Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Beyond Relationship with God

Many Christians talk about having a relationship with God. Evangelicals in particular speak of the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They usually say this begins when one “receives Jesus into your heart” or “accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior.”

Evangelicals frequently distinguish themselves from mainline Protestants and Catholics by saying that these other groups have religion, but “born again” believers have a relationship with God, and that makes all the difference. The slogan goes something like this: “It is not a religion. It is a relationship” or “It is not about religion; it is about a relationship with God.”

I go one step further. I say, “It is not about religion or relationship. It is about realization.” By “realization” I am referring to waking up to the Spiritual Reality that Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Jesus referred to this as being “born of the Spirit” and “born again,” by which he meant something very different from the evangelical conversion experience. Jesus also called it eternal life, which is likewise very different from popular Christianity’s fantasy of a heavenly theme park.

Mainline and Evangelical Christianity may be fine as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough. There is nothing wrong with religion when it is psychologically and socially healthy religion. Likewise there is nothing wrong with having a relationship with God when it is a healthy relationship. But there is more to the spiritual life than a relationship. 

You have heard the saying, “The good is the enemy of the best.” A relationship with God can be the enemy of the best. Jesus invited this followers to go beyond religion and relationship to realization.

According to the Gospel of John, on the night before his death Jesus offered a lengthy prayer, which is often referred to as his High Priestly Prayer. First he prayed for himself, and then he prayed for his apostles. Finally Jesus prays “not only for these, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” He is talking about his followers in future generations. This is what he prays for us:

“that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

Jesus says we are meant to know the same oneness with God as he knew. Jesus is talking about more than having a closer walk with God. He is speaking of transcending relationship. He is speaking about union with God, which is something Christian mystics – East and West - have always said is possible. Eastern Orthodoxy has long taught this truth, calling it theosis.

Jesus wanted us to have more than a relationship with God or himself. He wanted us to know union with God like he knew it. He promised that we would “participate in the divine nature,” as the Epistle of Second Peter describes it. 

Union with God does not negate a relationship with God; it transcends and fulfills it. It is analogous to Jesus saying he came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. Realization of oneness with God fulfills both religion and relationship.

There is more to the spiritual life than most  churches teach. Christian spirituality is more than religion or relationship. It is realization of oneness with God. Jesus prayed that we might know this oneness. The First Letter of John says that if we pray anything according to the will of God, it will be done. Jesus prayed according to the will of God, and his prayer has been answered. Now it is just a matter of realizing this union with God in our lives. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The Death of God Revisited

I recently received the new (July 27) issue of The Christian Century. The cover story is about the end of the Roe era. The other topic highlighted on the cover is “Revisiting the Death of God Movement.” The essay inside is entitled “Is God Still Dead? The Legacy of 1960s Radical Theology,” written by Lloyd Steffen, chaplain at Lehigh University. The issue also contains an autobiographical piece entitled “When My Dad Killed God” by Don Hamilton, son of the Death of God theologian Bill Hamilton. Reading these articles was an exercise in nostalgia.

I remember when God died. The death of God changed my life. It made me into the Christian pastor I am today. When Time magazine published its iconic red and black 1966 cover with the words “Is God Dead?” I was a teenager struggling with my family’s Christian faith. At the time I was in a Methodist-related school taking a Philosophy of Religion class with our school chaplain. He brought the Time article to class, and we discussed what it meant to say that God was dead.

I entered Denison University (at the time a Baptist affiliated college) in 1968 planning to have a career in science. I took an introductory religion course to satisfy the liberal arts requirement. David O. Woodyard, Dean of the Chapel, was teaching the course. He had just published a book entitled Living Without God, Before God.  In the class he surveyed the works of radical theologians Thomas J. J. Altizer, William Hamilton, Gabriel Vahanian, and Paul van Buren. The course turned my life around. A year later I had switched my major to Religion.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Death of God Movement brought me to God. The chief concern in the 1960’s was how to do theology in a post-WWII, post-Holocaust era. In the Religion department we thought long and deep about the problems of evil and suffering. We debated Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity.” We discussed Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl. We read Niebuhr and Barth, Brunner and Buber, Tillich and Heschel. I was hooked. After graduation I went to seminary.

How does the death of God lead a man to a life of professional Christian ministry? For me Death of God theology was the first taste of religion that took existential problems seriously. It offered no easy answers; it was willing to go wherever truth led. It was utterly honest at a time when institutional religion seemed shallow, judgmental and hypocritical. For example, Death of God theologian Bill Hamilton lost his job as a professor at Colgate Rochester Divinity School (a seminary related to my American Baptist denomination) because of his theological and intellectual honesty.

If you are not familiar with the radical theologians of the 1960’s, there is not room enough in this brief essay to fill you in. I will simply say that the Death of God is likely not what you think it is, or what most church people in the 1960’s thought it was. It is about the death of theism, both fundamentalist and liberal varieties. Neither camp has yet come to grips with the obituary a half century later. It was the death of the “god of the gaps,” the demise of a shrinking deity whose only job was to fill in the remaining gaps in the answers science offered about the nature and origin of the universe.

The death of God movement was about going beyond words and ideas, beyond institutional religion and spiritual fads. The death of God led me to the Christian mystics while still an undergraduate. After seminary graduation I was lured into the wilderness of evangelical Christianity for a few decades, but eventually I returned to my spiritual roots to deconstruct my religion and rediscover God beyond God, to use Meister Eckhart’s phrase. I have chronicled this theological journey in my books Thank God for Atheists and Experiencing God Directly.

There is a well-known Buddhist saying: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” This is not really a call to assassinate a spiritual leader. Similarly the death of God is not really about deicide. It is about dethroning idols and intellectually dismantling the religions built around them. One cannot see clearly until one’s idols are dead and buried. This iconoclastic quest led me to the Eternal Christ. That is what the Death of God did for me. 

Friday, July 15, 2022

Galactic Spirituality

The heavens leave me in awe. I am not talking about the celestial abode of a Hebraic male deity sitting on a celestial throne surrounded by angels. I am talking about the scientific images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope released this week by NASA.

The fact that this new telescope is one million miles away is itself amazing. The recent photos taken by this instrument bring me to my knees. Viewing these pictures of nebulae and galaxies has the same effect on me as any religious vision described by Isaiah or Ezekiel. Modern astronomy is a spiritual experience.

The first image unveiled by President Biden on July 11 was revelatory. The deep field image enlarges a portion of sky about the size of a grain of sand when held at arm’s length. Take a moment to demonstrate that for yourself and notice how small this field of view is.

Thousands of galaxies are visible within this tiny segment of the heavens. William Blake could “see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.” We can see galaxies. Every tiny speck in the photo is a galaxy containing a hundred billion stars and countless worlds. If that many galaxies are visible in a field the size of a grain of sand, just imagine how many galaxies there are in the entire universe!

The feeling I get when pondering such wonders can only be described as religious awe. Witnessing stars being born in the in the Carina Nebula is akin to the magi witnessing the Star of Bethlehem. Seeing stars dying in the Southern Ring Nebula is like being present at the Cross. Watching Stephan’s Quintet of galaxies dancing in the heavens is Pentecostal. I feel honored to be part of a generation that can witness this miracle.

Astronomer Carl Sagan famously said that humans are the universe conscious of itself. That quote came to mind when I saw these newest photos. While viewing these images I was the universe conscious of itself. I was not observing distant objects out in space. I was looking in the mirror. These are me. These are us. The Webb pictures are selfies.

Sagan explained that the elements that make up our bodies were literally formed in stars. He called us “star stuff.” He said, “The cosmos is within us.” He sounds more like a mystic than an astronomer.  

Human consciousness emerged from these elements through the same evolutionary process that formed the heavenly bodies. It is the same process that undoubtedly formed intelligent life on other planets. Once again Sagan said, “The universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

When I was younger I used to gaze into the heavens on clear night and feel small. The universe seemed so big, and I felt so small. My lifespan seemed no more than that of a mayfly compared to the 13.8 billion years of the universe. Now when I look into the starry heavens I feel big. I am billions of years old! I feel ageless.  

This human psyche that calls itself Marshall Davis is not ageless. It is a temporary phenomenon, an ephemeral fiction created by the brain, a brief whirlpool in the river of time, a blip in the cosmic drama. My essence – our essence – is as old as the universe. Older than the universe.

I look into the heavens, and I see God. No need to go in search of God in creeds and rituals. God is here now! Look and see. This is cosmic spirituality. Adherents of earthly religions can fight over political turf within nations and among nations, but the God of the cosmos has more galactic things in mind. If you have any doubt about that, just look through the Webb Telescope and watch galaxies collide.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Blessing Enemies

One of the consequences of being a pastor is that I am a public figure while in active ministry – which is both good and bad. Those who like what they hear will let me know, and the same with those who do not like what I say. I am finding this to be as true in retirement as it was during my forty years of fulltime pastoral ministry.

Of course I could have chosen to keep my mouth shut in retirement. That would have been the easy way to go. I know retired clergy who do that. My father-in-law was a Baptist preacher, who never entered a pulpit again after age 65. But upon my “retirement” I simply moved from a physical pulpit to a virtual one. I took to the internet. In retirement I am connecting with more people than I did when I was a local church minister. Now I reach thousands with my podcast, YouTube channel, blog and books.

People regularly contact me to respond to what I say or write. I receive emails daily from around the world from people who have heard me online or read one of my books. The overwhelming majority of the responses I receive are positive. But there are always the ones who consider me dangerous and let me know it, often using emotionally charged language. Some see me as a threat to the evangelical gospel that I once espoused.

Some of these angry people I know personally. Most of them are strangers, who hide behind the anonymity of the internet to launch their attacks. In both cases these people feel threatened by what I am saying. They see me as the enemy. They try to discourage me from speaking through psychological intimidation. They accuse me of theological and spiritual sins, and they threaten me with divine judgment. To be honest, it hurts.

So I have sought the Comforter and the advice of Jesus as to how to respond. Jesus had a lot of enemies and had a lot to say on the topic – especially in the Sermon on the Mount. Speaking from personal experience he said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

One saying of Jesus has been particularly helpful: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” His instruction to “bless those who curse you” stood out. My first instinct is to defend myself. It is our animal instinct. It is also the American way! We consider self-defense to be our constitutional right, including both free speech and the right to respond to violence with violence.

Jesus teaches an alternative way. He instructs his followers NOT to defend themselves verbally or physically. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

I am a slow learner, but I am slowly learning not to defend myself. When someone verbally attacks me, I now know enough not to respond in kind. Any immediate response is likely to come from the ego. It is best to give the ego time to calm down.  Let the Silence speak. Let the Spirit take control. 

Now when I am attacked I offer a prayer of blessing upon my attackers – silently or verbally. I rejoice in the opportunity to obey my Lord’s teaching in such circumstances. It is such a relief not to have to justify myself. The ego should not be defended, and Christ does not need me to defend him. Jesus did not defend himself when he was accused of blasphemy and treason. As his disciple indwelt by his Spirit, I am inspired to do the same.

It is a relief not accommodate the ego by fashioning a well-worded defense. Now I can remain silent – just as Jesus did when he was on trial. If I speak I can simply say “Bless you” or “God bless you” and leave it at that. There is no need to justify myself. All I have to do is love my enemies, bless those who curse me, and do good to those who wish me ill.

The miraculous thing about blessing enemies is that the blessings I give return a hundredfold. To bless those who see me as their enemy is to be blessed by God! “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” How wonderful to be able to sincerely bless others, rather than to return anger with anger! How liberating it is to forgive – for it is in forgiving that we are forgiven, as Jesus taught.

Anger is a poison that harms the soul of the one who is angry more than it hurts the one the anger is directed against. Unresolved anger can easily turn into hate. Anger is increasingly used in political discourse these days. Our nation’s public forum is a cauldron of anger and fear. Anger is infectious. It replicates itself within us like a virus. It has produced a pandemic of anger in our country worse than any coronavirus. The way of Christ stops this cycle of emotional, verbal and physical violence by overcoming hatred with love.

I have recently finished reading a biography of Peace Pilgrim, who was one of the most Christ-like figures of the twentieth century. I first heard about her in the 1980’s, and it was a joy to rediscover her. Her message is timeless, as all genuine spiritual teachings are. She summed up her teaching in these words: “This is the way of peace: Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.” My experience with my online detractors is a testimony to the truth of her words. God bless you.

 

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Unburnt Bush

I turned aside and eternity called my name.

“Here I am,” I said. “Who are you? Who am I?”

 “I am that I am,” said the Lord.

I am the Emptiness in which all things appear.

I am the Silence in which all sounds arise.

I am the Eternity from which time is born.

I am the Infinity in which all space resides.

I am the Awareness within which all consciousness occurs.

I am the Being that holds all creation.

I am the Love that connects all creatures.

I am the Compassion that ends all suffering.

I am the Truth to which all religions point.

I am the Life that conquers death.

I am the Way which is the beginning and the end.

I AM.

 

Saturday, June 4, 2022

People Kill People

You have heard the meme: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Like all marketing slogans, this one is designed to obscure the facts. It takes both people and guns to kill people. The facts concerning mass shooters reveal that young men with guns kill people. Take away the guns and you just have angry young men. Take away semi-automatic weapons, and the death toll drops dramatically.

Recently a variation has become popular: “Guns aren’t the problem. Mental illness is the problem.” Even if the Uvalde shooter was mentally ill, how many children would he have killed if he did not have an assault rifle? Without a gun all you have is a disturbed young man. Furthermore, blaming the mentally ill for gun violence just adds another layer of stigma to mental illness. It makes it even less likely that those with mental illness will seek the help they need.

These slogans come straight from the gun lobby’s playbook. Those who repeat such things are being led to the slaughter by those whose only motive is to sell more guns. To identify the problem of gun violence all you have to do is follow the money. Who makes money off the corpses of school children? Gun manufacturers, of course!

They turn every act of gun violence into a reason to buy more guns. They tell people they need more guns to protect themselves from bad guys with guns and from a government that wants to restrict guns. “Buy them while you still can!” The gun lobby uses fear to manipulate people. They turn patriotism into a gimmick to sell guns. No one notices the irony of using the second amendment, which speaks of the necessity of a “well regulated militia,” for a crusade to oppose regulation.

But as much as I can see through the duplicity of the slogans, I have to admit that ultimately it is true that people are responsible. With or without sophisticated weaponry people will kill people. Not as efficiently perhaps, but they will still kill. The source of violence is humans.

Presently I am researching an upcoming podcast episode on the biblical tale of Cain and Abel. The Book of Genesis tells the story of the first murder. No firearms in sight, but Cain managed to use a primitive weapon – likely a farming tool - to spill his brother’s blood. People kill people. They always have.

The only permanent solution to violence is if people choose nonviolence. Government restrictions on weapons may decrease the death toll, but the problem of violence is deeper than anything that can be solved by legislation alone. Violence is ultimately a spiritual problem.

That is what Jesus taught. He said that the cause of murder is anger in the human heart. Jesus’ brother James said that external violence come from inner violence and greed. For that reason Jesus advocated a spiritual discipline of nonviolence, telling his followers to turn the other cheek and refuse to return evil for evil.

Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence and nonresistance is for individuals. It cannot be translated into national or international policy. Any nation that follows the Way of Jesus will undoubtedly be crucified, just as Jesus was crucified. There is no such thing as a “Christian nation.” The term is an oxymoron. At his trial for treason Jesus made it clear that he had no interest in earthly government. He said, “If my kingdom were of this world my disciples would fight…. But my kingdom is not of this world.”

The earliest Christian movement was an intentional community that practiced unconditional love for all, even enemies. Jesus understood the Kingdom of God as an alternative to political and military kingdoms. Jesus did not come to establish an earthly kingdom. The Church is to be a light to the nations, not a nation among nations.

Jesus’ solution to human sin – including gun violence – was a radical one. Jesus told his followers to put away their weapons, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” He instructed his followers NOT to defend themselves … or him. Once again it is ironic that so many Christians find a reason to ignore Christ’s clear teachings on this subject.

Jesus was not a conservative. He was not a liberal. He was not a zealot, who were the patriots of his day. Jesus was a radical spiritual reformer. He was more like Buddha than Muhammad. Jesus’ vision for the Church is more like the Sangha than the Caliphate. It was a spiritual movement, not a political party. Jesus set up an alternative community that lived by a different standard than the state or political ideologies.

Jesus knew that the only real solution to the problems of suffering, evil, and violence in society was to live by the standards of the Kingdom of God now. That is what his Sermon on the Mount was all about. It is a Declaration of Independence from the cycle of human violence. It is the Constitution of the Kingdom of God.

The way to stop gun violence is to address the root of violence in the human heart, the anger and hate that is so clearly displayed in the nastiness of political rhetoric today. Peace begins by addressing the violence in our own hearts – not others’ hearts. Our heart is the only one we can change, and even that changes only by the grace of God.

As Jesus said, some evil cannot be driven out by anything but prayer. Gun violence is a spiritual issue more than a political one. When our words and actions begin to flow from a reservoir of inner peace rather than political strife, only then will there be peace on earth. Only then will people not kill people. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Shall the Fundamentalists Win ... Again?

This month marks the centennial of a landmark sermon in American Protestantism. On May 21, 1922, Baptist preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick delivered a famous sermon from the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, entitled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" You can read the text here.

It was a decisive moment in the Fundamentalist–Modernist controversy of the time. This sermon cost him his position at the church, but it established his reputation as a champion of what he called “an intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty-loving church.”

In the sermon he addresses both the doctrines and the attitudes of fundamentalists. He is more concerned with how the fundamentalists behave than what they believe. He says:

Fundamentalists are giving us one of the worst exhibitions of bitter intolerance that the churches of this country have ever seen. As one watches them and listens to them he remembers the remark of General Armstrong of Hampton Institute, “Cantankerousness is worse than heterodoxy.” There are many opinions in the field of modern controversy concerning which I am not sure whether they are right or wrong, but there is one thing I am sure of: courtesy and kindliness and tolerance and humility and fairness are right. Opinions may be mistaken; love never is.”

Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” If that is true, then then the 2020’s are rhyming with the 1920’s. American religion seems to be fighting the same battles it fought one hundred years ago. Furthermore they are the same battles as when I was in seminary in the 1970’s.

In one sense nothing has changed in the last one hundred years. There are still fundamentalist and modernist Christians, although now they are known as evangelicals and progressives. There is still a struggle for control of denominational structures, institutions, seminaries and churches. In one way the fundamentalist spirit is more powerful than ever. Today it has joined forces with politics to take over the government as well as the churches.

In another sense much has changed. We live in a post-denominational landscape where nondenominational megachurches are the big players. There is a growing vocal opposition to religion of any type. Atheism and agnosticism are on the rise. Churches of all types – including evangelical churches – are losing members at an alarming rate. The fury of fundamentalism today sounds more like a death rattle than the rumble of an advancing army.

Yet human nature has not changed. Fosdick ended his message with these words:

The present world situation smells to heaven! And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration. What immeasurable folly!

“Well, they are not going to do it; certainly not in this vicinity! I do not even know in this congregation whether anybody has been tempted to be a Fundamentalist. Never in this church have I caught one accent of intolerance. God keep us always so and ever increasing areas of the Christian fellowship; intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant, not with the tolerance of indifference, as though we did not care about the faith, but because always our major emphasis is upon the weightier matters of the law.”

The irony is that, unknown to him, there was intolerance in his church. Fundamentalists succeeded in driving Fosdick out of his positon as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. John D. Rockefeller Jr. came to his rescue and built him the Riverside Church, where he could preach freely without fear of retaliation.  His ministry eventually earned him the cover of Time magazine.

If there is any lesson to be learned from Fosdick’s historic sermon it is that intolerance is a persistent flaw of human nature. Furthermore religion is a permanent part of human culture. Our species is Homo religiosus – incurably religious.  Unfortunately religion often serves the purpose of tribalism, sexism, racism, nationalism and countless other –isms.

The good news is that we are also Homo mysticus. There is a part of us that sees beyond the sectarian madness. This inner intuition cannot be extinguished. It glimpses our essential union with the Divine and all humans. It is only imperfectly expressed by progressive preachers like Harry Emerson Fosdick. It finds full expression in the mystics of Christianity and all faiths. It is the antithesis of fundamentalism.

This means the fundamentalists shall not ultimately win. They may dominate nations or cultures for a season, but ultimately fundamentalism is a lost cause. If we survive as a species, someday spiritual inclusiveness, tolerance and love will reign. I see it already beginning, like spring shoots poking through winter’s dead leaves. 

Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom will become a reality. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. May that Kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.