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Monday, August 24, 2015

Religious or Spiritual?

About twenty years ago now, I had an epiphany while visiting with a gay cousin. We were discussing our grand-aunt. In the course of our conversation, we both agreed that she was one of the sweetest and kindest people that either of us had ever known. "Yes, she's very religious," I said. "No, she's very spiritual," my cousin corrected. That hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew instantly that my cousin was correct in making that distinction. My own experiences with religion had taught me that there was a difference.

I had been a member of the Worldwide Church of God, founded by one Herbert W. Armstrong; so I knew what it meant to be religious. I knew that being religious involved a commitment or devotion to following a set of beliefs/doctrines/principles. Moreover, as a devoted follower of Armstrong's brand of religion, I was convinced that there was a clear distinction to be drawn between FALSE and TRUE religion. My religion was meaningful and efficacious, but other religions were meaningless and unproductive. The TRUTH made me righteous and superior to other believers. At least, that is what I thought until I knew better!

Over time, I came to understand that religion was a man-made construct - a human process or systematic way of dealing with the Divine. Sure, most Christian religionists (including Mr. Armstrong) claimed to derive their religion from the Bible; but each one of them had their own unique understanding/interpretation of what that book required of them. When I finally left the Worldwide Church, I came to understand that the Bible itself was a very human book in many respects. After all, God had used humans to write, edit, translate and organize the books that made up the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. I came to understand that inspiration itself was a process that God used to work through humans to produce something, and that the resulting product would not be perfect because of human involvement. In fact, it was inevitable that the weaknesses and prejudices of the humans involved in the process would show up in the finished product.

On the other hand, being spiritual implies/suggests an elemental connection to the supernatural - the Divine. A spiritual person manifests the very nature of that other world. A spiritual person exhibits the love, kindness, compassion, patience and mercy which is generally attributed to the Divine. A spiritual person is eager to explore the meaning behind the rituals and doctrines that preoccupy the religious. The spiritual person seeks to align him/herself with goodness - to be in harmony with the creation and its Creator. The spiritual person seeks to transcend the mundane and temporal and is not interested in exercising authority/power over others or forcing them to adopt his/her viewpoint or creed.

Another former Armstrongite recently wrote a piece for The Journal: News of the Churches of God (Issue no. 174, June 2015) that illustrates the difference between religiosity and spirituality with great clarity. In the article, Patt McCarty talked about his experiences with Mr. Armstrong's teachings about divorce and remarriage. He shared with his readers the story of how the church destroyed what had been for him a happy second marriage (after what had amounted to a youthful indiscretion that was considered by the church to be his only valid first marriage), and how that destroyed his self-confidence and relationship with God and led to addiction and a downward spiral.

Looking back over his story, he wrote: "Mistakenly, I had pursued Herbert's image of God for a large portion of my adult life and found only condemnation continually coming form the image of his God. When I allowed Jesus to apprehend me for His purpose, then and only then did I find right relationship with Father God in Jesus. Then Herbert's image of God was exposed for the fraud it is by the revelation of the loving God in me." Mr. McCarty had had the same epiphany that I had experienced. He came to understand that you can't be in harmony with the Divine by adopting another man's formula or system for doing so. True spirituality involves a personal relationship with and connection to the Divine.

Carol Kuruvilla recently wrote a piece for Huffington Post about Reba Riley's "Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome." You can view the article here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/post-traumatic-church-syndrome_55d3fe11e4b07addcb4499d5?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000051 Riley defines this phenomenon as: "1) It’s a condition of spiritual injury that occurs as a result of religion, faith, and/or the leaving, losing or breaking of those things. 2) The vile, noxious, icky and otherwise foul aftermath of said spiritual injury. 3) A serious term intended to aid serious spiritual healing -- without taking itself too seriously in the process." I think that this is a good description of what many religious folks experience at some point in their religious career.

Likewise, I found that I could really relate to her answer to Kuruvilla's question regarding what had frustrated her about her childhood faith. She said: "It’s really death by a thousand cuts. You find cracks in your faith and you express them and you try harder to hide them and reason your way out of them. The process was probably a year and a half long before I recognized that what I grew up with was ‘believe it all or believe it none’ theology. When I realized there were tenets of this faith system I couldn’t believe in, I didn’t have a choice. It was all or nothing. It’s not that I left my faith, it’s that my faith left me."

For me, the realization that it didn't have to be "all or nothing" was a big turning point in my own spiritual journey. From that point forward, I could begin to sort out for myself what was man-made and what originated in the mind of God. I could truly begin to yield to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and accept that God was much bigger and much more profound than anything that I had been taught by others or imagined through the process of my own reasoning. It was then that I finally realized that God cannot be contained by us or anything that we can construct.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The ten most viewed posts on this blog:

1. God and Dinosaurs --14 March 2015
2. A few questions about God and Homosexuality --15 February 2015
3. You didn't choose to be a heterosexual! --19 February 2015
4. Give us a sign! --18 August 2014
5. God and Capitalism: Seven scriptural principles that contradict modern American Capitalism --5 December 2014
6. Conclusive proof that God didn't have anything to do with writing the Bible? --2 August 2015
7. Is the universe organized to produce life? --20 April 2015
8. Does God motivate all evangelistic zeal? --9 September 2014
9. Atheist or Theist: Self-righteousness is still ugly! --5 August 2014
10.Scientists and Theists: We want an explanation for everything! --28 March 2015

** While these posts have sparked the most interest from the public, they do not necessarily reflect my favorites.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

False Christianity

A good friend sent me a link to an excellent follow-up article to my last post "Who is a Christian?" The piece was written by Edwin Lyngar and appears at Salon.com at this address: http://www.salon.com/2015/08/17/i_was_betrayed_by_republican_religion_what_my_years_as_a_christian_fundamentalist_taught_be_about_right_wing_faith/

Lyngar points out some of the glaring contradictions between the Religious Right's self-identification as Christian and their political behavior/positions on issues. In writing about his own religious experiences, he said: "Like many self-identified American Christians, I grew up calling myself such while adhering to few of the precepts and never going to church." Sound familiar? How many right wing politicians have we heard espouse family values while they are personally working on their second, third or fourth marriage? How many right wing politicians have we heard denouncing the women who get an abortion while advocating a slash in support of public funding to poor families? How many right wing politicians have we heard condemning illegal immigrants and ignoring Christ's statement that he appeared in the guise of a stranger whom his true followers welcomed into their homes?

Lyngar wrote: "The political version of Christianity is first and foremost a media construct, like so much of our lives these days. It’s championed by Fox News, the 700 Club and a parade of has-beens and never weres, selling the “prosperity gospel” like so much snake oil. It’s a powerful and toxic stew that is as relevant to Jesus as professional wrestling or a discarded Playboy. Conservative Christianity in America is less a religion and more of a secret handshake, a group signifier of exclusion and moral superiority. Its swaggering and masculine cruelty is at once its greatest weakness and most attractive feature for working class white people who have seen their lifestyles and power eroded."

While I concur with Lyngar's characterization of conservative hypocrisy, we should not fall into the same trap that many of these folks on the Right have stumbled into. As I've said before, God is not a Republican or a Democrat. God is not a Capitalist or a Socialist. God is not a Conservative or a Liberal. Self-righteousness can and does afflict those on the Left too! How can you ignore all of the scriptures that require the poor to work for the food and support they receive? How can you talk about raising taxes to pay for government programs while doing everything in your power to reduce your own tax burden? How can you advocate for an end to the death penalty while showing complete disregard for the life of a fetus? See how this works both ways?

That's why it's so dangerous to say things like: "If you support the Supreme Court's decision on Gay marriage or abortion, you can't be a Christian!" Brethren, whether you support or oppose a Supreme Court decision says absolutely NOTHING about whether or not you're a Christian! Do you love your neighbors, brothers and sisters as yourself? Do you treat other folks the way that you would like to be treated? Do you do your acts of kindness and charity to demonstrate your love for God and Christ? From where I'm sitting, these are the pertinent questions in determining whether or not you're living your profession of faith. What does your own conscience tell you? In the words of another friend, is there enough evidence to convict you of being a Christian?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Who is a Christian?

A good friend of mine, one whose opinion I hold in high regard, recently commented on what it means to be a Christian. He said: "I settled on this definition: Anyone who says he's a Christian is a Christian. One reason this works is that Christians can't agree on a definition anyway so mine's as good as any." Like many of the other things he's said or written in the past, his words played around in my head for several days. The more I thought about it, the more I realized just how thorny of a proposition it is to pin down what it means to be a Christian. Moreover, I realized that his definition eliminates the problem of Christians disowning each other because of minor/major differences in doctrine - something which my own posts and comments have indicated that I abhor.

His comments also prompted me to ask a few questions of myself: Am I as tolerant as I thought I was? Do I truly accept anyone who claims to be a Christian as my brother or sister in Christ? How do I define what it means to be a Christian?

In the meantime, something happened at work that brought more clarity to my own thinking on the subject. My new boss announced that her priorities in life were God, family and our business. "Sounds good," I thought; but there was also a whisper of a voice in my head that said, "We'll see!"

I didn't have to wait long. This past week, it was announced that everyone's hours in our part of the business would be changing. Instead of working from 7 AM to 4 PM, everyone would be required to work 4 AM to 1 PM. I, along with my coworkers, quickly realized that this would present a whole host of problems for a large number of people. What about college students, people with second jobs or spouses who worked other shifts/hours, people with health problems, folks who had small or school age children, employees who worked part-time and the folks who had transportation issues? How could the folks who worked 8 AM to 5 PM Monday thru Friday in nice offices implement a policy that would work such havoc in the lives of their worker bees? Would there be any accommodation or compassion in implementing these new hours? The answer was basically NO! They would have to "work with" college students. "There's no way around that, I'm required by law to work with them," she grudgingly admitted.

I was sitting there in disbelief listening to all of this, and her modified traditional Christian statement of priorities (It's usually expressed as God, family and country) came to my mind. I slowly raised my hand and said, "Those of us who list God as a priority in our lives generally attempt to follow the Golden Rule (Treat others the way that you would like to be treated)." "How would all of you (upper management) like it if someone suddenly required all of you to work these hours?" I asked. There was a moment of stunned silence as everyone absorbed the implications of what I had said, which was quickly followed by angry indignation. I had had the audacity to point out that her public profession did not comport with the standard of behavior implicit in such a profession.

In the back of my mind, I could hear the words of Jesus: "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." (Matthew 7:21) He had also said, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." (John 10:27) Paul had declared, "Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his." (Romans 8:9) He went on to list the fruits (or evidence) that one had that Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23) So, according to Jesus and Paul, BEHAVIOR was the key to properly defining a Christian. One had to have the Spirit, and the evidence that one had that Spirit was love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, etc. Nevertheless, Christ had also warned against snap judgments of people. (Matthew 7:1-5) Evidence requires observation and observation requires time. There are moments when I'm not patient or kind - does that mean that I am not a Christian?

The moment of clarity - I had my own definition of what it means to be a Christian. It isn't one's adherence to a set of beliefs or doctrines. It isn't one's profession of Christianity. It isn't one's name on the membership roles of some human organization. It isn't going to church every Saturday or Sunday. It isn't wearing a cross around one's neck or refusing to wear makeup. A person is a Christian when he/she is attempting to behave like Jesus Christ - one who is attempting to exhibit the merciful, compassionate and healing nature which the founder of the movement exhibited during his lifetime on this planet. In other words, don't tell me you're a Christian - SHOW ME that you're a Christian!

Are there Christians among the ranks of the upper management where I work? I don't know. I do know, however, that their behavior in this instance was not consistent with this definition of who many of them claim to be. Are there Christians among the ranks of the Armstrongites? Based on my own observations, I believe there are many Christians among them - not because of what they say they believe, but because of the way they live their lives. How do you define what it means to be a Christian? Are you a Christian?

Friday, August 7, 2015

Could God be pleased with a Roman Catholic?

Like many Protestant and independent American Christians, I came from a religious background that was rabidly anti-Catholic. One of the groups which I was formerly affiliated with taught that the Roman Catholic Church was the epitome of false Christianity. They taught that the doctrines and beliefs of that church were diametrically opposed to the TRUTH of God. They taught that the Roman Church was the tool that Satan had used to deceive people into accepting a false Christianity. They taught that the Roman Church was the Great Whore of the book of Revelation, and that a pope was the most likely candidate for the Anti-Christ. All of this was based on that church's teachings and history.

What about the fruits produced in the lives of individual members of that church? That was ignored. Frankly, it didn't matter. Doctrinal correctness is what mattered - it was the only legitimate measure of who was and was not a Christian! After all, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Never mind that Jesus Christ said that it was the fruit that a person bears during his/her lifetime that identifies them as good or bad (Matthew 7:16, 20). Never mind that Jesus Christ said that LOVE would be the single most important trait in identifying his followers (John 13:35). Never mind that the Apostle Paul said that the evidence that one had God's Holy Spirit rested in the character traits of the individual (Galatians 5:22).

A few days ago, a friend sent me a biographical clip about one Franz Jagerstatter. Franz was a Roman Catholic Christian in Austria in the 1930's. Franz was a simple man who became a sexton in his local church and refused any compensation for the services he performed for the brethren in his community. In 1938, he was the only person in his local community with enough courage to vote against the Anschluss with Nazi Germany. He also had the moral courage to refuse to fight in the German Army. In short, Franz was devoted to God, and what he believed that God expected of him. He was willing to face execution at the hands of the Nazis instead of participating in their murderous regime. He wrote from prison: "Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will." Franz remained faithful to God and was eventually beheaded by the Nazis. (You can read more of his story here: http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ns_lit_doc_20071026_jagerstatter_en.html)

Was Franz Jagerstatter a Christian Martyr? I think that the story of his life provides more than enough evidence that he was. And, if this Roman Catholic man was indeed a Christian, what does that say about the teachings of all of those anti-Catholic groups about what constitutes a Christian? What do you think?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Conclusive proof that God didn't have anything to do with writing the Bible?

Gavin Rumney posted a chart the other day on his Otagosh blog which originally appeared on the Yuriy & Inna blog. The article can be viewed here: http://www.yuriyandinna.com/ The chart highlights differences between the Greek Septuagint and Hebrew Masoretic Text relative to how the authors of the New Testament used certain passages from the Old Testament in their writings. The chart appears as part of an article entitled "Why I don't trust the Bible," which is itself the fourth part of a series of articles that underscores "a clearly human writing history" for the Scriptures.

While I agree with Yuriy that many Christians are unfamiliar with the contents of the Bible (what is actually said in its pages) and how it came to be (how it was written and the history of how the canon was put together), I do not agree with him that an awareness of those things will lead one to the inevitable conclusion that God didn't have anything to do with the writing of the Bible - that it is an entirely human enterprise. Yuriy's conclusions are based on naive notions about the Bible (and, once again, I'm not disputing that these notions are widespread within the Christian community). Yuriy summarizes these notions as "1. God inspired people to write divine revelation, without error; they wrote this down in Greek or Hebrew, put it together in a book called the Bible; and 2. This Greek and Hebrew Bible was translated into English, and you have a copy in your hands."

As long time readers of this blog will readily acknowledge, this blogger does not subscribe to such notions about the Bible. My overall beef is not with Yuriy's scholarship (although I do have a few observations to make about the chart later) or his conclusions that Scripture was written by humans, edited by humans, translated by humans and put together by humans. No, Yuriy and I part company in our determinations about what that evidence means in terms of God's involvement in the process.

I am reminded here about the different perspectives of the optimist and the pessimist. The optimist sees the glass as being half full, and the pessimist sees the glass as being half empty. Same glass of water perceived differently by two independent observers.

Yuriy and I do not disagree that Scripture is full of errors, contradictions, additions, deletions, obscure, crude, bigoted and disputed texts. We do disagree that these features lead to the conclusion that God had absolutely nothing to do with the writing of Scripture or the formation of the canon. Think about it, Yuriy's conclusion is only warranted if one accepts the traditional understanding of what inspiration is (which I do not). I do not believe that inspiration takes away our human propensity for making mistakes and bad decisions. If we allow all of Yuriy's evidence of human involvement in the process, are we truly being objective if we disallow any evidence of God's involvement in the process?

There is a considerable body of evidence that there is a remarkable degree of harmony and continuity in the writings known as the Bible. I hope that Yuriy would be willing to acknowledge that one is able to find great beauty, love, compassion, mercy, hope and spiritual insight in the pages of the Bible. Where did those things come from? If Yuriy was willing to acknowledge the presence of those things, he would probably point to the same source - humans. I, however, see these things as evidence of a different set of fingerprints - what I characterize as Divine fingerprints. Yes, I can see the human fingerprints all over these documents, but I also can clearly discern that there is another set of fingerprints all over the evidence.

As for the chart referenced above, we must admit that such a chart could be dangerous in the hands of those who are unfamiliar with the history surrounding the Septuagint and Masoretic Text. It is a fact of history that the Western world (including the Jews) was heavily influenced by the Greeks during the period between the later prophets and just before the events described in the New Testament. The fact that the New Testament was composed in Greek is itself evidence of this phenomenon. As the Jews spread out from Palestine and established communities in areas that were even more directly influenced by the Greek culture and language, it became necessary for them to translate their scriptures into Greek (many Jews adopted the language of the intellectual and commercial elite). This happened during this period between the Old and New Testaments.

As Yuriy points out in his article, the earliest Greek manuscripts (the more complete ones) date back to the Fourth and Fifth Centuries of the Common Era. The earliest complete Masoretic Text (Hebrew) manuscripts date to the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries (it has also been demonstrated that there are significant differences between these and the Dead Sea Scrolls). Which one is more authoritative? Which one is closer to the original? (Yuriy points out that we don't have ANY of the originals) If we based our answer on age, we'd have to give the edge to the Septuagint. Is it possible that the Jews who were responsible for the Masoretic Text had an incentive to discredit the Septuagint and the New Testament? (After all, they didn't accept Jesus as the Messiah - Which came first: the chicken or the egg?)

Finally, take another look at the different translations. Doesn't the Greek version appear to make more sense within the context sometimes than the Hebrew? Hence, while it is safe to look at this chart and conclude that there are discrepancies between the Greek and Hebrew versions of the Old Testament, one would be on shaky ground to conclude that the human authors of the New Testament consulted an inferior source for their quotations from the OT.

Yuriy concludes his article with this statement: "Your Bible is the best possible scientific recreation, based on a scientific theory (yes, just like the theory of evolution, which also attempts to reconstruct the past based on available evidence, without access to complete evidence). I agree with that statement, and I am comfortable saying that's good enough for me. I accept the Theory of Evolution and the Big Bang Theory based on incomplete evidence (as does everyone who accepts them). Isn't it just a tad hypocritical to dismiss those of us who accept the Bible based on the same rationale?