Do all Rivers lead to the Ocean? Some May Not, but Many Do.

When I was young, one idea that was held up to mockery in fundamentalist circles was the idea that, when speaking of world religions, “all rivers lead to the ocean.” It was driven home that there could only be one way, one truth that was true for everyone. Only one system of belief that was correct.

A Zen Koan has a succinct answer to that mentality:

 A student monk came to his master and said

Master! Blessed be your teachings they are the truth!”
The master said,
No. my teachings are not the truth. The truth is the moon.
My teachings are my finger that point at the moon.
You can find the moon without my finger.
Or perhaps my finger will point you to the moon.
But many can see my finger pointing and still miss the moon.”

So to me the point being made is that there are many teachings, systems, or practices one can adopt to find the true, the good, and the beautiful.

It is to be noted that two people can have the same “beliefs” but only one of them actually discovers the truth. The proof is in the outcome. One becomes more loving, just, etc. The other stays the same, parroting concepts but not transforming. I have been that person who is merely a parrot. I try to be like the first.

I am not disparaging  any single person or group.  But I have simply observed that some people cling so literally to their own system that they can only see the “finger,” not the truth it is pointing to. I do not know why some people find the moon and others do not. I do not even claim to see the moon clearly. I just know I want to see the moon.

Some might ask, “well what is this truth in this tale symbolized by the moon?”

What is my definition of the moon? I cannot define the moon. My first thought is that it gives gentle light even in darkness. But I cannot define the moon. It does not belong to me, so I do not get to define it.

But in general, by “the moon” I mean that which enlightens, redeems, and empowers.

The “moon” is that which makes us more fully human, more fully humane. I was once told that a true vision of God always makes one love oneself and others more.

So. I think there are many paths to the true, the good, and the beautiful. Many different people point in different ways to the moon.

How does this play out in the real world? It means that there are many different ways of believing that bring life and light. And other ways that lead to negativity and despair. So it is false that, “all rivers lead to the ocean,” but true that many rivers do.

I have a good friend who used to be a charismatic christian. He was a decent person but very haughty and judgmental. In the course of his early college days, he lost all religious faith and belief in God. He became an avowed atheist. He also became a curious, humble, and compassionate person. I am glad he became an atheist. It was obviously what he needed.

Other friends of mine have found their way in progressive christian circles like the emergent church. I was lost and seeking when I found the writings of pacifist christians like John Howard Yoder and emergent writers like Brian Mclaren.

Still others have forged their own path apart from organized religion, like my friend who is a reiki master and spiritualist.

I recently visited a group which had members who were atheist, wiccan, christian, new thought, and probably other things as well. All different “paths” and “language symbols” were honored.

An atheist got a question about God related to the idea of enthusiasm. Some atheists might have launched into a rant about how the question did not apply to them. But this atheist took the word “God” as a symbol. She seemed to know, like the zen master, that many fingers point to the moon. That the word “God” for some could just mean “the cosmos” or “reality,” for those who do not use the term “God.”

At a practical level, I saw that the members of this group knew the wisdom of the zen master– That we all seek the moon, and we are all allowed to have different “teachings” as a way to get there.

Whatever one’s path, if it leads to empowering one to be more loving, more just, and more merciful…it is the right path.

So, tonight, look up at the actual moon. Think of the words of Zen Master. And know that you are finding your own truth.

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Civil Religion versus Authentic Spirituality.

Recently I had reason to revisit my strong belief in the separation of church and state. Which comes from my baptist heritage and my grandmother who once said, “I don’t want a teacher I don’t know praying with my child. What if she is methodist?”   (A horrible thing in her mind.)

Well, let us see. firstly, saying God is not in schools is not true. People pray before football games all the time in San Antonio.

So. Civil Religion versus Authentic Spirituality.

Here is the problem. When we say “God in school,” we actually mean, “humans who talk about God and pray to God in schools.”

Because if you imagine that the God who is everywhere can be taken out of school by a mere law, I think you are mistaken. Psalms says God is even in Sheol. Surely he is in math class as children silently pray not to fail. 🙂

Laws don’t keep God out. They only stop individuals from peddling their own brand of God. A Pentecostal God, or Catholic one, or Muslim, or Wiccan. Laws don’t keep God out. They keep the people in charge from FORCING their own beliefs on others.

And if the people in charge try to be fair and do not share their specific beliefs, if they try to please every sort belief in God, then they share generic prayers and ideas about God. Which are rarely moving.

So it would be with school prayers. Public prayers cannot be specific.

What if a high school teacher thinks you have to speak in tongues to be saved, shouldn’t he then use his job to find time to pray in tongues with his class? Because what use is prayer with his class if they do not actually get filled with the spirit?

So my imaginary readers might counter, “No. I did not mean that! I meant just prayer in general!”

Well, if you let Christians who are a lot like you lead prayer in school, you also have to let ones you do not agree with pray in school.  And if we let teachers pray in school, what kind of prayer?

Do you see the problem with civil religion? The pentecostal can’t pray in tongues. The Baptist can’t ask children to walk the aisle and accept Jesus. The Catholic cannot offer the body of Christ.

By its very nature, civil religion dilutes authentic experience of God. Because authentic experience of God is specific. That is why human made religion is so diverse. Same God, different ways to describe him.

The writer mentioned “exposing children more to a loving God changes one person’s life.”

I don’t think rote prayers would do much in that direction. So when do people’s lives get changed?

I can tell you when my life was changed. It was not the million times my family said grace. Or a public prayer.

At the age of 15, I met a man who made me realize God was real every day. How did he do that when my own family and church had not yet succeeded?

Because though I was actively religious, I did not know God. I had prayed a sinner’s prayer. I talked to God. But I never FELT God. I never experienced God. Not til I was 15.

Fred, my sunday school teacher, took me out to Pizza Hut for “just cokes and hangin’ out.” He showed me he cared. He did not talk about Jesus. But he acted and spoke Like Jesus. He truly cared about me. And that started a change in my life.

He was the first adult who ever wanted to know what I had to say. Though now I realize he was a nerdy sort of geologist in an oil town, to me he was the coolest.

And he was the one who invited me to the christian rock concert where I experienced God.

His witness was to bear witness in word and deed. He told me how his life was before Jesus and how it was after. He made me curious about God. His friendship and one on one time was what guided me after I first experienced God.

In midland they used to pray before football games, before we went to perform as a choir. And all the prayers were boring and generic. “Dear God, thank you for our director and bless all the hard work we did.” Upon hard reflection, do you think such perfunctory prayers change lives? I never saw anyone get filled with the holy spirit, or turn their lives over to God, or start believing in God after a football game prayer.

In Midland, TX, Teens started a Friday night midnight bible study. And among those radically devoted teens, I heard prayers that could make you sing or weep. We saw people get off drugs. Totally change their lives. That does not happen by giving God a 60 second infomerical of prayer said by the teacher just before she tells the kids what is for lunch. Midnight bible study was voluntary. It grew to 200 kids in six months. It was viral. 

“Civil Religion” is rarely powerful. In general, I like my religion and my spirituality NOT WATERED DOWN.

And public displays of religion, in my opinion, actually inoculate people against real experiences with God.

Keep religion private, authentic, and intense. Want to bring God to school? Saying a rote prayer in school does not bring God to school. Loving others the way you have been loved by God is what brings God to school.

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On how we decide the good. knowing rules/systems are made by the powerful

RULES ARE MADE BY THE POWERFUL: ETHICS FOR THE MARGINALIZED AND THE REST OF US

Majorie Suchoki talks about how moral rules/systems can themselves be sinful. Like the deep south and Jim Crow–legal, but evil. She says that to be moral/good you often have to “transgress” the rules of systems and create a new vision for ethics.

          I became “transgressive” in 1994. I was in a very oppressive system of belief, and I did not escape by means of system building. I did not have humanistic value matrix from which to operate. I just knew I had to break rules I thought were true in order to be who I was. I transgressed without any “evidence” but my gut instinct that I was in pain and needed change.

Eventually, I did find theological warrant for transgression.

To call sin a rebellion against God too easily translates into a social formula for keeping marginalized and oppressed people in places of poverty and/or powerlessness, since it tends to interpret rebellion against any form of political, social, or personal power as rebellion against God.” (Suchoki, Fall to Violence)

         If you keep the rules of society, the status quo, you will be complicit in systems of oppression. To quote Suchoki again, because she is awesome, “For example, to live in most portions in the world is to participate in some for of racism relative to ethnic groups on the margins of the power structure and value system of the culture. All who have attained the capacity to transcend the norms and structures of society participate in this racism, most passively, but many actively: all share in the guilt. But to change one’s attitudes and actions concerning the racism is to violate the communal norms; it is to TRANSGRESS boundaries.”

        For example, in America, we have economic apartheid by zip code. Go look up zip codes on zipskinny. The average builder of homes is going to maximize home profits. No concern for the fact that we are building silos of people with identical economic profiles, which often overlap with race and definitely with education and class. Is it any surprise that the terrible schools are in the poor zip codes where people have lower education levels and less income? I am assuming many of those builders are Christians. But have any of them said: “Well, I could my 6 million if I built only really nice homes. But if I mixed in some low income housing, I will only make 4 million, but that will mean some at risk kids will be in a new good school district, and that will make for a more diverse community, and that sounds like a good thing to do”? I am not sure anyone has ever approached them with the idea. Maybe somebody should. Because shunting off the poor into poor neighborhoods is not working for us as a culture. But we know that most home buyers don’t want to be near low income housing. I recently heard some people have a fit because builders were putting in apartments near their house, even though the builder told them it was going to be “upscale.” I have heard it called NIMBY or NOT IN MY BACKYARD. Wow. What an enlightened, human affirming, peacemaking, globally aware attitude “not in my backyard” is. I am not saying it is easy. No one says the right and good thing to do is easy. I don’t want my house value to go down. But I don’t want people to goto bad schools or live in slums either. To quote Jesus, he did not say his path was roses, but narrow. The spiritual path is often the narrow path. Just think about how hard it is to daily meditate! Let alone make decisions for our culture that don’t put your own interests first.

        I digress, but my point is….we MUST transgress. The companies that own the world, the status quo, etc, they have a vested interest in things remaining the way they are. Science calls it homeostasis. Systems have homeostasis. Even terribly unjust systems have homeostasis. So forgive me, if in my radical ethics that value empathy, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and fairness…I TRANSGRESS the status quo, or what people drinking tea in parlors think is appropriate. Well behaved Women rarely change the world. Transgress!

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Islam, Christianity, & Violence (Both Progressive & Conservative Christians get it Wrong)

One side: “Christianity is just as violent/bad as Islam!”

The Other: “No! it is Not! Christianity chilled out on the violence! Islam is way worse!”

Hey. Look. Let’s slow things down. Time for nuance.

First–The need to control others in the name of society/religion has been with humanity  for virtually all recorded memory.

Second–Religions are like bacteria. They change and there are various strains or sects. There is no one “Christianity” or one “Islam.” To my knowledge no Quaker Christian or Sufi Muslim has advocated violence in the name of God.

So let us explore two issues:

Actual war/violence:

Does a group within a faith have religious ideology that supports using violence in the name of God?

Billy Graham used to go visit presidents when they were thinking about declaring war. The question he was helping discern was, “Is this war just?” not “Does God want this war?”

Now, Just war can devolve into Holy War, but it is not the same. Holy War is proclaims killing and fighting an enemy as righteous/good. It is also the belief that God approves of this violence. God is not upset or concerned with the death of “the enemy.” Just War is when God allows you to go to war. Holy War is when God bids you to goto war.

For example, many Christians I grew up with saw war the way they saw putting a dog to sleep. It was sad but necessary; it was justifiable euthanasia. But no one was proclaiming, “It is God’s Will we kill this dog!” To me the difference between Just War and Holy War: “One is allowable or needed. The other is righteous and good.”

Speaking of Holy War & Christianity. Yes. We have a terrible past record. Some who use rhetoric of Just War actually mean Holy War.  I was actually told  on two occasions by persons who served/were serving in military that America is God’s Chosen Nation and the wars we fight are God’s will.  They believed our current wars were not just justifiable but mandated by American exceptionalism and God himself.

Having mentioned that Christianity has factions that believe in Holy War, looking at the global scale of action and rhetoric, Islam certainly seems to currently has more factions willing to say that killing is God’s Will & act accordingly.

On Forcing Religious beliefs by law or other means

Does the religious ideology seek to force non-members or its nation-state to follow most or all their religious dogma? And what are the penalties for non-compliance?

Focus on the Family is not telling Christians to forcibly convert people. The west does not jail someone for becoming an atheist. Yes, I have friends who lost friends and/or jobs in America over their beliefs. But they were not jailed or killed.

But progressives would argue, “There are factions of the religious right in America which seek to force their worldview/dogma/rules on all Americans. The puritans outlawed adultery based on religious beliefs.”  Yes, but adultery is now legal.

The Muslim brotherhood has in common with Focus on the Family the rhetoric that “true believers” should force religious rules by legislation. But even though most American Christians believe adultery is sinful few want to make it illegal. Adultery is illegal in some Islamic regimes.

[Edit: As for numbers, There are 84 million people in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood has a mere 600,000 members and 100,000 are considered active militants. Focus on the Family has a lot of listeners. And it has paid lobbyists. But does it rise to the level of having militants? The Muslim Brotherhood, for a time, was the legislating party in Egypt. The Christian Right, especially the more militant, is far less powerful.]

Religions change. Currently, most of Christianity is less explicitly violent than Islam. “But Christianity is used to oppress people economically!”

Yes. I know a Wiccan who teaches and if her religion was public knowledge her contract would not be renewed. But some Islamic countries jail you for blasphemy.  A sad fact is that for many years, Christian minorities were safe in Islamic countries, but now less and less. It is not Islam’s fault. It was change in the culture of Islam at fault.

Islam currently has a major problem with violence. Not the average muslim. But too many streams in Islam proclaim Holy War. Christianity has problems.  But on the world stage, I do not know anyone who is afraid of bombers killing in the name of Jesus. In fact, the the incidents that comes to mind are the Catholic right winger named Breivik. And some of the abortion clinic bombers who have killed 11 people since the 1990s.

So to those who say: “Islam is violent!” I say, “Yes but so is Christianity.”

To those who says, “Hey, Christianity has violence and oppression, too!” I would say, “Yes, but currently there seems to be more streams of Islam that are far more violent, draconian, and willing to force non-members to bend to their law.”

This could change. Europe and America tired of religious war.  I don’t know why. Europe got tired of killing in the name of God.  And I hope that in Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia, Pakistan, etc. –Muslims also decide that their religion cannot explicitly condone violence or coercion of faith as true religion. David Koresh was a christian nutball. Still Christian. Jim Jones was a Christian nutball. Still Christian. The leaders of ISIS? Well they are Islamic nutballs. Most Christians don’t want to claim Jim Jones. You don’t get to pick. Most muslims don’t want ISIS in their club. But it is. Isis. Wow. They want to fight Rome. Rome? Italians riding around on Vespas saying “Ciao!” But Jim Jones is dead, does not have a twitter feed, and did take over a land mass the size of the UK. Fox news, shut the hell up, xtianity often is violent, Go ask the god-fearing rednecks that beat up blacks in the 1960s. Liberals, Islam has a global problem with Violence. Admit that it is pretty scary.

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The Catch-22 for Evangelicals about Atheism

Evangelicals get very upset when one of their flock becomes an atheist. At one level, I understand. But at another, I think they have set themselves up for failure on this issue because of their reliance on two major but dissonant foundations.

The modern evangelical mind has two major important philosophical underpinnings (maybe more, but these are the important ones for us today.)

The first would be ontological. Concepts like: There is a God; this God has given us a Holy Book. Truth is always Truth no matter what you think or feel. You cannot base your life on your feelings or experience. (Because people are sinners.)

The second would be phenomenological and experiential. Modern evangelicals are conversion oriented and virtually all teach that you can have a personal relationship with Jesus. Even as short a time as 35 years, a large group of evangelicals would say that emotions and experience of Jesus were not that important. What mattered was that grace which enabled faith led to salvation. Emotion and experience were not as important. But in the push for conversionism, and the push for the idea that you can “accept Jesus” the movement shifted unconsciously to the idea that you “made a decision for christ” which suggests what I term a “psycho-social acceptence of Jesus”

My parents were involved with bible churches that were skeptical of all experience. Many southern baptist churches used to stress that what mattered was faith, and the SBC churches that preached the “deeper life” in Jesus (that you could have a mystical and personal experience of God beyond the “born again” experience)were often made fun of by other baptists.

But then came along the heirs to the pietists (which started in Moravia in the 1700s) who were the Jesus People of the 1960s.

And the pietists and Jesus people won. I think in large part due to the rising influence of contemporary christian music, praise and worship music, and the merging of mild charismatic streams of Christianity with the more mainstream evangelical church which further stress experience.

CCM music and Praise and Worship music are not just more personalistic in their approach to God/Faith. You see, the old hymns were largely songs to God about God…”God you are good. God you are great. God we are this. God we are that.” Hymns were often corporate “We the people of God say the following.” there were some exceptions but the ones in the official hymnals tended to be less personal. CCM and praise and worship music is more personal and relational.

I just went to iTunes and found a current big download in praise and worship. These are the lyrics:

Take me in with Your arms spread wide..

Take me in like an orphan child
Never let go Never leave my side

I am
Holding on to You
In the middle of the storm
I am holding on 

Love like this
Oh my God to find
I am overwhelmed
With a joy divine
Love like this sets our hearts on fire

This is not just personal. This is the language of romance and is in the tradition of the mystical. They fact that evangelicals do not like/use the word “mystical” does not mean that they are not, in fact, teaching that people can have mystical connection to God. When you say a person can experience the divine in an individual way, you are saying they can be a mystic. Go read some books on it at your local college.

Mysticism as a tradition is 1000s of years old. And it was never mainstream in Christianity. The average “Joe Blow” Christian in history (this may not apply to the first generation or two of Christians) were not personally mystical. Most people who became mystics went into the monastic movement. Sometimes leaders were mystics. But not the average adherent.

The modern evangelical church is constantly telling people that can experience God. I rememer the book “Experiencing God” by Henry Blackaby. It is right in the title!

But they also tell them that if they do not, then it is their fault. Because ontologically, God is real, whether you feel it or not. This is major cognitive dissonance!

And here is the funny thing about that:

The more likely one is to take this claim seriously, The more likely one is to have a crisis of faith.

In 43 years, I have talkd to a lot of Christians who are average. They believe, but not “real hard.” God is for the big stuff. Their prayers are short, about themselves, and their families. They may go to church every week or not. But they are not that dedicated. They do not internalize the values being preached. God is something that adds value to their lives. That value includes salvation, protection, and prosperity. They are not bad people. I am not judging them but observing. Globally and historically, this is what most people want out of religion: protection, prosperity, and a good afterlife. These people may not “experience god” much. Some do. But if they do not, they can say to themselves, “I have not really tried that hard.” And they would be right. They have not. No big deal. They have few serious crises of faith.

Then there are those that do try hard. They realize that Jesus did not come to just give you salvation or comfort but to seek and save the lost. To change the world. That christians should make a difference.

These people pray hard. They seek hard. They try their best to hear God. They do the things that they think Jesus would do, no matter how hard that is. No matter what the cost is. These are true believers/seekers.

And some of these true believers experience a God who listens, who cares, who answers their prayers. The evangelical ontology and evangelical phenomenological promise of an intimate God match up.

But for some? This may happen for awhile, then stop. Or it may never happen. I have talked to more liberal Christians who say they never “felt God” the way they were “supposed to” and came to believe in a different kind of Christianity and God. I have also talked to atheists who say they never felt God and finally admitted that . Finally, I have met atheists who say they “felt God” in the past but not anymore…and that they now think they were probably just wrong about the past.

This is the catch-22. Many of the atheists who no longer believe in God and Jesus stopped because they put the evangelical promise to the test. They actually believed what is promised in a 1000 praise songs, and in a 1000 sermons:

“He never failed me yet.”

“You ask me how I know he lives…he lives within my heart.”

“A man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with an idea.”

There are forms of Christianity that say, “forget what you feel.” Orthodoxy is one of them. They stick to ontology. If you tell an orthodox priest, “I don’t feel or believe in God.” They will say, “keep going to services and taking the host. What matters is what God does, not what you feel.” You may disagree but philosophically this makes more sense than saying. ‘You can experience god? Oh wait? You do not? TOTALLY YOUR FAULT.”

So. We would call this Unintended Consequences. The Unintended Consequences of the Catch-22 in Evanagelical Christianity is that the more it is preached, “you CAN have a personal relationship with God but that if you do not, it is your fault,” the more crazy and shaming the movement appears to those both inside and out who do not have that experience.

Roman Catholics and The Orthodox realize not everyone is built socially and psychologically to be a mystic. Too bad evangelicals did not get the memo. 

Post Script. (no need to read. Move along…)

This is a very personal issue for me, because I understand both sides. I read the book My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey in which thbrain scientist/author experienced a stroke that showed her that for the average person, it is our right, intuitive brain that experience reality in a holistic, non-categorical, non dual way.

This right hemisphere is the mystic’s brain. It is our other hemisphere, the left brain, which is the deductive side, that sees things in terms of past, present, future, categories, labels etc.

[Now, some people have told me “there is no such thing are right brain/left brain that is too simplistic.”

  1. our two brain hemispheres are largely separate

  2. The book I read was by a nueroscientist who experienced her own scientific understanding of the brain when a stroke shut down her left brain. Don’t take it up with me. Email her.

  3. The fact that some people do not fit the norm of left brain/right brain does not mean it is not true for many people. ]

This book made a lot of sense to me, because I seem to be able, at times, to radically shift between my two hemispheres. And I times, I cannot unshift at all.

My left brain is an atheist. It is deductive, categorical. It does not experience God and often, when thinking about God, it is easy to be a total skeptic.

However, My right brain is a mystic– it is relational and has had many experiences that fit what people call “the divine,” “God,” etc.

You cannot prove that there is a God because your brain experiences something. However, Ken Wilber notes that it is folly to say “It is just in your brain.” He talks about his dog Isaac. When he sees his Isaac and plays with him, his brain lights up. Ken’s brain says “Isaac is real. I am interacting with Isaac.” And the dog does, in fact, exist. Ken also experiences the divine. We cannot prove or disprove that the experiences of God people have relate to something outside there brain. They DO have the experience. What we cannot know is if it correlates to something more than just an internal reality.

So I am sympathetic to people who say, “I no longer believe in God because I cannot experience him.” I can see why they say that. They were taught for years they could and they tried and it did not work. So quit judging them when it is your fault that you told them they could surely experience something and then they surely did not.

And I am sympathetic to people who say “I believe there is a God because I experience it.”

But I have no time for people who say “I know with certainty there is no God because I do not experience God. Or the opposite, “I know with certainty there is a God because I experience God.”

There may be God that I am experiencing when I experience “God” in my brain. Or it might be my unconscious. Or a 1000 other things. It might just be the universe and I getting connected.

I chose to say ‘I believe there is a God” (though I prefer the term “the Divine”) But I cannot prove it. And if you do not believe there is a God, maybe it is because your right brain is different from mine.

We all have reasoned and logic-ed the world in the matrix of our own experience/context.

 

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Something people do not know about Pentecostals and the bible:

 

When I left the modern pentecostal movement I made the wise choice to study pentecostalism academically because I valued the mystical and spirit-filled orientation they had.

When I went to grad school and got a masters in divinity, I made a major study of early pentecostals.

The early pentecostals were not concerned with inerrancy.  In fact, they were the opposite end of the spectrum from the modernist fundamentalists. The modern fundamentalist movement is based on the idea that the bible, if read in a holy, righteous manner with a sound mind, and solid scholarship, can only be interpreted in one way. This is the opposite of early pentecostals.

A mainline, traditional modernist in the 1900s scoffed and mocked when he heard two pentecostal preachers used the same bible passage in the same worship service where one said the verse meant one thing, and the other said it meant another. He wrote this was proof that they were ignorant and that the spirit did not guide them.

 

When asked about this, one member said, “Well the spirit needed to say one thing to one person, and another thing to another.” The modernist fundamentalist said this was proof that the pentecostals were backwoods bumpkins. I say it was proof that they were mystics who understood the complexity of reality and truth.

 

So why are modern pentecostals such bible thumpers and inerrantists? It was a defensive reaction. The pentecostals valued the bible, but did not take it literally. They did not, in their theology, need the bible to be a perfect book like modern inerrantists. But..their mortal enemies, the fundamentalist presbyterians and other church groups who were paying missionaries to come to the mountains…who has the money and power…did. The pentecostal has very little social power outside their church. The major conservative groups outside of pentecostalism accused the pentecostals of playing fast and loose with scripture. The early pentecostals were poorly educated. And the liberal scholarship that would have validated their beliefs that the bible did not have to be taken literally would was tied into many beliefs pentecostals were suspicious of or hated. The literalism of fundamentalism fit with the pentecostal commitment to being EXTREME and RADICAL. And to the those without much formal training, biblical literalism and inerrancy not only make sense, they seem to say more clearly and loudly that the bible matters.

 

By adopting inerrancy and literalism, pentecostals staved off their critics and helped themselves be more respectable to non-pentecostals.

 

So, in effect, they traded away a belief that the holy spirit guided their interpretation of scripture and could be trusted for the modernist fundamentalist belief that the bible has to be interepreted “the correct way” which usually means:

 

  1. if you are smart enough
  2. holy enough

You are the most right.

One fight you see in pentecostal circles will be when someone says “you need to stick to the bible…your doctrine is too far from the bible.” This is kind of a funny thing to say in a spirit oriented movement and  shows the cognitive dissonance between their fundamentalism “we should be conservative and stick to proper doctrine” and their desire to be led by spirit.   The irony is the entire pentecostal movement is a radical reinterpretation of what it means to be a christian mystic, and a formalization and “industrialization” of the mystical. Before pentecostals, a mystic was allowed  to have a unique experience with God. In a radical break with scripture, history, etc.. Classical pentecostalim is based on the very tenuous and extra-biblical theory that a all christians should experience the spirit of God the same way. In effect, that the wind of the spirit does not blow where it will but blows how THEY say it blows. Classical Pentecostalism for all of its good qualities, is the Mcdonalds of Mysticism. It is the one size fits all, this is your burger..we only serve burgers, you better eat your burger. Some neo-pentecostal groups claim that have moved away from this because they don’t require “tongues” but then they go and create new shibboleths that just as extra-biblical. Like the group that I was in that said that young unmarried men should not date when they first joined homegroups..Based on what bible verse or christian doctrine?

But you see, no one challenged that extra-biblical idea that unmarried men should not date when they first join homegroup. The irony was that I saw many people whine and complain that certain things were “not doctrinal” while we did many many things that had no “bible basis” and no one ever noticed.

 

That is all.

 

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The Protestant problem of Sola Scriptura and the canonicity of the Apocrypha.

When the Protestant Reformation happened, the newly formed movement championed the idea, still triumphant today, that the sole authority of Christians and the Church was the bible. But which bible? And who picked these books? Because there used to be more than 66.

Martin Luther (1483–1546) made an attempt to remove the books of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation from the canon (partially because they were perceived to go against certain Protestant doctrines such as sola scriptura and sola fide),  but this was not generally accepted among his followers.

He disliked them so much, he made sure they were put last in the German-language Luther Bible. And to this day, in the Luther Bible, they still are! In addition, Luther moved the books that later became the Deuterocanonicals into a section he called the Apocrypha. That is right, we call books the apocrypha because the man who wanted to kick the book of James out of the bible called them that.

Martin Luther failed to remove any books. But someone did.

So when did the protestant church remove the apocrypha? The apocrypha was in every King James Bible until 1666. That was 55 years where it was published with the apocrypha. It was removed as a political decision made the nonconformists and other anti-catholic forces who helped pass a law that forbade the reading of the apocrypha. In 1826, the  British and Foreign Bible Society decided they also would not print the apocrypha. So for many years, some versions of the bible in english had it, and some did not. It depended on how much the publishers hated catholics. 

Hmm. So much for not altering a holy bible.

It seems strange for protestants to do that, given their belief in sola scriptura. Let’s look at the issue of Sola Scriptura.

Up until Martin Luther, the “authority” of the church, in a temporal sense, had lain with the church. I think most Christians would agree that God is the true authority of the church , but when people squabble over doctrine and ethics, they have to turn to more temporal sources.

It would be a revision of history to claim that the early Christians had “the bible” as their authority.

The early Christians were largely Jewish and even when it spread to gentiles, they turned to Hebrew sources as their scriptures. However, these were not the books of the old testament. They read all the books of the Septuagint, which included the books Luther called the apocrypha.

Paul explicitly quotes the book of Enoch, and it seems obvious that one does not quote a book as a spiritual authority  if that book does not have great value.

I find it interesting that churches that want to “be like the early church and Paul” do not devour the same books that the early church did– by this I mean they ignore the apocrypha.

It is important to note that Paul did not offer his own translations of the Hebrew bible into Greek. He quoted, word for word, the Septuagint. The early church always used the Septuagint, and the Septuagint is used to this day by the Greek orthodox church. It has always included the apocrypha. The early Christians would have been conversant with the apocrypha.  For example, Origen was known to have quoted the apocryphal books and actually calls the book of Sirach scripture. To give an actual citation,   in his homily #12 on Genesis Origin writes, “For hear what the Scripture says: ‘Prick the eye and it will bring forth a tear; prick the heart and it brings forth understanding.’”  This is a quotation from the Deuterocanonical book of Sirach, chapter 22, verse 19.

But they did not just read the OT/apocrypha. Soon they would be circulating letters from Paul. But very popular amongst early Christians were books like the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, and other works.

The scriptures themselves point to how early Christians based their community.

In acts it is written “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. “

The early Christians greatest source of teaching were the oral words of the apostles about Jesus.

The important thing to note about being a follower of Jesus is not to look at church history. But to look at Jesus.

Jesus left his oral teachings in the hands of the apostles. And he imparted the holy spirit 50 days after his ascension to heaven.

What seems obvious, is that Jesus had, literally, a purely pentecostal view of the church. He did not leave a sacred canon of specific books. That does not mean that the church should not have created a canon. Or that god did not guide the process. But it begs the question..when there are contradictory canons, and the church took 400 years to close the canon…what are we to think about “sola scriptura” and the idea that the 66 books of the bible are like 66 puzzle pieces that fit together perfectly?

Jesus left his core teachings in oral form. And he imparted his spirit. Orthodoxy, if you chose that path, would say that the spirit led Paul to write certain letters and the 4 communities to write the 4 gospels. The reason for writing the four gospels should be pretty obvious The original apostles were going to die. They needed a written record.

The early church quickly adopted the four gospels. They also circulated the letters of Paul However, in a 2nd century church, you were more likely to hear a reading from mark and didache than mark and revelation.

In the 2nd century, the authority of the church was 1) the Hebrew bible including the apocrypha 2) the christian writings circulating (but there was no consensus as to which had authority.) 3) the apostles themselves and later their hand picked followers who became “bishops” or leaders.

The shepherd of Hermas, an early Christian text, states, “obey your bishop as the lord.” As a protestant that really gets under my skin. And I am sure Paul would not have liked it either. But it points to the reality that very, very early on, the church has turned to the leaders as their source of authority. The bible was not the authority. The church and the circulating writings were both in play. There was no “bible” there was no canon.

So what led to the rise of the canon or codifying of the bible?

Interesting, it was a charismatic Bishop named Marcion.

Marcion was a spirit-filled prophet. He had quite a following and a radical theology. His orthodox detractors had a big problem with him because Marcion was sincere; Marcion was not a hypocrite. He lived a simple life, was humble, kind, Christ-like. He also taught ideas that virtually all modern Christians reject, like the idea that the god of the Old testament was different from the God of the new testament. His wandering bands of female prophets gained popularity.

Marcion created the first canon. His canon was simply the book of Luke and some letters of Paul.

It was at this point, in reaction to Marcion, that bishops began to realize the urgent need to codify a specific set of books. More than once in church history, a lone bishop had suggested various books as candidates for a canon. But now the whole church took it seriously.

One of the earliest suggested canons was by Origen. It was similar to the current canon but did not include  James, 2nd Peter, and the 2nd and 3rd epistles of John. Origen also included the shepherd of Hermas.

 

It was in 367, over 334 years after the death of Jesus, bishop athanasius put out a list. Athanasius also included the Book of Baruch, as well as the Letter of Jeremiah, in his Old Testament canon. However, from this canon, he omitted the book of Esther. By 383, under the direction of St. Augustine (who was a favorite of Martin Luther) and with the writing of the Vulgate bible in Latin (rather than in Greek) we finally had the current biblical canon (with the apocrypha, of course)

So, when people champion the 66 books of the bible as their sole authority. I just think about the early church. And I wonder..who were the christians who got to decide to remove the apocrypha?

 

 

 

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