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Posts Tagged ‘Fundamentalism’

Pluralism in a normative sense (as opposed to pluralism as a matter of description which is irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion) means valuing subjectivity over objectivity by declaring all cultural viewpoints (including religious viewpoints as a facet of culture) equally and fundamentally valid. The problems with this popular viewpoint-framework include first, that pluralism is itself a value that undermines all other values, and second, that it generally fails to be subject to its own scrutiny.

The value of pluralism is not somehow self-evident, regardless of whether it is treated as such. Even if it can be justified by rhetoric or evidence, pluralism is itself a value. The problem is that it is a value that undermines all other values. If I ascribe to pluralism, I cannot at the same time hold any other values, because that would be an assertion that those values were somehow true or the best or the most valid, which is inconsistent with pluralism. In fact, under the rubric of pluralism, there is no need to hold any other values at all: if all values are equally valid then no value supersedes another, and all values are thus also equally invalid. Pluralism, in its admirable desire for fairness and equity, swallows up everything else.

Furthermore, in practice, pluralism generally fails to live up to its own mandate. Most pluralists reject exclusivist or fundamentalist viewpoints. In other words, to the pluralist, all viewpoints are equally valid except for when they undermine pluralism itself. Thus all viewpoints actually aren’t equally valid because no viewpoint other than pluralism can ever be valid, since any statement of value necessarily implies the non-validity of contradictory values. Thus, under the rubric of pluralism, no value is valid because all values other than pluralism denigrate other values by not recognizing their equal worth and validity. But that is not even true: in fact, under the rubric of pluralism, no value is valid at all, not even pluralism, because rejecting say, Fundamentalist Christianity in the name of pluralism means recognizing that the pluralism is more valid than Fundamentalist Christianity, a situation that is impossible under pluralism.

Thus pluralism is undesirable as a stance because it not only undermines all other values, but in practice, pluralism even undermines itself. It is subjectivity taken to the logical, but absurd end. This end means the inability to make moral judgments of any kind, because it results in the rejection of all Ought principles. Even if not taken to the extreme, pluralism undermines strong Ought principles conceptually and thus undermines all moral imperatives, i.e., all statements of Should.

This lies at the heart of my unease with liberalism, at least liberalism as commonly articulated in America today. Liberalism is all passion but no principle. Certainly liberals have articulated a significant number of values couched in moral terms, and many liberals are extremely passionate about these values. But the problem is that liberalism includes and embraces pluralism as not just a value, but as a fundamental premise, and so liberalism fails to be able to articulate reasons for its values without rejecting a premise that it is unwilling to reject.

American conservatives, by contrast, get the force for their Ought statements from their belief in Christianity, pragmatism, or market economics. I may not agree with their Ought statements, or even acknowledge the validity of their sources, but they are articulating policies based on principles that are at least alleged to be objective. If you acknowledge even the possible validity of the source and the derivation of the Ought, then their Should-conclusions have a great deal of moral force. I’m not entirely sure about the source of libertarians’ Ought-principles.

Now, to be fair, many people are proponents of the same causes as liberals without being liberals in the sense that I am using it. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury is socially progressive but theologically conservative. His Ought-principles, whether they are true or misguided, come from a set of objective moral standards. Ditto for my friend Bryant: as a faithful Mormon, he believes in absolute morality and objective values, but he concludes that those values—that set of Ought-principles—lead him basically to the same Should-imperatives that liberals advocate.

However, people like Bryant occupy a perilous place in the American left. Because their moral reasoning is based on objective standards, by definition they reject full cultural pluralism, which means they are treated with suspicion by fellow-liberals. It’s not always easy being both religious and a Democrat in the United States: conservatives think that your Progressive politics is a betrayal of your religion (because you derive a different set of Ought-principles from what is ostensibly the same source), and too many liberals think that your objective values are the antithesis of pluralism and thus inherently invalid (and since pluralism is fundamental to liberalism, your objective values are the antithesis of liberalism even if you advocate the same set of policy goals; the feeling is that you happen by lucky coincidence to advocate the same policy goals in one particular instance, but since you reject pluralism you can’t really be counted on).

Yes, I know that political reality means that Democratic candidates have to use religious talk to get elected. But it is also true that they suffer derision and scorn from liberals when they do. This is because for the kind of liberal I am talking about, anything that even potentially undermines pluralism is the mark of the enemy.

Next: Religious Choices And Their Values

Go back to the Introduction and Index

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If God exists, I think God is so far out of our field of experience and frame of reference as to be essentially incomprehensible to humans.  All of the world’s religions appear to be obviously objectively false.  However, I think that humans make sense out of the insensible by thinking in metaphor, sort of like putting masks that we understand on God so as to deal with something which we do not understand.  I think religion, religious belief, and religious practice can be positive, productive, and extremely useful both to society and to the individual, even if it is not objectively true.  In fact, sometimes I am inclined to think that people can actually in many ways be better off with religion (though not all kinds of religion: a sort of Taoist awareness that “the thing that can be talked about is not the actual eternal thing” is incredibly important, and serves to neuter our dangerous–perhaps even insane–fundamentalist impuses).  Since all religions are false but religion is nevertheless positive, I should be able to simply pick the one that appeals most to me and self-consciously run with it.  However, I seem to be completely incapable of doing so.

(For what it’s worth, alternately, if God does not exist outside the human psyche, then none of this changes.  We can label the unfathomable parts of our own existence and psyche “God” and essentially move on.)

Why am I incapable of picking one and just enjoying it?  All kinds of reasons, really.  Fear of commitment as a holdover from bad experiences with Mormonism (and a knowledge that “just trying it out” is actually a kind of commitment that can result in sliding down to total conversion if you’re not careful).  Persistent gut feeling that the objective truth of religion matters (another holdover from Mormonism).  A nagging feeling that all religions are equally, pitifully inadequate when it comes to accounting for all of life and existence’s complexities (even leaving cosmological models completely out of it), and a concurrent distaste for the idea of flavoring my entire life with any particular religious belief’s seasoning.  Nervousness about the ease of self-brainwashing.  The desire for some kind of mystical experience as a catalyst.  And plain old reluctance, like when you’re about to jump off of something tall and your legs seize up and your body just won’t let you do it.

There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about any of this, either.

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I am increasingly suspicious that Christianity isn’t going to do the trick for me.  I have reasons.

First, I really do not think that that Christianity, the Bible, the God of the Bible, and/or Jesus Christ objectively represent absolute truth.  I’m just not convinced, and I think, weighing the evidence in my mind, that it is less likely than otherwise that Jesus is the Son Of God send down to be Sacrificed For Our Sins and representing the One True Way.  Absent some compelling reason to think otherwise, I just don’t believe it’s True.

That, of course, does not end the inquiry, because I’m pretty skeptical in general of the practical reality of objective absolute truth.  I’m willing to accept the possibility that Christianity is Truth even if its foundational and theological truth-claims are questionable.  To that end, I have danced around with Christianity and belief in Jesus for most of the past year.  I’ve prayed.  I’ve read in the gospels.  I’ve attended a handful of churches.  My attitude was that I was willing to set aside the objective truth inquiry and settle for asking if Christianity is meaningful to me.  I had an intuition that there was transofrmational power in Christianity that I was keenly interested in, that Christianity could turn me into a New Man, the way C. S. Lewis talks about it in Mere Christianity.  I even felt the beginnings of some kind of personal transformation in my life as I genuinely tried to live a Christian life.

So why then am I afraid to move forward?  What holds me back from asserting, “this is what I believe; this is where I stand?”  What keeps me from diving in and accepting Jesus Christ and Christianity with open arms?  What is it about Christianity that simultaneously attracts and repels me?  I know there are probably some simplistic answers from the Christian perspective.  I’m not interested in those; I don;t really find them convincing.

Am I so scarred from my disentanglement from Mormonism that I am unwilling to embrace any religion, like an abuse victim who has a hard time forming new relationships because of deep-seated trust issues?  Did Mormonism leave me with a lingering sense that I will only be satisfied when I find a religion that I am certain is objectively, absolutely true?  (If so, I’m pretty much screwed, because I’m comfortable saying there ain’t one out there).  If I say No to Christianity, will I be able to say Yes to anything else?

What is it about Christianity that appeals to me?  I like Jesus himself, and his teachings.  I find the general theology of Christianity, the picture of God made man to save fallen humanity, appealing and comforting.  I like Christian liturgy.  I like hymns.  I am comfortable with the Bible (although I have spent my life learining to see it through uniquely Mormon eyes, so in many ways I am still completely new to scripture).  I’m a western person, and Christianity is unquestionably the religion of the West–it’s the religious currency of our society and it is probably the most culturally relevant.  And like I said above, Christianity at least seems to offer something transformational that I feel like I need.  I’m a pretty broken person in a lot of ways, and I think I could certainly use a heapin’ helpin’ of healin’ atonement.

Also, I really like Christmas.  Particularly, I like the religious/sacred message of Christmas.  The juxtaposition of the darkest, coldest time of the year with the birth of Mankind’s salvation.  I love the sacred Christmas hymns.  I love the Christmas story in the gospels.  I eat it up with a spoon.  I’m not sure what I’d make of Christmas if I wasn’t a Christian (watch for a blog post coming up about this), but I am absolutely unwilling to completely give it up.

On the other hand, I have a sneaking, growing suspicion that the Jesus of history really wasn’t the Jesus of Christianity.  If Jesus isn’t actually the one true savior of fallen humanity, then I don’t really need him in any any kind of external, objective, cosmological sense (I may personally need him because of the requirements of my own psyche, but that’s a different issue).  And if I don’t need him, then what is he to me?  Even if there is truth and meaning in the Jesus myth, I don’t know that I am willing to make it my exclusive truth and meaning or even my primary truth and meaning.

I don’t think I believe in a personal god at all, and I also don’t think I belive that Jesus is a unique incarnation of God.  I’m not convinced that the gospels are an accurate depiction of the life of Jesus, or that Paul’s epistles are a univerally and objectively correct interpretation of the life of Jesus, either.  I’m not certain I think I need Jesus to save me from my sins (since I’m not really sure I belive in sin, hell, or the Devil, certainly in the orthodox Christian sense).  I’m also strongly turned off by both fundamentalist/evangelical and liberal Christians, and I have serious reservations about the emerging conversation.

I’m not certain that I want all of my life to be Jesus-flavored.  In other words, I’m not ready to devote myself completely to Jesus, and I don’t know if I’m even interested in doing so–sometimes it seems great, but usually it seems like to make it work for me I’d have to do a lot of self-brainwashing that I am absolutely unwilling to do.

What about the personal transformation that I claimed to have felt beginning?  If that’s the result I want from religion, and my intuition says Christianity offer it, and I’ve even felt its beginnings as I started to practice Christianity, then why did I stop?  They were great, I’ll admit it.  In fact, This is not an easy question to answer.  Maybe personal transofrmation isn’t really what I’m wanting after all.  Or maybe it is, but there’s too much other stuff in the package of Christianity (or even in the package of Jesus), such that I feel the need to look elsewhere for transformation.  Or maybe a part of the transformation I wanted was a connection, a relationoship with God that never seemed to actually happen.  Perhaps the transformation I want is not just into a better person, but a better person that is connected to God.  And I certainly didn’t feel like that was happening.  Not even a little bit.

So what am I supposed to make of all of this?  I’m at a loss.  On some level I have an attraction to Jesus and to Christianity, but not such that I would be willing to call myself (or think of myself as) Christian in any meaningful sense.  Does it matter?  On one level, no–I can believe whatever I want, of course.  On another level, if I could self-identify as a Christian, then it would give so much direction to an otherwise extremely difficult (and basically directionless) spiritual journey.  Maybe that’s not enough.  As usual, I just don’t know.

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Since I started looking for a church, the one that has appealed to me the most has been the Episcopal church.  I liked the Lutheran church, too- in practice it was very similar, but I wasn;t excited about it having Luther’s name attached to it, and I felt like a British church was slightly more culturally relevant to me than a German church, although the preference is only mild.

Anyway, when I look for a direction to go, a way to follow Christ, Anglicanism (and since I’m in the US, that means the Episcopal church) continues to beckon as an attractive and meaningful path.  In all honesty, the odds are decent that this is the direction that I will eventually go, once I get all of my issues sorted out.

Of all the mainline Protestant denominations I am familiar with, the Episcopal church appealed to me the most for several reasons.  I like the liturgical aspect, and I like the communion/eucharist-centered service.  However, my concerns with Episcopalianism/Anglicanism that I am going to express in this post also apply to the rest of mainline Protestantism  So keep that in mind.  In general, I am more interested in older Protestant denominations, though, i.e., the ones that came more or less directly out of the Reformation.

Anglicanism’s via media is very appealing to me.  In theory, it has the good parts of Catholicism- the meaningful liturgy and ritual, an ordained clergy that can trace apostolic succession, and a lot of tradition, coupled with basic Protestant theology, a lot of tolerance, and (in theory) a tradition of latitudinarianism that allows for a pretty theologically diverse bunch to all be united in one communion.

I also really, really like Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  If allAnglicans were like him, I would join the Episcopal church without reservation.  He is intelligent, creative, insightful, and he is able to maintain the same kind of balance between theological orthodoxy and progressive social action and an inclusive attitude that Brian McLaren advocates.  Except where McLaren is kind of adorably fumbling about it, the Archbishop does it all with such elegance.  Unfortunately, it seems that instead of a church of Rowan Williamses, the Anglican communion is more a church of John Shelby Spongs and Peter Akinolas, tearing at each others’ throats, and I want nothing to do with either of those types.

First I want to address my Bishop Spong problem, and it’s really not a problem with Spong per se  so much as it is a problem with theological liberalism in general.  But given how outspoken Spong has been, and the kind of “Christianity” he has advocated, he’s kind of my lightning rod for everything I think is wrong with that side of the theological spectrum.  In my opinion, theological liberalism is dross.  Why be a Christian is you don;t really believe in the empty tomb, the incarnation, the resurrection?  Why bother?

As Rowan Williams put it in his eloquent (if slightly academic) response to Spong’s 12 theses, back when Williams was the Bishop of Monmouth,

For the record: I have never quite managed to see how we can make sense of the sacramental life of the Church without a theology of the risen body; and I have never managed to see how to put together such a theology without belief in the empty tomb. If a corpse clearly marked ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ turned up, I should save myself a lot of trouble and become a Quaker.

If Jesus is just a mortal philosopher, I see no reason to bother with Christianity at all.  I realize that accepting Jesus as God means having to deal with some hard issues and maybe living with some serious paradoxes, but I see it as the only way to be a Christian, and I want to be a Christian.

My point is that mainline Christianity in general and the Episcopal Church in specific are so riddled with theological liberalism that I don’t know if they’re really worth bothering with, or if I’ll just be frustrated all the time.

At the same time, I think religious fundamentalism is equally ridiculous.  Both religious fundamentalism and theological liberalism are the bastard children of modernism, and are in my mind the chief case for why modernism was horribly bad for Christianity.

If the Episcopal church could find a way to be progressive without compromising the essential beliefs of Christianity, it would, in my opinion, be the best of all worlds.  Unfortunately, at least the American Episcopal church seems to be doing a whole lot of compromising.

I have other concerns with the Episcopal church, too.  Chief among them is that so far, I haven’t seen much in the way of authentic community.  Juice and cookies in the undercroft do not a community make.  I imagine that part of this is a matter of finding the right parish, and also of persisting- real community is like a living thing, and living things don’t usually spontaneously spring fully grown into existence.

There’s also a teeny tiny bit of stigma attached, since becoming an Episcopalian would mean pretty much embracing the ultimate expression of WASPishness.  But I guess I can deal with that.

Next, I think the worldwide Anglican Communion’s current shenanigans over homosexuality are shameful.  Don’t get me wrong- I think Christianity’s attitude towards homosexual people has been decidedly un-Christian.  However, I think that by stepping out on its own to ordain gay bishops and bless homosexual unions, the American Episcopal church pretty much pissed all over the idea of unity within the Communion.  It was rash and reckless, and probably (if also unfortunately) too soon.

At the same time, the response of the Northern Virginia parishes has been tantamount to “taking our toys and going home” when the game doesn’t go their way, which is equally disrespectful to unity and togetherness.  And Peter Akinola’s response, to actually promote the schism, has been the crowning deed of the whole affair, completely un-called-for and inappropriate, displaying a kind of scorn and derision to the Anglcian Communion as a whole that completely undermines everything that it is supposed to stand for.

Whatever it turns out that God really wants, I’m pretty sure it’s not recriminations and schism.  The actions of both sides of this debate betray a disregard for Christian unity and brotherhood/sisterhood that makes me very sad.  Kudos to the Archbishop for dis-inviting both sides to the Lambeth conference.

Now, as a non-Anglican, it can be argued that the whole thing is none of my business.  But at the same time, I’m considering becoming an Anglican, and so the situation is important to me.  I’m not excited about the prospect of joining up and then being caught in the ultra-liberal faction of a schism that never should have happened in the first place.

But I have to weigh that concern against the incredible good that I see in Anglicanism.  I feel the sense of authoritative-ness that I’m looking for, both in the clergy and in the institution.  I feel that there is so much room for spirituality and even mysticism (especially with Rowan Williams in the Archbishop’s seat), and also Christlike life and social action.  The churches and the liturgy are beautiful, and they bring a sense of holiness and connection to God.

In any case, this is the situation where I am seriously torn.  I want very badly to go down this road, but I am afraid that the obstacles are simply too great.

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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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I’m always thinking about religion, faith, and belief. At the moment I’m a provisional atheist, but I’m not excited about being a permanent member of the club. I may ultimately feel like I have no choice, but if I do, I’d just as soon be some kind of believer.

Anyway, here are some of the ideas I’m tossing around in my head.

I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell and thinking about the interaction between myth and the human psyche. I wonder if Myth is the process by which human beings process the unprocessable. There’s something out ther,e bigger than all of us, and to attempt to define it scientifically would probably utterly fail. It has to be tackled holistically, using all the disciplines and arts and sciences and philosophies that humanity has at its disposa, and even then we miss it completely. So maybe Myth is the way we deal with it. We conceptualize it in a way that we can wrap our minds around. We use Myth as metaphor for the deeper reality that we otherwise are completely incapable of communicating.

If that is the case, then theology is probably a lost cause- at least if we think that theology is somehow going to lead us to an ultimate truth. Narrative, on the other hand, becomes extremely important.

If that is the case, then to do something with this transcendant reality, humans need ot negage it in a way that is meaningful for them. Thus, different societies and cultures have different myths and religions based on those myths based on what resonates with their culture. For me, the most resonant Myth would be Christianity. Seen that way, I could envision myself believing in God and following Jesus Christ, but with the reservation that I knew full well that it was just the best way I know of how to get at the Ultimate Mystery of Existence.

I simply cannot believe in God, face value, as described by any one religion. And I feel like simply entertaining some vague notion of transcendant reality is not sufficient for anything approaching spiritual fulfillment. So if I am to believe in something, I need to find a vehicle for that belief, and keeping in mind the ultimate flaws in any human conception of the sacred/divine/spiritual is how I would avoid the pitfalls of dogmatism and fundamentalism and furthermore be able to feel intellectually honest with myself.

I realize that this sounds a lot like the liberal Christianity that I normally dismiss without another thought. I don’t know what to do about that except to say that it just might be the best I can do. I also wonder if this doesn’t sound awfully like Neopagan theology, except that I’ve decided to believe in Jesus instead of, I don’t know, Zeus or something.

Anyway, that’s what’s on my mind right now. I’m also trying to read Kierkegaard. From what I know about his approach, it sounds interesting and different, and maybe something I can get on board with. We’ll see.

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Like most people, I think, I don’t like to be pigeonholed.  I don’t like people to assume things about me based on single facts, observations, or labels.

Yeah, I left the Mormon church.  I didn’t “get offended,” I didn’t commit adultery, and I was absolutely committed to the Church in a lifelong sense before I left (i.e. I wasn’t a fair-weather Mormon).  Many of my problems with Mormonism aren’t the same as other peoples’ problems with it.  I’m not a bitter, angry anti-Mormon, though sometimes I am bitter and angryabout some things, sure.  I’m not an ex-Mormon caricature.

No, I don’t believe in God right now.  That doesn’t mean I think Richard Dawkins is a prophet.  It doesn’t mean I’m angry or I hate God or anything.  It also doesn’t mean it’s a done deal.  I don’t really want to stay an atheist.  I never did.  If I can find a way to believe in God and still feel like I’m being intellectually and emotionally honest with myself, I will probably return to theism.  If not, I will probably stick with atheism.  Whatever your official definition of “atheism” is, and whether or not you think I should really be classed as an agnostic, is completely irrelevant to me.  I don’t affirmatively believe in God because I do not recognize any affirmaitve evidence for God (even subjective evidence).  I’m not an atheist caricature, and I’m also not a very good poster child for the journey into atheism, because I don’t necessarily plan on sticking around anyway.

And when I was a Mormon, I wasn’t a stereotypical Mormon.  I believed that homosexual marriage should be legal.  I had my own spin and my own interpretation for many doctrines.  I strongly disliked some of the General Authorities (Gene R. Cook, I’m lookin’ at you).  My gut always leaned in a little more of a pluralist direction than the party line espoused.  I was never interested in the Work and the Glory, and I thought a lot of Mormon art, music, and film was really, really lame.

If I become a Christian, I won’t be a stereotypical Christian.  I won’t be a fundamentalist caricature.  I won’t blithely abandon rational thought.  I won’t start lobbying for the Ten Commandments to be put up in courtrooms.  I’ll never claim that I can logically prove Christianity.  I won’t start reading Left Behind books.  I probably won’t vote Republican.  I certainly will never believe in Hell.

The thing is, I shouldn’t have to feel like I have to qualify myself like that.  I wish I could just say “I don’t believe in God” and then enter into a real dialogue where people actually listen to what I am saying instead of assuming they know where i’m coming from already.  Especially since I’d just as soon believe in God.  I’d prefer to be religious, actually.  But when I tell people I don’t believe in God, they either 1) assume that I’m a Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris clone and begin to argue with me or write me off accordingly, 2) try to convince me that I should label myself differently than I do because they don’t agree with my definitions, or 3) congratulate me heartily on growing up and leaving silly religion behind.  None of those approaches comes close ot the mark, and all of them subtly influence how I perceive myself.  So like I said, I’m mildly irked.

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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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