Rethinking Your Faith and Spirituality in 4 Movements
“I have come to bring fire on earth, and how I wish it were already ablaze”-Jesus
It must be stated up front that this series of writings is not for everybody. They will arc over my personal burgeoning epistemology (theory of knowledge) that I am hoping represents orthodox Christianity. What do I mean by “orthodox?” It’s likely that this word brings a certain idea to mind, perhaps even drawing association with a specific denomination within the larger Christian community. The word “orthodox,” after all, means “right practice;” a name adopted by Eastern, Greek speaking Christians to delineate themselves against the Latin, Western Church which took on the name “Catholic” meaning “Universal.” So if you practice “Right Practice,” then you must be doing it correctly, right? Nothing in this article will argue that you’re not. If that is how you interpret this essay, then there is a good chance you are missing the point. However, we must acknowledge that we all come to the table bringing both preconceived notions about spirituality, as well as personal religious practices that we have been taught to us to be the so called “Lord’s way.” Where do we get these practices? If you’re like me, we learn them from our family or from our church, often so strictly that we fear that straying even the slightest bit can consign us to hell. Many of us often believe this on such a hidden level, that we don’t even realize fear of hell (for ourselves and others) is actually animating our Christianity more than anything else. My aim in these writings is to shake loose any rigid certainty with which you approach GOD. It’s more likely than not, that this certainty is suffocating your soul. What I want to argue here, is that uncertainty is orthodox Christianity. Too often, our relationships are with the Church or teaching personality first, and GOD second. Perhaps, something better is available. And maybe it’s even truer than you could have hoped.
The challenge of communicating this concept of unknowing is daunting and uncomfortable to say the least. Perhaps if you’ve read this far, what I’ve said has already convinced you that this essay has nothing valid to offer. So, to avoid wasting time, let me sum my target audience in one sentence:
If you beleive that what Jesus meant and instructed, that what GOD intends for all people, and what is True is somehow unrepresented in today’s modern religious landscape, than this series of writings is for you.
If you are comfortable, at peace, rooted, growing, healthy, and in love with your current denomination, community, church, friends, teachers and the like, then this might only serve to frustrate you. But, if you, like I, have been hearing the ringing in your ears for some time now that something just isn’t quite right, then you may be positioned to discover something dangerous, exciting, and new.
Jesus, much like the Hindu Gurus who have demonstrated an incredible intimacy with GOD, never seek out masses to teach and instruct—this has always smelled of social control and agenda based leadership. Rather, like a child in a manger, wise people seek Truth regardless of what sort of swaddling it might be wrapped—familiar or not. So, these writings are probably only for people who know their journey is leading them to the frontier of their faith, to a daunting boundary with the uncomfortable. Rest easy, for you are in good company.
I love you.
Movement 1: Born Again
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
The above conversation is so relevant in today’s American Religious terrain.
Perhaps you’ve felt this: We shy away from discovering the difficult truths of God by stifling ourselves with literalism. Let the above story serve as an example.
To an ancient teacher of Judaism, the metaphor of rebirth was inescapably tied to the mystery of marriage. Ancient Jewish marriage ceremonies would begin with a type of outward cleansing; a bathing in water of the bride and groom, similar to a baptism, in which both members of the sacred union would be cleansed from any sin they would otherwise carry into the marriage. A symbolic wiping the slate clean. In the above passage, Jesus makes this clear in his reference to being born from water and Spirit.
This was obviously a very special time for both the bride and groom and was often considered a personal Yom Kippur—a communal day of atonement in which the sins of the people were accounted for and forgiven. As these two, now innocent people would move into the marriage vows and commitment, their personal atonement meant that they were free to actually abandon their former selves, and take up a new, third identity,—a new creation as Paul would echo in his letters to the Corinthians. The two became one, in essence a new, single person, and they were born again. This is an incredible example of an early understanding of incarnation to be sure.
Jesus was using this metaphor as means to convey what it meant to follow him. You must unite yourself in holy union with the Divine, you must marry yourself to the teachings and way and consciousness of Jesus. As a rabbi in ancient Israel, Jesus spent most of his time translating ancient text and tradition via parables and metaphor—like the marriage/rebirth parable above. We see that Nicodemus has a ringing in his ears, an itching that what Jesus has is Truth, is right, is good, is eternal, but he sidesteps the longing of his heart by avoiding Jesus’ teaching with literalism and ultimately misses the message. Jesus’ use of metaphor over literalism in conveying his teachings is perhaps the most important concept that I will try to demonstrate through my writings. Take note – we will visit it again and again.
“To go back into your mother’s womb is not possible,” is the train of thought Nicodemus creates driven by fear. As a leader in Israel, Nicodemus most likely understood exactly what Jesus was saying, but he was afraid to let go. He was afraid of losing his privilege, he was afraid of losing his status, he was afraid of the anger and sense of betrayal that his friends and family might feel. Can you imagine? A well-known religious teacher abandoning his life’s work so he could follow a peasant carpenter. That’s not going over well at the dinner table with mom and dad.
I can hear it now, “You used to be such a good boy Nic, what happened!?”
Or his colleagues, “A predictable slide into apostasy by another one of those Jesus followers,” they jeer.
So Nicodemus fools himself. His soul is coming to life in hearing the word of Jesus, but he still wants his certainty that comes from his sectarianism. He needs to formally talk himself out of the Truth. Jesus meets him at the crossroads.
And Jesus sees right through him. He leaves him no room to wiggle—because he knows that Nicodemus is quite conscious of what he is doing: only coming to meet in the night, hiding in the darkness from others who may judge him, just long enough to prove the teacher false. And there, with the above passage, he has his proof of Jesus’ insanity! Jesus just told me he wants me to re-enter my mother’s womb, that’s impossible! This man is crazy!
Despite knowing what Jesus actually wants, Nicodemus hides from the message by clinging to literalism. It’s not a rebirth from a mother, but a spiritual union with the Divine so encompassing, so dangerous in abandonment that even your own family might hate you. And here we find the perfect allegory for modern Americans. Jesus stands with us at the crossroads and asks us for our hand in eternal union to God—even if it doesn’t fit our traditional bents or cultural beliefs.
Even if it doesn’t look like what you call Christianity.
This is God after all, this is Truth! Like Pilate Nicodemus begs, what is truth? And we, like these men, chose a much smaller god: the god of control, the god of certainty, the god of religiosity and culture, the god of appeasement and compromise, the god of distraction and division, the god of denomination and relevance, the god violence and empire.
Instead of embracing the impossibility of “I am,” we bend GOD to ourselves for the comfort of certainty. I pray this reality aches your core as much as it hurts mine. Here’s the thing, and it’s scary for most Christians: if we truly embrace the mystery of GOD, it means “unknowing.” It’s the aggressive silence of just being quiet before the entirety of all creation.
Often, we instead shy away from this lack of certainty, and in turn make our understanding of GOD a version of ourselves. We often make a GOD a “hyperbeing.” We subconciously craft a version of oursleves that we want to be, and place this image onto GOD as a perfect being waiting for us in the sky or somewhere like that. Really, we wind up relating to a hyper-moral version of ourselves.
So where do we begin to find a genuine connection with GOD? Let’s start with the all too often excuse for abandoning our own spiritual maturity and the friendship of Jesus. Like most things that cause real evil in this world, it’s hiding in plain sight, masquerading as a beautiful angel as it were. Be aware, this is the most controversial part of this article. The biggest excuse for abandoning genuine faith: The Bible. Yup. Bet you didn’t see that one coming.
To be clear, I am NOT saying the Bible is some evil work crafted for evil deeds—far from it to be sure—but I am saying that there is a whole other behind the scenes sub-history to the text in which layers of less-than-holy behavior is overtly concealed. As emphasized through the story of Nicodemus, reading the Bible with stifling literalism actually causes us to completely miss the point. We’re taught, subliminally and overtly that if you follow it lock-step, you will be righteous, healthy, wise, and live a fulfilled life. Selling you that the bible is a fail proof system for prosperity is akin to any guaranteed weight loss program that you see advertised on late night TV; and that is not the message of God. This is why, in some ways, pastors are more like businessmen than mothers and fathers, selling you a message that keeps you in the seats of their Church and keeps your tithes coming their way.
To paraphrase Eugene Peterson, something awful happened when the pastor’s study became the pastor’s office. A slip into CEO-ism, with pastors competing against other churches for flock members and donations, selling the church as if it were a subscription newsletter, all backed by a stuffy text of rules became the norm. Also, hiding this reality in plain sight, even with good intentions has become just as commonplace. And to be honest, we all know this at some intuitive level, so we constantly look for the a new Church that somehow seems more authentic than the last, because we feel something is wrong. Some might even try a new denomination! Or maybe even a new religion all together. Ironically, this search for a more “authentic” church encourages the cycles of “Pastor-as-CEO” that is already suffocating our communities. Furthermore, the search for a new religion confuses those we find waiting for us on the other side. The idea of “converting” or becoming a Hindu for example is lost on many Hindus. This sort of thinking is considered childish in many parts of the world. Some call it dualism.
So if the Bible is not to be taken literally, as most of us have been taught, then what is the Bible? In reality, The Bible is not a history text; it is a collection of thought experiments, riddles, challenges, wisdom, poetry, metaphor, story, and albeit, some history. But to read each of the texts in this collection of writings with the same lens as the next would be like moving from Literature class, to History class, to Chemistry, to Health Studies, all with the same way of interpreting different types of information. Imagine reading Animal Farm with the same factual mentality that you use when studying the digestive system or the history of Babylonian Literature. You would have hundreds of students who would vehemently protest that there were actually talking animals who resisted the mean pig Napoleon, AND you would raise up a group of students who would be unable to identify the behaviors of evil authoritarian leaders. Reading the Bible in this way will only lead us to believe superstitious and mythical ideas, and to miss the entire nuanced lesson written into the fabric of the text between the lines. More importantly, it will take us further from God. In fact, many orthodox Jewish scholars would wonder in amazement over our arguments over whether Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale or not while missing the incredible impetus hidden in the text that God loves even our enemies. Furthermore, when we read the text with dimension, we internalize a very deep sense of “I am.” And this allows you to recognize GOD whether it’s in your tradition or not. Truth is Truth anywhere, and Jesus promised that this Truth is inside you, and at hand.
Placing the Bible in this position to be literally perfect words handed down by God translated into English harms the text’s power to heal the human soul and simultaneously limits and restricts us from being fully human.
If you ever hear anyone say, “I’m just doing what the Bible says, it clearly says XYZ,” do me a favor and run. The vast majority of the time, the texts in the Bible don’t simply say anything. They’re not easy. They take a lifetime of active mastery coupled with contemplative discipline to understand. But a message as difficult as that doesn’t sell as easily as one of certainty and reassurance, so we cut it out of the content we’re pushing on Sundays. Let’s be honest, this is great choice made by the CEO’s selling the “Get Spiritual Quick” scheme. Can you imagine anyone buying the weight loss program that requires “years of discipline and determination,” over the “six-week effortless miracle program promising you lose fifty pounds?” The seeds for this “Church Selling” can be found actually in reformational concepts like Sola Scriptura. The idea that only the Scripture can lead to Truth, and that we should all agree upon a singular truth. While originally well intended this is killing our genuine connection with God.
The Ancient Jews compared their scriptures to a gemstone with a thousand faces. In fact, declaring exclusive mastery of the text or complete understanding was evidence of a spiritual death—to assume one face of the scriptures alone meant that you had given up. And today we sell this type of shallow certainty as the only way to heaven. True spiritual wisdom was to own one’s personal limitations of knowledge. True knowledge is the humility to say “I don’t know.” This is a concept underneath the entirety of all the wisdom teachings in the Bible, and wisdom in other traditions as well. To further illustrate this point, I share with you a story from a handful of early Church leaders that demonstrates the struggle to lead from this place of unknowing.
“One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, “You have not understood it.” Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, “How would you explain this saying?” And he replied, “I do not know.” Then Abba Anthony said, “Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: ‘I do not know.’”
The wise man unknows.
It was Augustine who first noticed that if you think you know anything about GOD, about the spiritual realm past your own experience, then you are not talking about or worshipping GOD but an idol of your own crafting. Probably an incarnation of your own personal desires, bents, and moral leanings as hinted at earlier. To approach God as the complete unknown is true wisdom. As such, it might be impossible to approach God as other in any way and expect true communion with the Divine. It is in our abandonment of our conceptions of duality that we are free to fall into the eternal abyss and creative flow that is GOD.
And realize GOD is existence, GOD is the being-less fullness of all creation and each moment.
If we think we are separated from GOD, that GOD is an an independent being “up there” and somehow inaccessible from ourselves in this very moment, we will never find GOD, only our own imaginations. Even though GOD is present the whole time. If we make this misstep, we quite literally choose our comfortable imaginations over the fullness of GOD.
It is this sort of dualism (that is, considering yourself one object, God another, and your neighbor another) that is actually the greatest institutional heresy that is so closely tied to our understanding and approach to the scriptures. Consider the cornerstone prayer of Jewish Theology,
“Hear O Israel: The LORD our GOD, the LORD is one.”
Instead, today we look at the world in such divided terms. There becomes us and them, GOD and myself, friends and enemies. Too often we accept institutional heresy and allow ourselves to worship a god of our own making.
We, after all, are enemies of an angry god, whom needed blood to reconnect to us to himself. Correct?
Perhaps not. And this will lead us to the myth of redemptive violence, and the next movement.