Being Fully Human, change, Christian Mysticism, Compassion, Heresy, Heretic, Humility, Interfaith, pluralism, Progressive Christianity, Spiritual

Tension in the Tank

Tension in the TankI write today with a message of tension. Now I know a great many of you woke up this morning and thought to yourself, “I can’t wait to go online because then I will feel more tension in my life!” Am I right? Well, not if your images of tension are all negative – and so often they are. So my challenge today is to convince you of the need for positive tension in our lives.

 When this country was still relatively new, fishermen out east started shipping cod across land by freezing it first. But when it arrived it had lost its flavor. So they tried again, sending it live in salt water. Now when it arrived not only was it tasteless, it was also mushy. So they tried one more time, shipping it with its natural predator the catfish. The catfish chased the cod all over the tank. When it arrived, not only was the flesh of the fish firm, it was also tastier than ever. This is the phenomenon of “Tension in the Tank” and it serves as a metaphor for many aspects of our life, including our spiritual lives. 

When there is no tension, there is the opportunity for complacency. There is no need to act. The result is soggy fish or a soggy life. When there is no tension, the stage is set for us to feel secure no matter how poorly we perform or how little we do. On the other hand, we can find ourselves at times in the grips of crippling tension, living in fear and insecurity about our livelihood, our relationships, our possessions and our physical needs.

The spiritual journey offers us another option: a life that is challenging and yet rewarding beyond measure, a life of accountability. It is in our spirituality that we are challenged to do our best. To not take what we’ve received for granted. To take risks. To set our goals high and to believe they will be met. It’s as if we swim with catfish, but with the confidence that we will arrive whole at our destination.

What are the sources of tension in your life that keep your faith fresh and vital?

A Conservative Country 

One of them, I have to guess, is living in the United States where we seem to be having an upsurge of Fundamentalism. Here in West Michigan I am perpetually challenged to be compassionate and understanding toward those who truly believe they owe it to me to let me know I am going to hell. When I was at seminary I had a fellow student who actually took offense at the idea that God could actually love everyone! That was one of the first indications that I was, in fact, in the wrong place!

And of course, so are you. As a spiritual person, you really don’t belong here at all. Which is why you are so infinitely needed here. Right here in this place of tension. We all have had times when the Spirit has broken through to add a little tension to our life.

For me, those moments began when I was quite young. I was welcomed into this world by Lutheran parents. Parents who brought me to church to be baptized at one week of age because the pastor was leaving and they wanted to slip me in quick before he drove away. When I grew older I attended public school. For a while I thought I was incredibly fortunate. Here I was living in the best place in the whole wide world learning the one true religion in the whole world. I was amazingly blessed. But by the time I was in third grade I started wondering about things. Here I was being told at school about those terrible Russians that I was supposed to be afraid of. And for some inexplicable reason it started to dawn on me that Russian kids right at that same moment were in school being taught how terrible and frightening I was.

Then I started to think about those kids who lived in the most remote parts of China, who didn’t know about Jesus and would die without ever knowing Jesus. How come I was so lucky and they were not? What weird twist of universal fate left me in the most envious position in all the world and left others consigned to hell? I didn’t even know the words yet, but that was when I became a heretic and a pluralist. I realized that those kids were being raised in another tradition and that I had no more right to tell them they were wrong and try to take that away from them than they had to try to take my beliefs and understandings away from me.

The Path of Pluralism 

I still feel the same way. I haven’t met anyone yet who shares my exact same concept of reality, my version of Truth as best I have crafted it to date. And hopefully, neither have you. Because if you have then chances are one of you has not done their own thinking.

I am very proud to be a heretic and I like to be in the company of other heretics. Because I believe that without our own heretical insights and impulses our spiritual journey becomes tasteless and soggy, if not stagnant and dead.

If we are truly caught up in the mystery then we have to discover at some point that no one can give us the answers, because the answers are always inside of us. Truth can be pointed to, suggested, guessed at, but we cannot for all of our attempts ever fully find the words to express the great mystery of our existence. And so we speak in parable and metaphor, not in doctrinal certainties.

Which means we fully embrace the faith journey of all spiritual traditions as equally valid and rewarding, recognizing that we move to a place close enough to God that the distinctions we draw between our faith experiences and others become more and more important as something to raise and up celebrate and less and less important as something to divide and separate us.

Father Thomas Keating reflects that religions are probably supposed to be the starting point of the spiritual journey. Pluralism and the interfaith movement are not about detaching ourselves or uprooting ourselves from our own spiritual history and tradition. In fact, mystics have very rarely separated themselves from their historical religions. Without changing a single letter, they came to understand the meaning of these religions more deeply. Dorothee Sollee writes that, “It isn’t suspicion that turns people away from the church; it is hunger that drives them to seek help wherever their dignity and their right to have a life are being respected.”

If I have to define myself at all, I say that I am a Christian Mystic Taoist. Mysticism is the direct experience of God. The path of the mystics is toward a transforming union with God. Mystical experiences happen in every culture and every faith tradition, among people of all different backgrounds and every walk of life. The question to ask when exploring mystical experiences is not “Who are these people? How are they special?” The question is “What kind of culture honors these experiences and which destroys them?”

For example, childhood is ripe for mystical experiences of awe and amazement and wonder. Among the Native indigenous people of North America, a mother will begin a conversation with her children by asking, “What did you dream?” In my non-indigenous North American home I was always more likely to lead with, “How was school? Do you have homework?” When our dreams and visions are not honored, they tend to become meaningless, embarrassing or simply forgotten.

We Are All Mystics 

The truth is that all of us our mystics and most of us have experienced heightened sensations of awareness or unity or being grasped by the certainty of knowing Spirit’s presence in our life – often at very young ages. But in our haste to leave childhood behind, we may end up labeling those experiences as crazy or silly or the product of an overactive imagination.

The trivialization of life is perhaps the strongest anti-mystical force among us.

To have a mystical experience is to have an altered state of consciousness derived from an encounter with the divine reality. This state is referred to as illumination, enlightenment, awakening or the union of the soul with God. Mysticism is really no different from the promises many religions describe in the language of being made whole, liberation, the peace of God, coming home, and redemption. But mysticism deals with these experiences differently, by lifting them out of doctrine and freeing them for feeling, experience and certainty.

Mysticism claims that it is in existential experience, in the actual feeling of it, that we finally know what grace is all about. And to feel grace is to know ecstasy. Mystics claim a relationship with God based on love that arises not because of the demands of powerful institutions or of God, but out of utter freedom. Ken Wilber describes a mystic as one who does not see God as an object, but one who is immersed in God as an atmosphere.

Aldous Huxley describes three gates into mysticism: “We can begin at the bottom, with practice and morality; or at the top, with a consideration of metaphysical truths; or, finally, in the middle, at the focal point where mind and matter, action and thought have their meeting place in human psychology.”

The lower gate is preferred by teachers like Gautama Buddha and those who focus on practices that increase concentration, like yoga, breathing techniques and spiritual disciplines. The upper gate is sought by philosophers and theologians who prefer speculative thought. And the middle gate is the way of spiritual religion exemplified by the Sufi’s of Islam and Christian contemplatives, like Thomas Merton who said we become contemplatives when God discovers God’s self in us.

A spiritual life is ultimately a life of tension because it means choosing to believe in a different reality: one that believes in miracles and promises and the need to reach out in love and compassion toward everyone – even those we feel the least loving and compassionate toward. A reality that embraces all faiths as equal and valid and challenges a society that favors only one path, particularly here in conservative America where religious discrimination is the norm and even tolerance can be difficult to come by.

Beyond Tolerance 

Fred Stella talks about the stages of interfaith relationships that begin with tolerance – which essentially means I will let you live. Even in places where ecumenical and interfaith dialogue are occurring, the encounters are often more like a first date. I’ll make my best impression and only show you the really good things about me while trying to decide if I like the little bit of you your willing to reveal. It’s all very pleasant and we feel good afterward, but we never get into places of depth or dare to tread where conflict might exist.

First date relationships are a start, but they will never change fear, hatred or violence. For that we need communication, connection and collaboration. Our communication needs to be on a much deeper and a much more vulnerable level. Our connections have to lead to genuine relationships in which people of other faiths have actual names and faces. Our collaboration has to move us out of our own comfort zone into a space we may have never entered before.

I attended a conference once where I heard a Hindu Christian speak. He suggested that the church’s approach to other traditions has been to embrace a “Theology of Hostility.” Many of you have experienced the consequences of this approach personally. And now those of us who are no longer part of mainstream Christianity have to be careful not to follow that example.

Genuine engagement with others means that instead of explaining ourselves in contrast to others, as superior, better or above others, we begin articulating who we are in a way that makes sense to the other and invites them in rather than shutting them out. We begin by approaching people of all traditions and beliefs with genuine humility, eager to share not what we have been taught but what we have experienced to be true.

And we are wary of the shadow. Because heresy does have a shadow side. It does tend to want to establish its own right thinking – declaring itself right and above reproach. When we end up thinking WE’RE right and everybody else is WRONG, we only perpetuate an ideology of hostility, pitting one set of human understandings against another.

The spiritual journey is not the practice of mindlessly repeating everything we have been taught. Nor is it the practice of disagreeing with everything for the sake of disagreement. The spiritual journey is about opening ourselves up to truth we do not yet have the words to describe or the language to share. Until finally we can move beyond this silly state of us vs them and the construction of dualities that require barriers, boxes and boundaries.

The Promise of Tension 

Today as Spiritual people, we should find ourselves regularly standing in a place of tension, torn between two different worlds, two different value systems. Because Spirit does not call us into a place of relief. Spirit calls us very directly, clearly and undeniably into a place of tension. Which is why you are about your work at Spirit Space. You have heard that call and against all odds are pursuing that path into the heart of the Divine. It isn’t easy and it isn’t fast.

The promise of tension, as much as we long for it to go away, is often exactly what it takes to stir us to do the work we are in fact called to do; prepares us in ways we cannot imagine to serve our world and to serve each other, and to always be prepared for the Spirit to move us in an expected direction as our own heresies change and evolve. For as T.H. Huxley said: “It is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and end as superstitions.”  

So my hope for you is that there will be more tension in your life and that you will think of me, although the image isn’t particularly flattering, as your visiting catfish! For it is the challenges, trials and tribulations we face as we answer the call, the catfish we encounter on our spiritual journey that add seasoning, flavor and texture to our lives.

Namaste!

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Being Fully Human, Heresy, Heretic, Humility, Interfaith, Progressive Christianity, Relationship, Spiritual

Heresy

Nonconformist

Photo Credit: pave_m via Compfight cc

 

When they lose their sense of awe,
People turn to religion.
When they no longer trust themselves,
They begin to depend upon authority.
Therefore the Master steps back
So that people won’t be confused.
He teaches without a teaching,
So that people will have nothing to learn.
                                         – Tao Te Ching

Once upon a time there was a man named Jesus. He was a teacher and a healer and did many wonderful things. But many of the things he taught contradicted the teachings of the religious and political leaders of the day. He died the terrible death of a criminal at the hands of those who were in authority and those who were afraid to oppose it. But that was not the end of the story because this Jesus was raised into new life and is said to be living with us still even to this day.

In the aftermath of this story of death and resurrection, there were many different understandings and ways that people came to interpret Jesus’ teachings and the Christ event. Some believed Jesus was fully and only human. Some thought he fully and only divine. Some believed he was physically resurrected, others that he was resurrected in the lives of his followers. A vast array of Christ centered faiths emerged with radically different teachings – the likes of which make the differences between Catholics, Lutherans and Baptists pale by comparison.

And in the Greco Roman world that might not have been too much of a problem. All but the Jews were pretty much free to practice the religion and worship the gods of their choosing. But in the case of Christianity, the idea of faith got all mixed up with the idea of correct belief. As soon as Jesus’ followers began to believe that Jesus was somehow the only way to be right with God, Christians became by their very nature exclusivists. They were right in a way that everyone else had to be wrong. And since Christians required right belief, there had to be something concrete to believe in – not some kind of vague, abstract mystical faith, but faith with clear content and documented truth. As soon as it mattered what a person believed in, the debates began.

Lost Christianities

In his book The Lost Christianities, Bart Ehrman traces all forms of Christianity today back to a single expression that emerged victorious from those debates in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. This one form won the prize of declaring what was the “correct” Christian perspective, who could exercise authority over Christian belief and practice, what forms of Christianity would be marginalized and destroyed, and which books to accept as scripture.

This one form of Christianity gained the sense that it was and had always been “right”. It developed a Creed that affirms the right beliefs, and a theology that includes the view that Christ was both human and divine, the doctrine of the Trinity and the Sacraments, the hierarchy of church leaders and the canon we know as the Holy Bible. That which supports this on form of Christianity is considered orthodox or “right teaching”. Anything that contradicts it is heresy.

Here’s a test I found on an online blog although I couldn’t find an author’s name anywhere. The question is this: Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers? Or in the words of our text, are there things you keep silent for fear of being put out of the synagogue?

If the answer is no, then it may be that your peers really rock or you may have finally achieved enlightenment and no longer are concerned with opinions or consequences in this earthly existence. But the other possibility is that you agree with everything you are supposed to agree with and disagree with everything you are supposed to disagree with. If so, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn’t. Odds are you just believe it not because of your own experience and investigation but because you’ve been told to.

Now I could be wrong. You may have independently considered every question and came up with the exact same answers that are considered right and appropriate now. Of course that means you are also making the same mistakes – and that usually doesn’t happen by accident. My son Alex and his friend both got the same answer wrong on a test a month ago. That wouldn’t have been a big deal, but they both gave the same bizarre answer. Did they really do their own work and come to the same exceptionally wrong conclusion? Not very likely.

The Necessity of Heresy

If on the other hand you do have opinions that you only share with certain people and in certain places, you probably are a bona fide heretic – and a genuine blessing to the Christian faith.

Because in every time and in every place there is something the orthodoxy has gotten wrong. Mistakes are made. Heretics are necessary for the sake of vision and correction. Our own Lutheran tradition is built upon the teachings of one of the most famous heretics of all time – Martin Luther – proof that today’s heresies are tomorrow’s orthodoxies. More recent heresies include the promotion of racial equality and the ordination of women. Currently the desire for full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church is its own form of heresy.

I for one am proud to be a heretic. Now I’m not going to stand up here with a list of my heresies, if you keep reading my blog you’ll discover then as you go. And I am aware that heresy does risk individualism run amuck with no consideration for the sensibilities of the community.

Nevertheless, I firmly believe that without heresy the church would become stagnant and dead. And I believe that without our own heretical insights and impulses our faith becomes stagnant and dead. If we don’t question a single thing we’ve been taught can we authentically claim to believe it – or have we just learned to recite it?

If we are truly caught up in the mystery of God then we have to discover at some point that we have not been given the answers, for the answers are not there to be grasped. Truth can be pointed to, God can be suggested, but we cannot for all of our attempts ever fully comprehend the great mystery of our existence. And that means the church can’t do it either. Jesus himself spoke in parable and metaphor, not in doctrinal certainties.

Shortly after I started my work in ministry I was invited to be part of a monthly gathering with people who called themselves “The Dick Rhem Society of Heretics and Believers.” It was the most amazing experience! People were actually saying out loud things that I had thought – and never dared articulate.  I have worked hard and will continue to work to make sure whereever I am engaged in ministry I am helping to create a place where people can bring and share their heresies – not in order to convince everybody that they are the sole holder of truth, but so that we can all admit that the questions are still open and that mystery still remains.

A Theology of Hostility

Dr. Paul Rajashekar, a Theology Professor from Philadelphia, was one of the main speakers at a conference I attended a few years ago. He used the term “Theology of Hostility” to describe the way Christians have traditionally approached other faiths. The term also aptly applies to the Christian approach to heretics.

Joan of Arc, for instance, was condemned as a heretic and a witch for reporting visions and voices she believed to be from God. She was burned at the stake, clutching a cross.

Martin Luther was excommunicated after failing to recant his teachings. He lived out his life in hiding to avoid imprisonment and death.

Galileo, the “father of modern physics” stood trial for promoting the idea the Earth revolves around the sun. Rome required him to recant, sentenced him to prison (later reduced to house arrest) and banned his publications.

Meister Eckhart, the great Christian mystic, died before his trial and remains an official heretic of the church.

And of course many names are lost to us of those who were tortured and killed – a practice of the Orthodox Church that effectively ended not only their lives but also the heresies they dared to express.

Dr. Paul contends that as we live in the midst of many religious traditions, a theology of hostility will no longer work as a means of preserving the church. Instead of explaining our faith in contrast to the faith of others, we must begin articulating our faith in a way that makes sense to the other. We must begin to approach people of other faiths with genuine humility, eager to share not what we have been taught but what we have experienced to be true. And we must be willing to be changed by the witness they bring to us.

The same can be said about heresy. Of course, heretics can be much more frightening because they are so much more like us and so much more likely to challenge our traditionally held beliefs. Indeed, in today’s world every one of our beliefs and every theological claim is a contested claim. Some of those claims have been contested as long as there have been followers of Jesus. Others have become contested as our culture and context has changed. That should not surprise us – for we are the people of a living God and we should expect that faith that is alive is also faith open to change.

Transcending Dogma

All of us need to come to our own faith and that should include some heretical notions. Indeed, we need heresy in order to further evolve as a people of faith. Whatever we know now is NOT all there is to know. Our image of God now is NOT the true image of God. Heresy is a necessary catalyst to be about the reformation we are grounded in.

But heresy does have a shadow side. It does tend to want to establish its own orthodoxy – declaring itself right and above reproach. When we end up thinking WE’RE right and everybody else is WRONG, we only perpetuate a theology of hostility, pitting one set of human beliefs against another.

Faith, in the end, is not the practice of mindlessly repeating everything we have been taught. Faith is also not the practice of disagreeing with everything for the sake of disagreement. But to spend time in heartfelt meditation and prayer, opening ourselves up to receive truth that no human being can adequately explain but that will call us continually to a place of reformation and transformation. Until finally we can move beyond this silly state of orthodoxy vs. heresy and our human construction of dualities that require barriers, boxes and boundaries.

Indeed our call is to be a society of heretics and believers, that we might finally embrace a God who is truly one with all and in all and of all and a Christ that transcends even our most carefully crafted doctrine.

Invitation for Reflection
1)      Why has the church responded so violently against heretics?
2)      When did you begin to question things you had been taught?
3)      What are your own heresies and where do you feel safe giving voice to them?

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