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Helpful Shakeup

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Much of religion, Christian and otherwise, has always been the attempt to persuade God (or the gods) to give us what we want, whether it be security, victory in warfare, peace in our homes, or eternal life. The primary task of faith, however, is moving us to want what God wants for this world and all its people and, yes, its non-human creatures as well. I grow in faith and discipleship if I am learning to want for myself what God wants for me and to want for others what God wants for them (with enough humility to realize I am not in charge of dictating to them what they should believe or do). Jesus does not tell me to love others rather than myself but to love my neighbor as myself. No self-hatred is required. Some sacrifice of self-interest may indeed be required, but we are to care for the life and well-being of our neighbor because we are learning to know ourselves as people God loves and cares for. We matter to God, but we need to grow into the family business, so to speak, which means learning to care about what God cares about, to be hurt by what hurts God, to work for the changes God wants in human life and societies, and to long for the day when God’s longings will be satisfied.

“Thy will be done on earth!”

Last time, I listed some questions that belong to religion in contrast with a life of faith and discipleship. They were not evil questions, but they were shallow and restricted to the management of life (and the prospect of death) in self-interest. Religion really is the human attempt to manage God. Faith is humble trust in the God who cannot and will not be managed. The more I fool myself into thinking I have all the answers about God and life and can rest comfortably in those answers, the more clearly I need better, deeper, and more honest questions. If I refuse to allow myself to hear better questions from other people’s expressed doubts and anxieties or from my own suppressed doubts and anxieties, life will slowly (or sometimes quite suddenly) hammer me with them.

Here again are the first three of the questions I listed that have generated religion for as long as people have thought about life and realized how tenuous it is:

  1. How do I please God enough to keep God off my back, to be insulated from blame and guilt?
  2. What do I have to do to be a good (worthy) person and to believe I am one?
  3. What do I have to believe (assent to) in order to qualify as religious or good or saved or whatever is the term in my religious group for a validated person?

At a crisis point in Israel’s history as God’s covenant people, a prophet (Micah) speaks out for the people in their frustration with being judged for their injustices, self-deceit, and religious practices intended to pacify God. They sound like petulant teenagers demanding to know what it takes to get their parents off their backs. How many sacrifices do I have to make to please you, God? Do I have to slaughter every animal in my herd or flock? But then the frustrated and resentful religious people step over the line: Do I have to sacrifice my own firstborn child to shut you up? Child sacrifice was forbidden in Israel, and the question is as offensive as it can be made. I have paraphrased it (see Micah 6:1-8) to show that offensiveness. But if Israel will not be Israel, the covenant people, they are still creatures, and so now the prophet addresses them, not in their chosen people status, but in their raw humanity.

“What is good has been showed to you, human! What does the LORD require of you, but only this: to act justly and make justice happen, to love kindness and faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Here religion gets slammed up against some truths about God upon which the Bible, the prophets, and Jesus of Nazareth insist:

  1. God cannot be controlled or managed.
  2. God does love this created world with its creatures, and God will not abandon it despite its corruption and delight in evil done to the vulnerable.
  3. The individual person matters very, very much to God but not as an individual apart from others because human life is relational, and the human becomes a person in relationships with others and responsible relatedness to human society and to what we call the natural world.
  4. God calls us into our rightful humanity.
  5. We cannot secure our own lives, but we can live them in humble trust, and God will honor that trust.
  6. God has special concern for the vulnerable, the poor, the outcast, the shamed, and the oppressed or enslaved.
  7. Judgment is not itself the truth of God, even though judgment is sometimes necessary to open people to God’s truth, which is love that forgives, heals, and restores.
  8. As we are the creatures who can know God’s love and learn God’s will for healing the corrupted creation, we are made responsible to represent God’s love to each other and to the creation.

Doubt is not the enemy of faith. True enough, stubborn cynicism can shield a person from faith, hope, and even love, but honest doubt arising from the real anxieties, fears, and disappointments of living does the opposite: it opens a person to trust, hope, and love. The religious enemy of faith is authoritarian certitude: “Here are the questions you are permitted to ask, and here are the correct answers! Just learn them and accept them on faith!”

Enough for now. We have entered a time when, even here in North America, Christians will need to learn what it means to walk humbly (much more humbly than we have walked previously) with our God. If we do, then I believe we will hear our call to discipleship renewed.

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Keeping It Comfortable

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The questions we ask, consciously or unconsciously, determine what we will expect from our religion, and thereby also set limits on how much we will allow religion into our lives, how far we will go in committing ourselves to religious beliefs and practices. This much but no more.

Religion, as I said in my previous post of the way I am using the word in this series, is intended for control. We want to feel stronger, more centered, better able to keep on top of life. We want to be enabled to stay optimistic. Indeed, optimism is the modern North American creed, and so the religious are likely to exclude questions that delve too deeply into any negatives that challenge an optimistic outlook and a tacit belief in progress. Religion wants faith to dispel doubt even when doing so requires silencing our own fears, griefs, anxieties, and disappointments as well as the cries of the oppressed or cheated.

Here are some of the questions that belong to religion as I am using that term in contrast with faith and discipleship.

  1. How do I please God enough to keep God off my back, to be insulated from blame and guilt?
  2. What do I have to do to be a good (worthy) person and to believe I am one?
  3. What do I have to believe (assent to) in order to qualify as religious or good or saved or whatever is the term in my religious group for a validated person?
  4. How do I get blessings or good fortune?
  5. How do I overcome my fears and self-doubts well enough to maintain the positive, optimistic outlook demanded by our society?
  6. How do I become associated with the right kind of people?
  7. How can I come to deserve a long, successful, and happy life?
  8. How do I get into heaven (and stay out of hell or oblivion)?
  9. Can I get help with overcoming my fear of death or the living death of deep dementia?
  10. How much do I have to give?

These questions are not terrible or evil, but they are shallow and restricted to self-interest and the management of life for the security and prosperity of the self. Biblically understood faith does not obliterate self-interest. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, not instead of caring for ourselves. But the questions above allow me to be religious while centering my concerns in me. Even charitable deeds can be focused on how good they make me feel about myself for doing them and how grateful the people I help are expected to feel. An effusive thank-you note can go a long way toward securing another contribution or mission project from a church.

There are times in life when our minds need to be calmed with assurances, when trust needs to rest in its belief and not raise challenges. The Bible offers a great deal of comfort to the troubled, but neither the prophets nor Jesus came merely or even primarily to comfort and reassure the people. Moreover, the comfort truly offered comes within the context of the call to discipleship.

Let me close for now with an analogy. If I were to enter into love with only questions of, “What’s in it for me?” I would not be allowing myself to love for real. My expectations for a relationship would so restrain my commitment to giving of myself and letting myself become vulnerable that love would be choked off, strangled. Whatever relationship I might be able to maintain would be kept superficial and not allowed to mature. So it is with religion kept too self-restricted to grow into faith and discipleship.

The alternative, however, is not just zeal or being “on fire” for the Lord. Enthusiasm can be just as self-centered as rituals of comfort and reassurance. What we need is a deepening. My next post will seek to explain what that deepening means.

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Religious?

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If someone were to ask me casually, “Dick, are you a religious man?” I would likely say, “Yes,” because people would not understand how I could be anything but religious when I am a Christian minister and retired pastor. My deeper answer, however, would be, “No, or at least I try not to be.” You can see, I’m sure, why that more honest answer would be injudicious in casual conversation.

Some theologians use the term religion in positive ways to indicate a shared life lived in faith, a life of piety (another positive term we use mainly with negative connotations, as in, “He’s so pious no one can stand him”). The Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, a favorite of mine especially for his work, The Prophets, is one of those. Most theologians I read use the term religion in contrast with faith and discipleship, seeing religion as the human attempt to gain either some measure of control over God (or gods) and life or at least an amicable truce with God. The more virulent among us use religion for political ends, but in this piece I’m sticking with the personal uses, rather than malignant political abuses, of religion.

We humans have always longed for ways to control life and fortune rather than suffer as their victims. For Modernism, the adoration of science (not to be confused with the actual practice of scientific investigation) and a persistently optimistic confidence in progress replaced or co-opted much of American Christian religion by including notions of inevitable progress in human goodness as well as in happy, successful living. Liberal Protestantism (where “liberal” actually meant something specific) became too easily and almost blissfully compatible with Modernism’s optimism about human progress in virtue and control over life (and maybe even eventually over death) to survive the devastating crises of the second half of the 20th Century, which was supposed to have been “the Christian century.”

Two world wars, the Holocaust, Stalin’s slaughter of millions, the “killing fields” of Cambodia, the threat of thermonuclear destruction, the ecological disasters our progress has wrought upon the earth, and the emergence of super germs played trump card after trump card against that optimism. In the analogy from Greek mythology used by the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, North American society tried to see itself as like Prometheus (the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind) but proved instead to be more like Sisyphus (who was condemned forever to roll his great rock up a hill each day but never reach the summit before the rock slipped from his hands and rolled back down again, ready for the next day’s futile labor). Seeing oneself as a Sisyphus rather than a potential Prometheus or at least as a person of significance in a Promethean society (the greatest country in the world!) can lead to despair. Hence the opioid epidemic, the escape into the frenetic world of video games, and the bitter delusions of conspiracy theories.

So it came to be that our North American societies are now regarded as post-Christian and postmodern. Again, following Hall and others, I suggest that we have opportunity to become deliberately post-Christendom rather than post-Christian. Our cultural establishment as the society’s religion, broken in Europe, is rapidly eroding in North America, despite the great efforts of evangelical and end-time churches or movements in the United States to strengthen Christian establishment into a sort of theocracy on their terms of power and glory. We can, however, still hear the call to discipleship and respond with a humility befitting a minority, no longer dominant faith. In this way, we can represent an alternative to our society’s apparent choices: between Prometheus and Sisyphus, between unrealistic optimism and narcotized despair, between power and glory on one hand and meaningless existence in quiet desperation on the other, and we can do so in ways that do not seek to flee this world God loves. We are not called to become world-hating escapists whose hope is for earth’s destruction. Neither are we called to flee earthly life in favor of heaven.

So, in succeeding posts, I’ll attempt to draw the contrast between religion and discipleship. I’ll go forward by seeking to identify the distinctly different questions of religion and of discipleship. I am convinced that right now it is more important for us to ask good questions than to parrot formulated answers.