Day 3 – Teaching Peace in the 21st Century: David Cortright, Peace Studies Proposal

Today also began with important practical presentations in peace studies.  David Cortright and Hal Culbertson presented “How to Change the World,” an overview of two courses they teach in the Notre Dame Peace Studies program.  David Cortright spoke on non-violent social change;  Hal Culbertson spoke to us about NGO’s.

David Cortright is a peace scholar and activist.  His books include Gandhi and Beyond: Non-Violence in a New Political Age and Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas.  He is also Director of Policy Studies at Notre Dame; you can catch his blog at http://davidcortright.net.

One of the most interesting and noteworthy items from Cortright’s presentation came from the work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan.   They are co-authors of the book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict.  Research by Chenoweth and Stephan concludes that non-violent social change works and is more effective than armed conflict.  Their research argues that non-violent strategies create more stable democratic outcomes.  Their empirical research on non-violent strategies for political and social change marks a decisive development in peace studies as a academic and practical field.  You can learn more about their work in their recent article inthe most recent edition of the online journal, Foreign Affairs.

ngo_logoHal Culbertson’s presentation on NGO’s was plain and helpful.  Many students with professional interests in peace studies will gravitate to NGO’s.  NGO’s seem to be the “go-to” in “making a difference” in the world.  While there are certain advantages and often overlooked disadvantages to NGO’s, Culbertson’s observations and basic outline of the components of an NGO – their theory of change, method and effectiveness of evaluation (outcomes must be measurable!), management structure, and financing – informs a basic understanding of how NGO’s work, how they differ from other public and private institutions, and where NGO’s can go wrong.  Hal Culbertson is the executive director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace studies at Notre Dame.

Our final presentation of the day was a very important session on peace studies as a profession.  Anne Hayner, who works directly with the 1,400+ alumni of the Kroc Institute, shared what career paths in practical peacemaking look like.  Below is a chart created by John Paul Lederach and Katie Mansfield.  A helpful and full explanation of the above chart can be found at http://kroc.nd.edu/strategic-peacebuilding-pathways.  If you have any interest in peace studies as a profession, or believe peace studies is not a “real profession” with manifold professional opportunities, click the link and learn more.

For the rest of the day, Priscilla Eppinger, Tony Chvala-Smith and I worked together on a proposal for an MA in Community, Justice, and Peace through the Community of Christ Seminary.  Our work is still forming, and its results are provisional.  Several factors must come together – resources, marketing, and institutional commitment – to make such a proposal possible.   But, it has begun.  It is both achievable and promising.  The lasting effects of such an MA could be long-lasting for both Community of Christ and Graceland University.   The practical resources for developing, improving, or beginning a peace studies program is a task given to every institutional participant of the Summer Institute for Faculty.    We are among excellent colleagues.  It’s been a privilege to be here and be a part.

More tomorrow.

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Day 1 – Notre Dame: Teaching Peace in the 21st Century, Summer Institute for Faculty

Today was my first day at the Teaching Peace in the 21st Century, Summer Institute for Faculty hosted at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.  Our host is George A. Lopez, who is Professor of Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute and Vice President and Director of the Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, D.C.   I’m hear with Community of Christ Seminary faculty, Priscilla Eppinger and Tony Chvala-Smith.

The purpose of our visit is to learn.  President of Community of Christ, Steve Veazey, met George A. Lopez at the US Institute of Peace, who invited us to participate.  The Community of Christ is called to peace.  Its Temple in Independence is dedicated to the pursuit of peace, reconciliation, and healing of the spirit.  Our visit is exploratory, to seek opportunities for connections and learn from scholars from others Peace Studies programs, to cultivate ideas and perspective about possible peace studies curriculum for Community of Christ Seminary and Graceland.

Today was orientation and introductions.  George Lopez gave two helpful presentations introduction to Peace Studies as an interdisciplinary and changing field of study, education, and action.   After dinner, we received a presentation on the History and Changing Themes of Peace Studies.  Both presentations offered practical advise and an outline of key components for developing Peace Studies programs, from undergraduate minors to masters level.

My goal is to chronicle key insights from the day.  Below are three things that I think stuck out as both insightful and critical areas for me/us to consider.

1. In developing a Peace Studies program or curriculum, integrate both your institution’s identity and mission.  Be able to express to students, administrators, and faculty what Peace Studies is, what the program’s purpose is, and why it reflects (or is essential) to your institution’s overall mission and educational goals.   Connecting your program to your institution’s mission and community is important.

2. Identify the academic niche your program offers.  Peace Studies is a challenging, interdisciplinary, and changing field of study.  It must include research, educational, and action-oriented components.  What is unique about your programs’ approach, emphases, and/or understanding of peace studies?

3. Take advantage of your faculty’s interests and strengths.   Because peace studies is a large interdisciplinary field, it is often difficult to find a focus.  But, it also means an entire university can be deployed in research, teaching, and developing aspects of peace studies at your college/university.  How do the sciences, economics, literature, and religious studies shape or contribute to peace studies at your institution?  How can your program take advantage of your faculty’s research and teaching interests?

Throughout our exploratory session tonight, I thought consistently about two things.  First was what Community of Christ offers the global and interdisciplinary search for peace?  What does Community of Christ theology, tradition, or perspective offer the global peace movement and our approach to peace?  Second, I thought about Graceland’s values:  learning, wholeness, and community.   To me, these values have always been more than a list.  They share an interrelated perspective on Graceland’s approach to education, formation and service to others.   Learning, wholeness, and community all increase with each other.  The more we learn, the more we integrate with others and become a whole person.

I’m looking forward to tomorrow and more time spent with the Kroc Institute faculty and faculty from other peace programs across the country and world.  We have an international gathering, here.

Jesus’ silence before Pilate, or the politics of madness

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 2 Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” 3 Then the chief priests accused him of many things. 4 Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.”5 But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.  Mark 15:1-5 NRSV

ImageJesus’ silence before Pilate has always puzzled me.  It’s one of the most obscure parts of Jesus’ passion.  Kind of like Jesus, himself, that passage has begged an explanation.

I think Jesus’ silence is obscure for most Americans because it’s hard to relate to.   Americans are passionate about defending their rights.  We feel entitled before both state and law because deep in our psyche is a disgust for government.   In the passion, Pilate symbolizes such government.  Jesus is our hero because he stands silent before the powers of tyranny and ultimately overcomes them.    His victory is cosmic and his silence at trial is stoic.   We don’t question that someone had to die to free us because this is part of our belief in revolutionary freedom.  Jesus stands to die defiant before the powers.  The power of God overcomes the power of Rome, and we win.   This is Mel Gibson’s Hollywood hero, the American Jesus.

We have a hard time imagining that Jerusalem’s leaders or the jeering crowd could be us.  We drown those ideas in anti-Jewishness.  The political failures of Jesus trial have nothing to do with us.  It’s just one of those nasty moments of wrong belief and bad government.   Jesus’ win, however, has everything to do with America.  The hero’s silence is not his weakness, but a sign of his strength.  We can’t imagine Jesus either hopeless or helpless.  That would be heretically unchristian or un-American.

There are enormous problems with this interpretation of Jesus’ silence at trial.   My main problem with is that it conveniently ignores way too much, and fills Jesus’ silence with cultural assumptions that say more about American Christianity than Jesus or what the Gospel writers likely intended.

Jesus’ silence doesn’t explain why Pilate gets caught in the middle.  It doesn’t explain his confusion over Jesus’ crime.  It doesn’t explain why Jerusalem’s leaders kowtow to Rome and why they insist that Pilate eliminate Jesus for them.  It doesn’t explain why the crowd wants Barabbas over Jesus.   It doesn’t explain why Jesus doesn’t cry out to defend himself.  The teacher could’ve shared a parable or proverb to point out the absurdity of the crowd’s judgment and his situation, as he had done many times before.  He could have at least apologized to Pilate for putting him in this awkward position of spilling what seemed to be innocent blood (Matthew 27:19).   But, he doesn’t.  Jesus acts helpless, and says nothing.

ImageThere’s a better way to interpret Jesus’ silence, one that is more relevant.  Considering the politics surrounding Jesus’ trial is fruitful because they mirror our own.   Jesus’ entire trip to Jerusalem is dripping in politics.  Everything leading up to Jesus’ trial:  Jerusalem’s leaders trapping Jesus and taking him to Pilate, Pilate’s questions about being a King, the crowd’s calling for is execution, especially Jesus’ sentence and punishment, all find their significance in the political realm.  Capital punishment, particularly death by crucifixion, is an explicitly political form of control and punishment for Rome.    Jesus isn’t silent because he’s defiant, stoic or a hero.   Jesus may be silent because he has to be.  There are at least two reasons.

First, Jesus’ silence lets Pilate incriminate himself.  Empires justify themselves on violence.  They remain empires because they keep a monopoly on violence.   Jesus’ silence meant Pilate had to make a decision to fulfill his duty as Rome’s governor or release him as a matter of conscience.  Pilate doesn’t see what Jesus has done wrong.  (Mark 15:14)

The American version of Jesus’ trial is partly right.  In the passion, Pilate does represent the power of government.  But, not just government, he represents empire and all earthly power and justice.  The gospels depict Pilate as conflicted.  He tries to compromise and have Jesus flogged.  But, the crowd insists on crucifying Jesus.   They’d rather free Barabbas, a thief and rabble rouser, than face the possibility that Jesus is the messiah.  Popular opinion and group think wins out over conscience, and Pilate relents.   Empire executes its function.  Rome crucifies Jesus.  Pax Romana destroys the shalom of God.

Perhaps, the same is true of Pax Americana.

Second, Jesus is silent in the face of Pilate’s questions because God is defenseless against human foibles.  It’s hard to imagine God defenseless against humans.  But, Jesus is.  The problem is that most Christians understanding of God’s power is wrapped in worldly fantasies of power – supernatural power, instrumental power, military power, personal power.   All revolve around the idea of the will, control, and self-determination.  Jesus offers a different picture of God’s power, one not at all like these.

ImageJesus is defenselessness against our sin and human foibles.  And, this isn’t the first contradiction Jesus’ silence before Pilate exposes.  The contradictions intensifying through Jesus’ trial eventually rupture.  They rupture upon Jesus’ public and humiliating death.   But, the madness of contradictions revealed in Jesus trial and death begin in the empty void of Jesus’ silence before his accuser.  In his silence, the insanity of the whole situation begins to set in.

Jesus is innocent, but he’ll die.

The crowd condemns Jesus, but they won’t be guilty of killing him.

Pilate doesn’t know Jesus or his crime, but he authorizes his death.

Jesus came to save, but he cannot or will not save himself.

The death of God happens in Jerusalem, the city named of God’s reign and peace.

In the face of death, the Son of God says nothing.

Facing the Son’s death, God stands by and does nothing.

Nothing makes sense.  None of this intended.  The whole is absurd.

Jesus’ silence strips the sin of his world and ours completely naked, unabashed and unadorned.  The rage of madness and its contradictions must work themselves out.  After all, they are our – not God’s – creation.

This interpretation of Jesus’ silence fits better with Paul’s idea that Jesus really does lay both sin and his evil age bare.  He transforms it, and changes everything.  But, it’s still hard to imagine anyone staying quiet at a trial like that.   It’s still hard to imagine Jesus not defending himself or saying anything.   Any American would have.  At least, Jesus could have injected some reason for the insanity of it all.   He could have decried himself a victim to the crowd, or defended himself against others’ accusations as he did several times before when he spoke against the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee.  Any of these would have made more sense.  But, in Jerusalem before Pilate, he says nothing.  “You say so,” is all he says to Pilate.  Why?

Jesus, at least, shared something in common with those he was teaching and preaching.  As fellow Jews, they were his kinfolk.   They were all children of Abraham, who share a history and covenant with YHWH.  Jesus also shared a love and reverence for God’s revelation, the Law, with the lawyers and Pharisees.  But, when it came to defending himself against a world that didn’t know him and wouldn’t hear him, there was nothing to say.  Perhaps, it was futile, even pointless.  There was nothing to say because there was nothing he could say.

If Jesus would have answered that he was the messiah, he would have admitted himself as “King of the Jews” in the eyes of the crowd and Jewish leaders.   There was no other king than the ruler installed by Rome approved.  This would have condemned Jesus under Roman Law.  Pilate would not have been guilty of betraying his conscience.

If Jesus would’ve denied he was “King of the Jews,” he would have denied he was the messiah Israel longed for.   He would have admitted to being just another itinerant teacher or insurrectionist against the empire.  This would have only intensified the situation with confusion if he would have defended himself or told the truth.  His silence, instead, drew out the truth of the situation.  Jesus didn’t need to give an account for himself because it really came down to what the crowd and Pilate thought, or accepted.   “Who do you say that I am?”

In Jesus, God was on trial.  He was defenseless because God has no defense.

I think many of us can relate to Jesus’ situation.   True, we can’t relate to being accused of being a King and we can’t relate to facing crucifixion.  But, I think almost all of us can relate to the politics of his situation.  We can relate to the futility and despair of a situation in which it’s impossible to say anything.   We can relate to what it’s like to be helpless in the face of what others think.   That’s the situation Jesus faced answering Pilate’s questions.  It’s also the political climate of the U.S.

ImageIn a democracy, being able to speak freely and reason together is essential.   Our democracy is not simply a majority rule.  What makes modern democracy different from ancient democracy is its foundation on reason and belief in rational society.  It’s built on the idea that the reason that makes freedom and universal rights possible, also distributes opportunity and authority rationally.   The most important thing we can do in a democracy is talk about how we should govern and be governed.   For democracy to work, we have to talk about politics – rights, laws, and civil responsibility.   We also have to talk about religion, if religion is going to shape our moral fabric, civic virtues, and sense of responsibility.  If reason and political discussion break down, democracy grinds to a halt.  Political processes are channeled off to the privileged.  The freedom we take for granted is taken from us and usurped by those who govern.  This is the America I live in, and it’s difficult to see how the political discourse our democracy needs will get better.

Over the last five years, the best conversations I’ve had about politics and religion have been on Facebook.  Perhaps, this seems idiotic.  I don’t think it’s the norm.  But, if you find Facebook friends who read generously, think critically, and respond thoughtfully, Facebook can be an excellent medium for exchanging ideas and political discussion.    Facebook allows you to think about what you want to say before you say it.  It allows you to edit yourself before you “speak.”  You can’t interrupt others, and you can use links to cite your information.   Like most online forums, all this mitigates some of the difficulties of discussing difficult topics.  Social media can be an excellent medium for sharing perspectives and thoughtful debate if it’s conducted with care, discipline, and respect for your interlocutor and subject.

But, that’s exactly what’s become impossible.

While the internet and social media have created new possibilities and democratic space for thoughtful and invested dialogue, it has also become a platform for infotainment, conspiracy, and reactionism.  Well-funded media routinely sell distrust, contrarianism, and self-righteousness to us.   The internet has become the jeering crowd, but its pointing its fingers at everybody.  All of this has changed the nature of the internet and political discourse.  We’ve allowed American freedom to be reduced to self-interest.  We’ve allowed political discussions to become mainly divisive, toxic, and cynical.  Inject religion into any discussion that matters, and it seems to only get worse.

ImageThe politics of madness – universal self-righteousness, conspiracy, and reactionism – have become America’s political norm.  How many of us have been on Facebook, Twitter, or email and shared an honest or heartfelt perspective on current events, only to be met with emotional reaction or hostility?   No questions, no request for clarification, no attempt to understand – only offense and reaction.  Maybe you tried to reconcile or provide an explanation.  Maybe you tried to reach understanding by being open to their point of view, only to have your words came back to you empty.   We’ve let personal opinion, a sense of victimhood, and emotional reaction to stand unquestioned.  Any attempt at common ground or rational discussion is quickly torpedoed.  In a democracy, this is madness.

We can watch the news or listen to AM radio to appreciate where this widespread attitude comes from.   Self-righteousness, “us and them,” and the feeling of being attacked have become the easiest political situation to understand.  So, it is where most politics go.    Infotainment and poison politics has grown America’s capacity for feeling offended to debilitating levels.  Political self-righteous and commentary have become an industry.   It’s all become self-generating.  In both social and commercial media, it’s hard to imagine anything different.

I try to imagine God or Jesus speaking up in in this context, and the politics surrounding Jesus’ trial become very vivid.

Too many of us live in the fantasy that the truth, the real truth, will be self-evident.  Whomever has it and speaks it will silence the competition.  This is the fantasy that Jesus’ trial exposes.  In fact, the opposite is true.  In reality, the truth of any situation is fragile.  It’s easily drowned out or silenced.

I recently posted something political on Facebook.  Someone I appreciate and respect responded.   What I posted offended them.  The topic was not new to us, but my choice of words was an affront to them this time.  I tried to clarify myself, but I realized I was making it worse.  My words came back empty.  I lost control over determining what my own words meant.

I’m not god and I don’t see the world from a vantage point that makes me superior to everyone else.  But, academically, I knew my point of view on this issue was valid.   Two posts into this Facebook conversation, however, I realized my mix of topic and words were too loaded.  No response was going to convey what I wanted.   The politics surrounding this issue were too divisive.   It didn’t matter how much my political and religious convictions intersected on this issue.   The politics rendered my words useless.  I should’ve stayed silent.

I tried to think of a reply to either save the conversation or recover my point from this person’s interpretation.   But, I eventually realized I was being obsessive.  There was nothing I could say.  It was my problem.  I had to accept the futility of the discussion.  I couldn’t concede my perspective and stay true to myself.  Yet, I couldn’t accept the other person’s reaction because they were reaction to something I didn’t say.   It was all lost in interpretation.  I wanted vindication or validation for my situation, and got neither.  There was nothing more I could do.  Anything I would say was meaningless.

I’m not saying I was like Jesus.  The stakes aren’t even close to the same.  I was not accepting damnation and facing crucifixion.  But, I think my situation, like Jesus’, was futile.  Words became meaningless.  “You say so,” was all either of us could say.   There was nothing either Jesus or I could utter to escape our situation or save it from its politics, madness, and tragedy.   Telling the truth or defending ourselves would only make things worse.  Words became empty, meaningless.

Jesus wasn’t being a hero.  No messiah wants to die.  There was no rational argument he could make to explain the situation to Pilate or Jerusalem’s leaders.   There were no words Jesus could defend himself with.   Only silence could express his helplessness and expose the insanity of what was happening.   It wasn’t Jesus’ silence that condemned him.   Pilate did.  The crowd did.  Jesus experienced something almost all of us experience:  literally, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  It’s the madness of a hopeless situation.

Most can also relate to my situation on Facebook.  Maybe you avoid these situations altogether.   It’s where our democracy has headed, and it’s deeply scary to me.  I don’t think the political situation Jesus was in is much different than our own.

When self-righteousness rule both personal and public opinion…

When the politics devolve to “us against them”…

When hope is lost in a cycle of defensive reactions…

When words fail us and madness sets in…

We want what we reject, and we reject what we want.  Order is kept with violence and its victim(s) are rendered wordless.  This was the politics of Jesus’ situation.  His only hope was for someone to accept responsibility for the brokenness and severity of the situation.   But, neither the crowd nor Pilate was willing to.  So, Jesus was left defenseless.

And, it could happen all over again.  This is what America’s political environment has come to.

the authority of scripture, or how not to read it

I’m teaching Restoration Scripture* this semester at Graceland University.   When I teach this class, I spend more time thinking about the role of scripture in normal life more than I usually do .

Restoration Scripture is an upper division undergraduate course.  For most students it’s their first disciplined introduction to Community of Christ scripture.  I don’t approach this class with one view or one approach to scripture.  Instead, I try to help students develop an integrated view that I have developed through my own years of study and practical experience in ministry.  My approach is not wholly different than other approaches to scripture.  I’m very critical of antagonistic “either/or” approaches to scripture that pit faith against modern critical methods of interpretation.  God’s Word is never just on the page or in the words.  Nor are scriptures just ancient documents or devotional materials.  Scripture are more.

I teach Restoration Scripture in a way that brings knowledge about scripture together with critical thinking about truth and authority.  I attempt to help students think critically about scripture, yet have respect for its tradition.  The point is to develop a creative openness to scripture.  I believe my approach fits well with Community of Christ’s Statement on Scripture.   It’s a relational approach in which students combine critical thinking and respect for its purpose as a communal authority.  This allows scripture to become a tool with which to think, imagine, feel, and learn the Spirit at work in the church and its sacred writings, present day and in the past.  It takes more time, effort, and discipline to think about scripture this way.  But, it is also what connects scripture with lived-life in community with others in an intellectually honest and life-giving way.

In the class, we confront the problem of scriptural authority.  We deal with it in a practical way.   This is particularly important in Community of Christ, which has unique scriptures as well as a strong position about the human role in creating and interpreting scripture.  Putting practical questions first, we start by asking the implicit question, “What is scripture good for?”  This question is important because many young adults simply haven’t developed an understanding of scripture outside their personal exposure (or lack of exposure) to it.  Like us, they see how too many Christians obsess over religion and scriptural authority in a way that alienates others. Christianity that worships the authority of scripture has alienated many of us from what it means to be Christian.  The humble call to walk and learn from the person and work of Jesus is quickly lost.  This is even truer of young adults in my experience.

Turned on to other mediums, many young adults don’t concern themselves with religion or the authority of scripture. So much focus on authority has given religion a bad name.  Thanks to media, extremism and violence control our image of religion today.   Such extremism is tied up in certain approaches to scripture.

In response, I want to get back to a more sensible and pragmatic understandings of sacred writings.  In the end scripture is not about literal authority, worshiping words, metaphysical secrets, or purely personal devotion.  Scripture caries more weight that any one of our personal opinions because scripture concerns itself with ultimate questions and endures through time.   Scriptures shape history and are about community.  It is about lived-life with others, our relationship with what’s ultimately important, and the enduring nature of those relationships.  For that reason alone, scripture is important.  Scripture can also bring us into a relationship to God.  Considering how to approach scripture is important to relating to these things in deep and life-giving way.

bible-silentThe problem is that most Christians get way too caught up in the “what” of scripture.   More fundamentalist and conservative Christians do it by overemphasizing the literal word and authority of the Bible.  Liberal Christians and pan-religious folk do it when they dispense with scripture by labeling it as personal devotional material, simply stories and moral teaching, or irrelevant historical documents.    When “what scripture is” becomes more important than what scripture points to, the “who” of scripture is eclipsed.  The message and purpose of scripture are lost.

The “what” of scripture is almost always wrapped up in questions about its authority,    Authority, of course, is the relentless modern question.   The impetus of our modern world was to free persons from every form of historical authority in order to free the human subject to make their own history.   Religion, in particular, had to be overcome in order to raise up a free world of reason and self-determination.   As a result, both conservative and progressive politics and religion concerns themselves with issues of authority.

The birth of Christian fundamentalism in the 19th century was as a reaction to modern society.   Its belief in the absolute authority of scripture, its literal approach, and unquestioned faith in the truth-power of words still influence Christianity today,   This obsession over authority also shapes liberal Christians and contemporary approaches to religion today.   Ironically, this relentless questioning of authority has led to authority everywhere.  Today, the individual is told relentlessly that s/he is the final authority.   Every opinion and perspective must be respected.  It’s the doctrine of our self-fulfilling consumer-oriented world.  In practice, many of us feel anxiety, out of control, isolated, and search for a deeper sense of relationship and community.  Scripture actually speaks to this search in a compelling and novel way.

I’m not the first to say that the constant assertions about the bible’s authority over science, personal opinion, and “man’s truth” are tiresome.  They are centuries old and weather worn.  They’ve passed the edge into absurdity.   It’s no mystery that churches formed around this approach to authority reflect this very description: closed-off, oppositional, and advocates of absurdity.

The future of scripture will grow out of a fuller understanding of its past.   Interestingly, Restoration Scripture lends itself well to this approach. Community of Christ has an open canon of scripture that evolves.  (Other traditions also have an evolving understanding of scripture and its interpretation; its the canonization of new scriptural material that makes the Community of Christ unique.)  With all the traps and dangers of having an open canon of scripture, it also has its advantages.  The same traps and dangers that come with an open canon also illuminate the all-to-human processes from which the scriptures come. Because of historical proximity, the emergence of Restoration scripture helps us appreciate how scripture emerges as crystalizations of collective (and collected) human experience.  They do not drop out of the sky or emerge pristine out of an arc or from the ground.  Scriptures are products of divine-human encounter.  They are a human endeavor.  They come out of the circumstances that created them and carried them to us.  And, they testify of God’s activity midst human experience in ultimate proportions.   “God,” in scripture, is a sign and object of ultimate meaning.

When we read scripture, we commune with the dead.  We glean their wisdom and read their witness of ultimate concern in their lives.  In scripture, diverse voices and circumstances come together to convey a semblance of God’s active presence in the mess and mystery of life.   They are stories and life-lessons of survival, life’s search for meaning, the waxing and waning of civilizations, war and peace, and life and death.  All come to us through scripture.

Scripture is also a particular kind of literature.  It is literature that personifies God.   In scripture, God is personified because God and human beings constantly interact.  They fight, deny, adore, return, struggle with and depend deeply on God.  God is strangely present and beyond these entanglements.  God is wily and faithful, powerful and vulnerable.  God is vengeful and gracious.  God is the beginning and the end, whose name is simply “I am.”  (Exodus 3:14)  This God communes with human beings and  is terribly interested in our lives and welfare.  God persistently reaches out to us at great personal expense.

When we approach scripture with narrow personal interests or uncritical assumptions about its authority and content, so much gets lost.   Any reader can slip right past the message within scripture, finding only what they set out to find. This is how we approach restaurants and government – expecting to get what we’re promised and what we want.    But approaching scripture this way avoids a deeper relationship.  I avoids questions about who it comes from, to whom it testifies, and who it’s for.  So much of what scripture is comes from our relationship with it.

Practically, scripture contains wisdom of the ancients and a living message for today.   The ancient church is always also us and not us.  The faith community that practices reading and discerning scripture together will be shaped by its message.  Reading scripture together is a particular experience that shapes a common memory and a community.    This living memory is lived and repeated in the sacraments and rituals that shape the community.  This approach to scripture gets much closer to its purpose and message.   Jacob wrestled with God; I wrestle with God.  Jesus was baptized; I was baptized.   The disciples broke bread and drank in Jesus; we break bread and drink in Jesus.   Job suffered and searched for meaning; we suffer and search for meaning.   Israel longed for a messiah; we do, too.

jesus gift bagsConsumer culture tends to make us think that religious resources are actually spiritual consumer goods.   This, too, influences how we see the authority of scripture.    Consuming scripture goes beyond using scripture as personal devotional material.   Scripture becomes only good for “what I get out of it” and “what it means to me.”    This diminishes the community-shaping power of scripture.   But, it can also lead to abusing it.    When scripture is a consumer good, it’s authority is in what I can get out of it.   In an anxious world, we have all seen alarmists and charlatans use scripture to propagate fear, manipulate persons, and create false security.   Used as a consumer good, the ultimate nature of the human problems and difficulties addressed in scripture can become a weapon.   Consumer culture does not cultivate a relationship with scripture or shape the kind of community its message conveys.

Practical wisdom leads to an understanding of scripture that liberates us from extreme and uninformed approaches.   What is scripture good for?  It’s good for reading.  It’s good for reading in community with others.  The authority of scripture is not in literal truth or infallibility.  Nor is the authority of scripture limited to what you or I can get out of it for our own benefit.  The authority of scripture lies in our ability to encounter, grasp, and be changed by its message.  In scripture, diverse voices and circumstances come together to convey God’s active presence in the mess and mystery of life.   The stories, testimonies, and life-lessons of survival, our search for meaning, the waxing and waning of civilizations, war and peace, and life and death all come to us through scripture.   Reading it together forms relationships and a common memory of stories, life-lessons, and language to express the meaning and mystery of life – which otherwise is nearly impossible for us to express.  Read this way, scriptures do not exert authority.  Their authority is evident.

*  Restoration Scripture is an undergraduate course that targets Community of Christ students at Graceland University.  The class covers historical setting, development, and interpretative approaches to the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible.

Separation and Presence – God in Human Experience

Christian theology begins with separation.

AloneIn Genesis, the separation is told in the story of the Fall.   The Fall is a mythical account of humankind’s separation from God.   It tells how existence is ripped from God’s immediate presence.  Separation from God precipitates into separation from one another.  This is a central aspect of the myth.   Adam and Eve, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent, the apple, Adam & Eve’s shame, then banishment, and Cain killing Abel – all tell the story of humanity’s end of innocence.  It is a divine drama about the fragility of human relationships, our reasoning, and the power of agency.  Ultimately, the Fall is about our discovery of a knowledge that does not forgive.  It is the knowledge of good and evil, our separation from one another, suffering and its consequences.

We moderns easily over-interpret and under-interpret the Fall.  Our celebration of science, perspectives, and individual want for control make it easy to miss or avoid its point.  If we forget that the Fall is a story about the human condition, it is easy to miss its message about our essential separation   The point is that human experience eventually reveals a profound and fatal separation at the core of our existence.  It is a separation so deep and irreparable that it can only be explained as separation from God.  More than any individual act of transgression or feeling of personal guilt, our basic separation from one another and God is the heart and soullessness of sin.  The two are entwined, coincident and reconciled together.

Focusing on the personal dimension of sin eclipses the more important claim that it is deeply embedded in our shared memory of human experience.  This is what such a myth does.  They provide a window into our shared human condition.  In a sense, the myth of the Fall is not personal.  Singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell, doesn’t get lost in dogmatic doctrines or theological arguments.  Her song, “Woodstock,” conveys the Fall and its effects in simple poetic terms: “We are stardust; we are golden.  We are billion year-old carbon.  And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

The garden is the Garden of Eden.

Getting back to the garden is difficult, if not impossible.  The search for our original innocence, let along our journey back to it, is fraught with insurmountable problems.  Neither philosophy nor theology have been able to build a bridge back to the garden.  In fact, our most popular and sought after solutions to this fundamental problem of separation seem to say more about sin and its effects than its solution.  Here are two examples:

jesus_savesHistorically, evangelical Christians offer a simple formula.  They say we just need to accept Jesus as our personal savior.  Then, the breach of sin & our separation is repaired.  God repairs the human condition.  God offers both grace and judgement, and reaches to us in our helpless situation.   We are lost in sin.  We are separated from God.  But, if we have faith, all will be mended.   This is what it means to be saved.   So long as the saved believe in the bible, and interpret it the way they’re supposed to (which changes over time), the saved can return back to the garden.  The saved are heavenbound.   The way back to the garden is right religion.

One big problem with the salvation formula is that it doesn’t really work.  Sin and separation persist in the human condition even after you’re saved.   On the one hand, saved persons still experience temptation to sin on a personal level.  The formula focuses on sin and salvation in its personal dimension.  It focuses on choice and our individual want for control.  Personal piety is important when dealing with sins, before and after salvation.  The saved need a way to constantly remind themselves that sin is truly overcome and salvation is theirs.  The path back to the garden is right religion and good behavior backed by a program of constant maintenance.  This is where the persistence of sin shines through its solution.

Maintaining belief in your personal salvation means the saved will collectively project the persistence of sin out onto the world.   Sin is projected on “this evil age” and everyone who doesn’t believe the way they do.  The path back to the garden is restricted to those who understand sin and separation rightly, as well as its final solution.  To maintain exclusive rights to the way to heaven, many evangelical Christians relentlessly separate themselves from everyone who doesn’t fit their perspective.  There is always an out-group:  heathens, Catholics, Mormons, feminists, lesbians & gays, and Liberals.  Not everyone gets back to the garden.  Self-righteousness, therefore, becomes another form of our true separation.  In this brand of Christianity, sin and separation manifests in a uniquely religious form.  The evangelical formula reflects and reinforces the human condition more than its opposite.

Other kinds of contemporary spirituality deal with our separation from one another and God in other ways.  Some deny God altogether.  Atheism – professed and practical – is one way to dispose of the Fall as a myth.  Other spiritualities deny our separation from God or that sin exists.  Since I’m more concerned with clarifying faith than discarding it, I’ll focus on the latter.

higher consciousnessMany contemporary spiritualities profess that we are always already in the presence of God.   Separation is an illusion.  Focusing on sin, or the sheer negativity of sin, is the root of the problem.  God is always already here.  God is in us.  God is around us.  God is in our relationships.  God may, in fact, be our very relatedness to each other and all things.   Such spirituality is relentlessly positive.

What characterizes alot of popular spirituality is the way it rejects the wisdom of the Christian tradition.  It stays with the positive while avoiding or being elusive with regard to its negative aspects.  The myth of the Fall is either a relic of irrelevant religion, or sin is rejected because it receives so much emphasis.  Between these two, our experience of deep separation becomes psychological problem, an medical issue, or a matter of perception.  It is not  shared human experience of universal condition.  Such claims are antiquated, or simply not pleasant.

Because evangelical Christianity dominates so many people’s understanding of what Christianity is, I can see why people look for something different.   I, too, have often wondered if the Garden is really here, all around us.  Life is a tremendous gift.  Creation is wondrous and awe-inspiring.  Our relationships have moments of perfection and are life-giving.  Perhaps, the problem of sin boils down to our perceptions and egoism.  Maybe there is just a profound veil over our spiritual eyes.

But, what I keep coming back to is that this veil of separation has real and material human consequences.  They, too, are all around us.  Perception and human action continue to create injustice and reproduce gross inequalities.  Such things are systemic.  Evidence of sin and separation are everywhere.  Controlling our awareness of others’ suffering or exposure to  inhumane conditions reflects our basic separation more than remedies sin as a human condition.  This spirituality, too, is counterfeit.

Not to mention, no matter how sharp our God-consciouness is, our awareness of God’s presence is easily undermined or distracted.  Life ensures it.  The feeling of union with God or communion with all things doesn’t last.  The rhythm of life, and the demands of those sacred relationships we seek and treasure knock us off kilter.  There is too much need and want both within and around us.  There is too much busyness.  We have uncooperative feelings.  We still have deep moments to isolation, separation (there it is again!), even feelings of being abandoned, out on our own.  Insurmountable ethical dilemmas remain.  Why is there suffering?  Why am I suffering?  Isn’t there an end to this conflict?  Why can’t the human family share and just get along?  Is the path back to the garden avoiding these conflicts or go through them?

We manage these issues on a personal level most days.  They, by nature, are spiritual.

We can address all these problems by focusing ourselves on God and in God.  But, it takes relentless effort.  The problems of personal, interpersonal, and collective life defy simple solutions.  We can retreat into spiritual practices, self-help, positive psychology, meditation, and higher consciousness.  Of course, none of this is wrongheaded.   We should not give them  up.   But, sin-as-separation persists and remains essential to our collective life.  Our relentless need to overcome it, or even deny it spiritually, are evidence of it.  The presence of God is often elusive in life.  At least, our individualism makes separation a belief system.  Sin – or whatever you want to call it – lurks, exists.

We want to get ourselves back to the garden.  But, can we?

I don’t believe we can get back to the garden.  If we do, we do so individually or in isolation from others, which only demonstrates how enduring the problem of sin and separation is in the human condition.  We can’t get back to the Garden of Eden because there is no path back.  The knowledge of human suffering, our basic separation from one another, and suffering its consequences do not forgive.  They endure, passed on through the actions of human beings and structures of society .  Society is the living memory of our shared past, the collective memory of past generations.  Escaping into our selves is not a solution, but evidence of the separation the Fall reveals to us.

There is no path back to the Garden of Eden because it is a place of moral and experiential innocence.  It is mythical. It is utopian.  It doesn’t exist.  The garden, like the myth of the Fall intends, is an imagined place.

The value of this myth is not that it conveys how bad, we, human beings essentially are.  I don’t believe that’s the point of the Fall.  Nor is it intended to scare us into believing for the sake of salvation.   The myth of the Fall preserves a profound and ancient human memory.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ivanavasilj/8469984203/

“Together Alone” by Ivana Vasilj

On the one hand, the myth of the Garden preserves a memory of our essential relatedness.  Remembering the garden brings us back to an imagined place – beyond history and out of time – where humanity’s essential communion with one another and creation once existed.  Such communion is basic to our existence, so basic that it is best imagined in mythical proportions – pristine, pure, and created by a common creator.

On the other hand, the Fall remembers the fragility of human relationships, our reasoning, and power of our agency.  It preserves an understanding about our knowledge about good and evil.  It is a knowledge that does not forgive.   Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting human suffering, but remembering it.  It also means remembering what is possible by recalling what is was like before the need to forgive.

As Joni Mitchell recognized, getting back to the garden is important for framing one of humanity’s basic longings.  It is longing for a human condition other than suffering and separation.  It is a longing for redemption and restoration midst the human condition.  It is hoping for a place for peace and harmony between human beings midst creation.

Getting back to the garden can be a metaphor for creating a better world.   It doesn’t mean returning to a place that never existed, but preserving the memory of our essential union with God, with creation, and one another in both Jewish and Christian tradition.

The Garden of Eden may not be real.  But, as a metaphor, it points to something very real.  The Garden points to the presence of God in human experience, even midst our separation.  It is a presence so profound, it is more than an experience.  It is place within our historical common memory.

God’s presence may be fleeting, unwieldy, even wild and irrational in human experience.  But, it is also as essential to being human as separation and suffering.    The presence of God is often more difficult to define or describe than sin and separation.  Experiencing God has been described as terrifying (Rudolf Otto), ecstatic (the mystics), indescribable (negative theology) and beyond our ability to directly communicate (Kierkegaard).  That is why this experience belongs to spirituality, and its memory is preserved in its myths.  God’s presence is an experience that is dynamic and open to interpretation.  God’s absence attests to our separation as much as experiencing God in suffering and separation attest to God in human experience.

If Christian theology begins with separation, theology continues as a testament to God’s presence midst this condition.  If sin points to separation in human experience, experiencing God is equally a part of human existence.  Faith cannot overcome separation anymore than spirituality can immunize us from its consequences.  But, if both embrace all life’s experience, both affirm God’s presence and work within it.

…and, if this true, sin has already begun to die its own death.

The Cross, or Why We Need It

ImageOne of the most awkward silences in liberal Christianity is its relative silence on the cross.   Far too many of us avoid discussing the cross, the meaning of the cross, and how sin shapes our lives.

What’s fascinating is how little both sin and the cross come up, even when progressive Christians passionately speak of peace & justice.   It is difficult to impossible to understand the path to peace, and the work of justice, the nature of oppression or consequences of poverty without reckoning with sin, the meaning of sin, and the death of God in our world.

Christians committed to seeing God in creation, other religions, the arts, and human experience might consider the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written in a letter from prison less than a year before his death by the Nazi’s.  It is dated July 16, 1944.

Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison)

One of the reasons liberal Christians struggle to talk adequately about sin and the cross is the loud voice of American Evangelicalism.  Evangelicalism in America projects a well-known and well-funded salvation formula.  It is fear-based, triumphalist, and relies on our culture’s rampant individualism, self-interest, and personal choice.

The traditional evangelical message drowns the cross in bloody images.  It narrows sin to rhetoric about Jesus’ gracious death for our personal salvation.  The greatest tragedy of this message is its violent theology and contorted invitation:  “God so loved you and me that he sent his son to death.  Don’t you want to be one of God’s children, too?”

Another problem is that this message assumes God’s complete control over human life and the effects of sin in the world.   It presents the power of God in absolute categories: God’s unqualified love for us, God’s absolute control over human life, over-and-against our hopeless and irredeemable human depravity.   The “good news” of the Evangelical formula begins with certain bad news:  In sin, there’s no way out.  The threat of hell makes the bad news both personal and emotional.  Then, the invitation to salvation follows.

ImageWe must believe the story of Jesus behind the formula to receive salvation.  But, the whole transaction is in the abstract.  The story explains our dependence on God for grace in order to overcome our abysmal sin.  Yet, the whole transaction is based in a metaphysical drama.  There is an unpaid debt that everybody (and we personally) hold with God.  God is demanding and has an unappeasable sense of justice.  So, God sacrifices his son to appease himself.   Somehow, that’s grace.  If we personally believe this  backstory then the transaction is secured; hell is averted.  The heaven we imagine is also ours, albeit after death.

I have a problem with this transaction.  But, the best response to the story is not to reject it out of hand.  Certainly, a formulaic transaction that meets both our own and God’s self-interest has deep-seated problems.  Not the least is its spiritualization of American self-interest in one’s own personal salvation.   But, the story conveys both a witness and wisdom from the ancients.  There is theology to mine from this story, and it is a gift.

Against the dismal view of human nature in this salvation formula, many Christians believe human beings are essentially good.    Individually, this may be true.  However, history paints a picture of collective human life that perennially descends into epic violence, power struggles, and unnecessary injustice.   The story of our sin and the cross speaks directly to this history.

Individuals may be generally good, fair, and generous.   But, zoom out and consider the global economic and political structures that shape human relationships, and a more difficult picture of human life appears.   The disparity of human conditions, inequality of power and life’s resources, and the suffering of masses while a few benefit paints a tangled world.   In our society of abundance, oppression far and near reflects the emptiness, struggle, and longing we often suppress in ourselves.

As individuals we might hold to the belief that we are born good, but sin is inextricably embedded in the structures of our world.  The economic and political relations that make up the world, materially and spiritually, make this so. Sin is relevant because we are inescapably in relationship with each other and every other human being.  Globalizing economic and political realities ensure this.  Even those who’ve gone before us and will come after are affected by our spiritual and material relations.  The cross holds the truth about God in this web of human history.  The unnecessary deaths of poverty and genocide, our dependence on economic luxuries and a lucrative weapon’s industry, and our need for wealth shape a world where sin and the effects of sin hold sway.  Even our definition of freedom, which often stands behind our political and economic arrangements, enmeshes us in sin. As long as freedom means freedom from responsibility for others and the world we create, sin twists freedom into human indifference.

Only a God who knows the suffering of such indifference can save us from our want for that kind of freedom.

Metaphysical answers and narcissistic guilt distract too many Christians from deeper considerations of the material relations of our world and spiritual realities of our shared life.  The ancient world, like our modern one, was a world of empire.  Empires persist, then like now, on an order enforced with violence.  They were sustained through economies driven by disparity and exploitation, as well as power relationships in which power was distributed by privileged access.  Whether Pax Romana or American Freedom, the promises of empire are never universally fulfilled or equitable.  Power & privilege define peace, what is just, and who receives justice.  Some conform and cooperate to thrive, other to survive.  Others challenge and resist the spiritual and material order.  The cross is a potent and public reminder of what happens to those who disturb the peace of empire or challenge power.

In Jesus, God was and is inextricably entwined in this world.  In this world, individual sins are inseparable from structured sin.  The fate of God in our world is told in Jesus’ story.  The awaited messiah, Word of God made flesh, came to bring God’s reign without weapons or worldly power.  But, God in Jesus was “pushed out of the world on to the cross.”

Many Christians, like me, live privileged and abundant lives.   My education, healthcare, legal protections, and economic access are privileges.  It is not that I don’t “deserve” them.  Rather, they are privileges by definition that not everyone enjoys them.  Many of us are shielded from the material conditions and political realities of others who afford us our privileges.  In America, freedom also means we can drown our perceptions in a world of media, personal desires, and accomplishments that reinforce our belief that we are innocent, free, self-made individuals.   Such are the doctrines of classical liberalism (both “liberal” and “conservative” varieties) and consumerism.     Sin and the cross deeply challenge people like me to consider whether my sense of innocence, personal freedom, and individuality are God’s gift to me or a result of history – a history of conquest, empire, and enforced peace.

The nagging questions of Christian faith are unpopular in an opulent age like ours:   “What is sin?”, “Do we need salvation?”, “Why the cross?”, “Did Jesus have to die?”  Regardless whether I see my life of privileges as the gift of God or the gift of empire, this life is my inheritance.  What is my responsibility?  Should others share in my life’s abundance?

Many Christians dodge the cross and Evangelical salvation formula by emphasizing the Good News revealed in the life of Jesus.  Emphasizing the miraculous life and ministry of Jesus, instead of focusing on the “good news” of his bloody death, is important.  It bears critical insights.  Certainly, Jesus’ promise of eternal life is not simply afterlife; it is now.  Luke is clear: the Kingdom is within us; it is in our midst.  (Luke 17:21) In our lives, we do meet the Christ of the gospels.  We certainly meet a living God alive in the life of Jesus Christ.  Discipleship means believing upon him.

ImageBut, on the cross we also see God crowded out of this world.  The cross is God’s death.   The cross is not an indictment against the Jews.   It is a prophetic message to all of God’s people in every time, particularly Christians.  Christians profess they have ears to hear the story of Jesus.  Jesus’ cross is the naked truth about the peace and promises of life together under empire.  It reveals worldly power in its naked structures of exclusion, abandonment, and death.   The cross reminds us that we live in a world where God’s justice has yet to reign.   The blood of Jesus is the blood of every forced and unnecessary death.  The blood of Jesus is the suffering let from every false choice the world gives:  Jesus or Barabbas, empire or chaos, you or me.  The cross is the story of every victim, prophet, teacher, and martyr who seeks eternal life here and God’s Kingdom now.  Jesus’ blood is the blood of the poor and impoverished that flows in silence in the noise of consumer culture.  It is also the blood of those who rise in protest, only to be put down by force of those who reign.

The cross stands against our culture of individual isolation, personal privilege, and limitless consumption.  It also stands against religion shaped by our culture: its personal salvation formulas, self-interested transactions, and overinvestment individual will.  The cross is a symbol that disturbs our conscience.   On the cross, Jesus is both God and flesh.   His death is the death of every person.   (Consider II Corinthians 5:14)

Eventually, all – even God – come to the cross.   Some come as victims.  Some come as casual observers.  Some come awakened from their isolation and innocence.  Others come as the soldiers and servants of empire.   We come not because we are individually guilty or to blame, but because we cannot make a new world alone and need a way beyond sin and death.    Jesus lifted up the invitation, “Take up your cross and follow me.” (See Matthew 10:38, 16:24; Luke 14:27; John 21:19)  Without knowing the sin and cross in our lives, resurrection loses is meaning.

God, or belief

Lately, I’ve felt the need to clarify some things.  Parker Palmer helps me understand this feeling in terms of my soul (Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness).  I believe my soul yearns to speak.  Writing is a way I can listen, and listen deeply.

My search for faith is central to my life.  It is a search that continues even as I write.  My search continues to lead me into some kind of testimony.  Some who read this might think that I’m talking about personal religious convictions.  But, that risks misinterpreting me.  It misses the depth of my search, its personal costs, and its impact on all that is.   Faith does not occupy some corner of my life.  Faith is not limited to religious identity, abstract doctrines, and metaphysical questions.  Life is experienced.  It is concrete, relational, sensuous, and palpable.  Faith embraces all these things.  In my soul, I want to express my life in terms of faith.   My heart quietly aches to express how I understand life  – who I am, who I am in this world, and who I am in relationship with others.  God is the one thing that makes any sense out of all these things.  So, that’s where I’ll begin.

I believe in God.  But, as important as my belief might be, it does not answer the right question.

American culture approaches religion in a particular way.  Historically, it obsesses on questions of belief.  When I was a child, believing in God was important.  I was asked about it alot.  I grew up in a Christian community.  It was dominated by a particular Christian denomination.  The church I was born into didn’t quite fit in.  My father was a committed Community of Christ member.  My mother was also a member of Community of Christ, but she grew up in the dominant church in our community.  It was a costly change of membership for her.  I was often asked about my belief in God from family, friends, and other church-goers.   A lot seemed to hang on this question.  My answer conveyed the state of my eternal life or immortal soul.  It also revealed what team I was on.  If I said I believed in God, I was at least in the right game.  I may not be a true believer, but at least I was not a lost soul needing salvation or, at worst, the enemy (atheist, humanist, pagan, even Mormon or Catholic).  A true believer meant that I believed in God, and I was a Christian like them.

No one ever said it to me as a child.  But, I learned early on that Christians often ask others about their belief in God not for theological dialogue.  Rather, it tell believers where others stand – where they stand with God, stand with religion, and which religion.  Belief in God is an important faith question.  But, when it’s asked primarily to determine someone’s identity, it betrays the question.  At some point, questions about faith and God went deeper than religious identity for me.  As I struggled with deeper questions, the distinction between faith and religion became clearer.   The longer I labored, the distinction between religious questions and questions of faith grew.  My questions changed and the answers changed.

When I was a child, religious questions and faith questions were more or less the same.  But, faith led me beyond religion, itself.  My search for faith took me beyond the religious questions that were once defined for me.  Life led to religious crises and other crises.  The need for faith moved beyond religious answers.  Life posed problems that made the need for faith more urgent, more encompassing, and distinct from strictly religious answers that limited God to religious problems, abstract ideas, or personal beliefs.

I am at a point in my life when I feel the more important question is not whether I believe in God.  The more urgent question is whether God believes in me.  Does God love the world?  Is God in everyday life and its vast imperceptible web of relationship?  What relationship do I want with God (the incredible possibility of God!)?  Do I seek God in daily life?  What is God’s Spirit doing?  Will I allow faith to affect me – how I look at myself, interact with others, and act in the world that shapes me?  Is God at the center of my relationships?  How much of all that is in my control?  How much is totally out of my control?  How much of the world is God and how much is the world bearing down on me?  After I answer these questions, what do the answers really mean?  Does the faith I was born into and its resources shape some answers or who I yearn and strive to be?

This brings me back, once again, to religion in search of new answers with different questions.

The subtle shift from focusing on my belief in God to God’s belief in me and the world is profound.  The change in orientation is a turnaround.  It requires a different way of thinking.   Me, my identity, the religion I come from or now belong to is no longer the chief starting point.   Instead, the scope is broader.  Life dictates where I start, then I must consider what faith asks of me.  Where is God, the possibility of God, and the meaning of God in the world?  I find myself less concerned with religious questions – if that means topics that limit God to religion, isolated communities, abstract ideas, or personal beliefs.  I am more concerned with what faith means in life.  There are so many questions.   I must consider the struggles over the fundamental relationships that define me and my life.  Faith reaches beneath the world’s definitions, its definition of religion, and religious appearances.  Religion eventually turns into faith questions.

My life’s journey has been a path of conversion.  I was born Community of Christ.  I was born a Christian.  I am now a convert to the search for meaning in God.  Born a Christian, I later discovered Christ.  I made the religion of my birth my own by transcending it, then returning to it.  I have a new relationship with Christianity and the world from which it comes.  Instead of having faith in my religion, I seek its source of faith.  This means going beyond our world’s way of knowing and its categories – including that of religion.  Neither I nor the world can limit God to religious spheres and mere personal perspective.  All this betrays the call to faith before it’s begun.   While the word “wrong” my scare some, I’m not interested winning a war of words.  Rather, I fight to defend the true meaning of faith.  We cannot simply constrain faith or God to narrow religious definitions or isolate them to personal opinions.  To do so is a distortion.

Do you believe in God?  As important as it seems, this may not be the primary or final question.  Does God believe in us?  Does God believe in the world?  Does God persist in the world despite our efforts to control and deploy its resources in our own way and for our own purposes and advantages?  To even consider “yes” as an answer requires the seed of faith, whose growth will bring you well beyond narrow definitions of religion.   That’s where conversion and reconversion begins.