Jesus: Wisdom Teacher; The Kingdom of Heaven

January 15th, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Jesus: Wisdom Teacher
The Kingdom of Heaven
Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Guest writer and CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault continues exploring Jesus as a wisdom teacher.
Throughout the Gospel accounts, Jesus uses one particular phrase repeatedly: “the Kingdom of Heaven.” The words stand out everywhere. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like this,” “The Kingdom of Heaven is like that,” “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Whatever this Kingdom of Heaven is, it’s of foundational importance to what Jesus is trying to teach.
So, what is the Kingdom of Heaven? Biblical scholars have debated this question for almost as long as there have been biblical scholars. Many Christians, particularly those of a more evangelical persuasion, assume that the Kingdom of Heaven means the place you go when you die—if you’ve been “saved.” But the problem with this interpretation is that Jesus himself specifically contradicts it when he says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you” (that is, here) and “at hand” (that is, now). It’s not later, but lighter—some more subtle quality or dimension of experience accessible to you right in the moment. You don’t die into it; you awaken into it.
Others have equated the Kingdom of Heaven with an earthly utopia. The Kingdom of Heaven would be a realm of peace and justice, where human beings lived together in harmony and fair distribution of economic assets. For thousands of years, prophets and visionaries have labored to bring into being their respective versions of this kind of Kingdom of Heaven, but somehow these earthly utopias never seem to stay put for very long. Jesus specifically rejected this meaning. When his followers wanted to proclaim him the Messiah, the divinely anointed king of Israel who would inaugurate the reign of God’s justice upon the earth, Jesus shrank from all that and said, strongly and unequivocally, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
Where is it, then? Author Jim Marion’s wonderfully insightful and contemporary suggestion is that the Kingdom of Heaven is really a metaphor for a state of consciousness; it is not a place you go to, but a place you come from. [1] It is a whole new way of looking at the world, a transformed awareness that literally turns this world into a different place.
Marion suggests specifically that the Kingdom of Heaven is Jesus’ way of describing a state we would nowadays call “nondual consciousness” or “unitive consciousness.” The hallmark of this awareness is that it sees no separation—not between God and humans, not between humans and other humans. These are indeed Jesus’ two core teachings, underlying everything he says and does.

Teacher of Wisdom

January 14th, 2019 by Dave No comments »

Teacher of Wisdom
Sunday, January 13, 2019

This week Cynthia Bourgeault, Episcopal priest and one of CAC’s core faculty members, reflects on Jesus as a wisdom teacher, drawing from her rich understanding of the ancient wisdom tradition.

When I talk about Jesus as a wisdom master, I need to mention that in the Near East “wisdom teacher” is a recognized spiritual occupation. In seminary, I was taught that there were only two categories of religious authority: one could be a priest or a prophet. That may be how the tradition filtered down to us in the West. But within the wider Near East (including Judaism itself), there was also a third, albeit unofficial, category: a moshel moshelim, or teacher of wisdom, one who taught the ancient traditions of the transformation of the human being.

These teachers of transformation—among whom I would place the authors of the Hebrew wisdom literature such as Ecclesiastes, Job, and Proverbs—may be the early precursors to the rabbi whose task it was to interpret the law and lore of Judaism (often creating their own innovations of each). The hallmark of these wisdom teachers was their use of pithy sayings, puzzles, and parables rather than prophetic pronouncements or divine decree. They spoke to people in the language that people spoke, the language of story rather than law.

Parables, such as the stories Jesus told, are a wisdom genre belonging to mashal, the Jewish branch of universal wisdom tradition. Jesus not only taught within this tradition, he turned it end for end. Before we can appreciate the extraordinary nuances he brought to understanding human transformation, we need first to know something about the context in which he was working.

There has been a strong tendency among Christians to turn Jesus into a priest—“our great high priest” (see the Letter to the Hebrews). The image of Christos Pantokrator (“Lord of All Creation”) dressed in splendid sacramental robes has dominated the iconography of both Eastern and Western Christendom. But Jesus was not a priest. He had nothing to do with the temple hierarchy in Jerusalem, and he kept a respectful distance from most ritual observances. Nor was he a prophet in the usual sense of the term: a messenger sent to the people of Israel to warn them of impending political catastrophe in an attempt to redirect their hearts to God. Jesus was not that interested in the political fate of Israel, nor would he accept the role of Messiah continuously being thrust upon him.

His message was not one of repentance (at least in the usual way we understand it; more on that later this week) and return to the covenant. Rather, he stayed close to the ground of wisdom: the transformation of human consciousness. He asked timeless and deeply personal questions: What does it mean to die before you die? How do you go about losing your little life to find the bigger one? Is it possible to live on this planet with a generosity, abundance, fearlessness, and beauty that mirror Divine Being itself?

These are the wisdom questions, and they are the entire field of Jesus’ concern.

——————————–

Putting on the Mind of Christ
Monday, January 14, 2019

Guest writer and CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault continues exploring Jesus as a wisdom teacher.

A well-known Southern Baptist theologian quips that the whole of his Sunday school training could be summed up in one sentence (delivered with a broad Texas drawl): “Jesus is nice, and he wants us to be nice, too.” Many of us have grown up with Jesus all our lives. We know a few of the parables, like those about the good Samaritan or the prodigal son. Some people can even quote a few of the beatitudes. Most everyone can stumble through the Lord’s Prayer.

But what did Jesus actually teach? How often do you hear his teaching assessed as a whole? When it comes to spiritual teachers from other traditions, it seems right and fair to ask what kind of path they’re on. What does the Dalai Lama teach? What did Krishnamurti teach? But we never ask this question about Jesus. Why not? When we actually get below the surface of his teaching, we find there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. And it doesn’t have much to do with being “nice.”

Jim Marion’s book Putting on the Mind of Christ addresses this misunderstanding. [1] His title is a statement in itself. “Putting on the mind of Christ” is a direct reference to St. Paul’s powerful injunction in Philippians 2:5: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” The words call us up short as to what we are actually supposed to be doing on this path: not just admiring Jesus, but acquiring his consciousness.

For the better part of the past sixteen hundred years Christianity has put a lot more emphasis on the things we know about Jesus. The word “orthodox” has come to mean having the correct beliefs. Along with the overt requirement to learn what these beliefs are and agree with them comes a subliminal message: that the appropriate way to relate to Jesus is through a series of beliefs. In fundamentalist Christianity, this message tends to get even more accentuated, to the point where faith appears to be a matter of signing on the dotted lines to a set of creedal statements. Belief in Jesus is indistinguishable from belief about him.

This certainly wasn’t how it was done in the early church—nor can it be if we are really seeking to come into a living relationship with this wisdom master. Jim Marion’s book returns us to the central challenge Christianity ought to be handing us. Indeed, how do we put on the mind of Christ? How do we see through his eyes? How do we feel through his heart? How do we learn to respond to the world with that same wholeness and healing love? That’s what Christian orthodoxy really is all about. It’s not about right belief; it’s about right practice.

Jesus and the Bible; Beginner’s Mind

January 11th, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Jesus and the Bible
Beginner’s Mind
Friday, January 11, 2019

I’d like to offer some spiritual advice so that you can read Scripture the way that Jesus did and use it for good purposes.
Offer a prayer for guidance from the Holy Spirit before you make your interpretation of an important text. With an open heart and mind, seek the attitude of a beginner and learner. Pray as long as it takes to feel any certitudes loosen.
Once you have attained some degree of openness, try to move to a position of detachment from your own egoic will and its goals and desires—to be correct, to be secure, to stay with the familiar. This might take some time, but without such freedom from your own need for control, you will invariably make a text say what you need and want it to say.
Then you must listen for a deeper voice than your own, which you will know because it will never shame or frighten you, but rather strengthen you, even when it is challenging you. If it is God’s voice, it will take away your illusions and your violence so completely and so naturally that you can barely identify with such previous feelings! I call this God’s replacement therapy. God does not ask and expect you to do anything new until God has first made it desirable and possible for you to do it. Grace cannot easily operate under coercion, duress, shame, or guilt.
If your understanding of Scripture leads you to experience any or several of the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23)—I think you can trust that this interpretation is from the Spirit, from the deeper stream of wisdom.
As you read, if you sense any negative or punitive emotions like morose delight, feelings of superiority, self-satisfaction, arrogant dualistic certitude, desire for revenge, need for victory, or a spirit of dismissal or exclusion, you must trust that this is not Jesus’ hermeneutic at work, but your own ego still steering the ship.
Remember the temptation of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:3-10). Three temptations to the misuse of power are listed: economic, religious, and political. Even Jesus must face these subtle disguises before he begins his public ministry. Only when he has found freedom from his own egoic need for power can Jesus teach with true inner authority and speak truth to the oppressive powers of his time.

Jesus and the Bible; The Law Says . . . But I Say

January 10th, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Jesus and the Bible
The Law Says . . . But I Say
Thursday, January 10, 2019

Today we will continue looking at the way Jesus used the Scriptures with some specific examples:
He openly disagrees with Scriptures that emphasize non-essentials and “mere human commandments” that made their way into what are presented as divine commandments (see Mark 7:1-23 and almost all of Matthew 23).
He consistently and openly flouts seemingly sacred taboos like not working on the Sabbath, not meeting with women, not eating with sinners and non-Jews, not touching lepers, and purity codes in general. He is shamed and criticized for ignoring: sacred hand washing (see Luke 11:38, for example); taboos against touching the dead, unclean people, and unclean foods; and the practice of stoning women adulterers. Jesus has Jewish common sense and can never be called a legalist or a “conservative.” In fact, he is accused of being a libertarian and a non-ascetic, instead of following the strict fasting of John the Baptist and his disciples (see Matthew 9:14).
Jesus reduces the 613 clear biblical commandments down to two: love of God and love of neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40).
He minimizes or even replaces commandments, as when he tells the rich young man that it is all fine and good that he has obeyed the Ten Commandments, but what he really needs to do is sell everything and give the money to the poor (see Mark 10:21).
He omits troublesome verses with which he does not agree, as when he drops the final half verse from the Isaiah scroll when he first reads in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:18-19). The audience would be familiar with the final line of Isaiah 61:2: “to proclaim a day of vengeance from our God.” Yet Jesus ends earlier with “proclaims the Lord’s day of favor.” There he goes again, light and easy with the sacred text! Good Protestants would call that “selectively quoting” and pious Catholics would call it “cafeteria Catholicism.”
Jesus uses Scripture in rather edgy ways to defend people, like when he says that David went into the temple and took the loaves of offering to feed his troops (Mark 2:26) or tells the story of the poor man who works on the Sabbath to get his donkey out of a ditch (Luke 14:5). His general principle seems to be summarized in his famous line that “the Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This sounds a lot like what many Christians would today call “mere humanism” or “situation ethics.”
Jesus feels free to reinterpret the Law—for example, when he says, six times in a row, “The Law says . . . but I say” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-48).

Jesus’ Hermeneutic

January 9th, 2019 by Dave No comments »

Jesus’ Hermeneutic
Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Jesus’ approach to interpreting sacred text was radical for his time, yet honored his own Hebrew Bible (or what Christians call the Old Testament). Even though Jesus’ use of Scripture is plain enough for us to see in the Gospels, many Christians are accustomed to reading the Bible in a very different way. We simply haven’t paid attention and connected the dots! Over the next couple days, I’ll share some examples that reveal Jesus’ hermeneutic so that we might follow his methodology:

Jesus actually does not quote Scripture that much! In fact, he is criticized for not doing this: “you teach with [inner] authority and not like our own scribes” (Mark 1:22).
Jesus talks much more out of his own experience of God and humanity instead of teaching like the scribes and Pharisees, who operated out of their own form of case law by quoting previous sources.
Jesus often uses what appear to be non-Jewish or non-canonical sources, or at least sources scholars cannot verify. For example, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick do” (see Mark 2:17, Matthew 9:12, and Luke 5:31), or the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (see Luke 16:19-31). His bandwidth of authority and attention is much wider than sola Scriptura. He even quotes some sources seemingly incorrectly (for example, John 10:34)!
Jesus never once quotes from nineteen of the books in his own Scriptures. In fact, he appears to use a very few favorites: Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Hosea, and Psalms—and those are overwhelmingly in Matthew’s Gospel, which was directed to a Jewish audience.
Jesus appears to ignore most of his own Bible, yet it clearly formed his whole consciousness. That is the paradox. If we look at what he ignores, it includes any passages—of which there are many—that appear to legitimate violence, imperialism, exclusion, purity, and dietary laws. Jesus is a biblically formed non-Bible quoter who gets the deeper stream, the spirit, the trajectory of his Jewish history and never settles for mere surface readings.
When Jesus does once quote Leviticus, he quotes the one positive mandate among long lists of negative ones: “You must love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

What Do We Do with the Bible?

January 8th, 2019 by Dave No comments »

What Do We Do with the Bible?
Sunday, January 6, 2019
Epiphany

For all its inspiration, for all the lives it has changed, the Bible is undeniably problematic. Put in the hands of egocentric, unloving, or power-hungry people or those who have never learned how to read spiritually inspired literature, it is almost always a disaster. History has demonstrated this, century after century, so this is not an unwarranted, disrespectful, or biased conclusion. The burning of heretics, the Crusades, slavery, apartheid, homophobia, and the genocide and oppression of native peoples were all justified through the selective use of Scripture quotes.

So, what are we supposed to do with the Bible? Today’s meditation will be a bit longer than usual to begin addressing this question. And we’ll spend the rest of the week unpacking what Jesus did with the Hebrew Scriptures—the only Bible he knew.

My general approach is to change the seer and not to change the text. Only transformed people can be entrusted with inspired writings. They can operate in a symbiotic (“shared life”) relationship with words and are unlikely to use the Bible to exclude and shame others or as a rationale for their bad behavior.

The Christian’s goal is to be transformed by the renewing of our mind into the mind of Christ (see Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 2:16; and Philippians 2:5). That is why I try to read the Bible the way Jesus did, following Jesus’ hermeneutic (a method of interpreting sacred texts). Just as we are trying to do with this year’s Daily Meditations, Jesus was a master of winnowing the chaff from the grain (see Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17) and “bringing out of the storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52).

The Bible is an anthology of many books. It is a record of people’s experience of God’s self-revelation. It is an account of our very human experience of the divine intrusion into history. The book did not fall from heaven in a pretty package. It was written by people trying to listen to God. I believe that the Spirit was guiding the listening and writing process. We must also know that humans always see “through a glass darkly . . . and all knowledge is imperfect” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Prayer and patience surrounding such human words will keep us humble and searching for the true Living Word, the person of Jesus, which is how the Spirit best teaches (1 Corinthians 2:10,13)—through living exemplars. This is surely what it means to know “contemplatively.”

When history finally gets to the Risen Jesus, there is nothing to be afraid of in God. Jesus’ very breath is identified with forgiveness and the divine Shalom (see John 20:20-23). If the Risen Jesus is the full and trustworthy unveiling of the nature of God, then we live in a safe and love-filled universe. It is not that God has changed, or that the Hebrew God is a different God than the God of Jesus; it is that we are growing up as we move through the text and deepen our experience. Stay with the Bible and with your inner life with God and your capacity for God will increase.

Just as the Bible takes us through many stages of consciousness and history, it takes us individually a long time to move beyond our need to be dualistic, judgmental, accusatory, fearful, blaming, egocentric, and earning—and to see as Jesus sees. The Bible itself is a “text in travail,” according to René Girard’s fine insight. [1] It mirrors and charts our own human travail. It offers both mature and immature responses to almost everything. In time, you will almost naturally recognize the difference between the text moving forward toward the mercy, humility, and inclusivity of Jesus and when the text is regressing into arrogance, exclusion, and legalism.

Midrash
Monday, January 7, 2019

More than telling us exactly what to see in the Scriptures, Jesus taught us how to see, what to emphasize, and also what could be de-emphasized or ignored. Beyond fundamentalism or literalism, Jesus practiced a form that the Jewish people called midrash, consistently using questions to keep spiritual meanings open, often reflecting on a text or returning people’s questions with more questions. It is a real shame that we did not imitate Jesus in this approach. It could have saved us from so many centuries of righteousness, religious violence, and even single-issue voting.

Rather than seeking always certain and unchanging answers, the Jewish practice of midrash allows many possibilities, many levels of faith-filled meaning—meaning that is relevant and applicable to you, the reader, and puts you in the subject’s shoes to build empathy, understanding, and relationship. It lets the passage first challenge you before it challenges anyone else. To use the text in a spiritual way—as Jesus did—is to allow it to convert you, to change you, to grow you up as you respond: What does this ask of me? How might this apply to my life, to my family, to my church, to my neighborhood, to my country?

While biblical messages often proceed from historical incidents, the actual message does not depend upon communicating those events with perfect factual accuracy. Spiritual writers are not primarily journalists. Hebrew rabbis and scholars sometimes use the approach of midrash to reflect on a story and communicate all of its underlying message. Scripture can be understood on at least four levels: literal meaning, deep meaning, comparative meaning, and hidden meaning.

The literal level of meaning doesn’t get to the root and, in fact, is the least helpful to the soul and the most dangerous for history. Deep meaning offers symbolic or allegorical applications. Comparative study combines different texts to explore an entirely new meaning. Finally, in traditional Jewish exegesis, hidden meaning gets at the Mystery itself. Midrash allows and encourages each listener to grow with a text and not to settle for mere literalism, which, of itself, bears little spiritual fruit. It is just a starting point.

Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver. [1] This statement from Aquinas was drilled into me during seminary. People at different levels of maturity will interpret the same text in different ways. There is no one right way to interpret sacred texts. How you see is what you see; the who that you bring to your reading of the Scriptures matters. Who are you when you read the Bible? Defensive, offensive, power-hungry, righteous? Or humble, receptive, and honest? Surely, this is why we need to pray before reading a sacred text!

Jesus consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and triumphalist texts in his own inspired Hebrew Bible in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty. For example, referencing two passages from Exodus (21:24) and Leviticus (24:20), Jesus suggested the opposite: “You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you . . . turn the other cheek” (see Matthew 5:38-39). He read the Scriptures in a spiritual, selective, and questioning way. Jesus had a deeper and wider eye that knew which passages were creating a path for God and which passages were merely cultural, self-serving, and legalistic additions.

—————–

Many Ways of Knowing
Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Unknown to many post-Reformation Christians, early centuries of Christianity—through authoritative teachers like Origen, Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, and Gregory the Great—encouraged as many as seven “senses” of Scripture. The literal, historical, allegorical, moral, symbolic, eschatological (the trajectory of history and growth), and “primordial” or archetypal (commonly agreed-upon symbolism) levels of a text were often given serious weight among scholars. These levels were gradually picked up by the ordinary Christian through Sunday preaching (as is still true today) and presumed to be normative by those who heard them.

These different senses of Scripture were sometimes compared to our human senses of hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, and touching, which are five distinct ways of knowing the same thing, but in very different “languages.” After both the Reformation and the Enlightenment, Western Europeans reduced our ways of knowing to one for all practical purposes—the supposedly rational/literal/historical. We have largely compacted and limited the Bible to this single sense for several centuries now, in both its Catholic and Protestant forms. Our bandwidth of spiritual access to the Bible was consequently severely narrowed, it seems to me—and as many would say—to the least spiritually helpful level. That something supposedly literally happened in one exact way, in one moment of time, does not, of itself, transfer the experience to now, me, or us. I believe that such transference is the transformative function of any spiritual text.

The narrow, rational/literal/historical approach largely creates an antiquarian society that prefers to look backward instead of forward. In my experience, it creates transactional religion much more than transformational spirituality. It idealizes individual conformity and group belonging over love, service, or actual change of heart.

Literalism was discredited from the beginning of the New Testament through the inclusion of four Gospel accounts of the same Jesus event, which differ in many ways. Which is the “inerrant” one?

The earlier centuries of Christianity were much closer to the trans-rational world of Jesus and his storytelling style of teaching (which does not lend itself to dogmatic or systematic theology). The Gospel says, “He would never speak to them except in parables” (Matthew 13:34). The indirect, metaphorical, symbolic language of a story or parable seems to be Jesus’ preferred way of teaching spiritual realities.

Almost all of Jesus’ parables begin with the same phrase: “The Reign of God is like. . . .” Jesus fully knows he is speaking in metaphor, simile, story, and symbol. But in recent centuries, many Christians have not granted him that freedom, and thus we miss or avoid many of his major messages. We are much the poorer for it.

Jesus: Modeling an Evolving Faith; Patience

January 4th, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Jesus: Modeling an Evolving Faith
Patience
Friday, January 4, 2019

The New Testament shows history working in a way that is both evolutionary and positive. See, for example, Jesus’ many parables of the Kingdom, which lean heavily on the language of growth and development. He uses metaphors of the seed, the maturing ear of corn, weeds and wheat growing together, and yeast rising. His parables of the “Reign of God” are about finding, discovering, being surprised, changing roles and status. None of these notions are static; they are always about something new and good coming into being.
Why do I think this is so important? Frankly, because without it we become very impatient with ourselves and others. Humans and history both grow slowly. [1] We expect people to show up at our church doors fully transformed and holy before they can be welcomed in. But metanoeite, or change of consciousness, can only come with time. Patience is the very shape of love. Without it, religion is merely about enforcing laws and requirements. Without an evolutionary worldview, Christianity does not really understand, much less foster, growth or change. Nor does it know how to respect and support where history is heading.
Anything called “Good News” needs to reveal a universal pattern that can be relied upon, not just clannish or tribal patterns that might be true on occasion. This is probably why Christianity’s break with Judaism was inevitable, although never intended by either Jesus or Paul. Both Jesus and Paul were good Jews who thought they were reforming Judaism. By the early second century, Christians were already calling themselves “catholics” or “the universals.” At the front of their consciousness was a belief that God is leading all of history somewhere larger and broader and better for everyone. Christianity cannot be bound by ethnicity or nationality. This puts it in essential conflict with any group that wants to domesticate the message for its own “patriotic” purposes.
Without a universal story line that offers grace and caring for all of creation, Jesus is always kept small and seemingly inept. God’s care must be toward all creatures; otherwise, God ends up not being very caring at all, which makes things like water, trees, animals—and other peoples—seem accidental, trivial, or disposable. But grace is not a late arrival in history, an occasional add-on for a handful of humans. God’s grace and life did not just appear a couple thousand years ago when Jesus came, and his story was told through the Gospels. God’s grace cannot be a random solution doled out to the few and the virtuous—or it would hardly be grace at all! (See Ephesians 2:7-10 if you want the radical meaning of grace summed up in three succinct verses.)
What if we recovered the sense of God’s inherent grace (the Holy Spirit whom we called “Uncreated Grace”) as the primary generator of all life? We are, of course, in evolution all the time. To deny change and growth is to deny the obvious, yet humans seem good at that. The ride is the destination, and the goal is never clearly in sight. To stay on the ride, to trust the trajectory, to know it is moving, and moving somewhere always better, is just about the best way to describe religious faith.

Jesus: Modeling an Evolving Faith; Our Priority Is Love

January 3rd, 2019 by JDVaughn No comments »

Jesus: Modeling an Evolving Faith
Our Priority Is Love
Thursday, January 3, 2019

Brian McLaren, a dear friend and fellow public theologian, shares my concern and hope that Christianity can evolve. In his book The Great Spiritual Migration, he writes:
For centuries, Christianity has been presented as a system of beliefs. That system of beliefs has supported a wide range of unintended consequences, from colonialism to environmental destruction, subordination of women to stigmatization of LGBT people, anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, clergy pedophilia to white privilege. What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion, that makes amends for its mistakes and is dedicated to beloved community for all? Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life? . . .
For centuries, Christians have presented God as a Supreme Being who showers blessings upon insiders who share certain beliefs and proper institutional affiliation, but who punishes outsiders with eternal conscious torment. Yet Jesus revealed God as one who “eats with sinners,” welcomes outsiders in, and forgives even while being rejected, tortured, and killed. Jesus associated God more with gracious parental tenderness than strict authoritarian toughness. He preached that God was to be found in self-giving service rather than self-asserting domination. What would it mean for Christians to let Jesus and his message lead them to a new vision of God? What would it mean for Christians to understand, experience, and embody God as the loving, healing, reconciling Spirit in whom all creatures live, move, and have their being?
For centuries, Christianity has presented itself as an “organized religion”—a change-averse institution or set of institutions that protects and promotes a timeless system of beliefs that were handed down fully formed in the past. Yet Christianity’s actual history is a story of change and adaptation. We Christians have repeatedly adapted our message, methods, and mission to the contours of our time [for example, the Second Vatican Council within Catholicism]. What might happen if we understood the core Christian ethos as creative, constructive, and forward-leaning—as an “organizing religion” that challenges all institutions (including its own) [as Jesus did] to learn, grow, and mature toward a deepening, enduring vision of reconciliation with God, self, neighbor, enemy, and creation? . . .
If such a migration is possible, how would we describe that way of life toward which we are moving?
If we are to be truly Christian, it makes sense to turn to Jesus for the answer.
Of the many radical things said and done by Jesus, his unflinching emphasis on love was the most radical of all. Love was the greatest commandment . . . his prime directive—love for God, for self, for neighbor, for stranger, for alien, for outsider, for outcast, and even for enemy, as he himself modeled. The new commandment of love [John 13:34] meant that neither beliefs nor words, neither taboos, systems, structures nor the labels that enshrined them mattered most. Love decentered everything else; love relativized everything else; love took priority over everything else—everything.

Inner Transformation

January 2nd, 2019 by Dave No comments »

Inner Transformation
Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Jesus clearly believed in change. In fact, the first public word out of his mouth was later translated into the Greek imperative verb metanoeite, which literally means “change your mind” or “go beyond your mind” (see Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15). Unfortunately, in the fourth century, St. Jerome translated the word into Latin as paenitentia (“repent” or “do penance”), initiating a host of moralistic connotations that have colored Christians’ understanding of the Gospels ever since. The word metanoeite referred to a primal change of mind, worldview, or way of processing and perceiving—and only by corollary about a specific change in behavior. This common misunderstanding puts the cart before the horse; we think we can change a few externals while our underlying worldview often remains narcissistic and self-referential.

This misunderstanding contributed to a puritanical, externalized, and largely static notion of the Christian message that has followed us to this day. Faith became about external requirements that could be enforced, punished, and rewarded, much more than an actual change of heart and mind, which Jesus described as something that largely happens “in secret, where your Father who sees in secret can reward you” (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18).

Jesus invariably emphasized inner motivation and intention. For example, he taught: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). Jesus made religion about interior change and “purity of heart” (Matthew 5:8) more than visible behaviors or rituals or anything that would have a social payoff or punishment.

Jesus didn’t focus on individual sin outside or over there, where we can point to it, punish it, and try to change it. That is too easy and mostly ineffective. Without making light of evil, he showed how to actually overcome and heal it. Sin, for Jesus, was the very act of accusing (Satan means “the accuser”). Whenever we try to expel and accuse others, and somehow leave ourselves or our group out of the equation, we end up “sinning.” We must first recognize our own complicity in evil before we can transform it. We see this pattern when Jesus himself was faced with three temptations to power (Matthew 4:1-11). Until we face our own demons, none of us are prepared to fight evil elsewhere.

Jesus thus stood in solidarity with individuals who were excluded, deemed unworthy, or demonized. Why? Because the excluded from any group always reveal the unquestioned idolatries of that group! He even partied with sinners and tax collectors, and the “pure” hated him for it (see Luke 15:2). The way Jesus tried to change people was by loving and healing them, accusing only their accusers. Why did we not notice that? His harshest words of judgment were reserved for those who perpetuated systems of inequality and oppression and who, through religion itself, thought they were sinless and untouchable. Jesus did not so much love people once they changed, but he loved people so that they could change.

Everything Changes

January 1st, 2019 by Dave No comments »

Everything Changes
Tuesday, January 1, 2019

We’re calling this year’s theme “Old and New: An Evolving Faith.” The term “evolution” may be challenging for some Christians who believe that science and the Bible contradict each other. We’ll look more closely at the Bible (and how Jesus interpreted it) next week, and later this year we’ll focus on Creation and science. For now, let’s simply consider how the inner process of change and growth is fundamental to everything, even our bodies. Having undergone several surgeries, cancer, and a heart attack, I’ve been consoled by the way my body takes care of itself over time. The miracle of healing comes from the inside—but with help from doctors and nurses!

In religion, however, many prefer magical, external, one-time transactions instead of the universal pattern of growth and healing—which is always through loss and renewal. This is the way that life perpetuates itself in ever-new forms: through various changes that can feel like death. The pattern disappoints and scares most of us, even many clergy who think death and resurrection is just a doctrinal statement about the lone Jesus.

There is not a single discipline today that does not recognize change, development, growth, and some kind of evolving phenomenon: psychology, cultural anthropology, history, physical sciences, philosophy, social studies, drama, music, on and on. But in theology’s search for the Real Absolute, it imagined a static “unmoved mover,” as Aristotelian philosophy called it, a solid substance sitting above somewhere. Theology has struggled to imagine that once God includes us in the narrative then God is for sure changing! Is that not what the Bible—at its core—is saying? We matter to God and God thus allows us to change the narrative of history . . . and the narrative of God.

Religion tends to prefer and protect the status quo or the supposedly wonderful past, yet what we now see is that religion often simply preserves its own power and privilege. God does not need our protecting. We often worship old things as substitutes for eternal things. Jesus strongly rejects this love of the past and one’s private perfection, and he cleverly quotes Isaiah (29:13) to do it: “In vain do they worship me, teaching merely human precepts as if they were doctrines” (Matthew 15:9). Many of us seem to think that God really is “back there,” in the good ol’ days of old-time religion when God was really God, and everybody was happy and pure. This leaves the present moment empty and hopeless—not to speak of the future.

God keeps creating things from the inside out, so they are forever yearning, developing, growing, and changing for the good. This is the generative force implanted in all living things, which grow both from within—because they are programmed for it—and from without—by taking in sun, food, and water. Picture YHWH breathing into the soil that became Adam (Genesis 2:7). That is the eternal pattern. God is still breathing into soil every moment!

Evolutionary thinking is actually contemplative thinking because it leaves the full field of the future in God’s hands and agrees to humbly hold the present with what it only tentatively knows for sure. Evolutionary thinking must agree to both knowing and not knowing, at the same time. This is hard for the egoically bound self. It wants to fully know—now—which is never true anyway.