Archives For Christianity

Before I start on my study of the history of the church I want to do an “aside” post here on another topic.

I just read a very thoughtful post over at Rachel Held Evan’s blog about mysticism and evangelicalism. In it she was commenting on a book by Tim Challis about how mysticism, which he defined at any experiences with God outside of the Bible, as not being valid. I am not going to get into his arguments to back up this belief nor Rachel’s counter to it. Click on the link above to see all that.  Instead I am going to talk about how Mr. Challis and many evangelicals I have encountered to have thoroughly dismiss the pope as a mediator between man and God but then turn around and put the Bible in that position.

I personally have been on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide so I think I have an understanding of some of the differences. I spent the first 20 years in the Catholic church in one degree or another. I went to the first seven years of schooling being taught by nuns and priests. During that time I learned that man can’t interact directly with God as he is just too holy for our sinfulness.  Instead we had to count on the parish priest for our daily interactions with God and for the Pope for the really deep understandings.

Even during those years I felt uncomfortable with this idea. We received communion  on a regular basis but at that moment when the bread wafer turned into Jesus it was over the hunched shoulders of the priest ruling over the mass.  We just weren’t allow to be part of that transformation.  When I was an altar boy I occasionally tried to sneak a look at just what was going on but never saw anything I thought was miraculous about it. I just couldn’t understand why I needed someone else to talk to God for me.

As was typical I turned away from all things religious during my college years. I occasionally dabbled in the RCC but only very tepidly. When I was about to get married I had my first encounters with those people outside the “real” church. THose who call themselves Protestants in one form or another. The flavor I was involved with were Lutherans. I must admit that many of the things with Lutherans and Catholics are very similar. They have basically the same liturgy and beliefs with most things but definitely not when it come to the Pope. I can’t number how many times I heard very harsh words about the pope in my Lutheran circles. I was embarrassed by this almost hatred because I couldn’t understand it coming from  Christians.

In reality I have come to realize that Lutherans and I expect many other Protestants have simply moved from one mediator to another. They take all authority away from the pope and put it on the document created under the tutelage of King Constantine in the fourth century. Of course that document is the Bible. While the Bible contains very inspiring writings passed down from generation to generation before being penned it is not the sole presence of God in the world today. To say that God quit instructing us how to live and love more than 1600 years ago is to take power away from him.  And I am just not one to do that…..

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Atonement….

April 18, 2013 — Leave a comment

One of the current foundations of the Christianity is the atonement. Generally that is thought to be Jesus taking the wrath of God for us with his substitutional crucifixion in order to appease God wrath toward man’s sinfulness.  I, like many others I’m sure, thought that atonement was a foundational issue with Jesus and the early church.  In reality it was post-Constantine theologians who gave us the doctrine of original sin and the blood atonement, the belief that Jesus came to earth solely for the purpose of dying for our sins, was a doctrine not fully developed in the church until the tenth century.  It was almost upsetting to me to learn this fact since so many of my gathered beliefs hinged on it.

We all like to think that the things we are told to believe about Jesus  were established by him.  In reality the idea of atonement was not settled until centuries after his death. Yes, Jesus mentioned here and there about dying for us but I don’t now believe it was ever a central theme. Even the concept of man’s innate sinfulness is still a matter for disagreements.  Are we born bad and must be saved, as some assert, or are we born good, as others maintain, but have forgotten where we came from, where we are going, and to whom we belong? Was the death of Jesus on the cross necessary for the salvation of the world or was he here for other, or maybe additional. purposes?

Many think that if we disregard sacrificial atonement then we must throw Christianity out the window as Jesus’ death meant nothing.  To those the idea of universal salvation is pure heresy. But to others, like Philip Gulley who we are currently studying, it meant no such thing.  They believe that while it was unnecessary for God to come in the form of Jesus to kill himself, Jesus’ time on earth was to among other things to teach us how to live and how to love. While that purpose is very encompassing he also physically conquered death by his resurrection. That is no small thing!

Sacrificial atonement is something that I have always had trouble understanding. Why would God need to take on another form and kill himself to satisfy is own wrath?  Robin Meyers in his book entitled “The Underground Church” stated:

It is no coincidence that it took as long for the idea of the blood atonement to be fully formed as it took for Christians artists to begin to show us an image of the corpse of Jesus hanging on a cross.

No dead Jesus for a thousand years. This is not to say that the suffering of Jesus is unimportant; indeed it bears witness to the depth of his capacity to Love

It is not widely acknowledged in many Christian churches just how unresolved the issue of atonement is. It continues to be widely discussed even today.

Emergent 5Lets continue on with some more quotes from the book by Tony Jones entitled The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier

“I’m humble,” an emergent might tell you, “because I don’t know what I’m wrong about today. I’ll speak with confidence, and I’ll speak with passion, but I won’t speak with certainty.”

Being humble/uncertain in any area of theology is very intimidating to some within the church. They say we must believe everything in the Bible comes from God. They say we will invariably go down the “slippery slope” if we question anything in that document. They say if we question anything then everything in it is worthless.  Emergents believe that we are all relativist in one form or another. None of us truly believe that everything in the Bible is absolutely true.

Emergents are willing to say that they are relativists, many other won’t confess that. But there is the basic problem with confessing that you are an absolutist.

  • You must therefore say that God demands that you kill all homosexuals for it seems to say that somewhere in biblical text.
  • Paul says that all women should cover their heads when in church and you should shave those who don’t.  
  • He says that no women should come to church with braided hair.
  • He says that women should be quiet in church and let their husbands explain things to them when they are home.
  • The Bible tells us that all slaves should be happy in their circumstances and not to rebel against their masters

I dare say that no Christian church today abides by all of these demands of Paul. By not following the strict letter of the law they are proclaiming that some words in the bible are not relevant to our times and therefore, even if they don’t admit it, are declaring themselves relativists.

During the 1950s and 60s in the U.S. most Christian churches  declared that segregation was the law of God. In the 1930 most churches claimed that denying the vote to women was a command from God and that Hitler’s rule was a command from God.  Each generation has their set of things in the Bible or maybe the doctrine of their particular flavor of Christianity that they declare is absolute only to have the next generation deny that claim.

To claim that we are not all relativist when it comes to the Bible is the epitome of arrogance. Emergents at least are humble when it comes to their faith. They speak with passion and confidence but not with certainty on what they know about God and his messages to us.

Let’s close this discussion out with some additional words from Mr. Jones’ book”

For if one has rock-solid certainty, it’s only natural to suppose that all other viewpoints are wrong and therefore impose one’s certainty on others. Proper confidence [as practiced by emergents], by contrast, lends itself to persuasion, not imposition.

Emergents are humble. They don’t imagine that they have it all right and therefore those who disagree with them are wrong. Emergents do not pre-suppose that they alone know the true heart of God. They are humble to say that what they believe today just might be proved wrong tomorrow. That is the kind of Christianity that I want to follow.

Anyone who has read much of this blog knows how I feel about the slippery slope. I believe that the very concept has damaged us theologically, politically and personally beyond anything good that could come out of it. The very concept that everything we believe about a subject becomes worthless if we come to believe that any small part of it is questionable.

Here is what Tony Jones says about the slippery slope in his book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier:

That theology is local, conversational, and temporary does not mean that we must hold our beliefs without conviction. This is a charge often thrown at emergent Christians, but it’s false. As a society, we’ve been wrong about all sorts of things in the past, like slavery. And not letting women vote. And not letting nonwhites drink from the same water fountains as whites. I could go on and on. Our forebears held positions on these issues with deep conviction, but they were wrong. And I can say that unequivocally. At least, I can say that from my vantage point-as one who came after them-they were wrong. What I cannot say is which side of those issues I would have been on a century or two ago. Nor can I say which issues I’m mistaken on today….

Unlike Mr. Jones I “did” live through many of the issues he discussed here. I have to admit that I was wrong to have such a non-committal  attitude toward many of them when they were happening. Since I was a white kid growing up in rural America I, at least initially, didn’t think they had anything to do with me. In college in the 1960s I finally had some direct encounters and conversations with my first African-Americans. From conversations with them I came to understand that I too had a stake in these matters.  It was not until my local circumstance changed that I knew how critical the civil rights demonstrations of the time actually were.

Dispatch 11: Emergents believe that awareness of our relative position-to God, to one another, and to history – breeds biblical humility, not relativistic apathy

Our understanding that throughout history the theologians in particular and the church in general has both evolved and devolved. To deny that fact is to deny history itself. We can’t just ignore the fact that during the period quoted above many Christian denomination claimed that segregation and denying people of color their God given rights  was biblical. Among other things they pointed out the various reference to slaves in the Bible.  We are all relativists to one degree or another. When we recognize that fact it frees us to look for further understanding of God’s infinitely complicated words to us. When we lock onto one version of our choosing we lock out further revelations from God or Scripture.

The concept of the slippery slope is a dangerous one but not from the fact that we look at things differently but from the fact that we refuse to do so…..

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.

The Words of Jesus….

December 22, 2012 — Leave a comment

This is a continuation of the previous post about the words of Jesus taking front and center in Christian living.  Last time we talked about  how the red letters came about in our Christian bibles and about an organization dedicated to putting them back in their proper place in Christianity.  This time I want to tell you about a couple of books that put the red letters front and center.

Words of JesusThe first is a book by Phyllis Tickle entitled The Words of Jesus. This book which was published in 2008 was the first time I have come across something dedicated entirely by the words coming from Jesus’ mouth (at least as reported in the Gospel text). Phyllis Tickle is a firm member of the emergent movement and therefore one of my current favorite authors. This book was a rather ambitious undertaking as she admits in the preface. It is broken down into categories including:

  • Words of Public Teaching
  • Words of Private Instructions
  • Words of Healing Dialogue
  • Words of Intimate Conversation
  • Words of Post-Resurrection Encounters

I have used this book on several occasions as a way to find a particularly verse I was looking for. If you browse Amazon you will see it gets its share of low ratings from those who say all the words in the Bible are just as important as any others and also from those who say only their bible version is the “correct” one (she used several different versions).  As Tickle points out in her book pulling the red letters away from their surroundings in the Gospel text allows us to see them without prejudice of others interpretation. But to some degree they also then deny us the wisdom of the early fathers. I have most often used this book as a way to find a particular verse and then go to the gospel text for further understanding.

Red LettersThe second book in this area is a recent one entitled the Red Letters edited by Timothy Beals. This book is pure red letters and is organized in two distinct sections. One is the words are presented in chronological order as they were spoken. The second listing is by topic including: Kingdom and Creed, Hearing and Doing, Warnings and Woes.  This book resides on my Kindle beside the one above as a ready source for finding a particular verse for further study.

I would recommend both of these works to anyone serious about the teachings of Jesus. As pointed out above they do put all the emphasis on the unvarnished words of Jesus and then leave it up to you to understand the meaning. You do that by searching your heart and also looking at the surrounding text while keeping in mind that the surrounding text is just one man’s understanding of the words.

As I have mentioned several times on the blog over the years I believe it is up to each of us to come to our own understanding of what Christianity is all about and what the words of Jesus mean to us. While there have been literally thousands of theologians and such that have written their opinions very few of them seem to agree with each other.

If you want to know what Christianity is supposed to be about you must get that information directly from the foundation and that is Jesus. Any other source, which is always another person’s interpretation, is secondary at best.

I think most people, especially those who call themselves Christian, are at least a little familiar with the third great rummage sale in Christianity which was the Reformation.  I will only give a very brief look in this post. Martin Luther, a monk with an incredibly low self-image, started it in 1517 when he nailed his list of 95 complaints about the workings of the church on the Wittenberg church door.  Martin’s initial goal was to try to turn the church from corruption of its day. But, due to bruised egos he ended up causing the second great schism in the church.

Luther would not be the only person who would separate from the catholic church; many more would follow.

  •  John Calvin in 1534 followed Luther in forming his own church. Whereas Luther decided that the most important part of the bible was that we are saved by grace alone and works don’t really matter, Calvin went even further to believe that God simply chooses certain people to give his grace and everyone else is doomed to an eternal agony regardless of how they lived their lives or what they chose to believe.
  •  Ulrich Zwingli would started a Swiss reformation in 1523.
  • The Anabaptist movement began in 1525.  They did not favor church bureaucracies such as pope and bishops. Like most of the reformation proponents this group would later split into many others arguing over doctrinal and beliefs differences.
  • In 1523 King Henry VIII  split due marriage issues around wanting to marry Anne Boleyn. He started the Church of England
  • John Knox started the Scotland reform in 1559
  • In 1608 John Smyth baptises the first Baptists. He fixated on the method of baptism for his split.

Over the centuries many others would jump onto the separatist bandwagon. Of course splitting over interpretation of sacred documents and other such things continues even now. It is believed that there are now over 39,000 different versions of Christianity in existence today.

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Next time we will be talking more about the rummage sale that we are now engaged in. This time around some are basically trying to reassemble the church around actions rather than man-made beliefs. The emergent movement has some exciting possibilities in that regard.

Let’s close out this post with another visit into the book The Great Emergence  by Phyllis Tickle. This time about the coming age:

Now, some five hundred years later, even many of the most diehard Protestants among us have grown suspicious of “Scripture and Scripture only.” We question what the words mean— literally? Metaphorically? Actually? We even question which words do and do not belong in Scripture and the purity of the editorial line of descent of those that do. We begin to refer to Luther’s principle of “sola scriptura, scriptura sola” as having been little more than the creation of a paper pope in place of a flesh and blood one. And even as we speak, the authority that has been in place for five hundred years withers away in our hands. “Where now is the authority?” circles overhead like a dark angel goading us toward disestablishment. Where indeed? 

This is a continuation of my review of the book Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus by Robin Meyers. Here are the quotes we will look at on this post:

Adoration of the post-Easter Christ so dominates the language and liturgy of the church that the wisdom of pre-Easter Jesus is all but lost.

We know that Saul of Tarsus, who never met Jesus, became the apostle Paul through a completely mystical experience and seemed to care nothing for the earthly teachings of Jesus, only his “adoption” as the Son of God through the resurrection. Not only did he alter the nature of the gospel from a story to an argument, but his letters and those written by others in his name are the earliest Christian documents we have, written long before the gospels.

These words above were an eye-opener for me. I had been studying the words of Jesus in a serious way for over three years before I encountered them. It had just not occurred to me that there is indeed a very different view of Jesus by many after his resurrection than before.

The post-Easter Jesus was radically different from the pre-Easter Jesus in the eyes of many. To some he suddenly turned from a teacher of great wisdom into a God to be prayed to instead of followed. I think Jesus wanted us to remember is words more than that he conquered death as he had predicted. We need to learn how to take the stained glass off the gospel text and put back the life messages Jesus gave us. That is what he intends.

As Mr. Meyers said Paul was one of the dominant figures in creating the post-Easter Jesus. Paul, in fact never mentions any of the actual messages of Jesus but since he never actually met him that is understandable. The gospels were years away from being written when Paul penned his letters to the various churches so he did not have them to use as a reference. Paul’s words, even though inspired by God, were mainly from his background and experiences as a jewish authority.  When he was struck down on that road to Damascus he knew that Jesus was God. That, not the lessons Jesus taught, was the theme of most of his writings.

Coming from a Roman Catholic background to a Lutheran one I often found it interesting that the Protestant focus is primarily of Paul. The words of Jesus seem to take a background. Especially now that I have left the Lutheran fold I find it strange that they filter the words of Jesus through the words of Paul and not the other way around. Jesus spent three years with his disciples teaching them daily what it meant for the kingdom of God to come to earth. Since many of the words of Jesus were not recorded until years after his death I wonder how many of his precious messages from those thousand days that were lost due to incomplete human memories.

We must always remember to filter the words of Paul, and all the other words in the Bible, through the words of Jesus.  To do it any other way is just “bass-ackwards” in my mind.

Toward the end of his life, while in a Nazi prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a well known Lutheran theologian, wrote some tantalizing letters to his friend Eberhad Bethage where he wrestles with what he calls “religionless Christianity.”The letters in question were written in 1944 not long before he was executed by the Nazi’s. What did Bohhoeffer mean by Religionless Christianity?

Here are some of the words from those letters:

What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience–and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as “religious” do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by “religious.”….

To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man–not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.

I realize that I have picked but a few of Bonhoeffer’s words in his letters but I believe these are at the heart of his dilemma.  To me these words mean that what we do is more important than what we claim membership to.  It seems that Bonhoeffer was looking over seventy years in the future when he said there “even those who honestly describe themselves as religious do not in the least act up to it”.  Bonhoeffer seems to be saying that the word “religious” has taken up a different meaning than when it was originally defined.

Unfortunately the words “Christian” and “Religion” are almost just too entwined to be separated but that is indeed what B0nhoeffer seems to propose and I agree with him in that regard. Religion seems to be more closely linked to a club membership than to the teachings of Jesus. So to be a Christian does not necessarily mean being religious.

In closing I want to paraphrase his last words. It is not a passive religious act that makes a Christian, but the participation in the work Christ left us to do.  Someday the words Christian and religion may come to mean the same thing but that will take work on our part. When we as “religious” people quit insisting on strict adherence to man-made set of  “beliefs” but instead act on the words of Jesus then “religious” will once again come to mean something to the world. Until then I am happy to practice “Religionless Christianity”.

How Faith Changed….

August 13, 2012 — Leave a comment

This will probably be my last post about the early christians for a while. Next time I will begin to concentrate on some of the early theologians,bishops/historians/leaders or whatever you want to call them, and how they influenced the direction of the church. Closing this chapter, at least for now, it is important for you to remember what “faith” was to the early Christians. Here are a couple of quotes from Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith that I think summarizes this important topic.

At its outset “faith” meant a dynamic lifestyle sustained by fellowships that were guided by both men and women and that reflected hope for the coming of the Reign of God. But when Christianity became swollen into an elaborate code of prescribed beliefs and ritual obligations policed by a hierarchy, the meaning of “faith” was warped almost beyond recognition….

Initially faith had meant a primary life orientation, but the evolving clerical class now equated “faith” with “belief in” certain specified doctrines and patterns of authority, which, in any case, themselves changed periodically depending on who held the ecclesial scepter. The result was a disaster for dissent and open discussion. Yesterday’s heretic may be tomorrow’s saint, but the heretic is still dead…..

If the people of the Way were to see what became of their church I think they would be totally shocked!! To them faith meant a primary life orientation, a way of life, not strict obedience to a fixed set of belief about Jesus. Most of those belief were solidified long after Jesus left the earth. They would also be confused as to why women were pushed out of leadership roles in the church.

The people of the Way would be very disheartened to find that it is very difficult to discern  today’s Christians from those others around them! To them their faith meant following a very dynamic lifestyle that was generally in conflict with the empire around them.  How did the church come to be much more like the empire than a foreign group called the Way?

The People of the Way would be devastated to see how today’s Christians seem to ignore those around them that are struggling for their very existence! The very cornerstone of the people of the Way was to take care of these unfortunates as Jesus taught them. How could they now be more likely a target of church goer’s venom as “those people who are takers instead of producers”. How could the church of Jesus Christ have devolved into what we see today?

The People of the Way were more about living the life that Christ taught them and about the coming  Reign of God on earth as well as heaven rather than prescribed beliefs and ritual obligations to be forced upon them. They deemed their faith as a way of life rather an altar called that instantly secured a path to an afterlife that they generally cared little about.

What happened to make such a dramatic change.  That is what we will be studying next.