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Post-Christian?

Since I have an interfaith audience–which I’m ecstatic about–what I’m about to tell you will shock some, will be well-duh! to others.

I’ve not attended church in over a year and a half.  [This may not seem outrageous to some of you, but you have to understand, churchgoing is not negotiable where I come from.  I attended church faithfully for 41 years.  I tithed faithfully.  I taught Sunday School classes.  I wanted to find God in all the wrong places—and yes, church is one of those places—for me, it turns out!]

[Please understand, I’m not saying everyone else must do this, but it was necessary for me.]

Now I’m one of those 25 plus million people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious.  [See my post about the “So-Called Nones” in November of last year—a conversation referring to an article in The Week that gave people like us a name.]  Ever since I’ve left the church, I’ve grown (spiritually) in an exponential way, and met amazing people of all faiths.  Where have you been all my life, you beautiful people?!

I found the churches we attended stagnant and judgmental (there were pockets of hope, but not enough to stay).  The topics on a Sunday morning were rehashes of a year ago, or the year before that (there were glorious, heavenly—no pun intended—exceptions to this!).  Questioning was forbidden.  If you did, people nodded their heads politely, then you heard about what they said about you behind your back later, from a true friend.  True love and acceptance was shown by a few people–the total equaling the number of fingers on my right hand.  Open dialogue was rare.

[Again, there must be some Christian communities that are not this way.  I just haven’t found one yet.  As I’ve stated before in other blog posts, I’ve had the best conversations with those of different faiths (or those with “no” faith) from me.]

So, it was with this kind of background that I came to Brian McLaren’s new book A New Kind of Christianity, in which he raises ten questions that he feels are transforming our faith right now.  I loved McLaren’s trilogy, beginning with A New Kind of Christian.  At the time I read them, I felt pushed and pulled in ways I didn’t know possible.  And then I kept growing, questioning.  I read Bart Ehrman’s books and began to struggle with Jesus’s divinity.  Then I questioned (gasp!) the doctrine of the Trinity, which wasn’t formulated until the fourth century after Jesus’s death.  [Why so long if it was always true?]

The problem with all this talk about “historical and Biblical Christianity” is that it doesn’t exist—at least in the concrete operational way we’d like it to.  There were many beliefs during Jesus’s lifetime (and in the years following), and the distilling of those beliefs, into what we call orthodoxy today, took years, sometimes hundreds of years.

It would be a little like pitting one pastor against another today.  Well, Rick Warren says this; John Piper says that; Chuck Swindoll says this; N. T. Wright says that.  And then we all huddle in our little camps and get our feathers ruffled over differences of opinion.  [Hence, the various denomination and factions of Christianity.]

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think this is what Jesus intended—divine or not.  Somehow I cringe when I think of him actually mingling with these church crowds.  I think he’d be sad.  I think he’d weep.  I think he’d say, “How could you all have missed my life’s message?  Why are so many people living in the streets?  Why do you not help?  Why do you not love?

Now, you know as well as I do, when anyone broaches age-old doctrines in a fresh and new way, they get blasted, and McLaren is not immune to such things (note: “Jesus Reconsidered: Book Sparks Evangelical Debate” by Barbara Bradley Hagerty on NPR).

I appreciated McLaren’s diagrams (being a visual learner).  I thought his earlier chapters thought-provoking and engaging.  The second half of the book I was only too familiar with (and frustrated that they came with very few answers).  [To his credit, McLaren did stress he was raising questions and not answering them.]  For example, he stresses that many people have left the church (like me) because they’ve found nothing helpful or redeeming in the whole experience, but he never offers up a solution (for the defecting group).  He admonishes those in the leadership positions, those in the church, but what good does that do the questioning believer who has found no acceptance or charity in the church?

And, of course, I paid close attention to his descriptions of the Creation and Noah’s Flood stories.  After all, I’ve been immersed in them the last four years.  He made an interesting observation, I thought.  He feels that no one has looked at Jesus through the timeline that existed before Jesus—through Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, etc.  Everyone pays attention to what’s been said about Jesus after his death—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Augustine, Luther, etc.  Perhaps we’d have a fresher view of Jesus if we could focus on what was going on before he came on the scene.  I like this, except that I woke up in the middle of the night, wondering if McLaren knew how much of Israel’s theology was culled from the polygamous, polytheistic cultures around them.  All Scripture has been “tainted” by the circumstances and situations of the popular culture of the time, and what we take to be truth is their truth, during their time.

Certainly, we can gather our own truth from the stories, but we must be careful when we’re formulating a picture of God or Jesus from politically inclined agendas or personally driven vendettas (I’m thinking of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John here, because there are reasons they differ).

I liked McLaren’s library analogy.  Instead of thinking of the Bible as a Constitution that we must follow to the letter, we might look at it like a library, a compilation or collection of human literature.  Perhaps we need to draw back a little—to see the whole picture.

“But imagine you’re looking at an Impressionist painting, say Georges Seurat’s Bridge at Courbevoie (1867) or Paul Signac’s Clipper (1887).  They are examples of pointillism; the painter uses small, discrete dots of paint that the viewer’s eye and brain must combine, creating both a higher degree of viewer involvement and a unique kind of shimmering, vibrant effect.  To take them in for their desired effect, you need to stand back several feet, often across the room in a gallery.  If you use a microscope, magnifying glass, or the naked eye at arm’s distance, you will be seeing the paint, but not really seeing the painting.

“This, of course, raises the question: What are the appropriate tools and distances to employ when we want to appreciate and understand the Bible?  What would happen if we have habitually studied at arm’s distance what should really be enjoyed from across the room, or if we have used a microscope when binoculars would have been more appropriate because of our historical and cultural distance from the people who produced the texts?  It’s not just what’s on the canvas that counts, you see: there’s more going on in the eyes of beholders than we often realize, not to mention in the minds and eyes of painters.  For us to be naïve about the “eye of the beholder” regarding the Bible renders us vulnerable to repeating yesterday’s atrocities in the future.  Slavery, anti-Semitism, colonialism, genocide, chauvinism, homophobia, environmental plunder, the Inquisition, witch burning, apartheid—aren’t those worth taking care to avoid, for God’s sake?”

He continues, in the vein of rejecting the Bible as a Constitution.

“Does the Bible alone provide enough clarity to resolve all questions, as a good constitution should?  No.  We have no reason to believe it was ever meant to do that, as much as we’ve tried to force it to do so.  From all sides it becomes clear that the Bible, if it is truly inspired by God, wasn’t meant to end conversation and give the final word on controversies.  If this were its purpose, it has failed miserably.  (This fact must be faced.) [Bold emphasis mine.]  But if, instead, it was inspired and intended to stimulate conversation, to keep people thinking and talking and arguing and seeking, across continents and centuries, it has succeeded and is succeeding in a truly remarkable way.

“That success shines in the last section of the book of Job.  What does God do when God finally breaks silence and begins to speak?  Does God explain the situation to Job and his friends?  Definitively answer the question of human suffering and evil?  Give them a precise description of the encounter with the Satan that we readers are given in the introduction and declare that the problem of evil’s existence is now solved?  As we’ve already seen, no, no, and no.  God never does that.  Instead, God responds with a hurricane of questions.  ‘What about this?’ God asks.  ‘What about that?  How is snow formed?  Do you understand that?  How about this—how did the crocodile get his thick skin?  Do you know?’  If it were today, God might be asking, ‘How does DNA carry traits?  How are instincts passed on in animals?  How does consciousness arise in the human body and brain, and what is consciousness?  What is dark matter?  Why did the big bang happen?  Why does the speed of light appear to be absolute?  Is cold fusion possible?  How do you program a TV remote control?’

“What is God revealing in all these questions?  Certainly not answers!  No, if we experience the Word, or Self-Revealing of God, in these questions, it doesn’t come as an explanation, a statement, a solution.  It comes as a sense of wonder, humility, rebuke, and smallness in the face of the unknown.  What if that is the truest and best kind of revelation there ever can be for creatures such as us?”

And lastly, my favorite.  You’ll see why.

McLaren talks about how Scripture has changed over time.  He uses an example to illustrate his point.  Let me start right before the example (which is one of my favorites, because it’s a mathematical one).

“I am saying that human beings can’t do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and that Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors’ best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God.  As human capacity grows to conceive of a higher and wiser view of God, each new vision is faithfully preserved in Scripture like fossils in layers of sediment.  If we read the Bible as a cultural library rather than as a constitution, and if we don’t impose a Greco-Roman plotline on the biblical narrative [something McLaren explains in the first few chapters], we are free to learn from that evolutionary process—and, we might even add, to participate in it.

“An analogy may be helpful in seeing what this idea of progressive understanding means.  Consider the Bible a collection of math textbooks.  There’s a first-grade text, a second-grade text, and so on, all the way up to high-school texts that deal with geometry, algebra, trigonometry, maybe even calculus.  Imagine opening the second-grade text and reading this sentence about subtraction: ‘You cannot subtract a larger number from a smaller number.’  Then you open a sixth-grade text and see a chapter entitled ‘Negative Numbers.’  The first sentence reads: ‘This chapter will teach you how to subtract larger numbers from smaller numbers.’  How do we reconcile the statements?  Were the authors of the second-grade text lying?  Or were the authors of the sixth-grade text relativists, doubting the absolute truth of the earlier text?

“It’s not that simple.  The author of the second-grade text told the truth that was appropriate for second-graders.  If second-graders had to learn subtraction of both positive and negative numbers, they would be overwhelmed….

“What if something similar must happen in the theological education of the human race?  What if people who live in the second-grade world of polytheism need to learn about one God as superior to others before they can handle the idea of one God as uniquely real?  What if, in order to properly understand God’s concern for social justice, they must first have a concept of God being pleased or displeased, and that concept can only be developed through the visceral reflexes of cleanliness and revulsion, which are in turn reinforced through ceremonial rules and taboos?  What if the best way to create global solidarity is by first creating tribal solidarity and then gradually teaching tribes to extend their tribal solidarity to “the other”?  What if, then, God must first be seen as the God of our tribe and then only later as the God of all tribes?  What if we need to learn to find God in the face of our brother before we can find God in the face of the other, the stranger, even the enemy?  And what if, until we find God in both our brother and the other, we can’t truly say that we know God maturely?”

And because this is important, I’m going to continue three more paragraphs, okay?  Hang in there.  There is a point to this.

“What if God’s agency in the world is mysterious and complex, reflecting God’s desire to have a world that is truly free yet truly relational?  And what if, in order to get to that high-level theological calculus, we must first teach people to imagine a simply chaotic universe and then to imagine its opposite—a simply determined and controlled universe?  What if we must then transcend both of those simple paradigms in order to imagine an interactive, relational universe that has elements of both?

“And what if, in order to understand the character of God that lies behind, beneath, above, and within the agency of God, we must similarly pass through some stages in which our understanding is imbalanced and incomplete?  What if, for example, to view God as passionately committed to justice and goodness, we must first pass through a stage in which we see God’s passion for justice being expressed in the violent defeat of injustice?  Or to say the same thing slightly differently: What if the only way to get to a mature view of God as nonviolently yet passionately committed to justice is to pass through an immature stage in which God appears to be both passionately and violently committed to justice?  Don’t we, as children, go through similar stages in coming to understand our parents?

“Now, if you’ve followed me through this line of reasoning, you’re probably aware already of what I need to say next: we cannot, we must not, assume that we have arrived.  [Bold emphasis mine.]  In other words, if we can look back and see the process unfolding in the past—in the Bible, in theological history—then we have no reason to believe that the process has stopped unfolding now, even at this very moment as I write, as you read.  And we have every reason to believe that even now we are in a stage of understanding that is a step up from where we used to be, but a step below where we could venture next.”

Isn’t that exciting?

We’re learning more and more each day.  Think of the advances in science, the discoveries in archaeology, the illumination of history.  Think of how they all formulate a new world…every day.

And shouldn’t our faith (and I’ll add, churches) reflect this change?  I, for one, am ready for a new kind of Christianity (or should I say, a new kind of faith?) that embraces these findings, these differences among us, as valuable and discussion-worthy.

Here’s to interfaith (or faithless) dialogue, and by that, I mean that whatever you believe, you’re welcome here.  You have a home where no one will call you names or label you or tell you you’re off your rocker.

That’s what Jesus, Buddha, Ghandi, King Jr.—all the people fighting for kindness and justice—would have wanted.

You’re in my heart.  All of you.  Thanks for letting me “out” myself.

[Post image: Partial of A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren cover]

4 Comments

  1. […] a book after my own heart.  As you know, I recently “outed” myself from the church (as an institution, as inspiration, as […]

  2. […] King of the Post Christian blog, who gave me (unwittingly) the courage to “out” myself.  [See my post last Saturday, if you’re confused.]  Of course, he does a million and one things besides his amazing, […]

  3. […] On my spiritual journey. […]

  4. […] I haven’t been attending church, praying, or other Christian behaviors for a little over a year now. In retrospect, my changing stance on hell was a key steppingstone in my path away from the Church and my understanding of Jesus. At this point, I most comfortably relate to a group of people known as “post-Christian”, a term introduced to me by the writer Elissa Elliott. […]

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The quote I live by

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
--Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet

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