If you have read this blog much you will know that I have pretty much given up on denominational Christianity and even the word “Christian”. Instead I have been calling myself a “follower of Jesus Christ”. Over the last few months I have been seriously contemplating my spiritual life and where I go from here. In the recent months this blog has pretty much been about how all the current forms of Christianity have been thoroughly polluted by the political and cultural atmospheres of our times. It became too disheartening to continue in that mode. Following Jesus should be a joyous thing to be celebrated instead of lamented.
A few weeks ago I had an epiphany of sorts. I have decided to concentrate this blog and my life, what remains of it, on what I mean when I say I am a follower of Jesus. I will try my best to focus on Jesus and not so much on the current form of his church. I will try to celebrate others in their journeys and criticize a little less. I will continue to study the Emergent Church movement to see what it has to offer and undoubtedly I will keep and eye on my Quaker friends.
One of the magazines I have been getting for some years now is Sojourners. I frequently use Jim Wallis’ emails as material for posts here. I will certainly continue to do that also. But the reason that part of a recent cover of that magazine is included in this post is the small words below the Sojourner logo. For those who might be reading this post on a phone or tablet those words are “Faith in Action for Social Justice”. I couldn’t think of four other words that would describe my version of Christianity than these. In the political sphere I am undoubtedly a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. Some find this combination conflicting. Social Justice is a primary driver for me in my life. In my mind if there is faith then there must also be action. As the brother of Jesus said faith without action is a dead faith and worthless.
So, here I am at another crossroads in my walk with Christ. I pray that I have taken the right fork….
What matters to those who look to history for important lessons is that something was lost in the fourth century that permanently changed the nature of Christianity. If we do not recover that spirit of loyalty to the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount as opposed to saluting the Nicene Creed, the decline of the church will continue. If we persist in arguing across our theological divides in a perishing world, then the church deserves its fate. If we cannot reverse the move away from praxis and toward doctrine that was sealed by Constantine, the church will become, and deserves to become, the relic of another age.
It was post-Constantine theologians who gave us the doctrine of original sin (an inherited disease for which the institution that makes the diagnosis also claims to have the only cure) and the blood atonement, the belief that Jesus came to earth solely for the purpose of dying for our sins, a doctrine not fully developed in the church until the tenth century.
Are we born bad and must be saved, as conservatives assert, or are we born good, as liberals 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 is this the ultimate form of Child abuse?
The words above are from a book entitled The Underground Church by Robin Meyers. I must admit that this book along with the book by Harvey Cox entitled The Age of Faith have fundamentally changed my perception of what the church should be. The words above were an “aha” moment for me. When I discovered that much of what I thought was from Jesus but in reality came many years later from man it changed my perception of what being a follower of Jesus really meant.
When I took the time to study early church history it opened my eyes to some truths that were hidden from me and from so many others today. When I realized that for the majority of its history Christianity has been in a constant conflict about its theology it made me realize that some of what I am told to just take as truth may actually just be the version that won out in a previous church conflict.
As the quote above states a major shift happened in the Church when Constantine changed it from being groups throughout the empire who followed the words of Jesus to a State mandated religion it changed the church in a very basic way. The power that came along with this dictate was corrosive to the church leaders and thinkers. In order to rescue the church from the mistakes made during these periods we must get back to the pre-Constantine church. Simply parroting the doctrine of past theologians will no longer hack it with many who are looking for a more spiritual foundation for their faith.
The emergent movement that is taking place today within the church says that it is ok to believe that some of the things from past leaders could have been wrong hearted. It is ok to say we don’t fully understand the heart of God. In other words it is ok to say that we and all those who preceded us are human beings with human foibles and weaknesses and just may have gotten some of it wrong. That inevitably include the past leaders and theologians. Yes, even the popes. I’m sure even Martin Luther would agree with that last part….
I am going to spend the next few posts giving you some more info about the emergent church movement now taking place around the world. The source for these posts is a book by Tony Jones entitled The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. Tony is one of the original leaders of this movement so his words have an insight into the beginning thoughts about just what is the emergent church today. I am not going to give you a front-to-back look at this book but instead will be jumping around to fit the theme I have chosen for each post. There are a lot of highlighted quotes in the book that give more depth to it so I will also be letting you see some of them.
Lets start out with some fundamental reasons behind this new way of looking at church.
More than one emergent reported sentiments similar to one young man who said, “This emergent church is my last attempt at church. If this doesn’t work, I’m out. I don’t think I’ll ever give up on God, but I’m on the verge of giving up on the notion that human beings can form organizations that faithfully represent God in the world.”…..
In an emergent church, you’re likely to hear a phrase like “Our calling as a church is to partner with God in the work that God is already doing in the world-to cooperate in the building of God’s Kingdom.” Many theological assumptions lie behind this statement, not least of which is a robust faith in God’s presence and ongoing activity in the world. Further, the idea that human beings can “cooperate” with God is particularly galling to conservative Calvinists, who generally deny the human ability to participate with God’s work. This posture, however, is too passive for most emergents, who see the Bible as a call for us to contribute to God’s purposes.
The first quote here is very much where I once was in relation to “doing church”. The more I studied the Bible and the more I was exposed to current church practices the more discouraged I became. I was very much attuned to the reality that human beings seemed unable to form organizations to faithfully represent what the words of Jesus were telling me.
The second quote strikes at the heart of my concerns. Much of current day church establishments especially those of a conservative nature just don’t seem to see the same words that I did when studying the red letters. Calvinists in particular say God has it all planned out. He knows before you are born whether he is going to allow you to come to him or just summarily cast you into an eternal torment. Calvinists might be the extreme end of this spectrum but they are not alone in those basic thoughts.
I know in a Lutheran church that I once attended I sat in the pew week after week with the minister telling me that as far as God is concerned I am nothing more than a worthless piece of snot but he loves me anyway and he doesn’t expect anything from me. There was almost never a mention of actually doing anything to help “God’s kingdom come to earth as it is in heaven”. I was told that my only duties were to thank God for his grace and maybe help bring some more members to our local congregation. We like most small congregations needed the money. I was also frequently told to watch out for that “big bad world” out there as it wants to take my faith away.
The emergent church is almost a counter-church to the ones I have been exposed to. They tell me that I am to partner with God in the work that he is doing. They tell me that I am very much part of the team that God has assembled to build His kingdom on earth. They tell me that church is not focused on “me” but about loving” others”… That is the message I have sought for much of my life.
I want to spend this post telling you a little more about today’s emergent churches. No, this is not just a different denomination coming onto the scene but instead is a paradigm shift taking place in the church itself and many times within existing church structures, even at the individual congregational level.
Let’s look as some more words about this from Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith
Emergent congregations are especially well equipped to live creatively in the newly post-Western Christianity. They are careful not to confuse the life and message of Jesus with the “Western” elements in which it has been packaged. They try to assign equal weight to both the message and the context so that a new version of the old story can take shape. They strongly underline “living the message” rather than simply proclaiming it. They experiment with settings, like cafes, in which two-way exchange rather than one-way preaching is possible.
Not only does the present trajectory of Christianity suggest a growing distinction between faith and belief; the trend has been visible for quite some time now.
This is the first time I think I have brought up the idea of the “western” elements. Post-Western Christianity as mentioned above is about how the church is growing rapidly in non-western countries primarily in Africa and South America. Their version of Christianity is very much different from ours. As said above they are very much into “living the message” and are not as influenced by past theologians thoughts on what is necessary to “believe” about Christ. In other words they go back to the principle of the early followers of Jesus.
These non-western churches are giving establishment church hierarchies a pain in the…. They just don’t believe that they have to buy into all of the interpretations and beliefs, some say baggage, of their parent church. They are probably giving the Pope and many other church leaders ulcers with this attitude. Many in fact embrace the concept of liberation theology and many are also Pentecostal in nature. So, as many claim Christianity is still growing throughout the world but the vast majority of the growth is from “maverick” churches in other parts of the world.
Most growth in the U.S. is now occurring in non-denominational churches that are freer to reject parts of the baggage of the past. To the dire shock of some, these churches experiment with different settings in which a diversity of beliefs is not only tolerated but actually encouraged.
Today’s emergent movement is taking place in all of the examples above. We are finally trying to get back to the messages of Jesus and to put all the human interpretations onto the back burner of our faith where they belonged all this time. Today’s emergent movement is about stripping the two millennia of packaging away from Jesus so that we can see the original content and that is certainly a very good thing in my mind.
It always saddens me to see yet another instance of a Christian church exercising exclusion but that is what this article is all about. This time it is the Roman Catholic church. They stripped Rev. Bill Brennan, a 92-year-old Jesuit priest (that is him in the picture here) of his duties because he performed a liturgy in with a female priest not sanctioned with the Roman Catholic church. Here are some bits and pieces from the source article for our discussion today:
source: Priest stripped of duties for celebrating Mass with woman priest – U.S. News.
A Milwaukee-area Catholic priest was stripped of his priestly duties after he presided over a Mass with a woman priest last month in Georgia….
The Catholic Church prohibits women’s ordination, saying it has no authority to ordain women because Jesus chose only men as his apostles….
About 59 percent of American Catholics are in favor of women’s ordination, according to a 2010 poll by The New York Times and CBS, but the Vatican sees the initiative as having the potential to cause a rift in the church….
Brennan, who lives with other retired Jesuits in the Milwaukee area, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he understood the risks when he decided to perform a liturgy alongside a woman priest.
“Sometimes in our lives we have to trust our conscience and bring about the consequences,” he told the newspaper. “I wasn’t trying to show off for the ladies.”….
I have heard of two reasons now why the Catholic church does not allow priests to marry. The first was that King Constantine who hijacked the church in the fourth century to make it a State religion did it so that priests could not pass on their power given by Constantine to their children. He insisted that he alone had that power and that is would not be inherited.
The second reason now is that all of the apostles were men and therefore Jesus did not intend women to be faith leaders. If you know even the slightest amount of history during this period you know just how little power women possessed in those times. They were for the most part considered property of either their fathers or their husbands. Documents that have been appearing in archeological digs since the 1940’s sheds a seemingly new light on early Christian female leaders. Mary Magdalen comes to mind first but there were several other women leaders in the early church despite the fact that it was generally culturally prohibited at the time. I’m just a simple guy but this excuse for limiting spiritual leaders to only men seems kind of lame to me standing here in the 21st century.
So here we are with a 92-year-old priest who has given his life for his God being chastised by the church hierarchy for trusting his conscience. There seems to be an ongoing conflict between American Catholics and the Vatican in recent years and this is one of those cases. But, like most other Christian churches the Roman Catholic church is has a very vertical hierarchy. The person at the top is given predominate power over those below him. That often results in very slow changes from the grass roots level.
It is sad to see the church spend more time excluding others than to welcome the stranger as Jesus taught us. I am hoping that the emergent church movement will eventually correct this anomaly.
From A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith by Brian D. McLaren:
We’re following the best Christian tradition of going back to Jesus and the Scriptures, so our quest for a new kind of Christianity is, in fact, a most conservative quest. In our return to our roots, however, we’re not writing off all the great sages, scholars, and saints of church history. We’re simply going back to the original Evangelists, apostles, and especially Jesus and making sure we’re as in sync with them as possible from this point forward. We’re not trying to explain away anything in the Bible. We’re simply trying to take seriously the central elements of the canonical texts that have been studiously marginalized for too long—the good news of the kingdom of God and the biblical narratives that it consummates, integrates, celebrates, and opens to all people everywhere.
From time to time on this blog I get comments from people who seem threatened by my words. They say “why are you so down on the church” or “what do you have against the church”. When I answer them I try to assure them that I am not down of the teachings of Jesus Christ. They are very much a part of my daily life. But we have come to see Jesus more through a lens of other men and have fallen away from the words themselves.
What is happening via the emergent movement today is kind of like renovating an old house. You often must strip down layer after layer of paint that has been put on the house by many previous owners in order to see what the house originally looked like. By going back to the original words our quest for a new kind of Christianity is actually a conservative one. You might say that we are trying to restore the old kind of Christianity but with meaning to today’s world.
I know that these words will not calm many in those churches who seem fixated on reciting a man-made list of beliefs about Jesus as proof of their faith in him. They seem to think that reciting beliefs that others have formulated about Jesus is what is expected of us.
The central elements of the text which are the words of Jesus seem to be but a shadow in many churches of this day. The good news of the kingdom of God has been lost to recent generations. The emergent movement that is taking place in the church today will eventually free us to understand the words of Jesus outside of this archaic literal foundation. Origen had is right almost 1800 years ago that there is just too much inconsistencies to say all in the bible is literally true without exception.