Archives For Doctrine & Dogma

On December 5th, The Diversity Chronicle posted a blog with the clever title ‘Pope Francis Condemns Racism and declares that “All Religions Are True” At Historic Third Vatican Council’ . People quickly spread the piece via social media, and many—especially Evangelical Christians—attacked the Pope.

The fact that the article was a spoof and not true should serve as a reminder to always research and verify sources, but even more alarming was that so many Christians were seemingly waiting for a reason to blast Pope Francis.

It was as if people wanted an opportunity to turn on the Pope, and this article was the perfect fodder for their distrust. Thus, the story spread and became a viral message of how the Catholic Church was once again spreading a “false Gospel” and that the Pope was probably  working in collusion with the AntiChrist.

SOURCE: Do ‘Evangelicals’ Still Distrust Catholicism? | Stephen Mattson.

I must admit that Stephen Mattson is becoming one of my favorite bloggers over at Red Letter Christians.  He has an innate ability to stand back and report on things without the usual assumptions and prejudgements. Thinking for yourself in the religious sphere is a task that comes with a lot of criticism. Stephen Mattson certainly does not shy away from saying what he believes and that I very much admire in him.

The quote above struck right at home with me.  To understand where I am coming from you should know that I spent the early third of my life as a Catholic. I was an altar boy and went the first seven years of school in a Catholic institution. Like many I dropped away during college and then left entirely after that.  I won’t go into the reason for leaving the Catholic church here but looking back it probably had more to do with pitiful management of the local church I was attending than anything else.

After my first and only marriage at the age of forty I joined a Lutheran church and stayed there until I was stripped of membership because of theological differences.  I would not refute my belief that he earth is greater than 5,000 year old or believe that the Bible is 100% literal and true.

Having spent a good deal of time in both Catholic and Evangelical churches I can say without a doubt that the antipathy between the two organization runs predominately on the Evangelical side.  Yes, I heard growing up as a Catholic that it was the only true religion but that dwarfed when compared what I heard on the Evangelical side.  I found that there are indeed many who thoroughly despise the Pope and believe him to be the antiChrist.

I think part of this antipathy comes from the Reformation but I think the bigger part due to a basic theological difference between the two. The Catholic church has always put an emphasis on “works” where as most Evangelical shy very much away from that very concept.  Evangelicals for the most part have put being a Christian as “fire insurance”. Say the right words and then go on living your life as you please.  Many of my Protestant friends seem too fearful of putting “works”/action at any level into their religious ideology.

If Grace is trueI am saddened by how many people are afraid of God, projecting their negative experiences with parents and the Church onto God. Often we’ve reinforced these false images of God. I assured Susan her Father in heaven was different from her earthly father. I could tell she wanted to believe me but still hesitated.

Susan asked me, “What if you’re wrong, and I believe you and go to hell?” I replied, “Do you really think God would damn you to hell for overestimating his love?”

Susan didn’t leave our church. In the following years, she cautiously opened her heart and mind to the notion that God could speak to her and she could experience him directly. But more than that, as her awareness of God’s love increased, she began to suspect God felt about everyone the way he felt about her. She began to believe something beautiful about God.

Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (p. 46). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition

I too grew up with the fear of God’s wrath.  It frightened me even at an early age. The Susan mentioned here was a member of Mr. Gulley’s church who was struggling with the difference between God’s wrath and His grace.  She feared that if she did not fear God enough that he would send her to hell.  She was afraid that God would punish her if she gave herself totally over to his grace. Mr. Gulley had to convince her that even though something bad had happened to her doesn’t mean that God caused it to happen. Susan had grown up in churches that were heavy on “hell and damnation” and light on grace.

I know there are a number of denominations who emphasize God’s wrath. They treat God as this fearful being who spends his time damning people to an eternity of hell. Some say if you curse, drink alcohol or even dance that God will come down on you hard. To me these denominations seem to totally ignore Jesus of the New Testament and his unending love for each of us.

To me it is totally unChristian to ignore Jesus’ agape love so that those in authority can control the behavior of their congregations but that is just what seems to be happening in too many churches today.  While Jesus had some pretty stern words for the clergy of his day he also showed his love for everyone else. Especially those who sinned the worst.  I suspect that most of the “wrath” preaching is one from personal power rather than the love of God.

We will continue on with the topic of being afraid of God in the next post.

If Grace is true“How can you believe that God’s grace isn’t sufficient, that many of God’s children will languish in hell forever, that they’ll never be restored to their Father, that evil will claim victory in so many lives? How can you believe that?”

Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (pp. 89-90). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Some think the idea of universal salvation is a new thing but in reality it goes back to the founding fathers of the church. Origen and Gregory of Nyssa believed in the salvation of all people. But of course we know that the champions of God’s grace were often silenced by future theologians especially by those who followed King Constantine several hundred years later. Much like the old saying that “history is written by the victors”, much of Christian dogma was written by those who charged their opponents with heresy and got that claim to stick.

As I have mentioned before I am still wrestling with the idea of universal salvation. It is easy to show with pride how I am saved while so many are damned to hell for eternity.  Like the return of the prodigal son I don’t want to admit that some who have led totally broken lives will  somehow sit alongside me in God’s presence.

In the end I simply will not diminish God’s grace in order to sustain the belief of God’s wrath.  I want to finish the post with some final words from the book that took hold of me and shook me.

I insisted we were free to reject God’s grace. It never occurred to me that God might be free to reject our rejection.

Who is more powerful God or human will? I think I know the answer to that question….

If Grace is trueWe can’t have it both ways. We can’t honor the words of the men and women of the Bible while ignoring their example. They trusted their experiences with God more than the words of those who preceded them. They believed in a God of fresh words. How can we canonize their words but ignore their radical obedience to the voice of a living God? We have become people who read well but listen poorly.

Yet, if we were to read Scripture carefully, we would discover an interesting truth. Of the nearly four hundred and fifty times when Scripture speaks of the “word of God,” only a handful of references imply any written document. In Scripture, the “word of God” is almost always spoken or heard. The word of God is a voice. It is experienced.

Time and again, those who opposed Jesus would quote Scripture. They would remind him of the Sabbath law, the requirement to fast, the provision for divorce, and the penalty for adultery. Jesus seemed unimpressed with a person’s ability to quote Scripture. His interest was in a person’s ability to hear God’s voice. He said, “He who belongs to God hears what God says” (John 8:47). To limit the word of God to the written word is to muzzle God.

This doesn’t mean I reject or ignore the Bible. It means I remember that the God I am reading about is looking over my shoulder, whispering in my ear. 

Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (pp. 40-41). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

We can’t have it both ways.  We can’t say that God told us everything he needed us to know two-thousand years ago and then say that God doesn’t speak to us today. But that is just the dichotomy that many Christians put themselves in so that they can believe that the Bible is literal and inerrant and the final word.  As the quote says “we have become people who read well but listen poorly”. I think that is the case with most Christian denominations today. My Quaker friends, of which the two authors above are members, might be an exception to that general thought but there seem to be few others. It is very interesting to see the quote above about the use of the biblical phrase “word of God” being a spoken word not a written word.

I don’t know about those of Jewish faith if any of them believe in the literal truth in their holy documents but certainly many Christians are told to believe in the literal truth of the Old Testament which is based on the Torah. Jesus again and again throughout his time on earth told us not to believe in things that were considered law by the clergy of his day.  I remember vividly the places where Jesus said “you have heard it said… but….” It seems that Jesus did more discounting of the then Scripture than he did backing it.

As Mr. Gulley said that doesn’t mean that we are to reject or ignore the Bible. We must understand that much of that text was more about passed down stories of ancient times than they were about lessons for today.  God continues to whisper in our ears but he also speaks to me through through these ancient stories…  Yes, as my once clergy friend says I have to be aware that some things I might hear are not from God. But I must also be aware that some things I read in the ancient text are just stories. Jesus told me that much….

If Grace is trueI didn’t consider this for many years. I actually thought my experiences rare. I was one of the chosen. I was special. Now I know the truth. God whispers his love in every ear. He isn’t interested in declaring his love to a select few. He doesn’t limit his presence to Vatican City, to the halls of seminaries, to the offices of preachers, or to church altars. God doesn’t restrict his communication to the Bible. He doesn’t confine his presence to any single denomination or religion. God speaks to all people, even when they’re not inclined to listen.

Fortunately, God looks for the slightest yielding, the smallest opening, to make his love known. God doesn’t stand with his back turned until we ask for him. God doesn’t hide and expect us to seek him. God doesn’t keep his distance and await our call. God said, “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’” (Isaiah 65:1). What God did for the children of Israel, God does for all. God stands at the door and knocks, and if we don’t answer, he looks for an open window.

Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (pp. 18-19). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The quote above is about the time that Philip Gulley first experienced God’s Grace.I too remember the specific time when I finally stubbornly admitted that I finally get it. I felt the Holy Spirit enter my soul. So you could say I was born again if that is your thing. God chose that particular moment and method to communicate with me maybe because my stubborn resistance was at a low point. It was a very emotional moment for me.   I felt like one of the chosen; one of the special ones. God found that smallest opening and made his love known to me. But what if it is really true that God does not choose among his children but has agape love for all of us and chooses us all?

I know there are places in the Bible that seem to say something contrary but if you really look at them with an eye toward universal salvation they also make sense in that venue.

  • What if we got this eternal damnation thing wrong?  After all it wasn’t really even formalized until the tenth century.
  • Are we wasting our time trying to get others to see Jesus when he already has a plan for revealing himself to each of us?  Could we be spending our time doing something that God has already worked out?
  • If grace is true then why isn’t it true for everyone?
  • Instead of trying to save souls maybe we should be teaching others about Jesus and how to follow his ways?
  • Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if we all concentrated on doing the work that Jesus told us to do?

These are the questions I have been asking myself lately.  God doesn’t turn his back to us until we ask for him. He doesn’t lay back waiting for us to call his name.  He patiently keeps coming to us until we set aside our stubbornness and pride and see him as he truly is. God loves us all; I will leave universal salvation up to him to make that happen. I know he can if he wants to and he told us he wants all of us to have his love.

Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James —  If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person

We are not to worship the Bible; we are to worship the One the Bible reveals. Too often, we clutch desperately to our Bibles, memorizing only those verses that support our views and panicking when anyone suggests God might speak a fresh word. We belong to a long tradition of people who’ve found it safer to trust the Scripture we can control than the God we cannot.

Jesus never promised a written document to his followers. He promised something far more wonderful. He said, “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things…” (John 14:26). To deny the Spirit’s authority is to deny the very means God chose to speak to his people.

With this post I am going to start a short series of posts around a book by one of my favorite Christian authors. Phillip Gulley is a pastor of the Quaker church not too far from me. He is also a world renowned author of many books. The  book which we will study here is  If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person.  Many of Mr. Gulley’s books are somewhat controversial in some theological circles but that is really not the topic for this post.  The Bible as the sole witness to God is the topic at hand.

As I have mentioned before I spent almost twenty-five years in Lutheran churches.  Martin Luther who these denominations were named after had  three solas as the foundation for his revised beliefs.

Sola Fide – This is a belief that faith and faith alone gives us salvation.  Luther made this doctrine based a couple of sentences from one of  Paul epistles. It was about being saved by grace alone and not be works so that no one can boost.

Sola Scriptura — This belief is that all the words in the Bible are from God and he has never provided any others. Everything else is immaterial.

Sola Christo — Only Jesus is the meditator between man and God.

Calvin later added a few more solas but these are the ones from Luther. Over my study of the church and the history around this reformation period I have come to have differences with each of these solas.

Sola Fide – The concept itself is very valuable. That is that faith in Jesus is the foundation of our religion but the trouble I have with this is how that faith was put into practice.  Luther, or should I say later Lutherans, went on to conclude that therefore works had nothing to do with Jesus’ message or commands. To me this could not be further from the truth. Works might not gain us personal salvation but in some ways they are even more important in that they take the focus off of us and onto those Jesus told us to love. If we focus totally on salvation then we are totally focused on ourselves.

Sola Scriptura –  As pointed out above Jesus no where in the biblical text said he was  leaving a written document for his followers to cling to. Instead he said the Holy Spirit would teach us more things. To think that somehow the Holy Spirit finished his job with the Apostles or early church fathers and therefore Holy Spirit revelations ceased is almost heresy to me. The Holy Spirit continues to this day to give us additional messages. I believe that this like the other solas were possibly an human overreach by Luther to get back at the Pope who thoroughly dissed him.

Sola Christo – Yes, Jesus may be the sole mediator between us and God. I know when Luther made up the sola he was disturbed by the actions of the current pope in selling indulgences. He wanted to take the pope, whom he had up to that point deemed the head of the church, out of the picture. He certainly had good reasons to do that.  But I won’t take the possibility away from God in the past or in the future having other mediators for us humans. To do that somehow limits God’s powers and I won’t go there.

Theology is Temporary…

February 4, 2013 — 2 Comments

Continuing with my study of theology as discussed in the book by Tony Jones entitled The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier, here is the quote for this post:

theology is temporary. Since our conceptions of God are shaped locally and in conversation, we must hold them humbly. We must carry our theologies with an open hand, as it were. To assume that our convictions about God are somehow timeless is the deepest arrogance, and it establishes an imperialistic attitude that has a chilling effect on the honest conversation that’s needed for theology to progress…..

[we can’t as some ask to] “sum it up,” and “boil it down” when speaking of God and God’s Kingdom, for it simply can’t be done. The Kingdom of God is expansive, explosive, and un-pin-downable (to coin a phrase). Consequently, our characterizations of God and God’s Kingdom are necessarily fleeting.

For a number of years I read seemingly countless books by today’s theologians and each one seemed convinced that his version of theology came from God and was therefore the only correct one and the only one for the ages. But as Mr. Jones pointed out above this declaration is perhaps the deepest form of arrogance on their part.  When we try to lock down the meaning and lessons of God we are actually declaring that He has nothing more to say about whatever we are discussing.

I can just imagine that many of the big thinkers of Christianity had the same mentality, even the ones who arrogantly claim that the Bible is totally literal and without the possibility of error. Of course one of those theologians was Martin Luther. When he declared “Sola Scriptura”, that is the bible alone is the total and complete word of God he then went on to say except for the Epistles of James (he called that one an epistle of straw) and a few others that he chose to personally exclude. By that very declaration he invalidated the very idea of sola scriptura.  I can’t understand why others have not come out and declared that simple fact about his teachings.  Maybe Luther being the leader of the “reformation” was the “too big to fail” of his times.

The bible and all the subsequent theologians’ views make up a very complex story of God but really hardly touch on the expansiveness of the Kingdom of God. Just when we think we have it nailed down something else pops up in the biblical text, in scientific discoveries, in archeological digs, or maybe from personal revelations that shows us a clearer path.

As Tony Jones say we can’t hermetically seal God’s ever-expanding Kingdom or our experiences and articulations of that Kingdom. They are changing as we mature both in self and in the corporate body of Christ. What we think we know now just maybe discounted by something we learn or finally understand tomorrow. In other words  whether we want to recognize it or not, theology is temporary.

Reading Scripture….

January 22, 2013 — 2 Comments

All followers of Jesus should be regular readers of Scripture. This is the primary place where we get our lessons from Jesus Christ. Learning how to read scripture is at the heart of learning what Jesus intended for us to do.  The topic of literalism came up very early in church history. Origen, who was one of the first church theologians, warned us not to take much of what is in scripture as  literal. That seems to be a lesson lost on so many in the fundamentalist’s organizations even today.  They insist that everything in the Bible is literal and without the possibility of error.

Here are some words about that from Diane Butler Bass in her book entitled “The People’s History Of Christianity”:

The problem with literalism began, according to Origen, in Genesis:

Who is found so ignorant as to suppose that God, as if He had been a husbandman, planted trees in paradise, in Eden towards the east, and a tree of life in it, i.e., a visible and palpable tree of wood, so that anyone eating of it with bodily teeth should obtain life, and, eating again of another tree, should come to the knowledge of good and evil? No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the afternoon in paradise, and that Adam lay hid under a tree, is related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it. The mystical meaning entailed seeking out “the heavenly things of which these serve as a pattern or shadow” in the text.

For Origen, reading scripture was a search for the “wisdom hidden” under the literal words. In his book On First Principles Origen pointed out scriptural contradictions from Genesis through the Gospels. Not intending to ridicule God’s Word, Origen claimed….

It is interesting to see that the battle with the literalists started very early in church history. It is also interesting to see that even in the third century the argument against literalism was so well documented that Origen went through the text line by line to find scriptural  contradictions and he claimed he found many.

When we recognize that much of scripture is myth, allegory, or whatever you want to call it, that is intended to teach us lessons instead of being taken literally, then we are freed to look for the actual messages contained in those words and not get fixated on the words themselves.

I know the recent reasons for this literal interpretation is because of the principle of “the slippery slope”. That is if we give in to any belief then all beliefs will be attacked and therefore become worthless.   The slippery slope has gotten us into so much trouble in the recent world that I mourn the very thought was even created.  The NRA uses it to try to prevent ANY gun regulations. The Republican Party uses it as a reason for total obstructionism.

The slippery slope does more damage in the religious realm as all the others where it is falsely applied.  When we celebrate our diversity in beliefs instead of trying to kill them, then we will be able to get back to the true messages of Jesus Christ and that is what the emergent church is attempting to do….

Anyone who has read much of this blog knows that I take the creeds of the Christian church to have done more harm than good.  Here are some words about that by Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith:

Creeds were always something theologians invented, often to stake out spheres of authority. The vast body of lay Christians knew little about them and cared less. Their faith was embodied in stories, saints’ days, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. But these everyday people constituted, after all, the vast majority.

The priests and theologians always remained a tiny minority. Consequently the recent emergence of “people’s history” is facilitating the recovery of Christianity’s original faith orientation. As the revival of religion and the change in religiousness spread around the world, it becomes clearer why the extraordinary growth of Christianity beyond the West is helping Christianity regain its initial impetus.

These areas lie far removed from Plato’s orbit. To be a Christian in India or Korea or Africa today does not mean to be a Christian à la grec. It means to be what is sometimes called a “postdogmatic” Christian. The content of the faith of non-Western Christians is much like that of the early church, even though the embodied style of their religion often resembles that of their non-Christian neighbors….

Religious people today are more interested in ethical guidelines and spiritual disciplines than in doctrines. They are also becoming less patriarchal, as women assume leadership positions in religions that have barred them for centuries, sometimes for millennia. Women are publishing commentaries on the Qur’an, leading synagogues, and directing Buddhist retreat centers. There are now women pastors, priests, and bishops in Christian denominations.

As you can see from these words things are changing at the root level in Christian churches. You might say that you have not seen much of a change but if you were a Christian in the southern hemisphere you would not question what is going on.  Western Christians want to point to the fact that the church is growing so therefore this “emergent movement” really doesn’t have much muscle. The trouble with that belief is that like many of the current beliefs/creeds present in the western church are naive at best or wrong at worst.

Much of South America is made up of Roman Catholics but they are not like the ones you come across in your Sunday visits. They are literally giving the pope heartburn with their non-allegience to many of the things the church hold dear. They are not aligning to all the things they are told to believe. Many of them in fact have embraced liberation theology. I know from the 2008 elections that was a dirty name in this country but not so in other parts of the world.

Yes, Christianity might be holding its own  overall but all of the growth is actually occurring  outside Europe and the U.S and it is a very different Christianity than what we know.  As the quote above says it much more closely resembles the early church than the modern church of the western world.  I personally think that is a good thing.  I kind of like the term post-dogmatic Christians. It has a nice ring to it.  I will be covering some of this in future posts because it will be a critical issue in the post-modern/dogmatic church of the twenty-first century by the emergent movement among others.

You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger. Let a person overcome anger by love. Hate is never ended by hatred but by love.
— Buddha —

BuddhaThese words could just as easily come from the mouth of Jesus as from Buddha. But in reality Buddha lived on this earth several hundred years before Jesus. It amazes me how similar the reported lives of Jesus and Buddha are. Here are some of those similarities as found at Wikipedia and other sources:

  •  Buddha is actually a title which means “the awakened one”, his name was actually Gautama Buddha.
  • Traditional biographies of Gautama generally include numerous miracles, omens, and supernatural events.
  • Buddha was never historically regarded by Buddhist traditions as being merely human
  • Most of Buddhism accounts of this life, discourses, and monastic rule are believed to have been summarized after his death and memorized by his followers
  • Various collections of teachings attributed to him were passed down by oral tradition, and first committed to writhing about 400 years later.

While there are great similarities there are also great differences:

  • Unlike Christians, the ancient Indians were generally unconcerned with chronologies, being more focused on philosophy.
  • Unlike Jesus, Buddha was supposedly born to a royal Hindi family.
  • Buddhist texts reflect this tendency, providing a clearer picture of what Gautama may have taught than of the dates of the events in his life.
  • Unlike Jesus, Buddha lived for about 45 years after his great awakening
  • Buddha never considered himself a god, nor do most of his followers. He was human but not merely human.

Even though Buddha is not considered a god is as endeared by the Hindi religion as Jesus is to the Christian one.  I think that all of us should learn what we can from the various spiritual sources.  In that regard his words above inspire me. The anger itself is what punishes you and the way to overcome that anger is love. This relates very closely to the words of Jesus.  I will have to learn more about Buddhism.