Embracing The Inner Agnostic December 15, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs.
Tags: Leslie D. Weatherhead, quotes, The Christian Agnostic
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My friend from chruch and someone who I consider to be a newfound mentor, Barbara, loaned a book to me about a week ago entitled The Christian Agnostic. Knowing how I feel about things, she told me that she first read this book 20 years ago and it changed her way of thinking. Later on in class she was speaking about ministries for lay people within the church and at some point she mentioned the idea of Christian Agnosticism. She claimed that title for herself, then nodded at me and said, “Matt, it’s okay to be agnostic.”
It’s been a busy time for me lately, with few moments for reading, but yesterday I picked the book up and began with chapter one. Immediately I was hooked.
The author, Leslie D. Weatherhead, has several memorable quotes in the text, so I thought I would share a few of them with you.
“Christianity is a love relationship with Christ far below – or above, if you like – differences of belief or different ways of worshiping, far above differences of language or of color. The Christianity of tomorrow will embrace all truth wherever it is found or however men have come to apprehend it, whether through specifically Christian teaching or through Buddhism, Mohammedanism, Hinduism, Confuscianism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism or even through the bleak desert of apparent atheism.”
“Every denomination within organized Christianity contains a valuable truth, but none contains all truth. Each mirrors at its best something of Christ but all are only caricatures of him.”
“The essential of Christianity, past, present, and future, is loving Christ and one another, and if the Quaker finds God in the silence and the Salvation Army in the band, the Roman Catholic in the Mass and the Baptist in immersion; if the High Anglican likes incense and ceremonial, and the Methodist puts his emphasis on personal experience, the fellowship of the authentic class meeting and Charles Wesley’s hymns, shy talk of disunity?”
“It is this unfair demand that to be a Christian one must ‘believe’ this and that intellectual proposition which has put so many thoughtful and lovable people off. ‘Must’ and ‘believe’ are words that should never go together.”
Reevaluating Inspiration September 26, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, church.
Tags: Biblical inspiration, church of christ, EFM, Episcopal Church, old testament, plenary inspiration
As I’ve mentioned recently, I’ve recently begun a program called EfM (Education for Ministry) through our church. It’s a four year commitment, based on seminary materials, that takes participants on a thought provoking trip through scriptures, tradition, and theology. I’m in year one, which is Old Testament, and our first week’s lesson mainly gave an overview of the Hebrew Bible and of the textual criticism dealing with it. Among these summaries was a short section on inspiration and the formation of the biblical canon that I found to be quite refreshing.
Having grown up in a more Fundamentalist sort of church, it was often assumed, either implicitly or explicitly, that biblical inspiration and, by extension, biblical inerrancy were a core belief. I heard that the Bible was, basically, written under the influence of verbal, plenary inspiration, that God told the writers what to write, word-for-word, and that every word came directly from that heavenly plane above. Please note that this idea, like most, is not universal in the Church of Christ, but that I remember hearing it talked of in this manner. For my own part, I started to have a problem with this doctrine years ago when I first really read my Bible from beginning to end and started to ask questions, most of which I brought about little but dismissive non-answers. I began to investigate further and soon found myself engrossed in the works of writers like Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, and others who helped me understand that the Fundamentalist view was untenable and that perhaps there was another, more logical, view.
I say this because there was a section in our EfM readings from last week regarding the inspiration of the Hebrew Bible that I found to be interesting:
What seems clear is that the original writers did not think they were writing “Holy Scripture.” The community of faith looked back and came to believe that the Spirit of God was uniquely present in these particular texts which we now term canonical.
I think I’m going to really like EfM.
Your God vs. My God September 8, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs.
Tags: 9/11, Christianity, Islam, love, peace, reactions, vengeance, violence
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Yesterday the obligatory post regarding the spiritual implications of 9/11 and its aftermath appeared on our church Facebook page. There were a few responses, religious reactions and spiritual questions, including at least one that characterized the God of Islam as one of wrath and vengeance and the God of Judaism/Christianity as one of love and mercy. Naturally, I had to insert my two cents:
I think we have to be careful not to paint all of Islam with the same brush. There are ways of interpreting their holy scriptures that portray a God of wrath and ways that show a God of peace. The same can be said of the Hebrew Bible (now there’s some divine vengeance!) to perhaps an even greater extent than the Quran. And that doesn’t even touch the violent hallucinations contained in the book of Revelation.
In the end, it seems to be a good time for reflection on ourselves and how we can best serve our world, while always being respectful and mindful of our differences.
Rocking with Hawking May 18, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs.
Tags: afterlife, fairy story, heaven, hell, NT Wright, Stephen Hawking
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Famed scientist Stephen Hawking made headlines this week when he declared that the concept of heaven is a “fairy story.”
N.T. Wright was quick to jump to the defense of an afterlife, publishing an article that I personally found to be unduly mean-spirited and condescending, in which he said that Hawking “doesn’t understand,” and that it is “depressing” to see him “trying to speak as an expert on things he sadly seems to know less about than many averagely intelligent Christians.”
Now I am a fan and reader of both Wright and Hawking, and have often found their perspectives to be quite enlightening and interesting, so this exchange has been particularly bothersome. My brother Jeff describes scientists as oftentimes taking a “fifth grade Sunday School version of Christianity as if it’s the real thing,” and I’m sure that he’s right in that assertion. At the same time, when it comes to teachings about heaven, isn’t that version the norm taught in many Evangelical churches? I know from my experience that it generally is. I learned from a young age, and it was regularly reaffirmed throughout my adult life that heaven is a place of eternal joy beyond this reality that is set aside for a select few believers. The point of life, then, is to work towards our reward, to ensure that we have our spot on board that one way flight to the heavenly realm.
Is that simplistic version of heaven a “fairy story?” Well, my guess is that N.T. Wright, himself, would agree with Dr. Hawking on this point, as evidenced by his 2008 interview with Time magazine in which he debunks the traditional idea of heaven, calling it a “distortion and serious diminution of Christian hope.”
I did away with the traditional view of hell long ago, coming to the conclusion that its existence was both unjust and illogical when placed in the context of a loving God. The idea of heaven, however, has been confounding. Should there be a place of eternal happiness whose population is based on the accident of one’s birthplace? It was an equation that seemed to have no answer, making heaven the mystery that I think it probably should be.
Thus, in the end, I find myself somewhere between Wright and Hawking and pretty far from the traditional concept, instead accepting what amounts to an agnostic view of the afterlife. I’d rather busy myself with trying to better this world than with trying to escape to the next.
We Need a Myth May 12, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, music.
Tags: Christianity, Jesus, Marcus Borg, myth, Okkervil River, We Need a Myth
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Each week I have the habit of perusing the newly released albums on Amazon and downloading one, or occasionally more, of them that interest me. This week’s choice was the latest from Austin indie rock band Okkervil River, a hyper-literate outfit with poetic lyrics and interesting instrumentation that I’ve been a fan of for several years. On this latest download, I was particularly taken with one song that I think fits within the context of my own theological views quite well. It is entitled “We Need a Myth” and the lyrics are as follows:
We need a myth
We need an amethyst bridge
We need a high hanging cliff
Jump, fall and lift
We can make it
We need a myth
We need a path
Through the mist
Like in our beds
We were just kids
Like what was said by our parents
What we’re after is just this
We need a myth
I feel my heart’s like a fist
I want words spilling out
From the blessed lips
Of any prophet or goddess
I need a myth
Brought back to life by a kiss
Scrape away grey cement
Show me the world as it was again
In a myth
A red ribbon to reconnect
The lady’s head to her neck
And to forget that her throat
Was ever slit
What we’re after is just this
And I’m sick
Of all these picture books that try
To steal some reflections for their light
But desperate measures point to desperate times
Which is why
We need a myth
We’re cut adrift
We need a mass uplift
The world is trembling and weeping
And at the point of believing
In a myth
The sun that shines on my head
The moon that lights me to bed
Were two identical twins
In a myth
I heard the voice of a friend
On Lethe’s banks
“Before I forget
We need a myth
As we lean in to kiss
To get two nails
Through the wrist
To get covered in blood
And to get covered in spit
And to forgive.”
And if all we’re taught is a trick
Why would this feeling persist?
And with the truth closing in
I must insist
We need a myth.
Like the band so succinctly puts it, we do need myths. Myths are the stories that power our lives, that give us meaning, that push our thoughts and actions into certain directions. I love the way that Jesus Seminar scholar Marcus Borg put it when I saw him speak several weeks ago:
A myth is a story about the way things never were but always are.
A myth then is something that is profoundly true, but not necessarily factually true. It is a story that carries great weight and meaning without the constraints of historical accuracy. The important thing for us to understand is that there is nothing at all wrong with the term myth, even when used in relation to our religious beliefs. Perhaps we would discover even more meaning in stories like Creation or in Jesus’s miraculous birth if we looked at them in terms of their stories and their meaning, rather than as real, historical events. Our scientific, post-Enlightenment world has a tendency to dismiss the idea as nonfactual and thus meaningless in today’s world, but perhaps it is time we do as the song says and try to “scrape away grey cement / And show the world as it was again.”
We need the mysteries. We need the myths.
Further Reflections on Spirit April 4, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, church.
Tags: Brahman, evil, Holy Spirit, indwelling spirit, love, qi, unforgivable sin
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Last week I wrote a piece about the concept of spirit and our discussion of it in that week’s Sunday morning class. In case you missed it and don’t want to click back on the link, we spoke of it as a universal spirit, indwelling in all of nature, a God-presence coursing through the very veins of creation. In its omnipresence and power, it may be compared to the Brahman of the Hindu religion or the qi of Chinese philosophy or even The Force.
Wednesday night our priest, Patrick, went further into this idea and took up the idea of the unforgivable sin – blaspheming the Holy Spirit. This whole concept has always been a bit mysterious to me because, really, what does it mean to “blaspheme the spirit” anyway? Do you have to say, “Hey spirit, screw you!” That just doesn’t make any sense.
Patrick explained it in this way: if the spirit inhabits all of mankind (or all of creation, for that matter), then blaspheming the spirit would be to point at a fellow human being and call them evil. This of course does not excuse evil actions, but it instead creates a distinction, one in which human beings are ultimately good, even made “in the image of God,” yet they have a tendency to misuse this divine power, to perpetrate acts that can only be described as evil. This evil takes many forms and can go far beyond the realm of depraved serial killers and their ilk, to one where even our inner prejudices and thoughts that we are better than others, is “unforgivable.” It was a profound idea and one that has stuck in my thoughts over the days since then.
So, then what hope is there for anyone if even our tendency to lock our car doors in certain neighborhoods or to look the other way when particular people pass by is “unforgivable?”
I think “unforgivable” is an unfortunate term to use in this instance because, in reality, nothing is truly unforgivable. In my eyes, this looks to be a piece of the hyperbole that Jesus was apt to use in order to make his point. You might compare it to his statement that calling someone a “fool” is a bad enough misstep to send one to eternal damnation. I mean, I seem to remember Jesus himself calling people foolish at times.
In the end, I think the best answer is to treat people, all people, as you want them to treat you. When we look at others as vessels for the divine, we do away with racism and bigotry and condemnation and instead find the joy inherent in life and love with our fellow humans.
Going Jedi March 29, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, church, religion.
Tags: Brahman, Jedi, spirit, Sunday School, the Force
Our Sunday morning class at church is quite different and unorthodox compared to those I have been a part of in the past. We meet in the church library, where a wide variety of parishioners, both old and young, cradle Episcopalians and converts like us, come together with our priest, Patrick, for a discussion that usually revolves around the readings for the week. I don’t recall exactly what the reading was for this past Sunday, but at some point Patrick asked the question, “What is spirit?”
There were a variety of answers, most of which revolved around the idea of the Holy Spirit as the third part of the Trinity, but I had a feeling that this was not exactly the answer that best fit the situation. Usually I remain quiet and just listen in class, content to learn as much as I can about this still unfamiliar branch of the Christian tree, but on that day I had the urge to speak up so I quietly raised my hand.
Feeling surprisingly confident, I spoke up, “Spirit is the unseen force dwelling in all things.”
Patrick smiled and nodded, “Exactly. You have to go Jedi to understand spirit.” He then went on to talk about spirit as a sort of life force running through all living creatures.
I like that idea and it’s one that I’ve pondered for several years, especially since I became interested in Eastern philosophy and practices, and its emphasis on contemplation and meditation and the holiness of the universe. You could then say that, while The Force gives a good pop culture answer to the question, “What is spirit?” perhaps the Hindu concept of Brahman is even more applicable. When the universe becomes something holy, rather than something to be escaped, our lives must undergo a massive transformation.
I’ve been talking and writing for a long time about my belief in the divine nature of humankind, that we are imbued with a piece of divinity, one that differs from that dwelling in other creatures and living things but that connects us with all. Whether you call it spirit, the Force, or the Brahman is really immaterial. It is there and it is important that we recognize it, embrace it, and use our power wisely for the betterment of humankind and the world around us.
On Bell and Hell March 24, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs.
Tags: Christianity, hell, Love Wins, Rob Bell
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I’ve been reading the responses to Rob Bell’s new book and its challenges to the classic concept of hell with great interest over the past few weeks. It seems to me that there are two major camps in the debate: those who enthusiastically support his view (or something like it) and those who vehemently oppose it, with few in between. Granted, I haven’t read the book yet and have rarely been impressed with Bell’s work in the past, but the subject remains one that fascinates me.
Personally, I gave up on the idea of hell years ago and wrote about that journey to some extent in my Losing My Religion series back in 2009. I think part two, in particular, dealt with that explicitly, though it is implicit throughout that series and most of my other writings on religion over the past few years. The things I said, particularly regarding this subject, led to some pretty nasty confrontations, a few of which were face-to-face and many more via the internet.
Today, I’m happy to say that I’m in a place where I don’t feel threatened when it comes to voicing my ideas. The 2011 version of Matt is a kinder, gentler, and less defensive one than ever before.
Preachin’ It March 22, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, church.
Tags: Bible, church of christ, Episcopal Church, preaching styles, topical lessons
I was reminded of something when I visited my parents’ church (the one I grew up in) over the weekend that I’ve noticed many times in years past when attending Evangelical congregations, but that I don’t believe I’ve ever written about before. It is something that bothers me to no end and that seems to be present across the various teaching aspects of a worship service – from Sunday school to the sermon.
So, what is this annoying aspect of attempted edification?
Well, it involves the use of the Bible in topical discussions or lectures/sermons in order to prove one’s point on the issue of the day. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with using the Bible as a reference point in these conversations, but it is the way that this is often conducted that particularly irks me. My observations over the years have been that a teacher/preacher/etc. will choose a topic and then pull singular verses, or sometimes even pieces of verses, from scripture in order to bolster the point they are attempting to make. Sometimes these may be lifted out of context and twisted and turned about until they little resemble their original meaning. I’m reminded of being a teenager and having a minister respond to my skeptical queries about water baptism being the only method of salvation with the first part of I Peter 3:21, “Baptism now saves you.” Of course, if you read farther you’ll find that this is not the point of the passage and that it actually says something almost completely the opposite of that assertion, but regardless, that was the defense thrust at me.
This no doubt originates from the beliefs that the Bible is inerrant (it’s not), perfectly unified across numerous authors and centuries (nope), and that one particular interpretation alone is correct (strike three). I’ve pondered this a great deal over the years as we hustle to flip from one verse in Galatians to another in Ezekiel and then to Leviticus, wondering what, if anything, they have to do with each other outside of the point trying to be made from the pulpit or in the classroom.
On the other hand, the faith community in which we now reside (St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church) takes a different approach. Each week there are a number of longer readings taken from the Lectionary on which to concentrate and generally both class and the sermon revolve around these. I particularly enjoy our priest’s style when it comes to preaching. He makes it more conversational and real, and rarely, if ever, cracks open a Bible. He has a real gift for storytelling and making it fit into the context of the week’s readings and in my view, this is much more effective and meaningful than a marathon page-turning session.
Blood Donation and Incarnation December 18, 2010Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs.
Tags: blood donation, incarnation
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If you spend very much time around my friend Patrick the priest, you will no doubt hear the word incarnation used a good deal, particularly in terms of having an incarnational faith. Recently he said something that I found to be quite profound regarding the blood drive held at St. Timothy’s this morning. Within the normal spiel giving all of the facts about the upcoming event, he said, “There is nothing more incarnational than this, giving your blood so that others might live.”
I thought that was a great thought, so I donated this morning and I hope you will anytime you get the opportunity.