Monday, May 20, 2019

Signposts to Truth

A personal faith in God is the heart of the Christian religion. But nearly as important for many Christians is a correct understanding of God, Christ and a host of other theological topics. For most Christians it is considered essential to believe in certain key doctrines. It is how believers distinguish themselves from nonbelievers, and differentiate orthodoxy from heresy.

The list of crucial doctrines is somewhat different for different churches, depending on what theological flavor they are. But nearly all Christian groups identify certain beliefs as indispensable for being a true Christian.

At the risk of being labeled a heretic, I am going to challenge that belief. I am suggesting that doctrines are by nature untrue. Furthermore they are incapable of communicating divine truth. Doctrinal statements, creeds and catechisms are unreliable descriptions of Reality. Stressing the importance of theological orthodoxy can actually lead people astray.

God is by definition beyond human understanding. Any deity that can be described in words or comprehended by our tiny simian brains cannot possibly be the eternal and infinite God. At best, theological formulations are crude approximations of Divine Reality. At worst they become substitutes for God, mental idols easily mistaken for divine truth. Mental images are just as idolatrous as graven images and just as much a violation of the second commandment.

I am tempted to soften my words to make them more palatable to my readers. I could say that theological statements are true, but not ultimately true. The reason being our limited ability to understand God and the limitations of human thoughts and words to communicate divine truth. But that statement would only be half true. And as the Yiddish proverb says, “a half-truth is a whole lie.”

Truth is untheological. Theology is untrue. Orthodoxy is heresy. Christian doctrines are not the Truth. They are sign posts that point in the direction of Truth. Like the signs at the corner of my road (see accompanying image) that point the way to a certain destination, doctrines point us toward our Eternal Destination. But they are not themselves the destination. Mistaking doctrine for truth is like mistaking a menu for food.

As the Zen saying puts it: “A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself. A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the moon." As the Tao Te Ching says,

The God who can be described
is not the true God.
The Name that can be spoken
Is not the Name of God.
God is unnamable.
Naming God is the beginning of religion.
Let go, and you find God.
Hold on, and you get theology.”

Words cannot describe God. Ideas cannot communicate Reality. Theological statements can say nothing about God. They describe our human experience of God. For example, the doctrine of the omnipresence of God describes our experience of God in all times and places. The doctrine of the divinity of Christ describes the Christian experience of Jesus.

The concept of God as Father cannot be an actual description of God. God – being incorporeal - cannot be male or female. It is a description of people’s experience of God, as filtered through cultural gender roles.  Other cultures experience God differently – as feminine or as the spirit of trees or rocks.

Refining our theology and adding new metaphors to our theological repertoire does not bring us any closer to God. To experience God we must let go of our mental idols and go where the theological images are pointing.

How is that done? By the via negativa. Ultimate Reality is “not this” and “not that.” We let go of our theological, philosophical, and mental idols. We embrace the gracious spaciousness that remains when we have rid our hearts of false gods. There in the empty space between the cherubim in the Holy of Holies of our souls, we experience God.

God is the One who refused to give a divine name to Moses, saying only “I AM.” God is the One in the Whirlwind who refused to give Job the theological answers he was looking for. God is found in the emptiness of the Wilderness. God is in the Empty Cross and the Empty Tomb.

Give up the spiritual substitutes being hawked by today’s commercial religious franchises, and God will find you. Die to self and you will find yourself in God. When the God of Truth has you, then you know the Truth, and the Truth sets you free.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Becoming Exvangelical

Franklin Graham is coming to New Hampshire this month as part of an evangelistic sweep through New England called “Decision America – Northeast Tour” sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. I will not be attending.

There was a time when I adored Billy Graham. I still hold his memory in high esteem. His son – not so much. Franklin is too political and his rhetoric too intolerant for me to tolerate any longer. It shows how much evangelicalism has changed, and how much I have changed.

I used to attend Billy Graham “crusades,” back when we never gave a thought to how offensive the term was to Muslims. While in seminary I was a counselor at his 1977 crusade in Cincinnati and at Billy Graham films. My father-in-law (also a Baptist pastor) thought of him so highly that I sometimes suspected that he considered Billy as the third person of the Trinity.

Those were the good old days when “evangelical” referred solely to one’s religious persuasion. Now it has become synonymous with the Religious Right. Back in those halcyon days Jimmy Carter was the public face of what it meant to be evangelical – before Ronald Reagan captured the hearts of the Moral Majority.

Now the word evangelical means that you support Donald Trump and a conservative social agenda. (Eighty-one percent of evangelicals voted for the president in the 2016 election.) It means that you are opposed to abortion, homosexuality, Islam, immigrants and a host of other “sins” and “sinners.” Furthermore it means that one wants to enforce that agenda through legislation.

Evangelicalism used to be – at least in my mind – a biblically-based expression of the unconditional love of God to all people. Now it feels very unloving. At least that is the way I hear it, as voiced in the rhetoric of Franklin Graham and others of his ilk. It also seems to be increasingly intolerant of progressive Christians and people of other faiths.

From my perspective evangelicalism has abandoned the gospel in exchange for political power. I am sure they see it otherwise, and might say that I am no longer Christian. The whole situation saddens me. I am glad that my father-in-law is not alive to see what has become of the organization that bears his hero’s name.

I am in the process of reading my 2013 book “Experiencing God Directly” on my podcast. As I recorded the introduction to the book recently, I found myself reading aloud these words: “I am a Baptist. In fact I would acknowledge the term evangelical to describe my religious persuasion, although I seldom use this term because of its connotations in popular American culture.”

That is no longer true. I no longer identify with the term, and I haven’t for several years. Not because I have changed so much in the last six years. It is because evangelicalism has changed so much. I guess I have become an ex-evangelical or “exvangelical” – a word recently coined to refer to those who have left the evangelical fold.

Some exvangelicals have abandoned religion completely. I remain stubbornly Christian and incurably religious, while becoming more progressive theologically, socially, and ethically. I have left evangelicalism in order to remain authentically Christian. I choose to remain a follower of Jesus and his radical gospel of love and grace, rather than walk the meandering paths of evangelicalism. So long, Franklin Graham.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Empathy Deficiency

According to NPR’s Hanna Rosin in her article entitled “The End of Empathy” (April 15), Americans are becoming less empathetic. She speaks of “a critical shift in American culture — one that a handful of researchers have been tracking, with some alarm, for the past decade or so. Americans these days seem to be losing their appetite for empathy, especially the walk-a-mile-in-someone's-shoes Easter Sunday morning kind.”

She continues, “More than a decade ago, a certain suspicion of empathy started to creep in, particularly among young people. One of the first people to notice was Sara Konrath, an associate professor and researcher at Indiana University. Since the late 1960s, researchers have surveyed young people on their levels of empathy, testing their agreement with statements such as: ‘It's not really my problem if others are in trouble and need help’ or ‘Before criticizing somebody I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in their place.’”

“Konrath collected decades of studies and noticed a very obvious pattern. Starting around 2000, the line starts to slide. More students say it's not their problem to help people in trouble, not their job to see the world from someone else's perspective. By 2009, on all the standard measures, Konrath found, young people on average measure 40 percent less empathetic than my own generation — 40 percent!”

The article goes on to say that the empathy that young people do exhibit appears to be a form of tribalism. They tend to be empathetic only toward those most like themselves. This trend makes me nervous about the social experiment that we call American democracy. Especially when I see increasing polarization and signs that our country is moving toward a “tyranny of the majority” at the expense of minorities.  

Let me be the first to say that the NPR article does not reflect my experience of young people, and I can easily think of exceptions to this generalization.  But the reality is I don’t know many high school or college students. My children are in their forties or late thirties. My grandchildren are in elementary school and are too young to be included in such surveys. Therefore I have no personal anecdotes to confirm or refute Konrath’s observations. But if Konrath’s findings are true, it is very troubling.

I keep a careful watch on trends of religious attendance and belief in our society. During this same time period, the involvement of young people in organized religion has declined by a similar percentage. I wonder if there is a connection. I hesitate to draw conclusions. Correlation is not causation.  But it makes me wonder if there is a relationship between these two trends. 

Local churches, especially small churches, are places where Christians regularly interact with people who are very different from themselves in many respects. In the churches I have served, church members have held widely different political and social views. They even disagree strongly on theological issues! Yet they rub shoulders every Sunday with their neighbors, get to know them, and even love them - even if they do not agree with them. 

Religious communities are very different than social media sites and “online communities,” which are popular among the young. These virtual “tribes” tend to coalesce around narrowly defined shared values and opinions. I can already hear the rebuttals. Yes, I know that churches also have “narrowly defined shared values and opinions” in the form of Christian beliefs. But in my experience churches are much more diverse than non-church folk realize.

For example the community church I served for 18 years in Sandwich, New Hampshire, had both Trumpers and Never Trumpers.  There were Baptists and Unitarians, Episcopalians and Evangelicals, Pro-Lifers and Pro-Choicers, and even a smattering of skeptics, agnostics and humanists - all gathering together every Sunday morning and doing the work of ministry.

In other churches I have served we had a wide variety of racial, ethnic, social and economic groups represented in my congregations. Sunday morning worship and Sunday School in Lowell, Massachusetts, was one of the most diverse gathering of people I have experienced. 

Most importantly, small churches tend to focus not on theology, politics or social values, but on the shared command of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, empathy. It is one of the top two commands of Christ, along with loving God with all our hearts.

I am not sure if that makes church folk more empathetic than non-church folk, or church youth more empathetic than non-church youth. That would take more research to determine. But church people certainly focus on empathy as an important value. We keep it front and center in preaching, teaching, worship and missions.

If nothing else, it seems as if church – as well as other spiritual communities - might be a part of the answer to the empathy deficit among our nation’s youth. When participation in religion declines, society loses something valuable. Just something to think about.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Experiencing God Directly

In the newest episode of my new podcast I begin reading from my 2013 book “Experiencing God Directly: The Way of Christian Nonduality.”

We can know God directly. We can have immediate awareness of oneness with God in the present moment. It is not mediated through a church, a religion, a creed or a spiritual path. This is not theological knowledge about God. It is not a religious experience facilitated by a worship service. It is not a spiritual experience elicited by religious disciplines or practices. It is not a revelation of God mediated through Scripture or communicated by spiritual teachers. This is direct unmediated awareness of God.

Jesus called this the Kingdom of God. He experienced it at his baptism, and it was his earliest message. Jesus described it to Nicodemus as being “born of the Spirit.” The apostle Paul referred to it as being “in Christ.” It was Moses’ experience of God as “I AM” at the Burning Bush. It was the experience of Job when he met God in the whirlwind. It produces what the New Testament calls the “fruit of the Spirit” in our lives - qualities like Love, Joy, and Peace. It is “the peace that surpasses all human understanding.” 

It is sometimes called nondual awareness. This is just another term for union with God. It is the experience of mystics in the Christian tradition, and it is echoed in other spiritual traditions. It is the Way, the Truth, and the Life that is Jesus Christ. This is the heart of Christianity. And it is available now. All we have to do is wake up to this always present awareness of God. 

I will put a link to the podcast website here (for those who get this in their inbox) as well as embed a player for all episodes so far (for those viewing this blog online.)