Tag Archives: Christian Faith

Perpetual Revolution

in our use of the word “God”

My mentor for 20 years Joe Mathews was a graduate student and long-term friend of H. Richard Niebuhr. “Perpetual revolution” is a phrase and an emphasis that Mathews took from Niebuhr and passed on to me. This phrase was applied to all social structures, but especially to the perpetual revolution in religious forms.

One of Mathews’ favorite spins was about how Spirit cries out, “Give me form,” and how the form that we give to Spirit can never contain the Spirit that cried out for form.  In this same way, what Niebuhr called “radical monotheism” is a perpetual revolution. Such monotheism is “radical” all the way back to Moses and all the way forward to any radical new edition of Christianity.

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Interreligious Relations

ISIS-type Muslims and KKK-type Christians hate one another. They also hate Jews and any other group that seems to reject or despise their particular religious fanaticism. And a whole lot of Jews, Christians, and Muslims are laking in the awareness that these three religious, when true to their origins, have more in common than they differ.

The differences between these three religions are important, and their historical battles in previous centuries were seriousness conflicts that smoked out deep truths and social benefits for the future of our species. But today, the overriding imperative is to honor our common humanity. This honoring includes making allies among the true followers of the Exodus revelation of realism, the Jesus as Messiah revelation of realism, and the Mohammedan revelation of realism. We can picture this companionship as three different spirit explorers staring into same deep pit of Mystery—each one telling us in a different language what they see. Like blind persons touching different parts of the same elephant, these and other vital religious heritages present different pathways to the same overwhelming, inexhaustible Mystery.

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Deep River Crossing

Called to a Next Christianity

Deep river
My home is over Jordan
Deep river, Lord,
I want to cross over into campground

These opening lines to an African American church-song illustrates the depth of Christian awareness that is hidden in many of those old songs. This “deep river” is an allusion to the cross—understood as an inward death to all our temporal idols. And “campground” is an allusion to the resurrection—to the authenticity that is experienced on the other side this “deep-river crossing.” Few church goers, black or white, have probed the depth of this understanding of the cross and the resurrection. Few of us actually view the resurrection as the hidden side of the cross, or see both cross and resurrection as possible experiences in the depths of our own human authenticity.

Oh don’t you want to go
to that Gospel feast
that promised land
where all is peace.

The death/resurrection crossing is a feast, good news, a promised land of living in peace with the WAY IT IS essentially for all human beings everywhere, no matter what their grim or privileged circumstances. These deep meanings of the Christian revelation are missing in most of the living that goes on in the world today. Why is that so? That will be the question of this essay.

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Some Easter Poetry

Resurrection is about me!
I always sort of knew that.
Why else would I care about it?

And resurrection is not about life after my death.
Resurrection happens now.
Was that not so for Mary, Peter, and Paul?

So what was it that had died in them or me.
that made a resurrection possible?
What died was who I thought I was,
what I thought reality was,
what I thought thought was,
what I thought WAS was and IS is.

Yes, everything had died!
Is that not what death is?
Gone, gone, gone of everything!

Resurrection is what is left
when everything has died!
Leaving plain me, plain reality,
plain thought, plain plainness.
human essence, profound humanness
Holy Spirit, Body of Christ, the REAL ME.

This grand GIFT
is given at the tomb.
No wonder those women in Mark’s narrative
fled from the tomb in terror
saying nothing at all to anyone.

Let us picture these women in the resurrection story in Mark’s “GoodNews” story. They came to this tomb with spices to honor the body of their mentor. Their male companions had already fled to Galilee. Let us further imagine that these women discovered, instead of one more dead body, that they were now, in their own bodies, the resurrection of Jesus. They were Jesus—not Jesus exactly, but the life that was in Jesus was now seen as their own life.

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Theological Commonalty

I am assuming that the common culture of a vital next Christianity will include basic methods of theologizing. I am assuming that it is possible to create forms of Christian organization and practice that avoid the common flaws of: biblical literalism, doctrinairism, sentimentalism, moralism, institutionalism, ineffective witnessing to the core truth of the Christian revelation, and social neglect of economic injustice., ecological devastation, racism, sexism, and more. I am assuming a victory over all these obsolete cultural elements through creating a movement that features a better culture. A new style of theologizing is one aspect of that better Christian culture.

I am using the term “theologizing” rather than “theology,” for I want us to be clear that the theoretics of a vital next Christianity needs to be an ongoing thoughtfulness, rather than a settled “theology.” Nevertheless, there are theological qualities and methods that need to be observed, if we are to have a vital next culture of Christian religion of the sort that I am assuming when I employ the term “a next Christianity.

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The Darkest Day of the Year and the Virgin Birth

Medieval Christianity wrapped almost everything in a Christian ritual: birth, adulthood, vocation, marriage, death, the first day of the week, the seasons of the year, even the hours of the day.

The original Christmas rituals wrapped the darkest day of the year with the birth of a tiny light in this very dark season of Advent judgement—a single candle, a new star in the midnight sky, a tiny babe born in extreme poverty, an intrusion of something dangerous to the dark powers of degraded government. Even this inconspicuous tiny beginning of hope, the powers of darkness sought to kill.

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Certainty

A good philosopher of real life begins with what he or she can know with some certainty. We know that we are stuck in time. We have come out of a now absent past, we are in some sort of continuing now, and we are now facing an unstoppable future. We have no perfect knowledge of that past, we only have fragments of memories and factual research open to many different interpretations, all of which are fragmentary at best and delusory at worst. We anticipate a future that we know will be a surprise in many, or even most, of its aspects.

So, we don’t know where we have been, or where we are, or where we are going. We do have images and perhaps careful thought and plans about all of that, but none of those rational products provide certainty. The sheer MYSTERY of it all is our only complete certainty.

Christian faith includes trusting that very MYSTERY that anyone and everyone can know about and have certainty about if they will only admit their ignorance and stop assuming total certainty for their models of thought with which they express and exclude aspects of that MYSTERY. This strange certainty that there is no complete certainty graspable by a human mind is, paradoxically, a type of certainty that we can absolutely count upon.

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Prayer Always Works

Jesus spent many long hours in prayer–whole nights, 40 days in the wilderness preparing for his life mission. He probably spent hours every day in prayer. He was a busy man. Why was he spending all this time in prayer? And what was he doing with all this prayer time? Certainly, Jesus was not doing the sort of long-winded praying for which he criticized the religious leadership of his time. In his teachings, he clearly recommends solitude and sincerity.

In the opening verses of the 11th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, we find the disciples noticing that Jesus spends much time in prayer. One day, after he finishes praying, they ask him to teach them to pray. Jesus, according to Luke, gives his disciples a brief set of terse sentences we call “the Lord’s Prayer.” Then Luke continues the subject of prayer with Jesus teling his disciples a story about a man who goes to his friend in the middle of the night to get three loaves of bread for his suprise guests. The friend is already in bed and won’t get up. Jesus says that if this man persists, his friend will get up and give him everything he needs.

Jesus applies this story to the subject of prayer, “And so I tell you, ask and it will be given you, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you. The one who asks will always receive; the one who is searching will always find, and the door is opened to the person who knocks.” (Luke 11:9,10) These verses seem to contradict about half of what we experience in our real lives. We have all asked for things we never received. We have all done some passionate seeking without finding. And we have all done some knocking on doors that never opened.

Some interpreters of these verses have suggested that our problem is poor praying. If we were to pray correctly, we would receive what we are praying for. But such interpreters have never satisfied me; nor have they convinced me that this is what Jesus really meant. In the 14th chapter of Mark, we see Jesus himself praying all night not to have to drink the cup of crucifixion. As part of his prayer, he notes that all things are possible to God. Yet he apparently knew that God might not give him his request, for he concludes his prayer, “Yet it is not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36)

So what does it mean to say that the person who asks always receives? An answer to this question can be found in the verses that follow the verses about always receiving:

“Some of you are parents, and if your child asks you for some fish, would you give that child a snake instead, or if the child asks for you for an egg, would you give that child the present of a scorpion? So if you, for all your evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more likely is it that your Heavenly (Parent) will give The Holy Spirit to those who ask (Him/Her)!” (Luke 11:11-13)

God gives the Holy Spirit! What a curious thing to say. The verse seem to imply that if we ask God for some fish or an egg, God will give us The Holy Spirit! And this gift is a “good thing.” The Holy Spirit is a better gift than fish or egg or whatever specific things we asked for.

Is this the way that prayer works? No matter what we ask for, God gives something better. God sends the Holy Spirit! Let me stretch this metaphor out a bit: The divine prayer-answering order-house works very simply: it only has one product, all packaged and ready to go. No matter what you order, you get this same package, the Holy Spirit. This makes things easy for the prayer-answering order house. You pray for a new car. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for better health. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a lover. God sends the Holy Spirit. You pray for a workable, planetary social order. God sends the Holy Spirit.

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Spirit Penetration

In the stories of Matthew, Mark, and Luke we see Jesus engaging persons whose personality habit is to think that he or she knows what is good and what is evil.  Some come to Jesus complaining about what he does on the Sabbath day.  Jesus penetrates their personality with sayings like, “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.”  Or they express their shock and revulsion that Jesus is eating meals with tax collectors, riffraff, and other Jewish lawbreakers.  Jesus says to them, “It is the sick, not the well, who have need of a doctor.” 

One of the best stories about penetrating a moralistic personality is the story in which Jesus is having a meal and a discussion with a Pharisee who invited him for a visit and apparently has a modicum of interest in Jesus and his wisdom.  While they are there at the table, a woman comes in and begins washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair.  The Pharisee recognizes her as a woman of the streets who has probably made her living providing bodily comforts to the male population.  He is repulsed that Jesus is permitting such a woman to touch him.  Jesus recognizes the Pharisee’s feelings and asks to speak to him.  The Pharisee consents, and Jesus tells a story about two men who owe another man a debt.  One of them owes a big debt and the other a small debt.  The lender forgives them both.  Jesus asks the Pharisee, “Which one do you suppose will love the lender the most?”  The Pharisee gives the obvious answer that it is the one who owes the most.  Then Jesus points out that this woman whose sins are very great is showing great love.  He also points out that nothing comparable is being shown him by the Pharisee.  Then Jesus makes this penetrating remark, “Her great love proves that her many sins have been forgiven; where little has been forgiven, little love is shown.” (Luke 7:47)  The Pharisee is left to ponder whether his harshness toward the woman and his lack of love for Jesus indicates layers in his own life that need forgiveness.

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Mono-devotionality

The word “monotheism” has experienced some disrepute among recent theologians and secular philosophers.  Nevertheless, H. Richard Niebuhr gave this old term “monotheism” some new life in his breakthrough book Radical Monotheism and Western Culture.

Too often overlooked is Niebuhr’s insight that the word “God” in biblical writings does not point to “a being,” but to “a devotion”—that the word “theism” or “God” is a devotional word, like the word “sweetheart.”  Niebuhr holds that the Hebraic Scriptures and the New Testament, as well as Augustine, Luther, and thousands of others use the word “God” to mean a devotion to a source of meaning for our lives.   Luther was very explicit about this: “Whatever your heart clings to . . . and relies upon, that is properly termed your God.”

So, if we view the syllable “theo” in the word “theology” to mean a devotion rather than a being, then “theology” might be termed “devotionology.”  “Monotheism” becomes “mono-devotionality.  “Polytheism” becomes “poly-devotionality.  And “henotheism” becomes “heno-devotionality.”

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