Friday, May 29, 2015

What Canst Thou Say?

It was from theologian Michael Hardin that I first heard the term "Anecdotal Christianity."  It aptly described something which has been bugging me for quite some time.  It is something particularly common in the Charismatic Christian world, where I spent a couple of decades: Fantastic tales of modern-day healings and angelic encounters and demonic battles and other miraculous events are told and re-told with little provided (or expected) in the way of corroborating evidence (the inevitable lack of which seems increasingly odd in these days of ubiquitous cell-phone videos). 

Recently, a Charismatic pastor claimed to have raised a man from the dead while at a church in the UK, and the story spread like wildfire--being told and re-told and posted and shared as Gospel-truth.  Now it appears that the man didn't actually die but was having an epileptic seizure--and the abatement of the seizure was hailed as a resurrection.  And, thanks to some vigorous self-promotion on the part of the pastor, the embellished story took on a life of its own.

So often, in my experience, this is the pattern: people begin telling/preaching/broadcasting miracle stories that happened somewhere else to someone else.  Responding to these tales with a modicum of healthy skepticism is eyed as lack of faith or even as hostility towards the faith.

I have an anecdote to share, of another event that occurred at a church in the UK, which was documented by a woman named Margaret Fell.  She was attending church in the town of Ulverston in the mid-1600's when a man named George Fox (generally regarded as the founder of the Quakers) stood in the midst of the congregation, after the pastor's sermon, and began berating those gathered.  Fell described it thusly: 

"And so he went on, and said, 'That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God.' I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, 'The scriptures were the prophets' words, and Christ's and the apostles' words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord' and said, 'Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, "Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;" but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?'"

Fell continues, "This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, 'We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.'"

Fox's point, and Fell's realization, was that the Christians of Ulverston were living off of other people's experiences of God.  The core of the Quaker ethos is that the same God who acted in the scriptures is available to each person directly--here and now.  I absolutely believe this to be true because of my own experiences with God.  Yet Fell and her fellow church-goers, like many Christians today, had been content to vicariously feed off of the experiences of the people they read about in the Bible.

Is it not an even more abject form of thievery to broker in dubious miracle stories told by preachers and evangelists when one was not there, did not see it, and no substantiation can be provided?

I once posed a question on Facebook: How many of you have experienced--with your own eyes--a truly supernatural miracle (in the magnitude of dead being raised, missing limbs growing back, complete blindness healed, etc.)?  Most of the responses were anecdotes; stories people had heard about miracles that had happened to others (often missionaries in Africa).  The remaining responses were things like "Every day is a miracle" (which I agree with but don't consider germane to the question).  My point is not to argue against the possibility of miraculous events (though, after 20+ years in Charismatic churches I left far more dubious than when I began; perhaps because what I witnessed never came close to the anecdotes I so often heard).   My point is that what the bulk of the respondents to my Facebook question were demonstrating was "Anecdotal Christianity."  In legal terms it would be called hearsay, which is not to be confused with heresy.

But what canst thou say?

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

I have attended many marriage ceremonies over the years. Every now and then I have attended a wedding where the presence of God was so palpable as to result in a deep sense among all those gathered of love and joy and peace and goodness. This happened at a wedding that I attended on Saturday, of two dear friends who were joined in a Quaker ceremony over 20 years ago but only now could legally marry in the state where they live. So my friends have now had two Quaker weddings for their marriage. They are blessed.

Monday, May 25, 2015

(via AZSpot)

There are over 500 war museums in the USA, but only a handful of peace museums.

According to a 2001 study by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the civilian to soldier death ratio in wars fought since the mid-20th century has been 10:1, meaning ten civilian deaths for every soldier death.

Memorial Day ought to be a day to soberly and regretfully remember and mourn *all* those who died in war, not a day to celebrate militarism and nationalism.  


Sunday, May 24, 2015

"The economy of war requires of every soldier an implicit submission to his superior; and this submission is required of every gradation of rank to that above it. This system may be necessary to hostile operations, but I think it is unquestionably adverse to intellectual and moral excellence.

The very nature of unconditional obedience implies the relinquishment of the use of the reasoning powers... Now I think that this is important. He who, with whatever motive, resigns the direction of his conduct implicitly to another, surely cannot retain that erectness and independence of mind, that manly consciousness of mental freedom, which is one of the highest privileges of our nature. The rational being becomes reduced in the intellectual scale: an encroachment is made upon the integrity of its independence. God has given us, individually, capacities for the regulation of our individual conduct. To resign its direction, therefore, to the despotism of another, appears to be an unmanly and unjustifiable relinquishment of the privileges which He has granted to us...

To what a situation is a rational and responsible being reduced, who commits actions, good or bad, mischievous or beneficial, at the word of another? I can conceive no greater degradation. It is the lowest, the final abjectness of the moral nature. It is this if we abate the glitter of war, and if we add this glitter it is nothing more. Surely the dignity of reason, and the light of revelation, and our responsibility to God, should make us pause before we become the voluntary subjects of this monstrous system."

-- Jonathan Dymond (1798-1828), An Inquiry into the Accordancy of War with the Principles of Christianity, and an Examination of the Philosophical Reasoning by which it is Defended, with Observations on some of the Causes of War and on some of its Effects

Saturday, May 23, 2015

What has happened today in Ireland is absolutely astonishing and historically unprecedented. In the once Catholic-dominated Republic of Ireland, same-sex activity was illegal until 1993. But today the people have, in an unusually high turnout, overwhelmingly voted to allow gay marriage. This makes the Republic of Ireland the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote (and is indicative of what would occur if national referendums on same-sex marriage were held in other nations, including the U.S.). This is also a profound rejection of the anti-dignity and anti-equality teachings of the Church.

Congratulations Ireland!

Photograph: Robin English/Demotix/Corbis

Friday, May 22, 2015

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, idolator, worshipper of fire,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.

- Rumi

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

After 30 years of close observation I have concluded that what is often called "Christianity" is actually an entirely different religion that might best be called "Biblicism."

- DC

Monday, May 18, 2015

Adventures in Charismania: The Pastor/Realtor

It was the early 1990's. Carla and I (and our toddler son) were living in Denver and looking (on a very tight budget) to buy our first house. A pastor we knew was starting a church in a "marginal" neighborhood of Denver and some of our friends had moved into that neighborhood--which had beautiful but neglected old brick homes--to be part of the "church plant." We were intrigued and the pastor was interested in having us as members of his church, due in part to our usefulness as worship musicians. Additionally, the pastor was a licensed realtor--so we engaged him to help us find a house near the new church.

This was in the days before the Internet--back when real estate listings were in MLS books and classified newspaper ads and little newsstand catalogs with grainy pictures. It was in one such catalog which I had picked up at a supermarket that I found a house which looked very interesting and (amazingly) was in our price range and mere blocks from the new church. I called the pastor/realtor and gave him the address and we arranged for he and Carla to go look at the house while I was at work. If Carla liked it, I would come after work to see it and if I liked it too we would write up an offer.

They toured the stately old house and Carla really liked it, but as they walked out the front door the pastor/realtor turned to Carla and said, "I'm buying this house for myself." She was shocked, but he was insistent. When Carla got back to our apartment she called me (this was before cell phones) and told me what had happened. I called the pastor/realtor and he matter-of-factly said the house was perfect for him and he was already in the process of submitting an offer. My appeals to his sense of ethics fell on deaf ears and, as far as we know, he bought the house.

Needless to say, we found another realtor and another church.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A (somewhat edited) Blog Repost on this International Day Against Homophobia:

I do not like it when Christians who oppose LGBTQ equality are accused of "hating" or being "homophobic." I used to be one of those conservative Evangelicals, so I think I understand how many of them feel. They do not hate or fear LGBTQ people. They fear God. They carry a perception of the wrathful Old Testament God who will destroy cities or nations if "sin" is permitted (in the Hebrew scriptures, the "sin" which provoked such divine reprisal included idolatry, intermarriage with Gentiles and not thoroughly slaughtering other tribes). Attempts to reconcile this ancient tribal wrathful God with the universal God of love and inclusion that Jesus represented tend to create a sort of cognitive and spiritual dissonance. We see that, for example, in the way that some Christians claim to follow the Prince of Peace while supporting war and torture.  And when it comes to LGBTQ persons, I would suggest that most conservative Christians don't hate and fear them--they really do want to love them and, in fact, think that they already are loving them. But their "love" is warped and twisted by fear of God's wrath.  They believe that God (the tribal, wrathful God) will bring down destruction if LGBTQ people are accepted. They have an earnest desire to be faithful and obedient to what they perceive God's will to be, but their image of God creates a barrier to loving as Christ loved.  It is a mindset that is actually very similar to that which was held by the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. Their problem was and is theological and the solution is a deeper revelation of God's all-encompassing love, mercy, grace, compassion and inclusiveness.  This revelation would, in turn, open up a greater understanding of scripture beyond reading it as a set of rules and stipulations.  The irony is often lost on these devout believers that the strident and legalistic manner in which they are attempting to follow Jesus has caused them to look and act very much like Jesus's arch-opponents, especially when it comes to the treatment of God's beloved children who are LGBTQ.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

I was listening to the Christian AM radio station on the drive home today--something I only do occasionally. There was lots of hand-wringing about the popular acceptance of same-sex marriage and admission that "we've lost the culture war." I would suggest that the first mistake was thinking of it as a war.


Friday, May 15, 2015

Thursday, May 14, 2015

"I tentatively told a few friends what I was experiencing, because I couldn’t take keeping this all inside. I wanted to be known and loved, for someone to hear my story and tell me that I was going to be okay. Instead, my friends’ response was to quote Bible passages at me... God created marriage between man and woman, the Bible forbids homosexuality consistently, gay sex is a sin.

They never seemed to notice that the passages they were quoting had nothing to do with my actual situation. They’d talk about the Sodom story as an example of the sinfulness of homosexuality, despite the fact that the Sodom story is about men threatening angels with gang rape. I was a conservative, Southern Baptist virgin. Gang-raping angels was certainly not on my agenda, and frankly, it hurt that they thought passages like that were a good match for my situation.

Like the Pharisees, my friends were interpreting in the abstract, not in the context of my unique situation. They were responding to the concept of 'homosexuality,' not to me. Their response didn’t move me toward righteousness. It only made me feel dehumanized—as if, the moment I used the word 'gay,' I ceased to be a person and became, instead, a potential sex act that needed to be stopped."

-- Justin Lee

"The mission of the contemplative in this world of massive conflict and collective unreason is to seek the true way of unity and peace, without succumbing to the illusion of withdrawal into a realm of abstraction from which unpleasant realities are simply excluded by the force of will.  In facing the world with a totally different viewpoint, he maintains alive in the world the presence of a spiritual and intelligent consciousness which is the root of true peace and true unity among men.   This consciousness certainly accepts the fact of our empirical and individual existence, but refuses to take this as the basic reality.  The basic reality is neither the individual, empirical self nor an abstract and ideal entity which is the root of true peace and true unity among men.  This consciousness certainly accepts the fact of our empirical and individual existence, but refuses to take this as the basic reality.  The basic reality is neither the individual , empirical self nor an abstract and ideal entity which can exist only in reason.  The basic reality is being itself, which is one in all concrete existents, which shares itself among them and manifests itself through them.  The goal of the contemplative is, on its lowest level, the recognition of this splendor of being and unity--a splendor in which he is one with all that is.  But on a higher level still, it is the transcendent ground and source of being, the not-being and the emptiness that is so called because it is absolutely beyond all definitions and limitation.  This ground and source is not simply an inert and passive emptiness, but for the the Christian it is pure act, pure freedom, pure light.  The emptiness which is 'pure being' is the light of God which, as St. John's Gospel says, 'gives light to every man who comes into the world.'  Specifically, the Gospel sees all being coming forth from the Father, God, in His Word, who is the light of the world.  'In Him (the Word) was life, and this life was Light for all men, and the Light shone in darkness and the darkness could not understand it.' (John 1:4-5)  Now very often the ordinary active and ethical preoccupations of Christians make them forget this deeper and more contemplative dimension of the Christian way." 

-- Thomas Merton, On Christian Contemplation

Monday, May 11, 2015

"Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.”
-- Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Buddhist monk

"[Contemplation is] a long, loving look at the real."
-- Fr. Walter Burghardt, Jesuit priest/theologian

Saturday, May 09, 2015

The greatest opposition to the prophetic tends to come from the keepers of the status quo.


Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Saturday, May 02, 2015

My Inner Pharisee

At 10pm on Friday evening the trendy Belmont Shore area of Long Beach was alive.  All along the ten blocks of 2nd Street shops were still open, selling clothing and shoes and expensive bric-a-brac.  People strolled the wide sidewalks and packed into restaurants, the lucky ones enjoying outdoor tables on this warm Spring evening.  Lines formed for gelatos and lattes.

The beggar sat cross-legged on the concrete in semi-darkness in front of the Bank of America, his hands in his lap and his face downward.  It was easy to pretend not to see him.  As Carla and I passed, his head remained down but he raised his arms high and formed a bowl with his hands--a universal symbol of abject need.

Carla stopped immediately and began to fumble with her purse.  I had already gone a few steps further but stopped and turned.  I knew she would do this.  Carla has somehow managed to exorcise the inner Pharisee--the one who whispers "If a man does not work, he shall not eat"*; the one who rationalizes that to give money to a "street person" is to encourage his substance abuse and thus be complicit in his sin.  Perhaps it is because Carla is so unflinchingly aware of her own shortcomings and so transparently receptive to God's grace that her inner Pharisee (if she has one at all) seems to have long ago been humbled into silence.

Carla placed some cash in the man's hands and he looked up and held her gaze with an expression of gratitude mixed with shame.  He then looked beyond her to me with the same expression.  We both smiled kindly down at him, hoping to convey some affirmation of his worth as a unique human being created by a loving God, but knowing full well that what we had given him was a fraction of what we had spent that evening on dinner and parking and useless nic-nacs for our home.

*2 Thessalonians 3:10