chose to wear a blue shirt this morning? But differ in name as they arise. Identical they are called mysterious. 

We ask questions of people, spiritual questions, that no one can answer honestly. So we should stop asking these questions. Or, asking them, expect no answer, and if an answer does come, expect it to float away. What is there but to look into the eyes of another, and try to see oneself? Isn't that what Jesus meant when he tasked us to love one another? Another non-self, mysterious, a gate of many secrets.