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.

A Next Christianity

This essay is part of my dialogue with three lectures by Paul Tillich that Joyce Marshall, Alan Richard and I studied together. The Irrelevance and Relevance of the Christian Message was published in 2007 from Tillich lectures given in 1963, two years before his death.

In opposition to the Christianity known by most of us, a more relevant next Christianity has been emerging for well over a century. Key to this next Christianity is overcoming the irrelevance that prevents this tradition from meaning something to aware people living in the 21st Century. Forms of Christianity that may have been meaningful to aware people in earlier centuries can appear completely foolish today—supportive of what is now clearly obsolete, and irrelevant to the pressing questions and social challenges that now demand realistic responses.

So what are the characteristics of a next Christianity that can be relevant to people who are living with awareness in 2017 and beyond? I am going to explore two characteristics of this next Christianity: “The End of the Vertical Dimension” and “The Resurrection of the Depth of Love.”

The End of the Vertical Dimension

A quality of our contemporary culture that makes Christianity seem irrelevant to many aware people today is what Paul Tillich called “the end of the vertical.” Tillich was pointing to the religious metaphor that has characterized the whole of Christian history until very recently. We know this metaphor as the picture of a realm that is above the Earth and populated by God, angels, and devils that are agents of action in this ordinary realm of time and space. We now know that this picture was mythological or story-time talk about a dimension of depth or ultimacy in our real lives. But we now have difficulty identifying where in our lives this so-called ultimacy is operating. The vertical metaphor both in its literal and metaphorical interpretations has ceased to be meaningful to the most aware members of this post-modern culture.

The Death of the Vertical
among Right-Wing Christians

The more conservative Christian interpreters have tended to take the vertical metaphor literally—holding that there is a real place called “heaven” occupied by a Super Being and his angels. This literal viewpoint is a form of death for the vertical dimension. Such literalizing makes “God” one more being in the world of beings, rather than something Totally Other to the temporal beings that populate our lives. This destroys the divine as understood in the Bible.

Most of these right-wing Christians are loath to accept that Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Wesley, and many more great theologians did not take this metaphor literally in the way that we modern people mean “literally.” We who live in this scientific age tend to view “literal” to mean something that eyes can see and ears can hear, if they are in the right place to do so. The divine. as discussed in ancient times, was not understood that literally. The great theologians of Christianity were aware that the divine cannot even be described in words. As Luther clearly says, the word “God” is basically a devotional word directed toward a Complete Void or Absolute Mystery that human minds cannot contain in words. In those earlier times, metaphorical talk was viewed as normal discourse for saying what could not be said in ordinary discourse about our experience of these divine topics.

The Death of the Vertical
among Left-Wing Christians

The more liberal Christian interpreters have tended to talk about the divine more metaphorically, but in a way that also makes what they say part of the temporal realm of processes. “God” as used in such liberal discourse is not something Wholly Other to the temporal processes, but one of those processes that make up part of our self-serving Christian influenced humanism. In this understanding there is no revelation about an Absolute Mystery loving us. There is nothing Absolutely Mysterious to reveal something about. There is no active wrath against our estrangements from realism. There is no power of grace that heals us from those estrangements. In much liberal Christianity the human predicament of extensive estrangement from realism is unexamined. We do not see ourselves as needing to be healed or saved. We are being seen as rational beings and potentially moral persons choosing between the good and the bad according to our parents’ morality, or our culture’s morality, or the morality of our selected peer group. We are locked in captivity to some law; we do not actually see any room for a Mysterious realism that tends to upset everything in order to bring us to a more realistic mode of living.

The Death of the Vertical Resurrected
in a Horizontal Fashion.

Therefore, our religious thinking must go farther than either the right or left Christianity that I have so briefly characterized and debunked. We simply do not need the vertical metaphor any more, but we need to recover what the vertical metaphor was pointing to in human experience, and tell about it in a horizontal manner of thinking.

This transition is not so easy, for it includes both seeing the experiences that the ancients were pointing to and saying those same profound experiences in our own words in an equally useful and powerful way. The first stumbling block we have to overcome is our unconscious rationalism—that is, we unthinkingly think that what we think is reality. Hopefully our thinking does have some correspondence with reality, but we are typically unaware of the extent to which all that we know is a gross approximation of the Real with a capital “R.”

All our knowledge is a pattern of abstractions created by we humans, and these humanly created perspectives screen-in only part of Reality and screen-out far more of Reality. No self-constructed reality is Reality with a capital “R.” Some people do not believe that there is a capital “R” Reality. “Reality” for them is simply whatever they want to believe is true—even to the extent of denying both long-established scientific knowledge as well as inwardly visible common sense.

A sense of perpetual ignorance is a characteristic of true scientific research. Scientific knowledge is forever changing—giving up its current approximations for better, but still approximate knowledge that remains open to be improved once again. Our state of scientific knowing is even more drastic than that—our knowledge is like a small leaf floating on a chaos of water. The more we know about nature, the more we know we don’t know. Reality is being seen today as more, not less, Mysterious than it was seen centuries ago. We now know, if we want to know, that what we know is infinitely exceeded by what we don’t know. This does not mean that what we know is any less valuable; we could not function at all without what we know. The mind and its knowledge can be and need to be fully affirmed.

The anti-intellectualism so prominent today is sheer foolishness. But, it is true that an Unknown Void yawns before our consciousness. Silence engulfs our human noise. Awesome Power overpowers our human powers. Uncontrollable Force limits our most prominent control of nature. These awarenesses have long existed, but they have become even more vivid for those of us today who want to be honest, rather than bigoted fools.

This weakness of our human knowing also occurs in our contemplative inquiry—that is, our looking within by our own consciousness at the enigma of consciousness itself and its flow of contents. We have learned a lot through this inner quest, and expressed a lot of this wisdom in our philosophies, psychologies, essays, painting, sculpture, drama, music and all the other arts and humanities. These huge cultural deposits of wisdom tells us much, perhaps half of what we know. But, our inward knowing also falls far short of what can be learned through the inward quest. Outwardly and inwardly we are perpetually overwhelmed with the Sheer Mystery of it all.

Our awareness of profound Mystery is both our ignorance and our wisdom about the divine as Absolute Other. This wisdom describes our experience of the Absolute Other in a horizontal manner. This all-encompassing Mystery is the same divinity that the ancients used story-time, mythic talk to discuss. We no longer need this ancient vertical metaphor.

The symbol “God” adds to the Absolute Other only one thing: our devotion, our trust, the obedience of our faith. Such faith is a leap of deep freedom. It is a gift from the Absolute Other of the freedom to make this leap, but we ourselves must employ this freedom in making this leap of freedom.

In the midst of the conditional experiences of our lives, we can meet the Unconditional and as true Christians trust this Unconditional Reality. In the midst of the temporal, we can meet the Eternal. In the midst of the finite, we can meet the Infinite. We can talk about burning bushes of temporal stuff that burn with the Awe of the Awesome Overallness. We can talk about an Awe-inspired glow of authenticity is the faces and behaviors of some of our neighboring humans—provided that we have developed the Awe-sensitive vision to see such things. We can trust this Awe and this Awesomeness that awakens this Awe in our inner being. With this trust, we make the Awesome our God, our devotion, our ultimate concern in the living of our whole lives.

The vertical metaphor is gone in the above discussion, but what the vertical metaphor pointed to in ancient theologizing is still present to us. If we have eyes to look and see this hidden depth in the horizontal, temporal processes of our ordinary lives, we see also the face of God as revealed in our ancient Bibles..

The Resurrection of the
Depth of Love

What I have said so far is only about the symbol of the cross—the crucifixion of our many temporal devotions in favor a devotion to the Eternal. Beyond this experience of detachment from temporality is the companion experience called “the resurrection of the temporal body.”

This detachment from the temporal is not enough without our openness to being truly human in devotion to the Eternal. This devotion to the Eternal includes love for the temporal and the Eternal. Our entire bodily life in its natural and cultural setting is resurrected. We love ourselves unconditionally, and we love others unconditionally, and we love the entire natural realm unconditionally.

We see the truth of our Infinite relatedness as a powerful grace that is accepting our true humanity—that is accepting us in spite of all of our departures from living that true humanity. We see that grace as opening us and calling us to a life-long journey of repenting from our reality-departures, and thereby opening us to the gifts of our essential goodness given with our birth, with our everyday lives, with our little deaths, and with our final conclusion.

This deep love that we can have for ourselves and others must be distinguished from other meanings of the word “love” (libido, friendship, and passion for the good, true, and beautiful). “Agape” is the Greek word used in the New Testament for this Eternally rooted quality of love that accepts the unacceptable in ourselves and others, that loves the enemy as well as the friend, and that loves others as we love ourselves. This quality of love gives life its meaning, no matter how meaningless various circumstances may appear.

And it is the expression of agape in specific everyday ways in the here and now that gives agape its actuality, rather than being simply potential. The expression of agape creates what we call the true church, the communion of saints, the community of love for all the specifics of human life. It is the expression of agape that creates the resistance of the Christian community to the social environment of personally and socially estranged humanity in all its actual historical predicaments.

It is the expression of agape that produces resistance to the current human abuse of nature in ourselves and toward this entire planet. This planet is not only our provided home (part of the love of Eternity for us and for all that we love) but this planet is also our responsibility, because of our assigned role as this planet’s self-aware portion.

The resurrected life of agape expression is an uphill road of active living for any human being. And for some of us this uphill road of active living includes the rebuilding of the Christian practice as an effective daily, weekly, and annual nurture for ourselves and for all those who are likewise called to be and do this profound Christian renewal.

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

Deep river,
I want to cross over into campground