Category Archives: Progressive Christianity

The Creator of Christianity

For my Realistic Living Pointers this month, I am using part of the introduction to a new book that I am publishing on our Realistic Living blog site.

The Creator of Christianity
a commentary on the Gospel of Mark
by Gene W. Marshall

The entire book can be purchased for $10 on this site:

https://realisticliving.org/blog/

While you are there, look around. We are also publishing the 8 spirit talks that Gene gave at the June 2018 Realistic Living Summer Program, plus Study Outlines for the above book, The Unbelievable Happiness of What Is by Jon Bernie, and Dangerous Years by David W. Orr. All this is in addition to the recent Realistic Living Pointers posts.

So here is the first part of the

Introduction

to the Mark Commentary.

Living in Aramaic-speaking Galilee twenty-one centuries ago, Jesus and his first companions constituted the event of revelation that birthed the Christian faith. But without Paul’s interpretation of the meaning of cross and resurrection for the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jewish culture, we might never have heard of Christian faith.

Mark, whoever he was, lived during the lifetime of Paul and was deeply influenced by Paul. In about 70 CE, Mark, like Paul, was a major turning point in the development of the Christian religion. Mark invented the literary form we know as “the Gospel.” This remarkable literary form was then copied and elaborated by the authors Matthew and Luke, and then revolutionized by John. These four writings, not Paul’s letters, are the opening books of the New Testament that Christians count as their Bible (along with the Old Testament). “Gospel” (Good News) has become a name for the whole Christian revelation.

We might say that Mark was the theologian who gave us the Christianity that has survived in history. The Markian shift in Christian imagination was important enough that we might even claim that Mark, rather than Paul or Jesus, was the founder of Christianity. However that may be, Mark’s gospel is a very important piece of writing. And this writing is more profound and wondrous than is commonly appreciated.

Of first importance for understanding my viewpoint in the following commentary is this: I see the figure of “Jesus” in Mark’s narrative as a fictitious character—based, I firmly believe, on a real historical figure. I do not want to confuse Mark’s “Jesus” with what we can know through our best recent scientific research about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. For our best understanding of Mark, we need to view Mark’s “Jesus” with the same fun and sensibility we have toward Harry Potter when we read J. K. Rowling’s novels about this unusual character.

In other words, Mark is the theologian that we are reading in the Gospel of Mark, not Jesus or Paul, and not Luke or Matthew or John. Mark is himself an unusually clever writer and a profound theologian. This truth is fundamental for understanding this commentary.

What do you think about Mark being the creator of Christianity?

How is it important to you that the historical Jesus of modern scholarship differs significantly from the Jesus of Mark’s narrative?

What is Theology?

Not all religions have a theology, but Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do. Buddhism has Dharma sutras and many Dharma talks that are still being given today. These thoughtful efforts of the Buddhist religion are something like a theology. It is fair to say that all religions have a “theoretics”—something that its members do to reflect upon the core topics that characterize that religion’s ongoing community of thoughtfulness about their life together, their message, their mission, as well as their religious practices and ethical guidelines.

Christian theology begins its thoughtfulness with reflections upon a specific event (a specific complex of happenings in history). The happenings that constitute this “event” are understood to reveal the profound essence of every event in human history. That event has been given the name “Jesus Christ.” An ordinary first century man named “Jesus,” understood to be the “Messiah,” was viewed as a revelation about living in an ultimate devotion to the Ultimate Reality that we encounter in every event of our personal lives, and in every event of our social history.

Judaism does something similar in its theologizing, but in this case the core revelatory event is “The Exodus from Egypt of a collection of slaves plus their revolution in law-writing.” Islam also treasures a revelatory event—in this case, “the Advent of Mohammad as a Messenger of the One Ultimate Creator of all things and events.” Obviously, in each of these religious groupings, there is good theology and bad theology, depending on whether those theological reflections appropriately reflect what their revelatory event revealed about the essence of living a human life. Good theology also depends upon whether a particular bit of theological thoughtfulness has resonance with living people in their contemporary settings.

This commentary on the Gospel of Mark intends to be “theology” in the sense just defined. I prefer the word “theologizing,” for I see Christian theology as an ongoing process of a community of people. My contribution to the ongoing process of Christian theologizing may be minor or large, but that is not entirely up to me. The community of those who are grounded in the Christ Jesus revelation will value or not value, preserve or not preserve, my contributions to the ongoing theologizing process of those who are captivated by the Christ Jesus revelation.

I see myself doing a radical form Christian theologizing. It is “radical” because this thoughtfulness is my attempt to return to the “roots” of the Christian revelation from the perspective of a radically contemporary understanding of the nature and role of religion in human society.

“Religion,” as I now understand that word, is not a set of stable doctrines and moralities allied with a once-and-for-all finished set of solitary and communal practices. The only stability that a religion has is its radical root. Religious doctrines and moralities, as well as religious practices are all in flux. Today, that flux is huge for every religion on Earth. The sort of Buddhism that is sweeping the North American continent is not stuck in the ruts of previous centuries. It is a fresh, creative accessing of ancient roots. In Christianity we are seeing something similar. I count this commentary part of that fresh effort to see the Christian revelation with new eyes and to hear this “good news” with new ears.

How in your life have you participated in Christian theologizing?

Whose theologizing has helped you most with your own?

The Death of a Metaphor

Some members of the Christian community speak of “the death of God” or even “the end of theology.” In this commentary (and in all my theologizing), I take the view that “the death of God” does not refer to an end of all use of the word “God,” I choose to understand “the death-of-God discussion” as pointing to the end of something temporal—namely, the obsolescence of an ancient metaphor of religious thinking held in the word “transcendence.” For 2000 years Christian theologizing has used this familiar metaphorical narrative: a vivid story-time imagination about a transcendent realm in which God, angels, devils, gods, goddesses, and other story-time characters are living in an other-than-ordinary “realm” and “coming” from that “realm” to “act” within our ordinary human space and time. That is metaphorical talk. Being metaphorical, however, is not the problem. The problem for us today is the obsolete quality of that double-deck metaphor.

I am using an alternative metaphorical system of religious reflection in my mode of Biblical interpretation. I view our ordinary lives as well as our profound lives as participants in “One” realm of being. This “One Reality” has a depth that is invisible to both human eye and mind. I am using the capitalization of “Realty” to mean something different than our mind’s sense of realty. Reality is a “Land of Mystery” that the human mind cannot fathom. This profound depth of Reality shines through the passing realities of time that are visible to eye and mind. This Invisible Eternity can be said to “shine-through” temporal events. An ordinary bush can indeed burn with Eternity. An ordinary human being can indeed glow with the Presence of Eternity. But this Eternity is a not another space that is separate from our ordinary space/time of living. Furthermore, this fresh view of Eternity does not imply a contempt for the temporal realm. Rather, it implies a fulfillment for each and every ordinary temporal event of our lives. Each temporal event has an Eternal depth or glow or burn. Eyes and ears alone cannot grasp our profound humanness and its Eternal connection. Only our enigmatic consciousness can “see” the Eternal, and this “seeing” is an internal experience that is “seen” in absolute solitude.

In this fresh context the words “ordinary” and “extraordinary” are viewed as mere categories of human perception. We live in One, and only One, realm of Reality with many temporally viewed aspects. Among these many aspects, we can speak of this basic polarity: the impermanent and the permanent—the temporal and the Eternal. This polarity is not in Reality itself, but in our human consciousness of Reality. Temporal and Eternal are both aspects of our one experience of one invisible One-ness that our minds cannot comprehend.

And this One-ness is not seen by eye or mind. We do not “see” One-ness directly. One-ness is a devotional category that means that we are devoted to serve all aspects of our Real experience, rather than viewing the Real as part friendly and part enemy. From this One-ness point of view, the only enemy is our own and other humans’ estrangement from the One Reality within which our own persons and all other persons dwell.

This One-ness viewpoint within Christian faith is not a denial of the diversity of our experiences of the Eternal or of the temporal. Differentiation and multiplicity obviously characterize our temporal lives. Multiplicity also characterizes much of our God-talk. In the God-talk of the Bible, there are many angels or servants of the One that express and carry out the actions of the One. But this One-ness is maintained in spite of the many-ness that is understood to be aspects of the Eternal, sourced from this One-ness. In the opening verses of the Bible, the One God says to some angels, “Let there be light!” and this was done by the One’s many servant forces. Such poetry was intended to preserve the One-ness of Reality, not to fragment the One-ness of Reality that is fundamentally worshiped in the life of Christian faith.

How has it been hard or liberating for you to give up the old double-deck metaphor?

What has been your struggle with devotion to One Ultimate Reality?

When Total Obedience is Perfect Freedom

Realism means obedience to reality. Such obedience entails giving up building mind-castles of false realities to take the place of Reality with a capital “R.” This capitalization assumes that there IS a really real Reality that is not made up by human beings. However the capitalized word “Reality” is capable of misunderstandings. For some it can mean a second realm that stands over-against the ordinary realm of existence. If we are inclined to a more down-to-Earth view of Reality, it can mean those parts of our experience that are pleasant, excluding those parts that are unpleasant, horrific, challenging, grim, or perhaps boring.

But the “total obedience” I want to describe is a devotion to the mysterious all-powerful encounter that includes everything that happens to us in every event we face. Such realism means taking in what is actually happening to each of us and to us as societies. This includes possibilities as well as limitations. It includes the consequences of human choices as well as the processes of nature over which humans have no control. It includes the horrific as well as the glorious. In addition to our everyday content, the Reality we actually face includes the Abyss of No-thing-ness from which each thing, including our own lives, have come and to which each thing, including our own lives,will return. Reality also includes the Every-thing-ness of that Expansive Sea of Mystery within which each identifiable thing exists for now. Reality includes the Awesome Otherness that we encounter as well as the Awe that the Awesome occasions in our inner being.

Continue reading When Total Obedience is Perfect Freedom

The Depth of Christian Social Ethics

All social ethics takes place in a context of history. Christian social ethics is no different: as Christians we do not have a set of principles that apply to every generation of history. The ethics of Leviticus and the ethics of Deuteronomy were shaped for those times in history. The same applies to the ethics of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and H. Richard Niebuhr. Time moves on and social ethics moves on with the times.

Continue reading The Depth of Christian Social Ethics

The Revelation of Moses

What happened to those slaves that Moses led out of Egypt?  Why do we remember an event that is centuries more than 3000 years old.  Furthermore, this event is now covered with layers of story, myth, and interpretations to the extent that any scientifically historical accuracy about what factually happened is obscured in all the fuss that has been made about this event.  Let us suppose that the following bare-bones approximation of the outward historical facts, gives us an impression of what we need to guess in order to begin understandings why this event was revelatory—yes, revelatory of the nature of every event that has ever happened or ever will happen.

Here is my guess:  An unusually aware, sensitive, and perhaps educated member of the Hebraic slave community was moved to lead a significant number of his Hebraic companions out of a severely hierarchical Egyptian society into the wilderness where a new vision of law-writing was established that was based on a vision that the Mysterious Realty allows free action to change the course of history.  This was a huge shift in life interpretation for these Egyptian enculturated slaves—so huge that it took Moses and others 40 years, so the story goes, to wash Egypt out of this people and prepare them to fight for a more promising place on Earth for their revelation and their emerging peoplehood.

A more personally rooted story-time rendering of this transformative event begins with how a man named Moses got so angry over a member of his people being mistreated by an Egyptian soldier that he killed that solder, and then had to flee to the out-back into a life in hiding.  Then one day, so the story goes, Moses came upon a bush that was blazing with a strange type of fire.  Temporal bushes burn up, but this bush was not being consumed.  It remained the same old bush in spite of this strange conflagration. This was surely a bit of Moses’ poetry for a very real inner happening to Moses himself.   His own “who-he-thought-he-was” was being burned up, yet he was not consumed.

Continue reading The Revelation of Moses

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.

Continue reading Perpetual Revolution

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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Innocent Suffering

Several Christian theologians, including H. Richard Niebuhr, have used the term “innocent suffering” to provide us with clues to our ethical priorities. What do we mean by this term?

For example, it is certainly true that African American persons in the United States confront an up-hill slope compared to their white brothers and sisters. To even be a candidate for the office of president, Barack Obama had to be qualified way beyond the norm for this job. Though we might not support some of Obama’s policies, we had in him a superbly qualified person: a law scholar; a public speaker of Abraham Lincoln class (many of whose speeches will be remembered for centuries); a talented comedian seldom seen in public office; a person of self control, obvious sanity, and sincere intent to be a positive influence. Had he had any of the flaws or weaknesses of Donald Trump, he would never have been elected Senator, much less President. Can we imagine the response of voters, had Obama said things about women that Trump apparently got away with (at least with millions of voters)? A white man in our culture often avoids sufferings that a black person will almost certainly experience.

Continue reading Innocent Suffering

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.

Continue reading Deep River Crossing

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.

Continue reading Some Easter Poetry

Uses of the Word “God”

A Definition of Theology

“God“ is a relationship word—a word of devotion similar to sweetheart, lover, friend, rock, foundation, shepherd, mother, father, and other such words of devotion.  When  we call the Final Mystery “God,” we are making a religious confession.  If we are not making a religious confession, we do not need the word “God.”  We can get along without the word “God” or any word like it, unless we are a self-conscious Jew, Christian, Muslim, or a member of some other religious community that uses ”God” as a devotion word—as a relationship word for the Final Mystery.

Honestly living within today’s culture, we find no heavenly realm of rational meanings that humans can access to make sense of the absurdity of a Big Bang Beginning, or of an evolution from the single-celled organisms that mysteriously arose on this minor planet of a marginal star in one of the hundred billion or so galaxies.  The sheer Mystery of this vast expanse and of the infinitesimal minuteness of  this physical cosmos is not made less Mysterious by presuming a First Cause or an Ongoing Creator of all this wonderment.  As a solution to scientific meaning or contemplative awareness, the word “God” is not needed for any rational solution.
If we call this Final Mysteriousness “God,” we are making an act of will, an act of devotion, an act of commitment, a leap of trust.  Trust of this Final Mysteriousness does not alter the fact that we still know absolutely nothing about this Mystery— nothing with our scientific research and nothing with our contemplative inquiry.  We know things, but all that we know is approximate and changing.

Continue reading Uses of the Word “God”