Conclusions on My Interview with Harold Camping, the Man Behind May 21, Judgment Day
May 18, 2011

If you haven’t read my interview with Harold Camping on KillingTheBuddha.com, you may want to read that first.

I came away from interviewing Harold with two somewhat differing conclusions, neither of which would have fit well if included in the KtB article. The first was too nice and too characteristic of my wishy-washy agnosticism. The second was too preachy. But some have asked me what I really think about it all after speaking with him, so  I’ll give both conclusions here:

First, I couldn’t help but think of how many of us, like Camping, are so confident in our particular perspectives on truth. And how all “those people” are deceived or stupid or crazy. I also think of the many Christians who, when discussing end-times things, have said something like, “Those May 21 people are crazy!” Of course, the Left Behind series, which seems only different from Harold’s prediction in that it doesn’t give a date, is perfectly acceptable in their eyes.

The fact is, everyone’s views seem crazy to someone else. So where does one draw the line between truth, heresy, and insanity? Who gets to be included in the range of acceptable answers? And who determines that?

While I may not agree with Camping, I’d like to think that all of us, even Camping and his followers, harbor a tiny bit of truth that’s trying to get out. Camping and his followers, at least the ones I spoke with, are genuine, nice people (well, as long as you ignore their anti-women, anti-gay, anti-everything-else theology). And they don’t seem crazy. They have their wits about them and can carry on articulate conversations (something you can’t say about some evangelists). Their particular view of things is certainly not mainstream. It’s quite eccentric, but then again, I also think many traditional readings of scripture are, shall we say, problematic (I’ll get more to that later). But the May 21 folks are real people with real lives and families and fears. Recent videos like the following actually do a good job at showing the human side of Camping. If nothing else, it shows a man who I hope I have as much stamina as when I’m almost 90 (he’s been doing shows 7 nights a week)…

Perhaps there’s a bigger message in all their May 21 efforts, in the billboards and caravans and tracts and radio shows, in all the very intentional actions of those who care enough to warn others—even if what they’re warning of is false. It makes me wonder if God, or whatever you call it, just wants us to see what could happen if, even briefly, we could treat each moment, each day, each interaction, like it’s our last.

***

At the same time…and here’s conclusion #2…as I listened to Camping, I realized that he would make an interesting case study of the anti-establishment ethos. A great punk rocker, if you will. He chose long ago to ignore the rules of the Ivory Tower and read the Bible how he thought best. He and his followers really don’t care what people think, because they live according to what they believe is right, which is based solely on his particular reading of Scripture.

And his approach sheds light on the problems that develop when absolute individualism meets absolute truth.

Again, many of us are so confident that we’re right, but worse, we have an addiction to using the Bible as the ultimate support for our claims. Like Camping, many of us have made the Bible our “university” to teach us only what we choose to learn.

Of course, this is nothing new. It’s a natural byproduct of the old sola scriptura principle (that Scripture alone is the ultimate authority for spiritual life) combined with Martin Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” protest (that everyone has the right to interpret the Bible for themselves, without the need of religious authorities). And so whether used for the causes of liberal, conservative, or even the latest spiritual-but-not-religious ideals, the Bible, and our particular reading of it, is held up as the idol to which all others must bow. And we secretly hope that whoever doesn’t bow will ultimately suffer some type of Judgment Day, if even just a little one.

Messages like Camping’s help us see this underlying problem within the foundation of religion, and it’s not just the issue of deciphering who has the correct read on the Bible, or who has the authority to determine that. (Perhaps we’ll know this Saturday, but if Camping is right, it will be too late anyway.)

The problem is that we’ve made the Bible too sacred. As my very wise wife says, it has become our Golden Calf. Because when something—a person, an idea, or a collection of old writings—is declared to be directly from God and granted immunity from questioning, there’s simply no room for balance. And as long as we allow such ideals to hold us hostage, forget May 21; our world has already ended.

Will “Love Wins” Change Anything?
March 8, 2011

Yeah, I’m jumping on the “Theological Firestormageddon 2011” bandwagon. Though it’s not like my opinion matters, I just had to give my thoughts on this whole controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s forthcoming book, Love Wins, which apparently no one who has commented on has actually read. All the hype is based on the couple minutes of his promotional video, including this post.

[If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, Love Wins, which I too have not yet read, appears to be  a pop-treatise on why the Christian doctrine of Hell doesn’t make sense. And why that doctrine has turned millions away from the Christian faith. Since the position Bell seems to be taking is nothing new — people are branding him a Universalist, a position that says all will ultimately go to Heaven —  the fact that has everyone’s panties in knots is that this is coming from a well-known (semi-)evangelical pastor.]

Judging from the blogs I’ve seen, no one’s mind has changed on the topic of hell just yet, nor will it. The position Bell is asserting, along with the fact that such a popular Christian is asserting it, is just drawing the battle lines. People are taking their positions under their shields, wrapping their fingers around their sword handles, and preparing to defend their kingdoms at all costs. Some preemptive trebuchet firings have already flung off. And no one is listening to the other side.

Whatever people have thought about hell, they are continuing to think. Bell is trying to change that. Or perhaps he’s just trying to make Christianity more digestible to the unchurched or the jaded. I for one was moved by his first major release, Velvet Elvis. Not “moved” as in my position changed. But emotionally moved in the sense that I no longer felt alone in questioning what Christianity has become.

So the question is if Love Wins will do nothing more than make another heretic. The theological establishment has a way with easily shoving people out of their circle once the Fundamentals have been questioned. It’s been happening for millennia. It has kept the Tradition intact and “pure.” But today, when the masses now have access to the same information that only scholars and bishops had centuries ago, the circle of elites is becoming less and less relevant. They are continuing to push more and more people out of their circle, but what they don’t realize is that their circle is becoming so small, and the rest of the world is becoming so much larger, they are reducing themselves into irrelevance.

The day is already here when The Correct are merely talking amongst themselves. They are talking loudly, for sure, but no one but themselves are listening. The Correct are grumbling to each other, trying to expel heresy at every turn, while the rest of the world moves on. As more and more pastors are branded as heretics, they escape The Box and join the rest of us.

And so while Love Wins is creating a firestorm between CorrectTheologyLand and LiberalTheologyLand, perhaps no one really cares except those who need to reassert themselves as “Right,” on both sides of the issue. (I admit I’ve been guilty of that.) For many of us, the book will probably either give us hope for a more open world, or it will be just another blip on the timeline of the countless religious wars and declarations of heresy.

So there’s a far deeper issue at hand here than the downfall of the doctrine of Hell. It’s the division separating individuals from each other just because of unwillingness to listen to the other.

But for me, I choose hope. Then again, maybe my mind is already made up too, so I’m just playing the game like everyone else, and this whole post is nothing more than a ploy to boost my SEO and build my platform by using all the right keywords.

But maybe there’s another way? Maybe Love really can win, and someday maybe even bridge divides that have existed for ages. Or maybe not. I guess it’s really up to you and me.

Is It Official?
February 2, 2011

The other day gave me an opportunity for reflection on where I’ve come philosophically in the past several years. For the first time ever, I officially listed myself as “Non-Religious” on a government document. Though I’ve frequently tossed around the term, there was something about the act of scrolling down the jury impaneling form, pausing, and chuckling a bit in irony when I came to the question of religious affiliation.

*By the way, I’m publishing this post with some hesitation. That was a confidential form that will be read only by people who couldn’t care less about my religious affiliation if it doesn’t benefit their courtroom argument. And this post here is a very public statement I’m making. And I know this may have some potentially undesirable consequences. But oh well.*

For some of you, such a thing may seem like no big deal. But for me, it kinda is. Not like “OMG-WTF” huge. But definitely “fo-reals” significant.

Anyway, I can now officially be listed in the minority of American religious views. I’ve migrated from the Major Two-Thirds of the pie chart to the 16-percent of Americans who claim no religion. And it’s quite different from just saying something like, “I’m spiritual, not religious.”

Right now I don’t feel like detailing the minutiae of thoughts and feelings involved. I especially don’t feel like defining what exactly “non-religious” means to me, or the reasons why I made it official. But there’s just something about  making things official. For me, the official-ness frees things up. No need to explain. Now, it just “is.”

I’ve also mentioned in previous posts how I wonder if it’s anything like a coming-out experience for an LGBT person. I doubt it could ever compare, but when you feel like you don’t have to hide anymore, life just seems to open up a bit. Of course, on a jury form, I was under penalty of perjury, so I had no choice. 😉 It gave me an opportunity to be completely honest.

And while I’ve been honest here on my blog, in other online locales, and in conversation with friends, it was especially interesting to be able to, in some tiny way, announce myself to the greater world as a specific minority category.

Anyway, I just thought I’d share that. How about you? Have you had an “official” experience with announcing a major category shift in your life…a shift that you previously felt safer hiding?

Why Are Christians Scared of Pluralism?
October 26, 2010

 

Religious pluralism has existed for thousands of years, but we here in the U.S. have been hearing more about it lately, primarily from Christians. Of course, some other major religions are not necessarily fans of pluralism either, but their voices aren’t heard quite as much in the U.S. So this post focuses mainly on U.S. Christians.


Brian McLaren recently posted a blog about pluralism. A reader had asked him the best way to be Christian but nonexclusive, and to have true, meaningful conversation with someone of a non-Christian perspective. The reader was trying to interact with a Jewish lady about religion, and she said that, even though he (the Christian) was being respectful, she felt that his… “perspective still makes it all about [Christianity], still all about Jesus, which still diminishes her faith in the end and leaves her feeling like I’ve just found a way to let her sit with me at the table.”

In response, Brian breaks it down into two categories, an elitist “strong Christian identity” and a benevolent “weak Christian identity.” He sees problems with both and proposes an alternative, a “strong biblical narrative that truly makes…room for ‘the other.'” Here’s an excerpt:

Do we have a strong biblical narrative that truly makes as much room for “the other” as for “us?” Do we have a strong view of God that begins with love for all people rather than condemnation of all people? Do we have a strong understanding of Jesus as a gift to everyone rather than a proprietary product exclusively franchised to Christians? And so on …

One big problem with a weak benevolent religious identity is that it in some ways requires others to tone down their religious identity … which often ends up becoming a kind of tolerant secularism that only allows a least-common-denominator of civil religion into public life. Another big problem is that it is a good predictor of the end of a religious tradition … which would mean, over time, that benevolent religions would die off, leaving only combative ones!

Without getting too theological about it, I agree with Brian that the “pluralism question” is a big one. It’s obviously not a question as to whether it’s a valid reality of today’s world (it is). The question is what it means to Christians. And he makes a good point that if you’re Christian, don’t be ashamed of it… But I would add that you should not let your Christian identity make you arrogant, which it often does even if you don’t think so.

I think that if you’re really strong and comfortable in your Christian identity you don’t have to show it. It will just show. Then there’s no need to feel like you must “defend the faith” or open the eyes of “the lost.”

Being just barely Christian, I’m one who often hides my tradition for the sake of meaningful conversation with others. Part of this is because the term “Christian” just has so much baggage along with it, and I’d rather just be considered as a fellow human, searching alongside others for love, meaning, and value.

I also do this in reverse: I hide my agnosticism in order to have real conversation with Christians. Like “Christian” does for non-Christians, the term “agnostic” just seems to cause a nervous tick in most Christians, sending them into an infinite loop of internal conversation to figure out how they can get me saved, while I’m trying to talk to them, and they just don’t seem to really listen. …OR…Maybe it’s also me that sometimes gets in battle mode when I’m in a conversation. I admit it.

But lately I’ve become more secure, more comfortable in my relatively new, looser skin of agnosticism, or more accurately agnostic theism. And while I may not outright mention that I consider myself an agnostic, I no longer hide admissions of doubt or skepticism, but I also don’t state it arrogantly. And ironically, this often (not always) leads to a more honest conversation. But I think it also depends on the comfort of the Christian with whom I’m interacting. If it’s a Christian who feels they need to defend the faith or at least open my eyes to the deception all around me, we probably won’t get anywhere.

It’s okay to not hide your faith, or your lack of faith. If you’re a Christian, you can say it. If you’re not, say it. But let’s not allow our identities of faith to get in the way of our deeper identities, as humans. We all hurt. We all have things that give us joy. Just don’t trample on the other just because you feel you have to put a stake in the ground for your team.

My truth is that you can retain your theological distinctives, those things that you love about your faith perspective, and at the same time check them at the door to some extent when you enter into a conversation with someone from outside your perspective. I’m not saying to hide them. Just stop treating them like battle shields and lances (or even the “Sword of the Spirit). Remove your war colors. Don’t give in to the feeling that says you must defend. That way, you might realize that there’s nothing to fear from listening.

That’s why I personally say “Yes!” to pluralism. It can help us all dig deeper, beyond our tired catch phrases and marketing ploys, to the part of us that we all have in common. The part that seeks and listens for truth wherever it can be found.

But who knows, maybe there’s something I should be scared of. Did I miss a memo?

***

A Clarification…

I want to add here, or clarify, that pluralism does in fact include Christians. Including Christians who may be concerned about pluralism. I apologize if I implied otherwise.

It’s easy to say about our conservative Christian friends that “they” are the ones who need to get with the program, and that it’s their fault our world has not progressed beyond exclusive systems. In fact, by blaming those resistant to pluralism, we are perpetuating a climate of fear and accusation.

Maybe we can try to enact the idea that everyone really is welcome and deserves to be listened to. I think all of us have some perspective that can help fill a blind spot for someone else. Not just those of us who think of ourselves as the enlightened ones. 😉

The point I’m trying to make is the importance of not hiding what makes us, us…while at the same time maintaining an open attitude. Openness is the key.

I’m Off to Haiti…
August 8, 2010

By the time you read this (unless you’re up too late or a Kiwi), I’ll be on my way to (or already in) rural Haiti. Been looking forward to this for a long while now. Had a bit of panic today when I realized I misplaced my passport (but found it). Also whacked my nose and thought I broke it (but didn’t). Also mis-stepped and thought I tweaked my ankle (but didn’t). So I’m on my way finally.

While I’ve enjoyed the privilege to visit many nations before, this trip is a bit different. Until recent years, such trips found me over-preparing so I could be the most effective missionary possible. That’s not the case with this one. In fact, my biggest trepidation is that I am completely  unprepared. For instance, I feel like I haven’t practiced the Haitian language enough. Part of the problem is that this is one of the first trips that I don’t have the “plan of salvation” memorized in the language of my host country. In the past, that task gave me a big goal for learning more of the language. This time, however, this will be my first journey with a group that isn’t set on getting people “saved.” We don’t have team t-shirts or slogans or a mime drama to perform. Yes, all of us happen to be from my faith community, but we are simply going there to help and learn. Definitely not a vacation, but also not a “mission.” This is nice.

The main reason for me to learn the language this time is simply so we can listen in order to most effectively understand and  learn the best ways to help while we’re there. This is in significant contrast to multiple past “missions,” when we learned a language so we could talk more than listen, to be heard more than hear.

And so I’m a bit awkward feeling as I leave. I feel like I’m not doing enough. I’m just going there to…help. And watch. And learn. I’m  not going so I can preach in the streets. I’m not going with eyes geared toward seeing a country as a salvation project. I’m seeing it as a chance to be a guest in the homeland of smart, life-experienced individuals who may have a lot to teach me, but who also could use whatever helping hand I can give. But helping involves listening and working together, not just talking. So I’m going to try to listen, and just be aware.

I feel incredibly inadequate to be going for just over a week, thinking that I’ll be able to make a difference. But I’m trying to see it as just putting in my little shift, and working my butt off while I can. (My dad kindly described what I think I’m after by mentioning Isaiah 58:6-9. And even for those of us who don’t take everything in the Bible literally, I think that scripture captures it quite well for me.)

Anyway, I am incredibly grateful for the many of you who have made this trip possible with your donations, thoughts and prayers. Thank you.

As electricity, internet access, and time permit, I’ll post updates here (and possibly also at www.journeytohaiti.com).

Stay tuned.