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Posts Tagged ‘Evangelicalism’

I wrote a guest post on Tim’s blog, LDS & Evangelical Conversations. Go read it!

http://ldstalk.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/for-this-purpose/

So while I don’t subscribe to the Mormon Plan of Salvation anymore (I don’t even use those terms), I do believe that God set the events of creation in motion with a specific end in sight. And while I don’t know how meticulous of a Providence I believe in, I am definitely not an Open Theist.

In any case, I’d like to talk about what “Heavenly Father’s plan” for mankind really is. So, with that in mind, my question is, what is the purpose of life, and how does your answer square with the Bible?

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If you, as a Mormon woman, want to be ordained to the priesthood, why don’t you leave the LDS Church and join the Reorganized LDS Church/Community of Christ, where they ordain women?

Partially as a response to the late Mormon prophet Gordon B. Hinckley’s statement in an interview that there has been no “agitation” in the Church for women to be ordained to the priesthood, a number of Mormon women have begun to step up and publicly advocate for ordination. Groups have been formed like Ordain Women. Protests have been planned. Women have told their stories and explained why having the priesthood is important.

But it all seems entirely unnecessary to me. The Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) already ordains women. If you think women should be ordained, why not vote with your feet? I don’t think that there is a good, coherent reason to stay LDS, and I’ll tell you why I think that (and I invite you to tell me if and why you think I am wrong).

Normally, the biggest reason to stay Mormon despite any difficulty you have with the Church is that, at the end of the day, you believe that the Church is the sole holder of the priesthood keys necessary for saving ordinances. But it seems to me that if you believe that the nature of the priesthood is such that the Church is this far in error and can be corrected by “agitation,” you are effectively undermining the notion of exclusive priesthood authority anyway. The point of the priesthood in Mormonism is the authority to act in God’s name. It’s a principal-agent relationship with God. And it’s not just the authority to do saving ordinances, but also the authority to organize and preside over God’s church. But by rejecting the priesthood’s exercise of this authority (e.g., the policy of not ordaining women), you are rejecting the authority itself, aren’t you? If the priesthood held by the LDS Church is God’s exclusive authority, then when God’s agents act within the constraints of their calling, it is as if God has acted, isn’t it? That’s what authority is. If you don’t believe that, then you don’t really believe that the LDS Church’s priesthood is the exclusive authority to act in God’s name after all. And if that is the case, couldn’t you theoretically get the priesthood somewhere else? My understanding is that the Community of Christ will happily give it to you.

You might reply that, even though you may reject the Church’s claims to exclusive priesthood authority, your culture is Mormon and you identify as a Mormon and your Mormon heritage means everything to you and you do not feel like you should have to give it up to get equality. But you don’t! The Community of Christ is just as “Mormon” as the LDS Church is! It’s a close branch of the same family! Joining the Community of Christ is not a rejection of your Mormon identity at all. It’s just a different organization.

You could also say that unity is important, and you don’t believe that leaving the Church for the priesthood is the right decision, but as a Mormon–a member of a schismatic Restoration sect drawn out of schismatic Protestantism from schismatic Roman catholicism–you are hardly in a place to say that. If unity of faith is the most important thing, even to the extent that you are willing to stay in a patriarchal church and work for change that may never happen, the Eastern Orthodox church is happy to welcome you back with open arms. And their patriarchs have better hats.

I know that many Mormons who reject the Church’s truth claims choose to remain members of the Church for fear of family backlash, but I honestly suspect that you would not get nearly the same negative reaction to leaving for the Community of Christ. It’s still appreciably Mormon after all. I strongly suspect that your friends and family would not feel anywhere near the rejection that they would feel if you just became an atheist or an Evangelical. You would retain a cultural common ground without having to be a part of the Patriarchy. You might even get less flak for switching to the CoC than you would for staying LDS as a dissenter.

I’ve also heard the arguments about inequality anywhere hurting all of us, and whether or not I agree with that (it’s a zinger of a statement that can stand to have come unpacking and close examination done to it, but that is outside the scope of this post), I’m not sure it applies. There’s no guarantee that “agitating” inside the Church will change anything anyway, and voting with your feet will have an immediate individual and potentially powerfully aggregate impact (you make a statement, the patriarchal Church doesn’t get your tithing money anymore, membership in the patriarchal Church shrinks, etc.).

So why not convert to the Community of Christ?

(I want to be clear–this is an honest question and I’m interested in hearing the answers. I’m not a member of the Community of Christ, so I have no vested interest there; it just seems like it would be a better option.)

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Mormons have no shortage of sexual sins they can commit: pornography, masturbation, premarital sex, extramarital sex, unwholesome thoughts, and even depending on who you ask, possibly oral sex, anal sex, and anything else but vaginal intercourse, even between a married couple.  If you’re not married, anything sexual at all is a sin.  Making out too heavily might even be a sexual sin.  The justification for all of these proscriptions is that in the Mormon worldview, sex is a critically important gift given by Heavenly Father to serve the goals of cementing family relationships and providing bodies for Heavenly Father’s spirit children.  As it is so intimately connected with bringing about Heavenly Father’s work and glory, it is treated with the utmost seriousness, and for Mormonism that usually means “a lot of rules.”  Mormonism isn’t anti-sex the way some segments of Christianity have traditionally been, since Mormonism does not hod that the body is evil but a necessary component in Heavenly Father’s plan.  Nevertheless, sex in Mormonism is pretty tightly straitjacketed.

Part of the process of leaving Mormonism for me was figuring out what my values are, and what behaviors I think are okay and what are not, independently of Mormon teachings.  I was lucky in that I always had a strong internal sense of moral reasoning: my personal values were informed by my Mormonism, but they were never dependent upon my Mormonism.  They were sufficiently independent that, with Mormonism gone, my core values essentially remained strong and intact.

What went out the window, however, were all of the rules.  As a non-Mormon, I have absolutely no reason to follow a bunch of restrictive and often arbitrary commandments.

In terms of sex, leaving Mormonism (retaining my principles but feeling free to discard the rules) had very little immediate practical impact.  One of the values I hold most highly is marital fidelity, and I am married to a beautiful and sexy woman.  Most of Mormonism’s sexual rules either did not apply to me as a married person (like “no premarital sex”), I paid little enough attention to anyway (like old guidance from Church leadership about not having oral sex), or were redundant as rules since I was going to behave consistently with them anyway because of my own core values (“no extramarital sex”).  In practical terms, our sex life got a little bit better when we left Mormonism because we could let go of some guilt and repression that had crowded our sexual psyches on the fringes, but for the most part our sex life was already pretty good.

But what applies directly to me is not the only thing worth considering.  First, morality in general is a topic that interests me and that I have visited before on a number of occasions as a part of the process of figuring out my values, where they come from, what they mean, how they interact with each other, and so on.  So the question is theoretically interesting.  Second, on a practical level, I know a fair number of postmormons whose value systems did not survive Mormonism as intact as mine did. In general, they were better Mormons than I was, and as such they had completely internalized Mormon values as their values.  As a result, having jettisoned the Mormonism, their whole house of cards has come crumbling down, and they have been left picking up the pieces and trying to figure out what their values and morals really are, from square one.  Because I am in a position to provide guidance and help to people close to me, it is more than worth thinking the issues through so that I can provide meaningful insight.  Third, the question comes up periodically around the post-Mormon blog-o-sphere, so I feel like it’s worth addressing.  Finally, and most importantly, I have kids.  Two of them! They’re five years old and three years old right now, and they’re growing up fast.  Since leaving Mormonism, the question of what do I teach my kids has weighed heavily on me, especially regarding sex.  I know what my values are, and my position as a happily married guy means I don’t have to stretch my values very far to figure out what to do in almost any situation in which I am reasonably going to find myself.  But my kids won’t necessarily have that luxury.  For that reason alone I wanted to figure out what the deal really is about sexuality, without a handy dogma to give me simple and convenient (if often harmful and self-destructive) answers.

The realization just came to me one day–and this is going to be kind of anticlimactic now because I’ve got all this buildup for what is going to be disappointingly little payoff–that there is no reason for there to be special moral rules for sex at all.  Period.  Sexual ethics are not a special case for ethics.  The usual rules apply.  And it is that simple.

What do I mean about the usual rules?  Basic human ethics and basic human decency.  Don’t hurt people.  Don’t betray people.  Don’t demean, degrade, or belittle people.  Treat people with respect.  Love thy neighbor as thyself. Basic, more-or-less universal moral principles found in almost every religion or ethical system, when applied to sex, produce the correct results.  Cheating on my wife is not morally reprehensible because it violates the special rule of “don’t cheat on your wife” or “confine all sexual behavior to the marriage-bed,” but because it is a personal betrayal of an intimate relationship, a violation of serious promises.  It is wrong because it hurts my wife.  There doesn’t need to be a special rule, because hurting my wife is already wrong (credit is admittedly due here to C. S. Lewis who kind of talks about this a bit in Mere Christianity).  Degrading myself sexually is bad for the same reasons as degrading myself any other way.  There doesn’t need to be a special rule.

The only special consideration with sex–and it is a serious one–is that we need to be cognizant of the fact that, for whatever reason, sex is an area in which human beings are particularly vulnerable, and so it is a moral setting that invites particular care.  Sexual betrayal hurts a lot more than garden-variety betrayal.  Sexual self-degradation leaves us feeling more degraded than garden-variety self-degradation, and so on.  But the increased potential for serious injury does not mean we need a whole new set of specific rules to deal with morality in a sexual context.  It just means we need to be extra-serious about following the moral principles we already have.

So the question is not “is premarital sex acceptable?” because that would be a special rule for sex and it would be nonsense.  The question is “is it okay to hurt myself and others?”  And the answer is no.  Having sex with your girlfriend, fiancee, or even a casual encounter may be perfectly okay–wonderful and good even–assuming that you are not carelessly hurting yourself or the other person (people?).  Even extramarital sex might be just fine if the context is completely consensual (though I would advise being pretty fucking careful about it, because people could very well think they’re going to be okay with something that turns out to be an emotional disaster, and generally the potential for pain is so high and the possibility that your spouse is saying yes but meaning no is so significant that you probably just should not go there).  Since sex is not a special case, the question of moral appropriateness simply does not pertain to the sexual act itself, but to the interpersonal relationships that contextualize the act.  Its not the deed you do that is right or wrong, but the way it affects yourself and other people, and that is realistically always going to be a case-by-case determination.

That said, it would not be unreasonable for a person to set sexual boundaries that are a bit far back away from the edge of the cliff of pain, because the vulnerability and the potential for catastrophic injury is so high.  Nevertheless we need to keep in mind that the boundaries you set do not in and of themselves have moral significance.  It’s not a sin to cross the safety-zone boundaries you might have reasonably set for yourself; it’s a sin to hurt people.  You’re staying on the safe side so as not to run risks, but that’s pragmatic, not moral.

Why is sex an area where we are s vulnerable and so easily hurt?  I personally think it is because sex lies at the very core of the bundle of experiences that make us truly human.  Sex is a part of the universal human experience, and it is intimately bound up with things like birth, death, and family.  These constants transcend the particulars of society and culture and lie at the heart of who we are as human beings.  When we are close to birth, close to death, or expressing our sexuality, we are in touch with soemthing mystical and primal, and we are the closest to who we really are that we ever get.  These are intensely powerful places, and they are also places where we are intensely vulnerable.  Figuring out what these things mean and what to do about them is what religion and spirituality are really about, because these things are what we are really about.  This is the essential heart of human existence, and as such it is delicate and should be treated with the utmost care.  Even so, our basic, universal moral principles should be sufficiently applicable that there is no need for specialized rules.

The moralists among us may not like the sound of the moral rule I am proposing we fall back on when it comes to sex, which basically boils down to “hurting people is wrong,” and the flip side, “if it does not hurt people, it isn’t wrong.”  But honestly, that’s a knee-jerk reaction, because as a moral rule it is simply true.  Actions have consequences, and if we act in a way that hurts other people, we need a pretty damn good justification for it or we are in the wrong.  That necessarily means that if our actions do not have negative consequences for other people or ourselves, then our actions are morally permissible–even morally laudable.  This is not unrestrained permissiveness.  It does mean a lot of freedom and individual accountability, but that’s just a reality of being a morally mature human being.

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The question of whether Mormons can be considered Christian is fairly central to interfaith dialogue, and is significant enough to have garnered national attention during the 2008 presidential campaign. It comes up every now and then on Tim’s most excellent blog, and as an ex-Mormon non-Christian who is nevertheless widely read and confident in his basic grasp of the world of religion and religious belief, I thought I would take a stab at untangling some of the mess. Fundamentally, the question and ensuing argument is an issue of semantics/framing: both sides are talking about something different when they talk about whether Mormons are Christians, and both sides feel like they have something extremely important–but again, totally different–at stake with regards to the answer. the resolution to the dispute is probably not as simple as forcing one or both sides to re-frame their dialogue, since the way it is framed is not arbitrary. But an awareness of the semantic mismatch and an understanding of why it matters to both sides would go a long way into at least setting the issue aside and reducing its potential for causing a ruckus.

From the individual Mormon’s perspective, I think there is a pathological fear of being misunderstood. I believe that a large number of Mormons, fed on Mormon historical accounts of mistreatment in the early days of the church and anecdotal hostility since then, fear that they will be discriminated against or that they will encounter hostility because of misinformation about Mormonism that has been perpetuated. In other words, a significant number of Mormons believe that 1) they face potential or present persecution, because of 2) lies, misinformation, and twisted truth about their religion. Thus, if they could get people to accurately understand who they are and what they were about, they would not be in danger. I think there’s also a belief that a large number of potential converts to the Church refuse to consider Mormonism as an option because of misinformation about it: indeed that the single biggest obstacle to the missionary effort is misunderstandings about the Church.

So, for the Mormon, it is important to promote accurate, descriptive picture of their religion for their safety and for the success of their missionary program. This is underscored and reinforced in the individual Mormon’s mind by the Church’s intensive and explicit public relations efforts over the last three or so decades. If the Church itself has been engaged so desperately in promoting a positive image, then it must be not only important and beneficial, but God’s intention for His Church.

So when the Mormon encounters a conservative Christian that says “Mormons are not Christians,” alarm bells go off. The Mormon, in this encounter, wants first and foremost to be descriptively understood: he wants to correct misunderstandings because he believes misunderstandings lead to persecution and prevent the missionaries from touching the hearts of the people they contact and teach. The Mormon believes, descriptively, that he is a Christian: in fact, he believes that his Church is actually the Church established by Jesus Christ, and from a dictionary/encyclopedia-standpoint, that makes Mormons Christians. To say otherwise is to spread damaging lies such as that Mormons do not believe in Jesus Christ, share Christian values, or believe in the Bible. And if those lies get (further) spread, individual Mormons will be persecuted because they are misunderstood and the missionaries will not be able to reach the people who are looking for the Truth.

(Lurking here is the presumption that if Mormons were correctly understood that they would not be persecuted except at the hands of the truly evil, and that the missionaries would be able to teach and baptize exponentially more people).

This also means–and this is crucial–that when the Mormon confronts someone who still insists that Mormons are not Christians despite being exposed to an accurate description, the Mormon is likely to conclude that the person is being aggressively dishonest, and intentionally slandering the Church.

Now, there may be some people out there like that, but most of them are well-known heads of countercult ministries, or pissed-off ex-Mormons who (whether they are justified or not), are angry enough to lash out by saying anything bad about the Church that they can. whether or not it is true (though they are usually not also conservative Evangelicals, so they are not really relevant to the topic). But most theologically conservative Christians who insist on the non-Christianity of Mormonism despite an accurate picture of what the Church believes and teaches do not do so because of an evil motive. There is a misunderstanding here, because when the Mormon and the Evangelical talk about the question of whether or not Mormons are Christians, they are not really talking about the same thing. The Mormons are talking about “Christianity” from a descriptive, historical, and sociological point of view, whereas the Evangelical is talking about “Christianity” from a theological point of view. I shall attempt to explain.

Conservative Protestants, as a general rule, do not believe that denomination matters. They do not believe that salvation is found in the Lutheran Church, or the Southern Baptist Convention, or in their Evangelical Free Congregation. Conservative Protestants believe salvation is found only in the person of Jesus Christ. Mormons believe that salvation is only available through Jesus Christ too, but they believe that the road to that salvation (or exaltation, whatever, semantics) is only available through the Church’s teachings and sacraments. To a conservative Protestant, a denomination has other meanings, but very few if any would try to claim that any one denomination is the “one true church,” because the one true church is Christianity, in other words, those followers of Jesus who have embraced his gospel and have found salvation through faith on his name. Mormons (and other exclusive denominations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and, more often than not, the Roman Catholic Church) do not fit into this category because their understanding about the nature of Jesus Christ and the means of salvation are radically different: just the claim that it can only be found in fullness in one organization is enough to completely disqualify Mormonism.

In other words, Mormons don’t understand why Evangelicals won’t acknowledge Mormonism’s Christianity because Mormons do not realize what is at stake. Evangelicals do not think of themselves as Lutherans or Presbyterians or Nondenominationals, at least not in terms of their primary spiritual identity. They may recognize that as a matter of history they are members of a specific denomination (if they are) and that they have been designated “Protestant,” but their primary way of thinking about themselves religiously is as a Christian. Again, to a conservative Protestant, specific denomination does not matter. What matters is whether you are a Christian. This means a Protestant is free to move between denominations as much as he wants without worrying about it, as long as the denominations are teaching Christianity. Not Christianity in the sense of “a religion about Jesus,” but in the theologically significant sense of “the way to Jesus.” Mormons may talk about and believe important things about Jesus, enough for sociologists and librarians to categorize them as Christians, but what they teach and believe about Jesus is significantly different enough to make it a different religion than the one that conservative Protestants are practicing. I know of no Mormon that would dispute this. What the Mormon thus fails to understand is that the conservative Protestant calls his religion “Christianity.”

So when the Evangelical meets a Mormon who claims that Mormonism is Christian, the Evangelical hears the Mormon claiming that they have the same religion. That is flat-out not true, and it’s obvious by even a fairly cursory examination. So the Evangelical concludes that the Mormon is trying to be deceptive: trying to claim to be theologically compatible so as to lure converts into a religious organization that is actually an entirely different animal. It looks like a bait-and-switch, using the Evangelical’s faith as the bait. Understandably, this irks the Evangelical. Furthermore, the Evangelical is justifiably concerned about his friends and family and assorted loved ones: as conservative Protestants they operate in a religious environment where, provided the denomination is Christian (in the Protestant theological sense), one is free to switch from denomination to denomination without necessarily jeopardizing one’s salvation. When the Mormon Church claims to be Christian and insists that Evangelicals agree that it is, the Mormon Church creates a situation wherein Evangelicals may be lured into something they never meant to get involved in. And with Mormonism’s “milk-before-meat” missionary policy, it is not an unreasonable fear. And eternal salvation is at stake.

The Mormon may ask, “why do the Evangelicals get to decide what Christian means? Why can’t they just call their religion something else? Then there wouldn’t be a problem.” But that’s a particularly disingenous claim from a Church that sets a great store by the name of their religion. Like Mormons, conservative Protestants believe their religion is the one true religion. However, unlike Mormons, Protestants do not set theological significance by the organizational boundaries of a denomination. So the conservative Protestant’s religion is not the same thing as his denomination. He may be categorized historically as a Protestant, but he, like the Mormon, believes that he is in fact a true follower of Jesus Christ, a designation which he shares with people who have a common understanding of doctrine and practice, and since they believe they are the only true followers of Jesus Christ, they call their religion “Christianity.”

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I’ve decided that C. S. Lewis is probably my favorite author, and I’ve been devouring everything by him that I can get my hands on.  I’ve read Mere Christianity a couple of times, bits of the Screwtape Letters, and most of the Chronicles of Narnia.  I think that’s where most people stop with Lewis, and I think that’s sad, because it offers an extremely misleading picture of the man, his ideas, his theology, his philosophy, and how it all fits together.  I think that a great many fans of Lewis would be shocked and surprised by much of what Lewis seems ot have really thought, if they read anything beyond the standard cliched offerings, and I certainly think that Evangelicals and Mormons would be a lot more hesitant to posthumously enlist Lewis as a defender of their faith.  Lewis is anything but an orthodox Evangelical Protestant, and very little of what he says is compatible with Mormonism.

Surprised By Joy and Till We have Faces are two of his more compelling, multilayered, and spiritually textured books, and I cannot overemphasize the massive impact they have had on my personal spiritual development.  But the deeper ideas contained in them are revolutionary and in many ways extremely heterodox.

Right now I’m reading the Space Trilogy, which is science fiction, but also overtly Christian–more so than Narnia because it is set in the real world with real Jesus (called Maleldil in the book’s “Old Solar” language) instead of in a magical world with a lion Jesus.  Many of Lewis’s more complex ideas about religion and theology from other works, especially Miracles, is parroted in dialogue and arguments between characters in the Space Trilogy.

I imagine a Mormon reader, especially one who is attached to the more “space doctrine” aspects of the religion, would find much to like in the Space Trilogy, but ultimately I think the Mormon reader’s affection would be misplaced and based on a reading of the books that is superficial and divorced from the context of Lewis’s larger corpus.  The Space Trilogy certainly has interplanetary Christianity, and as such there are certain parallels to Mormon doctrines that are basically unavoidable, but in the final analysis I would assert that Lewis’s theology is ultimately incompatible on a very fundamental level with many of Mormonism’s core assumptions.

I’ve just started That Hideous Strength, the final (and longest) of the three, but so far the books are good, the ideas contained in them are compelling, and Perelandra contains what is possibty the most visceral fight scene I have ever read.

Make sure you check out Aquinas’s excellent post about C. S. Lewis on Summa Theologica.

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When I read Emergent writers like Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, I find myself nodding and agreeing with so much of what they say.  I find the emergent conversation compelling enough that I actually sought out the church that McLaren founded, and that’s where my wife and I go every Sunday these days.

There’s a lot about the emergent conversation that I really like.  But I also have some problems with it that I would like to discuss.   These problems are interrelated and difficult to make really distinct, so they don’t really lend themselves to a bullet-point list in order of importance or something like that.  Instead, I’ll just pretty much tackle the whole thing at once, starting wherever and typing until I feel like I’ve said all I have to say.

One problem I have is that I see, for the most part, the emergent conversation/emerging church is really a child of evangelical Christianity as opposed to Christianity as a whole.  In a way, it seems like a kind of mini-Protestantism, emerging from fundamentalism and evangelicalism the way Protestant Christianity emerged from Catholicism.  The thing was, in the fifteenth century, Catholicism is all there was, so the Reformation was a big thing- its adherents were birthed from the entirety of western Christianity.

By contrast, the emerging church is mostly just the product of evangelicalism, which is only a small slice of current Christianity.  Thus, I feel like it rests on many evangelical assumptions, despite trying its best to be ecumenical and “generous” in its theology and outlook.

In short, I feel like emergent Christianity (and I knowingly use the terms “emerging” and “emergent” interchangeably, Mark Driscoll’s opinions notwithstanding) begins by making evangelical assumptions, finds problems there, and simply assumes that the answers can’t be found anywhere else in Christianity.  Even in McLaren’s Generous Orthodoxy, which is a great book, and you should read it, the hat-tip he gives to the rest of Christianity is largely superficial, and betrays his deel evangelical/fundamentalist roots.

Why do I care about this?  Well, for one thing, I have some concerns about evangelical Christianity that the emerging church doesn’t really resolve.  Second, recent things I’ve read make me wonder if the emerging church isn’t really just trying to reinvent the wheel, while rejecting the possibility that the wheel has actually already been invented and refined if not perfected.

I just finished reading Rowan Williams’s book Where God Happens.  Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion.  I plan on posting something lengthy about Anglicanism in the near future, but suffice to say for the moment that Anglicanism is one of the paths I am seriously considering in my journey towards Jesus Christ, but I also have very serious doubts and reservations.

Where God Happens is a short book about the Desert Fathers and the relevance for people today of their teachings, sayings, and way of life.  Interestingly enough, the concepts that Dr. Williams pulls out of the sayings and practices of the Desert Fathers are in many ways extremely similar to the theological ideas and concepts of the emergent church.

This was an extraordinary discovery for me.  Until that point, the emergent conversation had been my oasis, the shining example of what it seemed like Christianity should really be about.  But here is the Archbishop of Canterbury invoking the fourth-century Desert Fathers (and Mothers; let’s not leave out Amma Syncletica) and the result is basically the same message!  In particular, the ideas about community and relationship and Christian discipleship are startlingly similar to the theological ideas of McLaren et al.  But more importantly, this same message is in a context that lends it so much more authority- or at least that makes it so much more authoritative- than the hemming and hawing we’re-just-regular-guys McLaren and Bell even come close to.  This is completely steeped in the fullness of Christian history and tradition.

The result is that I start to wonder about putting too many of my eggs in the emergent basket.  If they’re just reinventing the wheel, they’re doing it in a humble but arrogant way, assuming that the wheel hasn’t already been invented and highly refined just because they don’t find the wheel in their narrow evangelical and fundamentalist backgrounds.

If all of the things that I like about emergent theology are there for the discovering in historic orthodox Christianity, then maybe emergent Christianity isn’t as great asI thought it was, especially considering my other concerns with evangelicalism that are carried over into the emergent conversation.

Another concern I have with the emergent conversation is in terms of the practice of worship.  While one stream of the emergent conversation is concerned with reworking and refining theology, there’s another, maybe more major stream that is concerned with new and relevant ways of worship.  I am not as excited about this stream, although it is generally seen by the rest of the evangelical world as the more acceptable facet of emergent Christianity.

These new ways of worship often involve pairing religious innovation with recovered ancient Christian traditions.  Once again, my problem is that this is completely from an evangelical standpoint.  The ancient traditions of worship and spirituality are not lost; they have merely been abandoned by evangelical Protestantism.  They are still easy to find and access in many Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and even traditional Protestant churches and communities.  And when the emergent church “recaptures” these traditions, they always seem so much more… superficial than they do when seen in practice in their traditional context, in something like an Eastern Orthodox Liturgy.

Furthermore, I’m not necessarily always excited about innovative worship.  To me, it assumes that the traditional ways have been fully mined for meaning and there’s none left, so we need to make up something new.  And I challenge that assertion.  I think part of the problem is a media-soaked culture that has forgotten how to be still and reflective, how to take time, to be thoughtful, and to let spiritual things penetrate deeply.  I think if we could recover contemplation, then the traditional ways of worship, the ones that have proven themselves relevant to human beings for up to twenty centuries, will still be just as relevant as they have always been.

I think there is room for thoughtful innovation in worship, but I think it is a thing that should be done carefully and deliberately, not recklessly.

My final criticism of the emerging church is its concern with being relevant to the postmodern person, and its general marriage to postmodernism.  As a postmodern person, it seems great, but at the same time, I long for a faith that stands outside of and independent of philosophical trends and momentary (compared to the continuity of human history) ways of thinking.  Christianity existed before modernism, and I think embracing modernism was the worst thing that could have happened to Christianity (I’ll post more about this later, but in my opinion, embracing modernism means either taking the path of theological liberalism or the path of theological fundamentalism, both of which make Christianity look foolish).  At the same time, I have no real confidence that people won’t say the same thing about postmodernism in a few hundred years.  Postmodernism may be a new way of thinking and a refreshing alternative to modernism, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve “finally gotten it right.”  Down the road, postmodernism will be outdated and will be junked with all of the other antiquated philosophical frameworks that humanity has consigned to the collective cognitive dusty attic.

I think Christianity should be able to stand outside of passing waves of philosophy- it should be something that endures apart from and independent of “the way people think.”  It should be an alternative to the current philosophical trend, not just one more manifestation of it.  It might make Christianity difficult to the individual who is hesitant to set aside his conventional philosophical framework, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.  I believe that there are ways in which Christianity should be difficult.  When Jesus Christ said his yoke was easy and his burden was light, I really don’t think he meant that his way meant not having to change the way we live and think.  In fact, I’m fairly convinced that he meant the opposite.

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First, before you read this post and certainly before you comment, go back and at least read The Old Limbo Crossroads, to get some background. It’s better if you’re new to this blog to get completely caught up by reading What’s Going On, but the previous Crossroads is really the bare minimum.

Okay, now on to the topic at hand, which is Evangelical Christianity.

I grew up Mormon, but I grew up in East Tennessee, which means that most of my peers were Evangelical Christians of some kind. Most of my close friends were nonreligious or Roman Catholic, but most of the Christianity that I was exposed to in my formative years was evangelical.

In particular, I had one really good evangelical friend whose name was Brock. We had kind of a common understanding that meant we didn’t try to convert each other, but through him I was exposed to a lot of the people that he went to church with. This exposure was often limited, but it was significant: these were people who really believed in Jesus Christ, who lived Christ-centered lives, and who were happy about it. You could see it in their faces, that Jesus Christ had made a difference. It was something that I did not see in my fellow Mormons, and it was something that stuck with me and was not easy to reconcile, even on my mission. I often thought back to these people and wondered how, if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was really Christ’s church on earth, how these non-members could be so obviously and vibrantly Christian.

As I served my mission, my understanding of Jesus Christ developed and it drifted towards a more full understanding of grace, one which I inevitably had to try to reconcile with Mormonism (and I did it by constantly revising the Gospel According To Kullervo). Most of the doubts I had about Mormonism were laced with Evangelical concerns. My personal understanding of Jesus Christ ultimately developed into something very Protestant, with Mormonism’s specific practices and odd doctrinal quirks pretty much tacked on to the side.

Thus, last year when I finally started giving serious voice to my doubts about Mormonism, it was because I increasingly saw Mormonism as something that did not match my understanding of Jesus Christ, the Bible, and what I thought Christianity was all about.

Granted, leaving Mormonism ultimately led me to have to seriously examine, and in the end dig up and re-plant, my belief in Jesus Christ and in God. But I feel at this point that I have come full circle and I am now back in a place where I can state without (much) reservation that I believe in Jesus and I want to follow him.

Anyway, because of all of this, Evangelical Christianity is attractive to me. I have very little interest in theological liberalism (a topic that I will address in a future post), and reading some of the writers in the Emergent conversation (Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Donald Miller) within Evangelical Christianity has done a great deal to resolve many of my major theological concerns, showing me that I actually can be an Evangelical Christian without being a mindless fundamentalist or a rabid Republican. It has all been extremely compelling.

Right now my family is attending Cedar Ridge Community Church, which is a kind of emergent Evangelical nondenominational church, and it’s a really good place. It has a lot going for it. I agree with everything they preach form the pulpit, but in a way that challenges me instead of leaving me complacent. I am excited about their commitment to reaching out and blessing the world in so many ways. It is a church where I have few objections. But the more time goes by, and the more I find myself wanting to seriously follow, serve, and draw closer to, Jesus Christ, the more those objections seem to be a big deal.

Most of my objections have to do with Evangelical Christianity in general as opposed to the church we attend in specific.

The first is a question of authority, or more properly, of authoritative-ness. I guess I believe that all authority is given to Jesus Christ, like it says in the gospels, and that this authority still resides in Jesus, as opposed to being found in a book or in a pedigree of clergy or priesthood. Since Jesus promised us that when we are gathered in his name, he is among us, we have access to his authority when we are acting in his name.

That’s fine and good, and it’s actually kind of a tangent, because it’s not really my problem. My problem is that in the church I attend, there’s a real sense of all being on the journey together, like we’re all trying to be disciples of Jesus Christ in the best way we can, and we’re helping each other do that. That sounds great, but it doesn’t do the trick for me.

While there may be Authority, the kind that actually only Jesus has from the Father, I don’t feel like this set-up is very authoritative. Trustworthy. Reliable. Solid. I don’t feel like this church as an institution has much of any weight behind it whatsoever. It doesn’t feel solid. I’m not saying I think it won’t last- the church has been around for 25 years after all. But what is 25 years in the nearly 2000-year history of Christianity? What institutional experience and wisdom can there even be in an organization that is so new, especially one that is both Evangelical and Emergent, both of which in the context of church history mean some measure of rejection of broad arrays of Christian tradition?

My point is that I don’t feel like Evangelical churches are authoritative. I don’t think the Bible alone makes them authoritative, either, and I also don’t even think belief in Jesus Christ makes them authoritative.

What I’m trying to say is this- I wouldn’t feel confident going to the pastor at Cedar Ridge for personal or spiritual guidance. I feel like he’s just a guy, same as me, trying to figure thigs out. That has a certain appeal, sure, especially from the pulpit (there isn’t technically a pulpit, but that’s beside the point), but at the same time it doesn’t make me feel like he’s a spiritual leader that I could turn to. As far as I know, he hasn’t been to a seminary or anything. It’s kind of a surprise that that matters to me, growing up Mormon with a lay clergy, but as it turns out I think it actually matters a lot.

So with Evangelical Christianity, I have problems with how authoritative I feel the institutions and clergy are. My second problem is more theological. In theory, I believe in Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice, once for all. I believe in salvation by grace through faith. I believe that the price for my sins has already been paid, that I am already forgiven before I even did anything wrong.

My problem is that that sounds great on paper and in conversation, but it seems too abstract in practice. Let’s say I do something wrong, and feel bad about it. What am I supposed to do to be right with God? My theology tells me that inasmuch as I have faith in Jesus Christ, I am already right with God. But that doesn’t seem very real. I feel like I’m left trying to convince myself that I’m already forgiven and that it’s already taken care of and I should just be thankful for what Jesus did for me. But I still feel really bad, and all I can do is try, in vain, to talk myself out of the guilt.

It’s all abstract: I just have to trust that my wrongs were already righted 2,000ish years ago so I have nothing to worry about. But I have a hard time convincing myself of it. Maybe it’s because I really don’t have faith. Maybe it’s because I’m still stuck in a Mormon mindset that demands I earn my salvation. I don’t know. But at the very least, I would like something concrete to do, at least an outward manifestation of reconciliation, so I can have some kind of closure on my sins. I’m not talking about earning forgiveness; I know I can’t do that. I just mean that I want to be able to somehow make concrete the abstract idea of my salvation by the grace of God. And Evangelical Christianity, in my opinion, doesn’t really offer that. It has no real sacraments, no clergy to confess to. It seems like the whole religion is just about deciding you believe, and then being glad about it.

I see it seem work for other people, and in theory I think it sounds great. But in practice it doesn’t seem to have any effect. I don’t feel transformed, healed, or even justified by just “realizing it’s all okay.”

Maybe I’ve missed the point- maybe Christianity is about realizing, for real, that it is okay, that Jesus made it so when you believe in him your sins are gone, and there’s nothing you have to do but acknowledge and accept it, for real. Maybe my insistence on some external performance is holding me back from real conversion, real faith, and the kind of transformational Christianity that I’m hungry for. I acknowledge the possibility. But it doesn’t change anything. And reassurances from other Christians that I’m on the right track are nice and supportive, but they’re not authoritative- they’re just more people like me, in the same boat as I am. What do they know? How are they more trustworthy than I am?

I imagine that the person that I really should trust is Jesus, that he has told me himself that he has atoned for my sins, and that anything else would just be noise. Maybe. But it doesn’t seem to be happening, to really be connecting. Again, I am left feeling like I’m just trying to talk myself out of feeling guilty.

I’ve talked about forgiveness for sins as probably the most important example, but the principles apply to the sum total of religious life. Evangelical Christianity has all of the action happen in the long ago and far away, and thus in the inaccessible abstract.

My third problem with Evangelical Christianity is the form of worship. For the most part, praise bands and Christian pop music do absolutely nothing for me. I want the deep spirituality of liturgy and hymns. I’m not trying to be a worship-consumer or anything, but modern, contemporary worship just doesn’t feel like it has any weight behind it. It is sincere but ephemeral, and seems to be primarily a matter of emotional appeal. Part of leaving Mormonism was the realization that emotions are not the same thing as the Holy Spirit. Emotions are the product of propaganda as often as they are the product of nearness to God.

Evangelical Christianity (particularly, for me at least, the emergent conversation) is firmly rooted in scripture, reason (within the context of faith), and mysticism (i.e. the Holy Spirit), but has abandoned tradition almost entirely. I know the emergent conversation has made overtures at recapturing some tradition, but in my opinion it’s been barely more than a token effort, and comes across as superficial to me.

In fact, sometimes Evangelical Christianity seems altogether tacky and plastic, not anything like an ancient Middle Eastern (or even European) faith tradition, and certainly not anything like the Kingdom of Heaven.

Finally, I have some issues with Community. I feel like Christian community is absolutely critical, as Jesus commanded his disciples to be one even as he is one with the Father. I realize that the emergent conversation has tried to emphasize this, but in practice it seems ot not be happening. How do you have authentic community in a megachurch?

Even at Cedar Ridge, which is certainly no megachurch, it seems to me like the congregation might be too big for authentic community, and although they try really hard (and admirably) to foster community, it seems artificial. It’s like they’re trying to make a plant by mixing the component parts all together in a bowl, instead of planting the seeds, setting up the right conditions, and cultivating it as it grows.

Anyway, I have a strange love-hate relationship with Evangelical Christianity, and I’m hesitant to embrace it more fully than I already have, while at the same time, it has things that I want and need that I don’t know if I really can find anywhere else. And I feel like I must face the real possibility that my hesitation is because of the lingering effects of my Mormon roots, or maybe because I simply haven’t fully been able to understand and appreciate what Jesus Christ is all about.

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In many ways, I’m standing at a crossroads, spiritually. I have some ideas about what I think real Christianity is all about, what God wants from me, what I think is important, and what I want from God. I also see several clear paths I could go down, each of which has definite strengths and weaknesses in relation to what I want and what I think God wants, meaning that they all lead somewhere probably pretty good, but I don’t think any of them really leads where I want to go, where I will find Jesus Christ.

I have said in previous posts that I have a hard time really articulating some of these issues because they are in many ways abstract and sometimes ill-defined. It’s not that I have a clear picture in my head that I can’t put words to so much as it is that I have a vague, fuzzy half-picture in my head that if I tried to define it in words, I’d probably get it wrong. Sometimes when I’m talking about religion, faith, and spirituality, I feel more than a little like J. Alfred Prufrock.

Anyway, in the next four posts, I’m going to try to describe the four paths I see, as I see them, and to explain why I simultaneously want to go down each but also fear that none of them leads where I think I will truly encounter Jesus Christ. The four paths are Evangelical Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism.

Also a little warning- like I said in past posts, I’m feeling a bit vulnerable right now and I want to be able to express myself without having to defend myself. I’m interested in comments and feedback, but I imagine I’m going to be a little quicker than usual to delete comments if I feel they are hostile or overly critical. Just a fair warning.

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Apparently I think. At least, I think I think. Also, Kay of Songs Of Unforgetting thinks I think, and so does Brendan of Off The Beaten Path. I am, of course, flattered. Since my natural tendency is to be an arrogant sonofabitch, I’m trying to not let it go to my head. The flattery, that is, not the thinking. Thinking belongs in the head. For the most part.

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As a thinking blogger, it is now my duty to tag five other thinking bloggers. My geas, if you will. My onus. Kay and Brendan are of course thinking bloggers, but in honor of playground rules, I observe the ironclad law of “no tagbacks.”

Thus, I chose the following five:

First, my favorite thinker is my beautiful and sexy wife, Katyjane. Is that rank favoritism and perhaps nepotism? Sure it is. I make no excuses. Also, my wife is brilliant, and her opinion means more to me than anyone else’s. I sometimes get frustrated when she doesn’t think exactly like me (did I mention the arrogant sonofabitch part?), but she definitely thinks. I hold her in the highest esteem.  Her blog is funny, offbeat, and thought-provoking.

Second, is my friend Bryant over at Make Me A Commentator!!! It’s a liberal blog where he mostly just pokes holes in conservative columnists’ arguments. But he’s dang good at what he does.

Third, I tag Halcyon over at Halcyonedays. She doesn’t post as often as I do, but I admire her for being willing to think through some scary, imposing, difficult stuff. She’s got guts. Regardless of what conclusions she ultimately comes to, the fact that she’s really, honestly trying to work through life, the universe, and everything instead of just going with the flow and taking the easy pill impresses the heck out of me. It must be her good genetics.

Fourth, I tag Adam over at Daylight Atheism. His analysis is incredibly incisive, and it makes me sit up, take notice, and seriously think things through. He is both reasoned and reasonable, in a way that would make any honest reader take serious stock in what they think and believe- and he tackles tough issues while remaining sensible and nonconfrontational. I would be lying if I did not admit that his essays at Ebon Musings had an incredibly profound effect on me.

Fifth is tough. There are probably a half-dozen other bloggers I would like to tag (and part of me is tempted to give the fifth award to all of them simultaneously as joint tenants, but that’s just the part of me that is taking a Property exam right now). But instead, I’ll give the fifth to Dando at Mormon and Evangelical Conversations, for his even-handed and thoughtful religious dialogue.

In the meantime, I shall give a general shout (and very honorable mention) out to the very worthy Peter at For Peter’s Sake (for always having a thoughtful point of view, and having good taste in women), WhoreChurch at Whore Church (for boldly tackling the ugliest bits of religion while maintaining a close relationship with God and a love for Jesus Christ), Jonathan Blake at Green Oasis (for generally being good at what he does, and always being interesting) Bored in Vernal at Hieing to Kolob (for being feminist and Mormon, and brilliant), and Random Goblin at The Goblin’s Lair (for being one of the most intelligent human beings on earth, as well as a cruel, arbitrary, arrogant sonofabitch- of course these days he writes abject nonsense instead of politics). There are probably plenty of others that I am seriously offending by not mentioning. Oh well. I am cruel and arbitrary (much like many people’s conception of God). Really, though, everyone in my Blogroll and/or Links is worth reading. But if somehow getting two thinking blogger awards justifies me in handing out two sets of awards, then they get them. You may decide for yourself. Blogging Law is not one of the classes I have taken at law school.

Normally, I try to keep away from this kind of thing on my blog and stick to the substantive stuff. But hey, like I said- I’m cruel and arbitrary. I do what suits me at the moment. What can I say?

(oh, also- don’t forget Jeff over at Druid Journal. He’s good enough to have gotte nmy third thinking blogger award twice! But I think he’s gotten one before).

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So I have issues with Christianity.  Last night, while I was out grocery shopping with my lovely wife, who is a committed Christian, I tried to articulate them as well as I could.  I felt like I was able to get it all out in a satisfactory way, but now I’m not so sure I can remember them all.  I’ll do my best; here they are in no particular order:

1. The Jack Chick problem.  Encountering Fundamentalists and many Evangelicals and other Christian-Right-types and their viewpoints completely turns me off to Christianity in general.  Without going into too much detail, there are some popular and vocal approaches to Jesus out there that I find actually repulsive, not to mention preposterous.  When I read such a viewpoint, for example, it sours me on the whole of Christianity.  I do not want to have anything to do with a movement or a religion that spawns that kind of garbage.

Intellectually, I know that those apporaches to Jesus are not exhaustive, they do not by any means necessarily represent the  bulk of Christianity.  I also know that just because people do ugly things with Christianity, that does not mean that Jesus was wrong or a fake (in fact, there is plenty of scriptural evidence that just saying you’re a Christian doesn’t mean you know Jesus).  But those are intellectual qualifications, and my reaction to ugly Christianity is an emotional one, so the intellectual justifications don’t dispel my reservations.

2. Exclusivity.  By most accounts, Christianity is exclusive.  Jesus is literally God, and he is literally the only way to return to the Father.  All other approaches (whether they be Christian heterodoxy or a completely different religion orspiritual path) are either lies or tragic mistakes.

I am of two minds about this.  On the one hand, I grew up Mormon, so a literal and exclusive approach to religion is a familiar one, sort of my default setting, and not easy to break out of.

On the other hand, it just doesn’t feel right.  For one, the weight of opinion is against Christianity- far more people are and have been something else as opposed to Christians, both now and throughout history.  Now, if Christianity is True, then that theoretically shouldn’t matter.  If there is such a thing as objective truth independent from peoples’ minds, then that objective truth would probably not be subject to majority decisions.  However, it seems a little convenient that the One True Way just happens to be the majority view of the culture I grew up in. Especially when there is no real decisive objective evidence to commend Christianity over any other religion.  Maybe there is an objectively True Way, but who says Jesus is it?  I feel like claims of objective truth should be backed up by some kind of objective evidence, at least to differentiate them from competing claims of absolute truth.

I also have this sense that applying Christinity to the whole world is not just like trying to make a square peg fit a round hole, but it’s like trying to make a multidimensional polyshape peg fit into a round hole.  It seems preposterous.  It imposes a simple worldview on an incredibly complex world.  I have a hard time swallowing it.

3. Personal Exclusivity.  This one is trickier to explain.  I want a religion or a faith system that fits all of me.  I don’t mean that I am unwilling to change- I certainly would go to great lengths to change my behavior for what I believe.  However, like all humans, I am extrordinarily complex.  I feel like a religion should speak to every aspect of human existence in a fitting and compelling way, without oversimplifying that which is in no way simple.  What I am not willing to do is to abandon entire facets of existence that are irrelevant to a belief system.  I will change, but I will not amputate.

I don’t necessarily feel like Christianity “explains it all.”  I don’t feel like it fits me like a puzzle piece.  Of course, I haven’t found anything else that does, either.

4. Not feeling the Jesus.  Finally, I do not feel spiritually compelled to follow Jesus.  I find Christianity intellectuallyand even emotionally appealing, and I even find Christianity reasonable, but to me that is not enough.  I want to feel a spiritual pull, and I don’t feel it.  Furthermore, I do not want to purposely cultivate a spiritual experience in the pursuit of Christianity, because that’s what I did with Mormonism.  Having already decided that Mormonism was true, I then went about specifically seeking a spiritual confirmation of that truth.  They say “once burned, twice shy,” and that is appropriate here.  In the end, I fell away from Mormonism.  The connection that I built was not a lasting one.  Honestly, I don’t want the same thing to happen ever again.  I am not about to head in any direction that I will just abandon in eight months or eight years.  And so far, I have nothing to indicate that a decision on my part to commit to Christ and to Christianity will indeed be a lasting one.

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