I want you to know that I spend a lot of time with people who are not Christian, and with Christians of many political stripes. Some are fundamentalists and some are eco-warriors. Some are pro-gay and some are anti-gay. Some are conservative black preachers and some are liberal white preachers. I have had meaningful conversations and life lessons from tree-hugging pro-choice social justice warriors and from end-times-believing hellfire-and-brimstone Trump voters.
We know that secular culture is hostile to Christianity and to the notion of One True God. Secular culture has many gods: Hollywood celebrities, New Age gurus, nature spirits, and so on. And because people believe and follow these gods, that’s why their morality is all over the place—why they change lovers like they change their socks, why they pursue pleasure first and reap the consequences later.
But look: Can you say you Christians are any different? Look at the sex scandals and the abuse that have rocked religious institutions. Why should anyone trust the church? Why should anyone listen to you? Did you read the headlines this summer of the ways Christian boarding schools collaborated with the government to kidnap, kill, and forcibly reprogram indigenous children? Why should anyone trust organized religion? It’s just as the Bible says: “God’s name is blasphemed because of the people who claim to be God’s people.” (see Ezekiel 36:20-22)
The question you have to ask yourself is this: Does my faith in Jesus Christ change my behavior in such a way that people want to know more about him? Or does it make them turn from organized religion in disgust?”
Here’s the thing: *These are not my words. They are Paul’s. If you follow the argument of the above paragraphs, you’ve just read through the structure of Paul’s letter to the Romans, 1:14-2:24. Go and read it. Also, stop using two verses out of context from this letter as justification for anti-gay attitudes. If you do, then YOU are the reason people don’t want to hear anything you have to say about God (Romans 2:24).
“Catharsis” is the word we use for the expression and release of a strong emotion. The catharsis of confession, for example, leads Christians to experience their repressed guilt and the relief that comes with forgiveness. For many “big E” Evangelicals, the catharsis of conversion is the most important spiritual experience of their lives. They want to tell others about it so they can have the same experience.
The unfortunate thing is that this confessional catharsis becomes the benchmark experience for white evangelicalism, and if you are trying to tell someone Good News about Jesus and they aren’t carrying a load of repressed guilt, the rhetorical strategy becomes to make them feel like crap so they can accept Jesus and then feel better.
I think lots of us progressive Christians see the problem with this. Many Christian folks have written about it. This approach leads to threats of hell and harping on favorite individual sins while ignoring systemic and corporate sins. What I think progressive Christians tend to lose sight of, though, is that this catharsis is still a legitimate spiritual experience. It may be that not everyone needs to experience salvation in the same way, but confessional catharsis is still an important part of human spiritual experience of a loving God.
Evangelicals don’t see this as abusive or cruel — they see it as loving. There are other forms of catharsis — recognizing and repenting from white privilege, for example. Leaving behind shame that others have heaped on you and accepting a God who loves you as you are. Recognizing that your implicit core belief that you have to earn your worth through work or performance is a lie (that would be me).
And catharsis is not the only kind of salvific spiritual experience. Awe, wonder, irony, mystery, humor, grief, silence — all can be responses to or part of a saving encounter with God. My hope is that a “small e” evangelical Christianity that sees the good news as GOOD and recognizes all these forms of saving encounters would emerge from this 500-year theological rummage sale*.
In saying this, I want to emphasize that Evangelical Methodists do not neglect the “experience” part of the quadrilateral at all. In fact, I think they implicitly make it MUCH more important than tradition.
(*The 500-year rummage sale is a concept Phyllis Tickle borrowed and wrote in The Great Emergence.)
A few years ago, I was chauffeuring my teenage son and his friend to an event. They were in the back, telling stories and laughing about how annoying and hilarious young siblings and little children are. I was eavesdropping from the driver’s seat, but couldn’t help sharing an anecdote or two about my memories of my son as a toddler. We laughed and I concluded with, “What they say is that when you’re a grandparent, you’ll be able to enjoy toddlers for awhile, then give them back to their parents before they get annoying.” My son and his friend were silent for a moment. Then she said quietly:
Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids.
There was no sadness or despair in her statement. She said it patiently, as though she were having to explain to the adult in the car that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. There was something else in her voice—pity maybe? She had accepted it, but she was aware that I was still under the delusion that our human species has a future.
She did not have to say any of these other things out loud. It was all in that one statement: Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids. Don’t you know we are living in the middle of an extinction event? That older generations lit the fuse, handed us the climate bomb, and waltzed off into the short story we call human history? That they got to name themselves the Greatest Generation, and Boomers, and other snappy terms for the ones that followed; but that the generations after ours will remain nameless?
I’ve been in ministry for twenty years. I answered the call to ministry because I was convinced God had put a passion in my heart to reach folks the church wasn’t already reaching, and that God wanted me to be part of a Reformation or an Awakening or a Great Emergence that was on the horizon. The vision wasn’t so grandiose (usually) to think that I would lead such a change, but that it was coming whether I participated or not; and wouldn’t it be better to be part of it? I’ve always been partial to the notion that some of the most dynamic, important, world-changing movements of the church have been on the periphery and the margins, or even outside of it, so that’s where I wanted to be, so I’ve often seen myself as a reformer and outsider. Yet her statement made me realize how entrenched and institution-bound my vision remained. Though addressing climate change has always been important to me, I couldn’t feel the existential threat that the next generation takes for granted.
I wondered: as a pastor, what do I have to offer my son’s friend? Certainly not Bill Hybel’s notion that “the local church is the hope of the world.” Not a parental figure’s patronizing cliché that everything will work out. Not a scientific assurance from Jeff Goldblum that “life finds a way.” And if I offer her Jesus, she’s likely to hear the name as institutional Republican Jesus who believes in “beautiful, clean coal,” puts immigrant children in cages, and builds oil pipelines through sovereign indigenous territory and over drinking water.
I retain this conviction that “God so loved the world, the cosmos, that God gave God’s only child.” The salvage project God has been working on since the beginning was never about humans only, but the whole created order. God’s movement both in creation and redemption is about self-giving embodiment, sharing with us the divine breath and walking beside us both in human and more-than-human form.
I’ve also taken to heart Gus Speth’s prophetic words: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
So when I heard the voice from the back seat say Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids, I heard God say to me, this is on you, buddy. Your job is spiritual and cultural transformation.
But this affirmation and valuing of creation is not the theology I see proclaimed and lived out in the institutional church. And I’m not just pointing the finger at right-wing pastors like John MacArthur who claim the earth is disposable. Instead, my home denomination is about to split over how people should be allowed to have orgasms. 81% of white evangelicals and over half of white mainline Protestants have demonstrated they have no problem with white supremacy and fascism. And although there are wonderful churches full of good people who help the poor and offer vacation Bible schools and tell wonderful heartwarming stories, most of them are too timid to acknowledge that a substantial portion of people under 20 don’t expect human civilization to continue.
(For the record, I think my young friend’s view of human collapse is overly pessimistic, but not because I expect Christians to suddenly start loving the world the way God does. I think God’s plan for human survival has more to do with Jeff Goldblum’s quote than Bill Hybel’s. The Good Lord was crafty enough to make human beings tenacious about survival and sexuality, so I suspect “life will find a way.”)
It has become increasingly clear to me that the church can either pursue its dream of Great Awakening or Reform or Renewal for itself, or it can join God’s project of passionately loving the world and salvaging what we can. It cannot be about both. If we are going to be in a different relationship with our planet, we cannot do so without the help of non-Christians, of people well outside what we normally think of as “church.” If we are to love the world with the self-giving love of God, we will have to submit to learning from indigenous people who have been practicing reciprocity with the more-than-human world far longer than we white Christians been practicing our various forms of extractive capitalism.
Yes, it may be possible that in losing our institutional life we will save it. That sounds a bit like our gospel, after all. But whenever progressive Christians speak hopefully about this Great Ecological Awakening, they sound the most Asleep.
Confronting climate change means confronting — well, everything. White supremacy. Patriarchy. The way capitalism doesn’t actually pay for the real costs of energy and resource extraction, but only shifts the burden of paying for them onto the shoulders of the poor and of future generations. For the American church, these taboo topics are more sacred than God. We Christians don’t mind saying “YHWH” out loud, but these other things must be only whispered in church, never spoken from the pulpit.
I’m still following the call of God, but a young prophet spoke the Word of God to me from the back of my car: Will the church care about climate change? Will you love the world so much that you will give yourself for it?
Our generation isn’t going to have grandchildren. I pray that we will hear this young Jonah and repent. Maybe God will spare us after all?
*(I am grateful to Susan Bond for the giving me a new metaphor for understanding “salvation” as “salvage” in her book Trouble with Jesus.
*I am grateful to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass for such a wonderful description of reciprocity, and to David Abram (whose work I have not yet read) for the notion of the “more-than-human world.”
People make a frequent mistake about Christianity, and it’s most often perpetuated by Christians themselves. It’s this idea that the notion of God is self-evident, and that we somehow deduce the divinity of Christ because he checks off the boxes on some pre-determined set of prophecies and characteristics. Works miracles? Check. Born in Bethlehem? Check. Obviously, you *should* believe once we’ve *proved* it to you.
This is baloney.
The biblical authors were not hanging around to see who matched all the checkboxes and who they could declare “The Chosen One.” What happened was that people with a set of religious and political expectations met this character named Jesus, and he stunned them with the way he loved people and moved through the world. And they realized, or rather it was revealed to them, that the character of God *must* be like this dude, or the whole concept of God and religion (among other things) is trash.
(They were *not* completely unique in this experience — there was already plenty of precedent in Jewish tradition that was critical of religion and practice.)
So when I meet folks who believe that the whole concept of God and religion is trash, or who have been convinced that Jesus is made up, my perspective is that *they* *actually* *get* *it* *better* *than* *most* *Christians*. That God is already present and God’s kingdom already active is hardly a self-evident truth. It is not obvious that all the struggle we experience, both as individuals and society, is the labor pain of something new being born in our midst, and when you learn these truths they come upon you not as an insight you’ve worked for and earned, something you’ve gritted your teeth to believe in, but something revealed to you, hidden from the beginning of time.
The forces of domination and oppression in this world—which includes many forms and instances of Christianity—reject this revelation of the character and personality of God, and their goal is to distract, delay, deny, or destroy. (But that’s the Good Friday story.)
This Christmas story is about the incarnation and the image of God. We tell it as if it is frozen, like a snapshot in time. But it is an ongoing revelation, echoed in the birth of every child in the midst of human struggle and in camps that cage refugees, an unfolding that tells us as much about who and what God is *not* as about who and what God is. The Ground of Being, God, our Source and Mother and Father, the Great Mystery which defies definition — has a character, a “personality,” and it has broken through to us in the life of Jesus.
That, from this preacher’s perspective, is the story of Christmas.
I do not want to dismiss the importance of voting and our political activity AT ALL. But I also want to offer some perspective in light of all the political, social, and climate upheaval that exists right now:
Our ability to make it through this next critical period depends on how we build or find alternatives to business-as-usual. Our power structures make it VERY difficult for us to “opt out” of an economy built on fossil fuels, extractive economies, and oppression of Black, indigenous, people of color, queer folks, disabled folks, immigrants, and religious minorities.
The political and social imagination of the people in power is very limited, but the political and social imagination of THE REST OF US is expansive, creative, and generative. We are literally a force of nature, which is always growing dandelions through sidewalks and making mold grow on Twinkies. “Life finds a way,” as Jeff Goldblum’s character says in Jurassic Park. You are an expression of life itself. Remember that.
The next two weeks is going to be full of imagination-limiting rhetoric and the words of narrow monied interests. Again, without diminishing the importance of voting or doing harm reduction for a society hell-bent on wrecking itself, please hear the invitation to find meaning outside of this binary bullshit. Crazy emperors and petty tyrants have been denying science and believing they can defy gravity or shout at the tide not to come in for millennia.
But the earth and her relentless move toward more life and greater diversity are not cowed by our myopic stupidity or our death-dealing policies. Jesus told us to look at the birds, who do not speculate on stock markets, and at the lilies, who do not follow social media for likes, fashion advice, or social trends. Our value and our meaning are not derived from the dominant culture’s ways of deciding “winners” and “losers.”
Our political and social imagination is very much the realm of what we call “spiritual,” regardless of whether you are a romantic or a materialist, religious or non. There are those who would limit your imagination. But we are the ones who shape culture through our spiritual lives—not the folks who are on our screens. We give these loonies so much power, y’all, because we give them our attention. The first step to removing their power over us is to turn our attention to other things.
Again, I’m not echoing the right-wing blame-the-media-for-our-divisions machine. I’m saying we give power to whatever we give our attention. And if we collectively give more attention to what is immediately around us, the things that we truly value that give life meaning, we can resist the self- and other-destructive forces of this world that do not have our interest—or the interest of our planet—at heart.
In order to make it through the next few weeks, focus on loving yourself. Loving the planet. Loving your people. Practice those things that you know bring more love and light into the world, like prayer and meditation, growing living things, being tender toward what is stretching toward the sun or snuggling down to hibernate for the winter.
Consider the bird that lingers at the feeder on its way south, and think of the mass human migration that is already taking place. How much longer until climate change forces us to move? What can we learn from the birds?
We need the wisdom of the birds and the flowers. Letting go, acting without attachment to the results of our actions, may be the greatest political power we have. Focus on what’s most important and under your control. Don’t sweat the rest of it.
I know the news is terrible, and our political system is garbage, and the climate is changing, and our leaders are inept,
…but my GOD, it is a lovely cool morning. The last straggling hummingbird is drinking from the feeder. He just checked in by my ear to see what I was writing. (Actually, he didn’t care. He was just being polite).
I’d say we don’t deserve such beauty, but that’s kind of the point of it, right? “Deserving” is such a long con. The world is here to remind us of the truth: absolutely none of this beauty and terror is about deserving. Every last bit of it is a gift.
I’m teaching a class at UAB called “America’s Religious Diversity.” One of the themes of the class is that it is difficult to define religion. Not all religions have scriptures. Not all have supernatural beings. Not all have dietary laws. Not all have clergy. Not all focus on beliefs. Not all focus on practices. It is unlikely to find a definition of religion that accurately encompasses them all.
This becomes clearer as you study world religions through history. Before contact with European colonizers, most indigenous people in the Americas and in West Africa didn’t think of what they did as “religion.” It was/is simply part of culture. It’s what your people do. Have a life question? Visit the wise woman and consult your ancestors. Have an ailment? Consult the herbalist for physical and spiritual medicine.
On contact with colonialism, many of those religions were forced to adapt, to re-organize themselves in order to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the dominant culture. Even “Hinduism,” some argue, is an invention of British occupiers of “Hindustan,” the Persian name for residents of that country.
There are two important points here. First, “religion” is an idea, a framework, a mental model or a lens we use to look at culture—especially a culture different from our own. Like imagining light as a wave or a particle, what you see will depend on what you are looking for. Second, you can practice a religion *without ever recognizing it as a religion.* To you, it’s just your way of life, one you share with your community.
This is why I find it fascinating that among both conservative and liberal folks today, “religion” is almost a universally negative term. “I’m spiritual but not religious,” is the phrase preferred by many who don’t go to church. But someone who does go to church is likely to say “Jesus is about relationship, not religion.” Stephen Prothero writes that “One of the most common claims among Hindus of the West is that ‘Hinduism is a way of life’ rather than a religion,” but what I observe is that nearly every sincere religious practitioner would make the same claim about their own beliefs and practices. People don’t practice their religion in order to be religious. They practice in order to find God, or enlightenment, or meaning, or connection.
If I’m following a typical progression of human faith development, by the time I’m an adult, I don’t do things just because my parents or neighbors did them. I do them because they are meaningful to me — not to someone else.
In other words, “religion” has come to mean what OTHER people do—people whose beliefs and practices don’t hold sway over me. Calling something a religion is a way to delegitimize and mock it, as Michael Pollan does in his book Second Nature when he describes the absurd cultural symbolism of American lawns: “Think of nature as Spirit, the collective suburban lawn as the Church, and lawn mowing as a kind of sacrament.” This tremendous waste of energy, he says, reflects an aesthetic and cultural belief in democracy. We all have to pitch in and work to create this unbroken fake prairie that is the American lawn.
I often do the same thing when I compare sports to religion. At sporting events, we have collective singing and chanting, rituals and superstitious practices offered to the gods of chance and fairness (like the coin toss), animal-headed gods (mascots) who function as symbols for our team (just like the ancient Egyptians), and the sport itself, which echoes the ancient Greeks and Aztecs offering their ritualized combat to the gods.
But I think both of these things—sports and lawns—DO represent a civil and cultural religion. It’s just not one we question or regard through a religious lens, because alien colonizers haven’t shown up on our doorstep and told us how strange these practices are. They haven’t told us what we do is quaint, or primitive, or backwards, or barbaric.
So while I think “religion” is a particularly Western and colonial idea, I also think it is practically inescapable. It is a trap we have created for ourselves. We want to believe our particular rituals, practices, and beliefs transcend our culture, that they have universal significance; but it’s so easy to see other people’s spiritual striving as mere religion.
In the larger epic that contains the Bhagavad-Gita (the Mahabharata), blind king Dhritarashtra is the head of the royal family that opposes Arjuna. The whole dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna is being reported to him by his charioteer.
As Krishna draws his dialogue with Arjuna to a close, he says,
Make every act an offering to me; regard me as your only protector. Relying on interior discipline, meditate on me always. Remembering me, you shall overcome all difficulties through my grace. But if you will not heed me in your self-will, nothing will avail you. (BG18:57-58)
This last line has a particular poignancy in the context of the epic. We’ll get to that in a minute.
When Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount, he offers a similar warning: Those who listen to his words and put them into practice will be like a wise builder who puts the foundation of a house on rock. In the storm, such a building will stand firm. But a foolish builder builds a house on sand, which collapses in a strong wind (Matthew 7:24-27).
But if you will not heed me in your self-will, nothing will avail you. Remember, according to the story, we are “overhearing” this dialogue in the back of a chariot, but this is only a literary device. The phrase hints that Krishna’s words are directed to the reader, not just to Arjuna. Krishna has repeatedly told Arjuna that he is precious, that he is on the right path, and so on. While he could be speaking generally (because any young prince might be overcome by self-will), it’s written as though Krishna is gazing beyond Arjuna’s shoulder and addressing all of us who are eavesdropping.
The chapter—and the Gita—concludes in Sanjaya’s voice, the character reporting to Dhritarashtra. This whole dialogue is being reported to Arjuna’s enemies by one who has overheard. He says that hearing the conversation made his hair stand on end, and filled him with wonder and joy. Imagine if, in the Bible, the Sermon on the Mount were reported by Judas to High Priest Caiaphas and the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate! Would we read it differently?
I think it gives a little twist to the whole work. Your enemies are hearing this same wisdom; they have the same access to it that you do. It awes and inspires them. Does it change their hearts? Does it change the way you think of your relationship? Does it change your approach to wisdom? Does rivalry make you desire it more? Or would you reject it because someone you hate is putting it into practice?
Krishna goes on to tell Arjuna not to share these words with the unworthy and immature (which sounds like “do not throw your pearls before swine,” (Matthew 7:6). He also says that anyone who hears them with faith, “will find a happier world where good people dwell” (BG 18:71) So as this dialogue is being reported to the blind king, he is being offered a kind of peace. (And this is not the first time Krishna has offered him peace).
I think this is a particular aspect of wisdom in both Christianity and Hinduism: those who are pursuing wisdom have fewer reasons to be enemies. Those who are wise have sympathy even for their rivals. I think of David grieving over Saul, or Joseph reconciling with his brothers. If we are free of attachment to our actions, if we do not lust after wealth or temporary pleasures that cannot satisfy, what do we have to fight over? It’s not as if wisdom is “owned” by one party or tribe more than another. It is freely available to those who humble themselves enough to ask for it and its rewards are for any who diligently put it into practice.
Prayer: Foundation of the Universe, let me build my life on nothing but you.
This concludes my regular devotionals on the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bible. I’m going to take a short break and offer a reflective summary in a few days. I’m preparing to teach a class at UAB on America’s Religious Diversity, so this has been a helpful exercise for me in comparative religion. I hope you’ve enjoyed it!
I will start a new series in a week or two on mental health and religious practice. In the meantime, if you need a daily devotional, I recommend CAC’s and Richard Rohr’s here.
In the next chapter, Krishna continues to riff on the three gunas. He says,
Sattvic knowledge sees the one indestructible Being in all beings, the unity underlying the multiplicity of creation. Rajasic knowledge sees all things and creatures as separate and distinct. Tamasic knowledge, lacking any sense of perspective, sees one small part and mistakes it for the whole. (BG 18:20-22).
Krishna has described a kind of dialectic: Tamasic thinking (superstition and magic) is the thesis. People who hastily create a worldview from their limited experience tend to assume their perspective is universally true. Its antithesis is rajasic analytical and scientific thinking. This is a cognitive leap, where people dismantle the old superstitions. The synthesis is sattvic thinking, which understands the union of spirit and matter, science and spirituality. One who is enlightened “sees the one indestructible Being in all beings, the unity underlying the multiplicity of creation.”
I do not see this as three separate ways of knowing. I see it instead as normal human development. We all start off as children, trying to make sense of a world that makes little sense. We are taught concrete rules and concepts: Don’t touch a hot stove. Hard work is rewarded. These concepts are true for their context, and they shape a worldview. Some people get stuck in a childlike understanding of the world. They assume their experience is universally true, and that absolute truth is easy to grasp.
Generally, as we get older, we learn more scientific and relativistic ways of thinking. There are many different perspectives. To truly understand something, we must test it. Reality is complex. We have all kinds of “coming of age” stories where the protagonist goes through a lonely period of questioning and disillusionment. There is no longer any such thing as “absolute truth.”
As we get older still, many of us synthesize these two perspectives. There is a universality in our particularity. The distinctions between naiveté, cynicism, and wisdom become blurry. Part of our human task is to grow into deeper and richer forms of knowledge, where more than one thing can be true at a time, and where we transcend dualistic thinking. Light can be both a wave and a particle. Energy and matter can be the same thing. A human can be both a sinner and a saint, temporal and eternal. Life and death are no longer opposites, but part of an endlessly creative dance.
In the Bible, scholars refer to two kinds of wisdom literature: conventional wisdom, and unconventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom represents the kind of knowledge you want to instill in children and young people so that they will be effective in life, like: “The faithless will be fully repaid for their ways, and the good rewarded for theirs” (Proverbs 14:14). But eventually we turn a skeptical eye on such simplistic wisdom. Job rails against injustice, asking, “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?” (Job 20:7). Ecclesiastes takes a more nuanced and personal view: “All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not” (Ecclesiastes 9:2).
That’s part of why I think these three kinds of knowledge are not rigid categories. They are a looping progression. And the more we know, the more we realize what we do NOT know. As the Buddha said, “we do not speak of enlightenment.” This is not the kind of knowledge you can put into words.
Prayer: Wisdom Beneath All Things, I already know you. Help me to know you better.