Saturday, July 17, 2004

On the Edge: my own version of Christianity (my story part 3)

From the solemn gloom of the temple, children run out to sit in the dust, God watches them play, and forgets the priest – Rabindranath Tagore

Having discovered that my childhood understanding of God wasn't necessarily the only possible one, I continued to explore ideas and adapt my theology to what I learned by reading and experience. Some that broadened my thinking about God and his dealings with people were:

J.B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small
Becky Pippert, Out of the Saltshaker and Into the World
Edith Schaeffer, Hidden Art
James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic World View Catalog
Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, and What's So Amazing About Grace?

From Pippert's book, I learned that people are more important to God than rules. That idea seemed to be confirmed by what I saw happening in the lives of people I knew. I saw a wide variety of people enthusiastically worshiping God and sacrificially giving their time to serve other people. It seemed to me that they truly exhibited the presence of God's Spirit—in spite of the fact that they were very different in their beliefs and practices: Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Jesus-only Pentecostals, Messianic Jews, career soldiers, liquor dealers and homosexuals.

I rejected the idea of a seven-day creation as a young adult. I thought the theory of age-long days stretched the text far beyond the point of sense, and it seemed obvious that the theory of created fossils was the product of desperation. I was embarrassed by the strong opposition of many Christians to the concept of evolution.

I noticed in the last few years that I tended to think of God as one rather than as a trinity. Since the Bible ascribes the same attributes to each member of the trinity, I didn't understand how they could be distinguished. Jesus, of course, had the experience of being a man, but when he was said to live in us, that seemed to me to be the Holy Spirit. That was an example of the difficulty I had with the doctrine of the trinity. Considering that the Bible contains only one clear trinitarian reference, that doctrine seemed to me to be merely a theory that created an unnecessary complication to our understanding of God.

Over the years I gradually came to feel that the descriptions of the afterlife given by Christians were unlikely to be at all accurate. An eternal life of pure joy was inconceivable to me. The joys we have in this life come from things like overcoming obstacles, so without any pain or suffering, joy would lose its meaning. I decided that "heaven" must be a situation so different from what we know now that no words could describe it.

I also gave little credence to the common expectation that Jesus will return to earth soon. I figured that if 2000 years can be considered soon, then 10,000 years can just as easily be considered soon. I didn't see the increasing corruption in the world that other people saw; in fact, it seemed to me that human history has shown considerable improvement in the way people treat each other, even though progress is slow and there are many setbacks.

At one point, I read a lot of the Bible in a short period of time, trying to get a high-level perspective on it. In that reading, my view of the nature of the Bible changed somewhat. It appeared to me that the Bible was more of a collection of testimonies about what God had done than the "guide to faith and practice" that most evangelical churches consider it to be. I increasingly came to believe that the Bible is a human document with no more authority than other books. This view made it awkward to join a couple of the churches of which I have been a member because I couldn't fully subscribe to their statements of faith.

Having been raised in a non-liturgical church and being a charismatic Christian most of my life, I've never felt that formality was a necessary part of prayer or worship. Over the years, I increasingly felt that church attendance and other traditional devotional activities were unnecessary and unhelpful. For example, I preferred to pray with thoughts--or better yet, actions--rather than words, and I believed that ordinary life is as much worship as any religious activity. I considered an intimate relationship with God to consist of allowing him to direct my thoughts and being inclined to agree with him, feel his feelings, and do whatever he suggested.

For many years, I took seriously the frequently-heard teaching that our vocation is what we're called by God to do, and that not everyone is called to a religious profession. I felt called to be a computer programmer, and I considered that my ministry, but whenever I heard someone referred to as a minister or as "going into the ministry," I felt that I was on the wrong side of a double standard. I couldn't understand why some people were ordained to be "ministers," but nobody was ever ordained as a programmer or as a homemaker. In the area of earning a living, as well as in prayer and worship, I could not find the line that distinguished between sacred and secular or holy and worldly.

In 1998 it occurred to me that what we call natural law is simply our understanding of how God usually works and that what we call miracles are simply unexpected acts of God for which we have no scientific explanation. I decided that natural and supernatural are arbitrary categories, not qualitatively different types of things, so there is no real distinction between them. Here's what I wrote in my journal:
5/24/98 I woke up this morning thinking about M Fellowship and trying to put my finger on what's wrong with it. In a sense, they seem to rely only on spiritual gifts of discernment and prophecy to minister to people they don't know. On the other hand, I suspect their prophets have also been trained, or have learned by experience, to pick up subtle clues from a person's appearance and speech that guide their prophetic ministry to that person. My feeling is that they should do both of these as much as they can, but that they could minister much more effectively if they also took time to get to know the person. It seems that they would consider this a "human" or "fleshly" ministry rather than a spiritual one, and thus much less desirable.
We've been taught that we consist of three parts: body, soul and spirit. According to this theory, our mind, will and emotions are aspects of our soul. Our spirit is defined very vaguely as the part of us that interacts with the spiritual world.
The words used in the Bible for "soul", though, would probably be better translated "self" or "being", which implies that our "soul" is the totality of our being, and can be thought of as including both body and spirit. This is supported by Genesis 2:7. Perhaps the spirit should be thought of as the non-physical aspects of our mind, will and emotions. These are the areas which interact with other spirits, which also appear to have minds, wills and emotions.
By these definitions, it's clear that at least some animals have spirits, while others may not, and there seems to be no evidence that plants or non-living objects have spirits, except in a metaphorical sense. (Old Man Willow in the Old Forest clearly had a spirit.)
What bearing does this have on M-style ministry? It suggests that spiritual revelation may come through the mind or emotions, so it may not necessarily be "miraculous." It suggests that such "non-miraculous" revelation may be highly desirable and that in fact, it may be much more prevalent and effective than revelation which is "miraculous."
I use quotation marks here because it seems the distinction between miraculous and non-miraculous events is solely in our perceived ability to understand and explain their causes. The distinction is usually made that the former involve direct intervention by God to override the laws of nature. It seems to me that everything happens by direct action by God (and other spirits, including ours), and what we call natural law is simply our understanding of how God usually works.
The purpose I see in miracles is to evoke faith in unbelievers and to build the faith of believers. Both of these are valuable, of course, but obvious miracles aren't the only means God uses to accomplish his goal of building faith. In fact, miracles generally seem to be effective only temporarily, if at all. We always discount what happened a long time ago, and pay more attention to what is happening today.
It seems to me that M ministers (and many others) are looking for God to work in ways other than those he usually uses. This seems presumptuous, and indicative of a lack of appreciation for his faithful, everyday, "natural" provision. Attempting to speak God's word to a person while avoiding knowledge of that person's needs appears to be an attempt to manipulate God into performing miracles. Perhaps this is a sign of a lack of faith. It doesn't make sense not to trust God to care for us in the ways he usually does, and at the same time hope he will care for us miraculously. This seems to me to be the approach of people who reject medical care while praying for miraculous healing.

In 1999 or thereabouts, I read a book that turned out to be one of the most influential in my life, Charles Kraft's Christianity in Culture. Written by a highly-respected missionary as training for missionaries, that book showed me that much of what I've always thought of as Christianity is merely the forms adopted by Christians in my culture. Disillusioned with the traditional forms myself, and concerned with communicating the gospel to people in my culture, I began looking for the essential core of Christianity that would be the same in any culture. I never succeeded in distinguishing that core, and eventually came to believe that what we call Christianity is cultural in nature, rather than an absolute norm for everybody.

Expanding on that idea, I wondered about what kind of relationship aliens might have to God. I thought it was unlikely that we're the only fallen race in the universe, and wondered how we should tell others about our faith if we were ever able to communicate with them. I concluded that we can testify to them of what God has done for us, whether he has provided for their salvation through Jesus, or in another way. In 2002 I read Ray Kurzweil's book The Age of Spiritual Machines and pondered questions about the applicability of Christianity to artificial intelligences.

I decided that we should expect God to have communicated with other cultures, alien or not, in ways which aren't part of our traditions. I also thought we should be willing to learn from other religions, recognizing that God has communicated with their founders and leaders, and affirm whatever truth they have received from him. It seemed to me that the traditional Christian claim of exclusive truth is an unwarranted and arrogant extension of the truth that our God is the only real God. I felt that we should acknowledge that our understanding of God's revelations to us, and especially our application of them, is not necessarily correct.

In 2001, one of the elders of our church asked me about my relationship with God. I told him that I considered God to be present and active in every detail of my existence, and that without him I wouldn't exist at all. Looking back on it, I think he was looking for some human relationship (lord, friend, etc.) as a metaphor. I think this shows that although I considered my relationship with God to be intimate, it was in fact abstract and theoretical.

Earlier in my life I had thought things would change as I matured "in Christ." I would get closer to God, share his feelings about other people, and gain more understanding of life. As I matured, I was very disappointed to find that I didn't see the "fruit of the Spirit" that I had thought would grow. I was especially frustrated by all the teaching I heard about relationship with God, because I couldn't see that mine was growing at all. I couldn't figure out how to build a relationship with someone I couldn't see or hear. I knew that God spoke in my mind, but since I couldn't tell which thoughts were his and which were mine, I couldn't tell if I was communing with him or merely thinking.

In 2002 I was excited about The Sacred Romance and the other John Eldredge books. They presented a more loving picture of God than any other Christian works I knew of. They also encouraged a freer, more creative response to him. Creativity seemed to me to be an appropriate response to God, the great creator.  For a long time I had been disappointed that Christian arts seemed to follow the lead of secular ones. I felt that it should be the other way around. Now I see that the creativity of Christian artists is hindered by the constrained thinking taught by the church, so it's not at all surprising if they are often less creative than people who don't feel that they must believe certain things or behave in certain ways.

For several months I had felt that I was "on the edge" of Christianity.  I wanted to serve God and follow Jesus, but more creatively than the conventional Christian ways.   I sometimes felt that I was a Christian, and other times that I was not, but it didn't matter much to me because I still believed that God was the creator and lord of the universe, and I knew I was devoted to him.

- - -
I was once asked to sign Christianity Today magazine's statement of faith "without doubt or equivocation."  I had to tell them I can barely sign my own name without doubt or equivocation. - Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God

This series of posts tells the story of how I went free of religion:
    Part 3  On the Edge:  my own version of Christianity

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