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Posts Tagged ‘Atonement’

Matthew 22:1-14 is a parable, and it has nothing to do with ceremonial symbolic underwear.

We are told in the New Testament to put off the old man (Colossians 3:9 and Ephesians 4:22) and put on Jesus Christ (Romans 13:13 and Galatians 3:27).

The man without the wedding garment is cast out because he hasn’t been called by God and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. The problem is not that he is wearing the wrong underwear, it’s that he wasn’t invited to the wedding feast.

Look at Ezekiel 16–the whole chapter is absolutely beautiful–God finds us wretched, filthy, and playing harlot, and He dresses us in glorious new clothing and makes us his bride.

Rituals and ceremonial objects won’t save you. Only the grace of God and the blood of the Lamb will.

(This post is adapted from a comment on Wheat & Tares, and that comment was mostly a paraphrase of John Calvin’s commentaries).

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Sometime in mid-2012, I turned to Jesus.

There wasn’t a day when I had a big spiritual experience, or made a conscious decision. So maybe some people will say I’m not really converted or not really born again. Maybe they’re right; I get nervous about it sometimes. But I do know that on January 1 of 2012 I still identified as a pagan, but on December 31 of 2012, I was a committed little-o orthodox Christian.

I hadn’t been much of a pagan in awhile, to tell you the truth. I was not particularly pious by then. I had pretty much totally stopped making offerings or praying or singing hymns to the gods at all. My paganism had sputtered out into just thinking pagany thoughts every now and then and reading pagan blogs. I was more into the Civil War, Southern literature and country music than I was into the theoi. And I tried to hold it all together into some sort of broad paganism that could include all of that stuff, but it didn’t ever really seem to fit right (Stonewall Jackson was a Presbyterian who talked about Providence all the time, Flannery O’Connor was deeply Catholic and it intensely informed all of her work, and Jesus is all over country music), and it was increasingly evident that the paganism was slipping away.

I also started getting more interested in pagany things that leaned a bit back Christianward. Tarot. Arthurian stuff. In fact, that was one of the first tipping points, really. I read Keith Baines’s rendition of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in the spring of 2012, grail quest and all, and it moved things in my heart. I was back to thinking about Druidry and Vedanta a bit (again, trying to hold it all together). I read Gareth Knight and underlined all the references to Jesus and the Trinity (there are a lot). I started looking into the Gnostic gospels. I picked up some books about esoteric Christianity. And within a really short amount of time, I was earnestly reading the Gospel of John and then the rest of the actual Bible.

At the same time, my kids were getting older and getting literate. My oldest (then six) was starting to get interested in the Bible and Bible stories. We always had tried to be multireligious (my paganism, my beautiful and sexy wife’s Christianity), but it was plain that the kids liked Jesus best.

Flashing back for a minute–the day I knew I was going to marry Katyjane was the day I came back from Chattacon with my buddy James and we went straight to a Young Single Adult broadcast at church. I looked around for a place to sit, and I sat down by my friend Daniel. But then, a few rows up, I saw Katyjane, sitting by herself. So I hopped back up and went up to sit next to her. And when I sat down, it felt so insanely right. I was in trouble. I knew I wanted to sit next to her in church for the rest of my life.

So going to church with Katyjane, and now with my kids, was important to me. Even if I was a pagan. But we hadn’t been going to church regularly since we moved to Chicago, and I kind of wanted to start again. Especially since my kids were showing interest (and pWning me with the Bible, which is a story I’ll tell in another post). So my mind was inclined in that direction.

As I said above, I was also listening to a lot of country music (I still am), and that also meant basically relentless exposure to Jesus. I could not help but think about Jesus Christ because the music I listened to mentioned him over and over again and it moved me. It was troubling, uncomfortable, and kind of exciting.

But again, there was no moment of clarity. No road to Damascus (unless the whole year was my road to Damascus). I mentally made peace with some sort of Green, liberal, vaguely Hinduish pagany kind of Christianity, but that was clearly just a threshold to walk through, since I spent basically zero time grappling with that. Instead I was just on a straight trajectory to orthodoxy. I picked C.S. Lewis back up and read Miracles, and was blown away by how much I had just glossed over things like the Incarnation when I was first grappling with Christianity as a post-Mormon.

That’s important: I left Mormonism mostly because I had an increasing sense that Mormonism and Biblical Christianity were not the same thing. But I really struggled with Christianity in the years after that because my notion of what Christianity is was really limited to the teachings of Jesus and the Atonement. I think I had an acceptable handle on those, but I understood them in such a radically different context that I just could not make the direct transition, and I didn’t realize the pieces I was missing. even when I read about them I just kind of glossed over them as secondary. No wonder I struggled.

But this time, coming to Christianity with fresh eyes after a couple of years of pagan detoxification, it was all just totally new, and totally amazing. I just found myself hungering for the Bible and for Jesus and the more I consumed, the hungrier I got. I still feel that way. Reading the Bible just makes me want to read the Bible more.

So Jesus just sort of gradually sucked me in.

By the end of the year, we had moved to Baltimore (that was unrelated, but not irrelavent), I was reading the Bible and praying every day for the first time in years, I was devouring N.T. Wright’s New Testament for Everyone, and I believed in Jesus Christ, my prophet, priest and king and my only savior. And then I spent 2013 continuing to grow. We were baptized. We joined a church. I kept reading the Bible. I prayed more. I put my trust in Jesus. I even read Augustine!

I have to eat a lot of crow to write this, and of of the reasons I have held off on spelling it all out is fear of being called out for wishy-washiness. “Oh, Kullervo’s found a different religion again. Must be a day that ends in -y.” I don’t have an answer for that either, other than to swear that this time it’s different. But of course I can say that all day. I can say that through all my pagan years, I always had a sneaking suspicion that I would eventually come back to Christianity, that like C.S. Lewis I had to learn to be a good pagan before I could learn to be a Christian, but I realize that’s easy to say and hard to believe. Maybe it doesn’t matter because it’s ultimately between me and Jesus anyway.

But I wanted to finally write it all out, mostly so that I can refer back to it in some other posts I want to write and not have to give a lot of background every time.

So there you have it. There’s a lot of different ways to look at that I guess. Country music and the Bible turned me to Jesus. A good Christian woman turned my heart to God. The Holy Grail and the blood of the Lamb called me straight from heaven itself. I finally dropped the pretense of exploring spirituality unbounded and settled down like I was always going to do anyway. However you want to look at it, that’s how it happened.

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Fall of Adam

I’ve been thinking about original sin a lot over the past few years. Right now my beautiful and sexy wife and I are working through Credo House‘s Discipleship Program, and in Session 2: Mankind, Michael Patton and Tim Kimberley (going back to Augustine and Calvin, of course) break mankind’s sin problem down into three categories:

Particular Sin: This is the easiest one to buy into and, as a Mormon, it’s the only one I grew up believing in. Weirdly, for orthodox Protestants, it’s actually the least important. Our particular sins are the specific sins we commit during our lifetimes. No big stretch at all to imagine that God will hold us accountable for them; even Pelagius agrees. It seems fair.

Inherited Sin: By inherited sin I mean a sinful nature, and this is more than just being born into an environment where people sin and we learn by example (Pelagius again), but an inherent sinful nature that we are born with. Not just nurture, but actual nature: an inherent propensity to sin that we can’t overcome on our own. This I did not grow up believing in (as Mormons are pretty Pelagian), but I have grown convinced of it since coming back to Christianity. I even wrote what I consider to be one of my better blog posts about it back in 2012. I really hope that you will go back and read it, but to briefly summarize in case you don’t, I believe that the idea that we are subject to inherited sin is actually a far more just doctrine than the Mormon/Pelagian idea that we are guilty for our own sins only, because it acknowledges the reality that we really do lack the power to obey God’s law:

You didn’t choose original sin; you inherited it. You didn’t choose darkness, you were born into it. And that is why the atonement makes original sin also a just doctrine. Injustice would be if God expected you to overcome your broken nature through self-discipline, which is impossible precisely because of your broken nature. Instead, God came into the world to free you from your broken nature: you didn’t break yourself, and you are not responsible for fixing yourself.

So far, so good. Original Sin: I’m on board. But then we get to the idea of imputed sin, and that’s a sticky wicket.

Imputed Sin: The doctrine of imputed sin holds that we are not only guilty of our own particular sins and guilty of having a broken and sinful nature, but that we are actually each individually and personally guilty of Adam’s sin. That absolutely flies in the face of our contemporary cultural ideas about individual responsibility, justice and fairness. Why should we be guilty for someone else’s particular sin? How is that fair? And I don’t know if I’m one hundred percent sold on it, but I am starting to lean towards it based on Romans 5 (and a drift towards believing in Biblical infallibility). The idea that one person can be held responsible for another person’s particular sin sounds ridiculous at first, but then, hang on, because it turns out that’s precisely how the Atonement works. If imputation of sin is not possible, then Jesus can’t die for our sins. And that sure sounds like what Paul is saying in Romans 5, if you read him carefullly and allow him to communicate to you with the precision that he intended (I think that Mormons are able to gloss over Paul by treating his wrigint in the sort of broad narrative sense that you can treat most of the rest of the Bible, but that doesn’t do Paul justice because unlike, say, the Evangelists, Paul was writing precisely and theologically, so we need to do our best to read him that way).

So I’m grappling with the doctrine of imputed sin, and I am coming around to the idea that it may in fact be a Biblically sound doctrine, even though it’s hard to swallow. The fact that it sticks in my craw a bit shouldn’t be a good reason to just discard it–if I do that then really I’m just giving authority to some other influence (my culture, my upbringing, popular culture, my political values) that I have less reason to trust than the Bible. And Jesus’s disciples were constantly telling him that his sayings were hard to accept–having to deal with “hard sayings” is a part of Christianity and means exercising faith when things might not make sense (and I think we need to avoid the kind of easy and arrogant read of Jesus that tames him to our modern cultural values and then assumes that the disciples just thought his sayings were hard because they were primitive and backward and didn’t want to forgive people or love one another like we are totally cool with doing).

So then that brings us to evolution.

I’m not really sure about how the Biblical account of creation and scientific models of the origin of life are reconciled. I don’t really think that my salvation depends on it one way or another, and I am comforted in openness by the fact that we know that some of the church fathers, including Ambrose of Milan and no less than Augustine, didn’t believe in a literal reading of Genesis. But if Paul actually described imputed sin in Romans 5, how does that work if there was no historical Adam?

I think that it’s a bigger issue than just creation vs. evolution, because if (1) there was no real Adam, (2) you can’t have imputed sin without a real Adam and (3) Paul preached imputed sin in Romans 5, then I think we have a problem. Because that means Paul preached something impossible in the middle of the logical argument of the book of the New Testament that constitutes pretty much the theological bedrock foundation of the Protestant Reformation. If Romans goes, a whole lot goes with it.

The issue is in my head right now because it has come up on Tim’s blog (in the comments to the post that I vote “Sounds Most Like A Death Metal Band”). I admit that I haven’t done all of my homework on what people are saying about a historical Adam in light of scientific theories of the origin of humanity and its theological ramifications, so I’m sort of asking the internet to fill me in. So, internet, tell me: can you have imputed sin and no historical Adam?

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mormon-jesus-gethsemane

[After posting this, my beautiful and sexy wife pointed out the huge hole in my thesis, so I am going to re-tool the post and re-post it in the near future, but I am leaving it up for now even though it is massively flawed.]

So, in light of some frustrating discussions lately with Mormons about the nature of the Atonement (most particularly this one), I think I have managed to nail down two competing Mormon Atonement narratives or models:

1. Heavenly Father requires your perfect obedience in order for you to qualify for exaltation (“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—-and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.D&C 130:20-21). Mortals are born innocent and fully able to obey Heavenly Father’s commandments, but we have free will and we are subjected to temptation, and so each of us will inevitably, sometimes, break the commandments. Jesus came to earth and suffered in Gethsemane to pay the price for all of our sins and transgressions, and because of his sacrifice, we are able to go through the repentance process and have our sins effectively erased, so that we are counted in Heavenly Father’s eyes as if you had kept the perfect standard (so mercy satisfies the irrevocably decreed demand of justice). However, over time, in the eternities, we will stumble and fall short less and less, and eventually progress to where we, like Heavenly Father, no longer need repentance.

Put simply, we qualify for exaltation by never deviating from the standard of perfection. If and when we do deviate, the Atonement erases the deviation so that it is as if we had never sinned. So our exaltation is something that we earn by perfect obedience, and to the extent we are unable to be perfectly obedient, Jesus takes up the shortfall if we have faith in him, repent and have our sins washed away by baptism (and regularly renew our baptism through taking the sacrament).

I think that this model is internally consistent, and generally more supportable from Mormon sources across the standard works and the words of latter-day prophets and apostles. I think that it reflects a Mormonism that can be found in Kimball’s Miracle of Forgiveness. I suspect that older Mormons, Mormons who live in more homogenous Mormon communities and more traditionally-minded Mormons are more likely to espouse this first model. If you had asked me to explain the Atonement as an adolescent or early on my mission, I would have explained it in terms of this first model.

I also think that this first model is thoroughly Pelagian.

2. Heavenly Father wants to bring about our exaltation, which is a thing of infinite worth and so it comes with an infinite price. We have no means of paying an infinite price, so justice demands that we can’t be given an infinite gift that we did not earn. Jesus came to earth and suffered in Gethsemane, paying an infinite price on our behalf, essentially purchasing our exaltation for us. We can then take part in the exaltation that Jesus has bought with his sacrifice when we fulfill the requirements that he has set: faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the holy ghost and enduring to the end.

In this model, we do not directly qualify for exaltation. We qualify for it only indirectly through Jesus, who pays the entire price to obtain it, and then grants it to us (or gives us access to it) if we, in a separate transaction, meet the requirements he sets out. Mercy thus satisfies justice twice: once when Jesus pays an infinite price for our exaltation that we cannot pay, and once when he gives it to us for a price we can.

I also think that this second model is generally internally consistent, but I do not think it is as consistent with historical Mormon sources. We could probably have an argument about the degree of tension it has with other Mormon ideas, doctrines and texts. I think that it reflects a contemporary, PR-conscious and interfaith-dialogue-minded Mormonism that emphasizes the role of Jesus Christ and the Atonement, minimizes historic Momronism, and is influenced by Stephen E. Robinson’s Believing Christ. I suspect that younger Mormons and Mormons who live in diverse, pluralist urban centers and Mormons who are more engaged with postmodern culture are more likely to espouse this second model. I would not be surprised if, in a generation or two, this second model becomes overwhelmingly the norm among Mormons and will be taught consistently from the pulpit as if it had always been the norm. I would have explained the Atonement in terms of this second model towards the end of my mission and as a Mormon adult.

I’m not sure if the second model is Pelagian or not (kinda doesn’t matter since it’s still based on a completely and thoroughly heretical Christology). I suspect that Mormons who espouse the second model would assert that it is consistent with Protestant ideas about salvation by faith through grace, but I think you would have to look hard to find a Protestant who would agree.

Given the Mormon tendency to eschew systematic theology, I think that many Mormons probably hold oth models without giving it a lot of thought and without thinking about whether the models are consistent (not that Mormons lack the intellectual rigor to do so; I think they are just more likely to approach the atonement devotionally instead of theologically, and be satisfied* with any illustration or explanation of the Atonement that is sufficiently moving, reverent, and not obviously inconsistent with other Mormon doctrine).

To my Mormon readers: Do either of these models fairly represent your beliefs about the Atonement? Which one do you think is the most consistent with scripture and the teachings of latter-day prophets and apostles? Do you think that these models are mutually exclusive? If not, why not?

To everyone else, let me know your thoughts and observations. Let’s discuss.

*Did you see what I did there?

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The Mormon Second Article of Faith says “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” This understanding of personal accountability for sin is a rejection of the idea of original sin. On its face, it seems incredibly just. Why should we be held accountable for someone else’s misdeeds? Mormons are proud of this doctrine. And while I have not taken a thorough survey of worldwide Christians on the subject, I imagine that the understanding of sin and the Fall that are wrapped up in this Article of Faith are in no way unique to Mormonism.

This understanding of the Fall says that through Adam and Eve’s transgression, humanity became not corrupt but corruptible. This belief holds that we inherit from Adam and Eve only the capacity to sin. As free agents, we are able to choose between sin and not-sin. This is very important: just as we have the capacity to be sinful, we also theoretically have the capacity to be sinless, but as a practical matter, each of us individually fails to do so. The fact that we all inevitably choose to transgress is forseeable and predictable, but really, at the end of the day your sins are nobody’s fault but your own, and the consequences of your sins are justly earned by you and you alone. You could choose not to sin, but you do not. If you simply exercised enough self-discipline, you would be sinless. Thus, your eligibility for heaven is a product of the quantity of sins you have committed. If you have committed more sins than zero, you are ineligible for heaven and in need of salvation. If you have committed zero sins, you are eligible for heaven. Your guilt is your own; you have nobody to blame but yourself.

That’s important. Think about that. Consider its magnitude. You have free agency, and you have personally and individually chosen to sin. Consequently, you are ineligible for heaven unless you, personally and individually, are able to erase the stain of your sin or find a way to get someone else to erase it for you. Because you have chosen to commit a quantity of sin that is greater than zero (whether it is a finite or infinite quantity is, for the purposes of this discussion, irrelevant), you are in need of a quantity of atonement that is greater than zero. The scales must be balanced.

This is a harsh rule, but certainly holding me accountable for the sins I committed is more fair than holding me accountable for the sins someone else committed, right?

Except, that’s not what original sin is all about at all.

I shouldn’t have to sell you Aura Salve to convince you that we are a fallen race living in a fallen world. Just look around at, oh, the entire sum of human history. We are broken and dysfunctional on an individual, cultural, national, and even global level. We hurt each other. We exploit each other. We destroy our environment. We hurt ourselves. We destroy ourselves. We are slaves to our habits, our appetites and our addictions. We are sick. Sure, we manage to do some good things too, but rarely without some destructive fallout somewhere, usually with a lot of it, and the fact that we are able to callously ignore so much of the fallout is even more evidence of our sickness. We are broken. We are fallen.

Through the Fall of Adam and Eve, we have inherited a broken nature. A sin nature. That’s original sin. We are heirs to brokenness. The idea that if we just exercised our free agency correctly we could choose to live sinless lives is a ridiculous and self-destructive notion. We are broken because we have a broken nature. Yes, we are autonomous moral agents, hypothetically capable of making any decision. For that to really play out in practical terms would require a kind of neutral contextual baseline that does not exist. We are not blank slates of pure will born into blank slate world. To an incredibly great extent, the way we are able to exercise our free agency is limited by our circumstances. By our environment. By culture, situation and upbringing. We are invariably the product of our situation, and our situation is a fallen world, and here is the rub: ours is a fallen world for which we, individually, are not responsible.

That doesn’t make us any less broken and miserable. That doesn’t make us any more able to bear the presence of God. But what it does mean is that we are hurting enough as it is without needing to borrow pain. The belief that we are ineligible for heaven because of our particular, individual sins leaves us on a self-destructive treadmill of guilt and shame, because we are never gong to stop committing them. Even if we believe that forgiveness for specific sins is obtainable, it still means a lifetime of feeling like heaven is slipping through our grasp as, no matter how often we believe we can obtain forgiveness, we inevitably sin again. The result may very well be a lifetime of darkness, self-loathing, despair and moral exhaustion: evidence that the notion that righteousness is a matter of disciplined sinlessness, the Second Article of Faith itself, is itself a product of our fallen nature and this fallen world.

None of this is necessary at all. Compared to the enormity of our fallen world and our fallen nature, our particular, individual sins are really kind of petty.

Original sin is thus a profoundly merciful doctrine. It is a realistic doctrine. Yes, you sin. Yes, you choose to sin. But let’s be honest, you choose to sin because you are broken and you are broken because humanity is broken. You were born broken. You were born a slave to sin and darkness.

Jesus Christ wasn’t crucified to balance a cosmic ledger-book and pay off a debt you incurred by committing your specific sins so that you can get a priceless reward you don’t deserve. Jesus Christ was crucified to defeat sin itself and ransom you from the shackles of a fallen world, to work in you a transformation from brokenness to wholeness. Jesus Christ came to redeem you, not from your sins, but from the reason that you commit them–the brokenness that is at the heart of all the dysfunction and darkness in your life. Jesus Christ came to redeem you from your sinful nature. Jesus Christ came to redeem you from original sin.

You didn’t choose original sin; you inherited it. You didn’t choose darkness, you were born into it. And that is why the atonement makes original sin also a just doctrine. Injustice would be if God expected you to overcome your broken nature through self-discipline, which is impossible precisely because of your broken nature. Instead, God came into the world to free you from your broken nature: you didn’t break yourself, and you are not responsible for fixing yourself.

Thank God.

(Author’s Note: This was originally cross-posted from Into the Hills.)

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Once again this year I am baffled by how big of a deal Mormons do not make out of Easter. It’s a total non-holiday, while by contrast in most of the rest of the Christian world it is the high point in the liturgical (or even semi-liturgical or not liturgical at all!) year. It is the culmination of at least forty days of preparation, prayer and fasting, and it is the most important holiday in the religion.

By contrast, in most Mormon wards you’ll get some resurrection-themed hymns and probably a talk or two about the Atonement, maybe, or about Jesus generally. And if you confront Mormons about this they’ll say they focus on the Atonement all year long, so they don’t need to go out of their way to make an even bigger deal about it just once a year. Which of course implies that the rest of Christianity is ignoring Jesus all year long except for one big day in the spring. And that is complete poppycock. What Mormons do not understand about Christianity is that there is a cycle, a rhythm to the year of worship, and the climax of all of it is Easter. It’s like the liturgical year is a song about Jesus, but Holy week is the Crescendo, the apex, the high point, the really cool part of the song where the horns come in and it blows you completely away!

What Mormons also don’t understand is that their caricature-ideas about mainstream Christianity is either completely inaccurate or nearly 200 years out of date.

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On the one hand, I’m sure it looks like I’m going ’round and ’round in circles with God and religion, retreading the same ground and getting nowhere. Sometimes I wonder if that is in fact what is going on, and if I can ever be satisfied and happy. Most of the time, though, I am pretty sure that I am slowly, carefully refining the issues, figuring out really what is at stake and what I think, and what decisions I really have to make.

At the moment, I think I have my religious question basically boiled down to the following ideas:

I’m inclined to think that there is a god, even though I have my doubts. I do not think that god is completely knowable by human beings. I also do not necessarily think that getting some (or even a lot of) things wrong about god is as big of a deal as human beings historically tend to. I’m not sure if god is personal or impersonal, or if god is maybe impersonal but with facets that can be personal-ish. Maybe. In any case, atheism does not suit me. I want both a religious identity and a path for spiritual development. Thus, I want a religion.

I really like a lot of things about Christianity. I find Christian theology appealing. I like the liturgy, the hymns, the architecture, the ritual, the idea of church, the liturgical year, the resurrection. I like C. S. Lewis, a lot. When I read C. S. Lewis, I want to be a Christian. Theoretically, I like the Bible, even though my attempts at reading it over the last two years have been most unsatisfactory.  I’m attached to Christianity as a religion, and am extremely bothered by the idea of giving it up entirely.  I even sometimes entertain the notion of going to seminary and becoming an Episcopal priest someday.

Unfortunately, despite everything I’ve just said, I don’t think I actually believe (in) Christianity. I like the idea of Jesus Christ as God incarnate quite a bit, but I don’t seem to actually believe that it it is so. I like the idea of salvation from sin through Jesus Christ’s supreme sacrifice, but I’m not sure I’m really all that worried about my sins, I find the idea of hell implausible, I don’t necessarily feel like I am in need of salvation (I feel plenty of wretched, just not necessarily wretched because of my sins or sinful nature) and I’m not convinced that this supreme sacrifice in fact happened. I think that the resurrection is plausible, but I don’t necessarily think that it means the whole package of Christianity is true.

I think I actually believe something a whole lot more like Vedanta, like the ideas expressed in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita about Brahman and everything, the world and people and you and me and God, all being really the same thing. I’m not culturally Indian, so Hinduism as a religion has no appeal to me whatsoever, and all of the New Religious Movements that have spun off from Hinduism in the west are, well, New Religious Movements. Pretty much they are to Hinduism what Mormonism is to Christianity (and Soka Gakkai is to Buddhism), and I am not interested in that at all. I’ve already done aa quasi-cult, thanks. I’m not really in the market for another one.

So I would prefer to read the Bible because I prefer the idea of reading the Bible, but in reality I find the Gita and the Upanishads so much more meaningful.

Also, I find various flavors of Paganism (neo and otherwise) extremely appealing: Asatru, Druidry, the Greek Gods, etc. I feel like all of that would dovetail a whole lot better with the Bhagavad Gita than it would the Bible. I’m European, not Indian, so actually becoming a Hindu is not interesting at all to me, but I think that the philosophy underlying Hinduism and tying it together can easily be applied to any Indo-European mythology.  I think that AODA Druidry as spiritual practice, Vedanta as philosophy, and European myth as a corpus of spiritual literature is an extremely reasonable combination, and probably a hell of a lot closer to what I actually believe than Chistianity ever will be.

But, Christianity is more appealing for some reason.  And for a lot of reasons, Vedanta+Druidry+Mythology, although it might actually be what I believe, is extremely unappealing.  There’s a lack of clear religious identity, for one.  There’s no Christmas.  Druidry as spiritual practice sometimes seems shallow and empty to me–it is missing the millennia of tradition that Christianity has.  There are the social and cultural problems with identifying as an odd religion.  Treading a new path means missing out on the guidance of people who have gone before.  There’s the worry that I’m really just cherry-picking the things I like.  There are issues about the source of morality and the source of values (that I am exploring in another series of posts).  And in my head, Vedanta+Druidry+Mythology just doesn’t have the same, I don’t know, pow! that Christianity has.  And it doesn’t have C. S. Lewis.

So I know what I probably believe, but it doesn’t happen to be the same thing as what I would like to believe.  But my desire to believe Christianity is subtly undermined by the things I actually do believe.  I’m not sure how to resolve this painlessly–there may simply be no painless resolution–but I think it is extremely important that I have arrived at (or at least I’m getting closer to) the central question in my search for God.

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I was going to continue this series of posts, but it stopped seeming as important after awhile.  In the itnerests of continuity, I will publish the rest of my notes on the parts I didn’t finish.  Forthe record, I am writing this in April 2009, in the process of going back and filling in the blanks in this here blog o’ mine.

These notes are incomplete, and probably really vague in spots, but they were only meant to be an outline. Maybe they make sense in this context; I’m not sure. Anyway, here they are.

III. Religious Choices and their Values

So to recap, at this point in my life I am more interested in religion as a pathway to a source of objective morality than I have previously been. Objective morality is not the only factor I am considering—many of the elements in my thought process can’t properly be described as “factors” or things that I am “considering” at all. More than anything else, I am drawn to particular faiths or aspects of faiths because I find them compelling on some level. But once I feel that draw, I have to evaluate the faith somehow, and right now a faith’s access to a source of objective values is extremely important to me.

A. Christianity

In terms of objective morality, Christianity seems at first to be relatively unproblematic. This should not be entirely surprising since my rubric for evaluating values is largely informed by C. S. Lewis, a Christian apologist. This may indeed mean that I have made an a priori decision in favor of Christianity and thus this entire inquiry is a sham, unless of course I am willing to reject my ideas about morality, which I am unwilling to do. If that is so, then this is indeed only a phase in my development as a Christian, an important reassessment of what is important to me.

However, I do not think that this is necessarily the case. While Christianity generally comes down on the side of objective values, there are enough significant exceptions in areas of Christianity that are formative or important to me that the conclusion is not foregone. Furthermore, Christianity certainly is not the only faith or point of view that asserts an objective source for Ought. Additionally, there is enough of the pagan in C. S. Lewis to admit paganism as a distinct possibility, even under C. S. Lewis’s own ostensibly Christian rubric.

In any case, Christianity as I understand it and—as I would believe if I am already a Christian or am to become one—posits a God that is the source of all creation, a self-existent being that is the source of all light, truth, and meaning. In terms of sources for Ought statements, the Christian God is the ultimate Ought.

Unfortunately, I think too many Christians don’t actually have a very good handle on just what God’s moral principles are. The Bible and traditional Christianity are so full of prohibitions and admonitions ranging from the general to the hyper-specific that it is entirely possible to get lost in the details and miss the forest for the trees. If God is the ultimate source for Ought, then by Ought we have to actually be talking about the principles that lie behind the specific commandments, not the commandments themselves.

Christianity’s obvious source
The problem with most Xians
Emerging Xity
Liberal Xity
Latitudinarianism in Anglicanism
Mormonism’s radically different outlook
Atonement
Not fully explored elsewhere

Asatru and values
Nine Noble
Asatru: old but new
The source of values?
Implied in the Lore
If Jesus is a virtue ethicist, Xians should do this
But they get confused by the commandments.

Druidry
Recon vs. revival druidry (no values prob with recon, but not interested in it)
Revival druidry’s values
Pluralism and liberalism?
Enviromentalism
Utilitarianism as an explanation: same problem
Other approaches to Environmentalism?
Theological—stewardship
Pantheism? Paganism?
Still, why?
Assertions about what it good for humans
Might be wrong—see the social sciences
What to fill Revival Druidry with?
A theology as source of value?
If so, it has to be one that supports Druidry.
What theology then?
Paganism? What kind?
No hard poly!
Neopaganism? Liberal/plural problem.
Brahmanism? Maybe. That’s good stuff.
Christianity? Then why be a druid?

Go back to the Introduction and Index

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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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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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