Category Archives: Christianity

An Alternative to Perfunctory Forgiveness

My foray into A Course in Miracles (Acim) the past year and a half has been very helpful in learning to view reality, including my faith, through a more critical prism.  One of the most important lessons has been about forgiveness which is more than the perfunctory “performance art” forgiveness that I have been accustomed to.  This “performance art” forgiveness is when you forgive someone who has offended you because that is the thing you are supposed to do.  You have learned that when someone has “been naughty” to you, it is your Christian duty to forgive them, especially if they ask you to.  But Acim teaches that forgiveness goes much deeper than social obligation into the depths of the heart where you recognize that in an important sense you and the offending party are one, that “there go I but by the Grace of God.”  You forgive because you realize that you are connected to that person, are “cut from the same bolt of cloth,” and are in some sense guilty of the same offense.

Performance art forgiveness is often a transaction of power.  You are the bastion of moral virtue and godliness and before you is the lowly miscreant seeking absolution.  The miscreant walks away comforted with your forgiveness and you walk away basking in the comfort of knowing that you have, once again, been noble and Christian.  Acim teachings put each party on a level playing field…and that is where the teachings of Jesus want us to be with others. His teachings were intended to be a great equalizer among humankind, not as a means to facilitate some of us being “noble” and others “not so much.”

But performance art forgiveness, and the whole of performance art faith, has its place in human affairs functioning kind of like a set of training wheels on a bicycle. And perfunctory forgiveness is better than none at all and, if given a little thought and humility, can lead to the understanding taught by the Course.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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The Danger of Biblical Literalism

Bishop John Shelby Spong in “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism” has argued forcefully that Biblical literalism is a fundamental threat to Christianity.  This notion is anti-thetical to everything I was taught in my youth but now as I age I find it weighing on me to join Spong…and others…in weighing in with my two cents.  Biblical literalism reflects the sin of misplaced concreteness, mistaking the symbol for the thing which it represents.  Thus the Bible, certainly Holy Writ, becomes a barrier to hearing what the various people contributing to the Bible were trying to say as well as the One we credit with writing the Bible in the first place.  The bible is used to avoid the Bible just as god is used to avoid God, and our grasp of who we are is used to avoid the inner essence, i.e. experience, of who we are.  Our culture teaches us to live on the surface, to look no deeper than the surface, and this mandate applies also to religion even though it is so convenient to think otherwise.  It is convenient, and often fashionable to subscribe to “easy believism” that doesn’t cost anything substantial yet will provide in religion a social accoutrement that many of us find necessary, much like a nice suit of clothes. It is another thing to “have religion” that penetrates into the very depths of our being, shakes us to the core, challenges our preconceptions, and brings us to the point where we can but “glory, bow, and tremble.”  Meaningful religion, in short, brings us face to face with our human-ness, including our mortality. This “easy believism” is now egregiously manifest in our culture with the throngs of conservative Christians who have pledged their troth to a political leader who is the antitheses of everything Jesus stood for.  Yes, cursed like Trump with the same inability to acknowledge fault, they “stand by their man” even as his perfidy and moral obtuseness becomes more obvious; for, to do otherwise would be to acknowledge, “Oh, well maybe God wasn’t leading me to support him.  Maybe it was just my own personal lust for power and glory.”

I want to share here the wisdom of two 20th century religious scholars who grasped this phenomenon of bibliolatry.  The first, Jacques Ellul wrote in “The Judgement of Jonah”:

…Thus obedience to the letter of scripture can be obedience to Satan if the text serves to bring about isolation and independence in relation to the one who has inspired it.  It can be a means of self-affirmation over against God in in repression of his truth and his will.  The biblical text, and obedience to it, do not guarantee anything.  They may be the best means of not hearing God speak.  (Ellul here points out that the Pharisees were) authentic believers, faithful adherents of scripture, and rich in good works and piety.  In reality everything depends on our attitude to the text of the scripture.  If I seize it, use it, and exploit it to my own ends...then I am obeying Satan under the cover of what the Bible says.

The following is an excerpt from a book about Paul Tillich, one of the most prominent American theologians of the 20th century who clearly understood bibliolatry, presenting it as taking what is merely a symbol for the “thing-in-itself.”  Here a Tillich scholar explains bibliolatry in terms of taking a “religious symbol” literally and thereby disallowing it to reveal its inner value:

The problem for all symbols, but especially for religious symbols, is that they often tend to become identified completely with that which they symbolize. In so doing they have a tendency to supplant their referents. The problem is heightened by the nature of the dual task of religious symbols, which must express not only ultimate reality but also the character of the material that serves as the symbol. The symbol must not be transparent, losing all its self-identity; instead, it must be translucent, maintaining its own character but revealing light from another source. When religious symbols become confused with the reality they represent, they become idolatrous and demonic, for idolatry is nothing other than making symbols of the holy absolute and identical with the absolute itself.” {Donald W. Musser, Joseph L. Price, *Tillich* (Abingdon Pillars of Theology)}

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

God Punishes Texas With Hurricane Harvey!!!

This is a facetious head line, and I have a tinge of guilt as human misery is nothing to be facetious about.  I use this to illustrate an interpretive framework that still echoes in the depths of my heart somewhere even though here I use it to illustrate how silly and how dark these words sound.  Yes, Texas is the heart of a lot of “stuff” that I see as very dark, and yes this same interpretive framework is used by its political and religious leaders too often when groups they dislike are facing misfortune, but I “sure as hell” don’t think God is punishing them with this awful tragedy.  Anyone who sees it that way belies a very small mind and a very dark heart of their own.  And to credit God with such a petty, vengeful spirit is insulting to say the least and reflects a belief in a God that I don’t believe in.  Furthermore, it is more revealing about the heart from which it flows than about God.

With this vein of thought that I am critiquing here I see so clearly why there are atheists and why conservative Christians are often so reviled.  This hateful and punitive view of God reflects abysmal ugliness which often finds expression in all religious groups despite how pious and righteous they might purport to be.  The impulse toward the Holy, i.e. “God” in this instance is a very noble impulse but the impulse is an infantile, crude groping of the heart that needs to be refined with the Grace that maturity can bring.  Often we never get beyond the infantile, egoic dimension of human experience in any of our life and when that happens the “beastly” part of “the heart has its beastly little treasures” will predominate.

Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

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https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Paul Tillich’s “Mutilated Religion” Will be Addressed Here

A couple of responses from my last few posts have really impressed me, including one that was actually very critical.  The critical gentleman took me to task for being “non-sensical” and immature to which I had to agree.  I have always taken a bold tack in this blog but I am now coming out more boldly and taking spirituality, as I now understand it, into a new dimension which is very non-linear and therefore in a sense very “non-sensical.”  Paul Tillich declared that a religion within the bounds of reason is a mutilated religion and I now choose to address this “mutilation” far more openly and will do it with reason itself.  You might say I will turn reason upon itself.

I don’t know the gentleman that was critical of my observations but he did demonstrate a graciousness and intelligence even as he made his concerns known in a very pointed manner.  And, I think I know where he was coming from as I grew up in a very linear culture and still have the capacity to understand and respect that way of viewing the world.  And, I’m glad that I do as otherwise I would be taking “non-sensical” to another dimension in which I would be, shall we say, “functionally impaired.”  Our world functions on the basis of linear thought and those who subscribe to that way of viewing the world are usually quite intelligent and noble people.  Unfortunately….or fortunately”…I am not blessed with the comfort of that world view and see life, including religion, from broader perspective and do so without any illusion that it is the only way.

Again, I must employ the bumper stick that I overwork—DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK! Thinking is not autonomous, its roots lie in the depths of our being, often thought of as the unconscious.  We think in accordance with premises and biases which are not easily acknowledged and sometimes impossible.  Religion is particularly susceptible to this dimension of our heart as it reflects our innermost being, including our deepest fears, insecurities, and hopes.  Though religion offers “re-ligio” (tieing together of that which has been disconnected, as with a “ligament”) it often proffers ignoble impulses to accomplish this purpose.  For example, one of the things which can most unify a group of people is hatred aimed against another group or even a particular person.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Approaching the Bible as Literature

The Bible is Holy Writ.  Dismiss it, curse it, scoff at it, take it literally, take it metaphorically, don’t take it at all but it still falls culturally and historically into the category “Holy Writ.”  Therefore, it has value regardless whether or not you think so, though that “value” for you personally is for you to determine.  It might be that you “value” it not at all and if that should be the case you will never find me arguing with you.  I would have at one time but somewhere along the line I managed to “get a life.” In this blog, an evolving enterprise of mine which is gradually taking a different shape, I am exploring what the Bible and the Christian tradition is to me.  This is now a very personal endeavor as I am much less controlled by the “party line” that I was given as a child, this “party line” usually having an important role in the early stages of one’s faith.  But as the Apostle Paul put it, “When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.”

“Holy Writ” falls into the general category of literature.  In my youth to consider the Bible as literature would have been tantamount to heresy as it would have appeared to be presenting it as “mere” human endeavor.  But approaching it as literature reflects the evolution of my alter-ego, Literarylew, which materialized when I came to understand and experience life in fluid, metaphorical terms. This means that I now have the liberty, and the courage, to see Holy Writ…and certainly the Bible…as having layers of meaning none of which necessarily have to be excluded.   Some see the Bible, for example, as a literal historical document in which a literal, concretely existing deity dictated it word for word.  I have better things to do than to quarrel with anyone who approaches it that way but I would encourage them to toy with others.

A literary approach to the Bible facilitates a personal interpretation and application of the truths being presented.  If one approaches what he reads literally, he sees it only as an “owner’s” manual and the God that I see in the Bible is not an “owner” but one who offers a relationship with Him, a relationship which facilitates more open, honest, intimate relationships with our fellowman.  If God is our “owner” then we are a mere object and we will then be inclined to see and feel ourselves only as an object and to subsequently view our world and our fellowman as an object.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

 

 

Paul Tillich’s View of God as “The Ground of Being”

Paul Tillich has been one of the pivotal figures in my spiritual and intellectual life.  He introduced me to meaningful concepts like God as “the Ground of Being,” and “The Wholly Other,” and the notion I’d like to kick arounds today, “God as the unifying Ground”.  In the lengthy quotation provided below, gleaned from a Paul Tillich Facebook page, Tillich’s teachings present sin as estrangement from God, as a separation from God as “the Unifying Ground of Being.”  The unified state that he describes is what I often describe as “the unity of all things” before “the fall” occurred in the Garden of Eden when Adam ate of “the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.”  When Adam took that bite of the apple from that famous seductress Eve (wink, wink) mankind fell from this unified state into the bifurcated world of object separateness where good and evil, male and female, us and them, subject and object, et al were separate.  It is the hunger to return to this state of Grace that has driven mankind since, producing religion, art, and the whole of culture, including…alas and alack…consumerism, addiction, and the arms race!  This hunger, until it is satisfied by the “Unconditional Positive Regard” (see psychologist Carl Rogers) that Christians know as the Grace of God, humankind is fated to fill it up with “stuff” which will only fade away.  The Christian tradition teaches that Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, can fill that emptiness and alleviate that hunger though I aver not in the way that historic Christianity of the past few centuries has taught us.  For the past few centuries has witnessed the objectification of mankind via the philosophy of Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) and the poison of capitalism which turned us into “things” and crusted over our hearts with that cursed tendency to “thingify” everything we touch, including God.

The story of mankind is the narrative of our quest to know God and find again that unifying ground.  And, with that point, I’m going to bid adieu with the warning, “Ponder seriously over that word “God” I just used for “the word is not the ‘thing.’” And though organized religion has much to offer on this search, what it offers is usually so institutionalized that it is so completely devoid of spirituality value in addressing the existential plight that threatens civilization.

For Augustine as for Tillich, the loss of the unifying ground of life results in a disunity, a separation from one another of the interrelated facets and aspects of life. Thus (to use slightly different language) God is the principle of unity and harmony, and separation from God is the cause of disunity, disharmony, and a final consequent loss of being (reality) and meaning (value). As did Augustine, Tillich applies this fundamental principle of interpretation both to individual and to social or historical existence. He sees Enlightenment culture as beginning with a powerful assertion of the *autonomy* of reason against *heteronomy*, the absolute and yet uncreative authority of the now alien and external religious powers of the receding medieval world. This was, however, an autonomy with *theonomous* elements: it assumed the ultimate identity of reason and nature, of the rational, the good, and the beautiful, and so of objective and subjective, of reality and value, of cognition, morals, and art. As a consequence, in the Enlightenment the ‘rational’ stood not only for that which is true (the result of the rational cognitive processes of science) but also for that which is just (the result of rational and radical politics) and that which is beautiful (the harmonious and the orderly). In that theonomous unity (that is, through the exercise of ontological reason) the power and meaning of modern culture were nurtured.”

Langdon Gilkey, *Gilkey on Tillich*, 1990, p. 63

Romney Puts Falwell Jr./Jeffress to Shame!

Mitt Romney this morning spoke out firmly about the moral bankruptcy of Trump, declaring that he is a threat to the “fabric of our country.”  In my conservative background, Romney being a Mormon would fall into the category “them” and would have no more standing to hold forth on moral integrity than Trump.  But in my estimation today he does have standing and is here again taking a bold stance against this morally profligate man who occupies the White House while evangelical/fundamentalist Christians like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress continue to support him, even arguing still that the Lord is leading him.

Earlier in this debacle, when Trump’s perfidy was becoming so apparent, Jeffress and Falwell Jr. and their ilk had the lame response, “Well, who am I to judge?” and sometimes the note, “Well, he is only a baby Christian.”  Well, alas and alack, I am going to judge and let me declare here my credential—I HAVE ONE EYE AND HALF-SENSE…well, actually I have two eyes and I admit the amount of “sense” might be subjected to question.  But no longer subscribing to the guilt-ridden version of Christian faith I have the courage to declare…here in this cyber back-water…that Trump is not only mentally ill but he is morally and spiritually depraved.  And those of any spiritual persuasion, Christian or otherwise, who dare to defend this man need to look a bit deeper into their heart for there I think they will discover a hefty dollop of self-serving ego at work, sometimes hiding behind the name of Jesus Christ.  I speak with some authority for I’ve spent at least half of my sixty-five years doing the same thing.

Let me focus on Mr. Jeffress.  I don’t know the man but having known many of his ilk, and once setting out on the course of becoming a Baptist pastor myself, let me insist that he probably is one good human being and is sincere about his faith.  And, if I might briefly speak from the faith-expression he lives in, his faith covers his sins, he is forgiven of them, and is in no danger of any eternal punishment.  For, the work of Christ is complete, the “Lamb which is slain before the foundation of this world” has been offered to Mr. Jeffress and Jesus does say to him, “I got you covered, Bobby” just as he says to all of us.  But this does not obliterate “the flesh” and leaves us with the lamentation of the Apostle Paul who declared, “I will to do good, but evil is present with me.”

Mr. Jeffress, Mr. Falwell Jr, and many others of their faith persuasion are now facing the spiritual dilemma that Trump cowers before—“can I admit making a mistake?  Can I admit, as did Rick Perry once on a relevant occasion, ‘Oops!’”  We all need to do that on occasion and certainly those of us who purport to be “spiritual beings” under any label we might subscribe to.  Spirituality is such a ripe arena for “the flesh” to establish itself and the most effective way to do this is under the guise of our faith.  For our faith is never a finished product, it is always a work in progress, and periodically we need to utter the Rick Perry cry-for-mercy and hope for forgiveness, not only from God (who always grants our wish) but from ourselves and from others.  It is so much easier just to follow the dictates of the ego and dig our heels in and cling more tenaciously to our self-serving mindset.  As W. H. Auden put it, “And Truth me him, and held out her hand.  And he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”