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Easter Approaching – A Good Time to Explore the Birth of Christian Faith

March 21, 2018

This post from two years ago takes us from the past century of Christian faith to its first century.  This last century was highlighted early by the now-largely-forgotten but then-greatly-followed Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925.

You’ll see below that the same natural-supernatural conflict of 1925 actually sits “between the lines” of the birth of Christian faith in its first century.  There is also the familiar conflict and anxiety over “where is society going?” in both centuries.  I hope you enjoy this re-post as well as the rest of the series surrounding it….

In parts 1 – 3 (here, here, and here), we’ve taken a high altitude look at the often-warring “ways to truth” of supernaturalism and naturalism.  These are represented mainly by traditional Christianity and science.  The passionate competition between them is not always obvious.  Only certain writers and certain issues bring it to the surface.

Among the issues, perhaps the creation–evolution debate is most significant and heated.  The year 1925, nearly a century past now, was a key marker, already well into this great cultural struggle.  That year was the famed “Scopes Trial” (so named for the science teacher defendant, Mr. Scopes).  This “monkey trial” pitted famous secular attorney, Clarence Darrow, against a very popular political and Christian leader who had been three times a candidate for President, William Jennings Bryan.

The issue: teaching evolution in public school.  Technically the anti-evolution case (Bryan) prevailed.  But in effect, “evolution” (Darrow) won.  Apparently the showing of “creationism” wasn’t pretty.  (I’ve not bothered to check how Bryan argued the case.) The main point is that things seem to remain at about the same state in this stand-off, after all this time. Emotions are still often high on both sides – whether on evolution-creation specifically or any of several, sometimes related issues.

Now if 100 years is not really a long time in terms of the progress of paradigms, maybe 2000 years isn’t either!  I’d argue that is the case! Supernaturalism, in our sense here of two distinct tiers or “way things work” within the universe, is older than that.  But let’s use the beginning of Christianity as a meaningful marking point for current-day supernaturalist thinking.

So what caused the emergence of Christianity out of Judaism? This is a massive topic itself, which we can deal with only in broad strokes here, without the scholarship of documentation.  I will say, however, that out of passion to understand, I have spent many hundreds (if not thousands) of hours deeply exploring this subject, particularly in the last decade.  I’m not merely repeating common conceptions which are often misconceptions.  So…

Where did the New Testament (NT) writers get the ideas that went into this new religion?

The answer is complex but it’s accurate to simplify things by saying it was mainly “revelation” and expectation of the “appearance” of the Messiah.  The latter is often called the “return of Christ”.  The more accurate rendering of the Greek is “appearance” or “presence”, and “Christ” is merely Greek for the Hebrew “Messiah”.  So the point is “appearance of the Messiah”. Or we might add, for Jesus’ original Jewish followers, “(re)appearance of Jesus as Messiah (rather than defeated on a cross).

The two key concepts of revelation and Jesus’ victorious status are interlinked, particularly in St. Paul’s case… where we get the biggest influence on Christian theology.  It appears the original Apostles’ expectation was significantly different than Paul’s.  They expected fulfillment of Hebrew scriptural visions of a Jerusalem-centered Kingdom of God blessing the world through Yahweh, the Jewish God, administering Jewish law.  The Messiah was his human “Anointed One” (meaning of “Messiah”).  Paul, not having known the human Jesus, saw him as a cosmic savior.  This involved a very different nature, status and effect of messiahship: breaking down all meaningful Jewish-Gentile distinctions (though still retaining “privilege” of heritage and such).  Paul brought a new focus on inward spiritual transformation by believers’ identification with Christ (Messiah).

Paul makes the point repeatedly that his information about the heavenly Christ (he spends almost no time on the earthly Jesus) came by direct revelation to him.  He declares he did not get it from any human source.  It was about visions and being transported to heavenly places, with him unable to tell if bodily or only spiritually (2 Corinthians 12).

Now it happens that I believe people sometimes do receive “revelations”, often beneficial, and in extraordinary ways.  Maybe visions or auditory messages.  Or the much-studied and very real-seeming experiences of a “near death” or clinical death situation, and other ways.  In believing this I needn’t be a “supernaturalist”.  I don’t have to separate their source out as above-and-beyond the “natural world”.  And I can still allow for “God” (or a universal “mind”) to be involved, utilizing natural processes still little understood by us.  I know they gradually are being better observed and understood.

But St. Paul, like most ancient Jews and pagans, conceived a powerfully intervening God within a dualistic (what I’m calling two-tier) reality.  The most common current view of God is similar.

Although Paul contributed specifics of theology beyond other NT writers, it seems clear that his “founding” contemporaries, the other Apostles, also “inherited” (in Hebrew Scriptures and strong religious traditions) expectations of Messiah’s arrival.  He would be a God-anointed special human (certainly not divine). In the late Greek and early Roman period in Palestine, many candidates were identified and often rooted out and killed by the occupiers. For the Jews, these were desperate times that called for desperate measures.

Back to the other Apostles and followers of Jesus: after resurrection appearances they expected his soon “return”.  And so it has been passed on down to our day.   (In my view, such appearances were visionary only, as actual historical evidence to the contrary is missing and the supposed “evidence” more than dubious, despite what Christian apologists claim… I know, I used to be one of them.)

These other Jerusalem-based leaders, in a similar way to Paul, combined messianic expectations with faith in revelations to remain Jesus followers after his death.  (Paul had his vision a few years, not days or weeks, after Jesus’ death and never spent much time in Jerusalem.)  From indications both by Paul and Luke (in Acts), these initial “Christians” actually remained a mostly-acceptable sect of Messianic Judaism, not an unusual thing at that time.  For simplicity, however, let’s lump their influence together with that of Paul and others as to the emergence of mainly-Gentile Christianity. (There was a fairly lengthy period of it and a distinctly Jewish Christianity existing together.)

To me, a good part of the sorely-needed solution of a 3rd paradigm mediating between naturalism and supernaturalism comes this way: Respecting the roles of both mythology and history. In the case of Christianity, mythology includes quasi-historical accounts supposedly anchoring theology in history.  [More on this later.] “Myth” includes but is not merely fiction… one might say it is a sort of trinity: psychology, anthropology and theology.  For its part, history as a discipline uses rigorous methodology reflecting science though it is not “hard science” and never fully objective.  But it can and should critique that quasi-history portion of any history-based religion such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Recognizing “the power of myth” neither denigrates it nor accords it the supernatural status claimed by Christian concepts of revelation.  By this I mean particularly revelation to authoritative figures such as Apostles or later-recognized prophets, as this became Scripture (divinely revealed “Truth”).  Recognizing myth, however does call us to what is very challenging to even face, let alone do in depth: examine the very founding-and-operating myths of our own views of the world, whether “religious” or “scientific” or some combination.

What we will look at in our next part will be more depth on the “myth of origin” in the story of earliest Christianity… how it seeks to explain things yet has distorted reality in the process.  We’ll explore how the linkage of revelation and authority was necessary and sets views of the world almost as solidly as concrete.

2018 addition: How well does the above line up with what you’ve heard or come to believe about the founding of Christianity and the truth about “the Resurrection of Christ”?

 

Review of “Emptiness – The Beauty and Wisdom of Absence”

February 1, 2018

Author David Auten starts this delightful short book with important context for his readers who are Jesus-followers, “…emptiness lies at the heart of Jesus — who he is and what he is about” (p. VIII – Prologue).  I imply other readers because one need not be Christian to glean encouragement or wise direction from Auten’s work…. A man wise beyond his relative youth.

You’ll quickly see that he loves to learn from his young children.  He cleverly relates the fun and fascination of childhood to his theme of empty spaces, emptying in various ways.

Emptiness draws from the wisdom of Eastern traditions as well as Jewish and Christian. Of course, in them is a heavy dose of the value of release, of even active pursuit of emptying – one’s mind, one’s ego, one’s possessiveness.  Yet the author works in quotes and examples from these wisdom traditions in such a way as to put off or alarm very few Christians, I’d imagine.  In that sense, it is a book of broad spirituality as much as one for Christians specifically, or any subset of Christians.

A perhaps-significant aside is that this feature of the book lines up well with Auten’s own diverse background and his pastoring a church in a diverse region and a diverse denomination (United Church of Christ, which happens to be my own affiliation in recent years).  So, for how the book reflects Christian faith in America today, it’s a “big tent”.  It appears Auten is comfortable with this sometimes difficult situation, particularly for a pastor who wants to nurture and help people grow.  And this book is clearly one effort in this endeavor… a valuable one.

Both the author and the back-cover reviewers describe the book as a devotional one. I don’t often read this genre. I’d call it more than a typical devotional book, however. Its chapters are short.  They are focused on specific aspects of emptying and “nothingness”.  But there is depth of thought and references to various thinkers here that put it nearly into the category of a work of scholarship. But it certainly reads easier than one, and gets one thinking (or not!).

My thanks to Cascade Books of Wipf and Stock Publishers which provided me a free copy for review.  It has not influenced my opinions of the book.

 

 

 

Franklin Graham and the Twisting of Evangelical Integrity

January 20, 2018

I’m not saying Rev. Graham caused or has even led the “pretzelization” of Evangelicals’ integrity. Nor that integrity has disappeared completely in every quarter of Evangelicalism. The many, many Evangelicals who have become “emerging” church members or otherwise more progressive or consistent is one sign there are open, thinking people who seek to be integrous among Evangelicals.

 

I’d been thinking about a quick post on the ongoing frustration of the blindness of Evangelicals to the reality of Donald Trump and the damage of his presidency to our country.  Then this morning, I saw an interview of Franklin Graham by Alex Witt on MSNBC Live. (If you happen to be a Fox News lover and distrustful of the more liberal MSNBC, realize Graham was allowed to speak freely and was not stifled or “trapped” in unfair questions. He got to fully express his views with a generous amount of time and he didn’t seem frustrated with the interview.)

Given what I’ve just seen, I’ve decided to feature the particularly egregious example of  Graham since he is head of two large Evangelical institutions.  He also carries much of the influence of his more famous father, Billy Graham.  Sadly, his lack of clear thinking and consistency is mind boggling. (To see it yourself, a Google or YouTube search should soon show it readily… I can’t find it yet this soon to give a link.)

Among the several points that seem clearly and completely out of integrity with Evangelical theology per my decades-long knowledge of it and its stated values are these:

  1. It doesn’t really matter about Trump’s personal morality or ethics, because he is supportive of Evangelicals and is “pro-life”. (Graham did admit Trump’s, and his own imperfections, but that was about all in this interview.)
  2. It doesn’t matter what type of characters Trump associates himself with (going against numerous warnings in Proverbs and Paul’s writings in the Bible).
  3. There is little, if any, spiritual or wisdom-based evaluation about how financial prosperity for the country is attained. Graham’s apparent short-sightedness regarding the grave humanitarian effects and longer-term financial woes of poorly-thought-out deregulation, denial of climate change, unwise and isolationist trade policy choices, etc. is appalling.

One of the most shocking reasons Graham gave for minimizing the importance of Trump’s moral lapses is that he will give him the “benefit of the doubt” (not his exact words) on his denials.  He seems to believe the denials of apparently whatever Trump decides to deny.  He didn’t make a blanket statement but he didn’t cite any exceptions or doubts either.  Rather, he said Trump had been honest with him, that he could be counted on to do what he says.  For the record, Trump can’t be!… Anyone watching at all and “keeping score” has seen this repeatedly, though he is dogged on a few things, particularly some of his most un-Christlike and sometimes unconstitutional policies (e.g., “Muslim ban”, etc.).

I could go on with analysis about just why Graham and so many other Evangelical leaders as well as lay people have this massive blind spot and nearly complete disengagement of thinking faculties, but for now, I just wanted to point out the interview, provoke at least a little thought.

One step further: I encourage the polite and civil engagement of those of us who have Christian affiliations or commitments with this kind of Evangelical thinking.  Not to approach it as debate, but concerned and open questioning… a search for the deeper issues driving this manner of political behavior.

This could well prove insightful for both parties. No name-calling! (Note, I’ve used “blindness”, lack of integrity and such as descriptors for statements and positions I’ve identified but I’ve purposely not labeled Graham with derogatory names, and seek not to with others who I may adamantly disagree with.)  And try, as I have here, not to overstate an opponent’s position and create a “straw man” to knock down… another sloppy form of thinking or seeking to dialog.    

And please offer any insights or encouragements here, for those of us who are dismayed, even if we partially understand, how so many are so enthralled with a man who had no business or sensibility in getting elected to the office of our presidency, and continues to prove it.

 

Jesus, Trump and The Paris Climate Accord – Revisited, 2018

January 11, 2018

Below is a post I put up when President Trump was pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Accord in 2017. It has never lost pertinence, but especially now that he has signaled possible rethinking (or new bargaining). Fortunately, numerous American states, cities and corporations have effectively “remained in” and affirmed the accord, and publicly stated it. Here, again, is my earlier reflection on some pertinent wisdom of Jesus, shared by other religious and scientific traditions as well: 

For those who follow Jesus in one manner or another, did he say anything about climate change? Well, maybe…

Ever heard (or maybe sung, as a kid) “The wise man built his house upon the rock…”? When the flood hits, this man’s house stands.  The foolish man’s, built on sand (Mt. 7:26), cannot withstand the flood. Of course this is a simile.  Jesus’ says the wise builder is like the one who hears and does what Jesus says, not just hears but doesn’t act.

So this saying had nothing to do with weather, really… let alone climate over an extended period.  But the call to hear and act accordingly does apply to our current climate situation.  

And what is our Foolish-Man-in-Chief doing? He just took another step in building on sand… disavowal of the Paris Climate Accord.  Not that this, in itself, will necessarily mean a lot in practical terms.  But it is consistent with both rhetoric and policy that will make real differences… and it’s not houses or even the American economy at stake, but the welfare of the entire planet.  

He and fellow Republicans are rightly concerned about leaving a massive national debt to our kids and grandkids. But will that even come into play if the planet is barely hospitable and adequate food production unsustainable?

Even Trump implies, if he seldom states directly, that he accepts a human involvement in climate change. So my Trump-supporting friends (and some readers here?) might appeal to the obvious: We don’t know exactly how much we are affecting the climate or that it will necessarily lead to catastrophe.  But so what if we don’t? What is the “wise builder” approach vs. that of the “foolish builder”?    

And what words of Jesus should we be acting upon that relate to climate (and other environmental) challenges? I imagine you can think of others, but a critical principle he pounded upon, in saying after saying, parable after parable, was this: Act in the interest of others around you; sustain the foreigner and stranger. Be kind and cooperative (and only resist when the evil is clear and harming others).  Where is the message of competition? Encouragement to beat others out, to be “great again?” (Wasn’t there something in there about the one who is greatest will be least, and vice-versa?)

Sure, Jesus gave hints of supporting capitalism. I’d not say his message or his vision of the “Kingdom of God”, in earthly expression, was what we think of as socialism.  But it clearly was not about dominating or seeking to gain an advantage over others.  Just the opposite! 

O.k… some of you are probably thinking, “That was about personal behavior, not between nations”.  Don’t be too hasty! What can you base that on? Why should it not extend out to an international scale?

I like the approach of French President, Macron, much better than that of Trump, whose rationale for withdrawal from the Paris agreement was “Make America great again”.  Macron’s: “Make our planet great again”. Win together, not “We’ve been unfairly treated… we need a better deal…” The planet approach seems to follow the spirit of Jesus a lot closer.  What do you think?

Where Are Evangelicals headed in 2018?

January 9, 2018

I’m a formerly “card holding” Evangelical…. Many years since I became “progressive” I still pay close attention and tend to relationships with family and friends still “in the fold”.  Part of the reason is that “Evangelicalism”, under almost any definition one may give it, is a reflection of much of our culture.  Changes within it is one measure of broader cultural movement.  Conversely, may it be that changes among Evangelicals lead certain changes in broader society?

I’m linking to an article by the leading Evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, which takes a brief look at the question of whether and how Evangelicalism may be “cracking up”. Or even changing significantly.  You can find it here.

Personally, I think 2018 will see at least as much change within Evangelical churches and institutions as recent years have seen.  I’m not foreseeing any significant “crack up” scenario. However, split-offs of certain churches or groups of them may continue. According to a Jan. 2 article in the same Christianity Today, a group of nearly 180 Mennonite congregations just officially split off from the Mennonite Church USA “related to disagreements over same-sex marriage”.

In this case, people wanted to remain more conservatively oriented.  In other cases, especially for individuals, people want to be more progressive and leave for reasons related to that.  Often they don’t find a comfortable church home elsewhere.  Some are fine with that, others not.  My 2018 hope is that more church and denominational leaders will start digging deeper… into their own faith, to begin.  That would include their doubts (starting with admitting they exist, on a variety of issues, even though these leaders are looked to for providing answers). 

After some honest and deep reflection, maybe accompanied by some “opposition research” and serious “paradigm” reconsideration, my prediction for them would be this: They will help lead Evangelical institutions further along the inevitable road of conforming closer to a post-postmodern reality.  Why “post-postmodern”? (A long term needing explanation.)

Not just “modern” in an overly rationalistic defense of orthodoxy, seen for over a century.  And not “postmodern” in leveling all differences (the very charge of many Evangelicals against “postmodernism”).  Maybe some additional leaders who take thinking seriously will find that systems like “Process thought” have provided a stronger, more consistent foundation than has “orthodoxy” (read: tradition/status quo) for robust and satisfying communities of faith.  Communities seeking “miracles” and spiritual growth but also concerned with care for the earth, for the oppressed, for the findings of science.

A “Higher Order” Review: A Year of Trumpian Views on Trade and Economy

December 29, 2017

All I’m going to do in this post is link to what I had written shortly after Trump’s election to the presidency, with this brief intro: Now, almost a year into Trump’s presidency, we can begin to see what effects are building from the particular “thinking error” I was there pointing to.  It’s pertinent to this blog’s theme, having to do with ethical/spiritual themes like, say, the Golden Rule.

While there may yet be no obvious or profound negatives, any supposed positives are either incidental to Trump policies and rhetoric or, I would argue, are short-term and vulnerable to reversal and later effects in a negative direction.  The post is “A Fundamental Thinking Error of Trump and his Supporters”, found here.

Morton Kelsey: The Importance of Jung on Consciousness after Death

December 28, 2017

You may be aware that depth psychologist, Carl Jung, brought a lot of attention to what he called “synchronicities” (and Christians often call “God things”). I noted it in my recent review of a fascinating book on his body of work in relation to a patient and later collaborator, physicist Wolfgang Pauli, found here.

I was intrigued to find that, a few days after writing my review of the book on Jung’s and Pauli’s pursuits, I accidentally unearthed some more material on Jung I’d had over 2 years but not remembered about, from the estate of a neuroscientist friend who had died.  It was very pertinent (synchronicity or subconscious memory, triggered?)… on Jung’s work on death, dying, and continuation of consciousness.  In addition, it was by a professor whose work I’d been impressed with in the past, Morton Kelsey, an Episcopalian who taught at the University of Notre Dame.

It’s also interesting that what I’d been given may never have been published except for students or interested parties at Notre Dame, in the 1970s.  It is a copy of a typed manuscript, on legal size paper. With at least an unofficial (default) copyright, I will treat it as any publication for review.  Undated, it appears to have been written around 1972. Kelsey published books after this date, most of which I’ve not read to know if he later published this or similar material. (Title: “FACING DEATH AND SUFFERING: The Christian Hope, Part 1”, n.d.)

What is worthy to note is that Jung was both particularly science-oriented (collecting lots of data, weighing it analytically, researching, etc.) and spiritually-oriented.  He had broken from his mentor, Freud, over the “spirit/materialist” worldview issue.  In this, he stood over against most other analysts and psychiatrists of the day and since, who tended to be materialists or favored determinism, ignoring any realm of spirit.  They were, and a majority still are, reacting to the sloppy mix of wise mythology, silly superstition and confused conjecture with legitimate spiritual sensing that constituted most of Christian and other religion.  (Jung himself was far from any kind of traditional Christian, though raised in such a family and environment.)

It’s not easy to unravel this messy interwoven fabric. Jung knew this and was gifted with focus and persistence… and fortunately, a long life.  In this short paper on the impact of a course of his on death and dying for a class of pre-medical Notre Dame seniors, Kelsey points out that Jung had his own experience of being close to death for about three weeks during his sixties (he lived to 85).  He already had decades of research and similar impressions from reading and many interviews, to what he experienced directly at this time, during a series of vivid “visions”.  One with the strongest of impressions Kelsey summarizes as seeming “to portray his departure from this world in the most universal images, and then his return.”

He then quotes Jung from his Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1963, posthumous), “‘It was not a product of imagination. The visions and experiences were utterly real; there was nothing subjective about them; they all had the quality of absolute objectivity.'” (p. 275)

Now Kelsey had met Jung on more than one occasion.  Jung did not share Kelsey’s views of Christian faith. However, he notes that Jung can hardly be charged with being either naive or mad. It would also have been totally out of character for Jung to have lied about his experiences.  “In talking with the man, I found it difficult to imagine a more down-to-earth person, or one more realistically critical and less naive. He gave himself no airs…. I found that I must take these experiences seriously and also other experiences of the same kind which have come to me through twenty-five years of pastoral experience, and longer than that reading and pondering the subject. For those who have not put on the blinders of a naturalistic world view, the evidence is there to read.” (p. 13)

In fact, there already were lines of evidence, many of them outside of organized religions, when Kelsey wrote this in the 1970s.  However, it appears Raymond Moody’s famous book of 1975, Life after Life, had not yet been published.  It was first of a long and increasingly detailed and verified series of studies of evidences for survival of consciousness beyond clinical death.  Perhaps not scientific-style “proof” of continuation of consciousness or “life after death”, but a welcome shift to curiosity and serious study of the nature of consciousness and how it may exist in both an “individual” identity (a “person”) or collectively, or both.

People of professional science need to give “spirit” and “paranormal” phenomena their due, and people of faith need to pay close attention to the findings of science.  That is, when it properly exhibits humility about the limits of its methods and refuses speculation and unwarranted conclusions as much as it expects that of religion.

Jung, along with Kelsey (also now passed), are prime exemplars in this endeavor.