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.

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God is Oden…
October 6, 2010

…And I want to be like Oden:

Maybe we all can at least try being like Oden, if only for a minute each day to start. But there’s really no incentive, no ROI. (Except that it could change the world.)

(Thanks to Lauren for sharing.)

What is Jesus?
July 30, 2010



Forgive me while I flesh out my thoughts here:

When someone says “Turn to Jesus,” what do they really mean? Or, “All you need is Jesus.” Or even, “I have a personal relationship with Jesus.”

Responding with a blank look of incredulity, some Christians might say, “C’mon. You know what we mean by that.” Because such sayings are so ingrained in the collective Christian psyche that it’s assumed that everyone, including the rest of the world outside of Christendom, knows exactly what is meant by…well, Jesus.

The fact is, I’m not sure that people, including Christians and non-, know what Jesus really is. Sure, we know who he was, but what is he, in the present tense?

(By the way, when searching for a “Jesus” image for this post, there were nearly 32 million image results… Which one is right? I think I picked the right one. 😉

Of course, theologically speaking, this is answered with explanations of his divinity and such, and even treatises on his resurrection. And the question of the nature of Jesus, in relation to God, has left theologians bantering for millennia. But those are just theological statements. What I want to know is what exactly does one think of, or what ideas or images are conjured up, when someone is referencing “Jesus” in a way that attempts to relate to everyday life. What, for example, does Carrie Underwood really mean by the word “Jesus” when she says, “Jesus take the wheel…”?

My hunch is that for many (not all) Christians, “Jesus” is a concept, an idea, like God. Even for those who adamantly assert and believe that Jesus is a real, live person who interacts with humanity today, he is a concept. Now, before we get all huffy, let me explain:

People use the name “Jesus” usually when things are beyond them. Just like when non-Christians speak of “God,” perhaps when the bills aren’t getting paid or when grandma dies. But for me, in this sense, “God” is easy to imagine as a placeholder for my longings. When I think of “God,” that word/name serves as a bucket for all things beyond me. Because I do feel that I have some sort of connection with a higher being, “God” is that bucket into which I toss all my hopes, dreams, desires, etc. (some call those things “prayers.”)  But if I were to say, “All you need is a relationship with Jesus,” my mind gets a bit muddled with conflicting ideas:

Yes, my teaching tells me that Jesus is God, so I can just substitute all my thoughts about God with the word Jesus. Synonymous, right? But then I was also taught that Jesus was—or is—a real human. Of course, history teaches us, including sources outside the Bible, that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, live person who lived and died in the first century CE. So it’s easy for me to imagine with the name Jesus, a man, a rabbi, a prophet, even some mysterious, hard-to-explain person who had an uncommon link with the divine. But he was a person. Then he died.

If someone says they have a “personal relationship” with Jesus, what does that mean, and what does that relationship look like? It’s a relationship with someone who died 2,000 years ago. Many Christians would say, “Well, I talk to him and he talks to me.” How? “Well, I pray. And he speaks to me  through the Bible, and he speaks to my heart.” Okay…so you pray and read the Bible and listen to your heart. So in essence you are doing what you have been told being a Christian is…it’s the Christian way of life. Is that really what you mean when you say, “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship?” But how is that a personal relationship? “But Jesus is alive.”

Then come all the theories associated with whatever happened after his death. So millions of people believe that Jesus is alive today. And for many he really is “on this earth, now” alive and is acting in the world. But there is absolutely no evidence that this first-century person called Jesus of Nazareth is in fact alive, now, in flesh and blood, on this earth, anywhere. So what do Christians really mean when singing, “Alive, alive, Jesus is alive!” Is it just habitual re-chanting of an assertion of resurrection? Or a claim of something else?

So we must be brutally honest with ourselves when we say “Jesus is alive.” We must admit that Christians use the term “alive” very, very loosely. Symbolically. And it confuses things. And in that way it just makes Christians look stupid. So next time you try to convert an atheist with the argument that “Jesus is the only prophet who is not dead,” check yourself.

And in the same way that Christians use the term “alive” loosely when speaking of Jesus, Christians also use the specific name “Jesus” just as loosely. And I think that when those of us with a Christian mindset say “Jesus” we really mean “our conception of God.” Jesus is that bucket into which we cast all our hopes, dream, desires, prayers, etc. But let’s get it clear that Jesus is not literally a real, living human. …At least that’s the way I figure it. (Sorry.)

So I contend that when we say, “Turn to Jesus,” we really mean, “Convert to my particular conception of God.” And it’s in that sense that Jesus is a what, not a who.

By stripping the historical reality of the person of Jesus of Nazareth and replacing him with an imperialized concept of God, we really have stripped the message of Jesus of its real relevance. We have replaced the literal meaning of “Love your enemies” with the Pauline concept of “Love is deserved based on how someone treats my ideas of God, and when I say ‘God is Love’ what I really mean is that God, in his justice with respect to Hebraic covenant laws,  is tough love for those who don’t worship my God.” We have replaced the literal meaning of “Turn the other cheek” with a Constantinian-American concept of “We must not let non-Christians have more power than we have.” We have replaced the literal meaning of “If someone asks you for your shirt, also give him your coat,” with the truly American concept of “I might need this coat for the Christmas party at church, but you can have my spare granola bar, because you can’t spend that on alcohol.”

By replacing the historical words of the historical person of Jesus–the who–with our own handed-down concepts of the nature of God and the Trinity and such, we have made Jesus into a what that we really don’t know anything about other than that it somehow represents our notions of God, or the bucket of our longings–our “faith.” And so Jesus really represents our longings. For many, many people, Jesus is simply an abstract reflection of our hopes. And that reflection has taken the form of Hebrew and Greek words from middle-eastern scrolls, and from patriarchal, imperial texts, and from sermons, and from rants, and from political platforms.

For some, however, they themselves try to embody Jesus. For them, while they may see Jesus as a historical person, they believe that his teachings live through them. Some of these people are Christians and some are not. And regardless of what they believe about doctrines associated with Jesus, they try to live out what they understand as the literal meaning of his words. They take care of the “widows and orphans” among them. They “seek justice and walk humbly.”

Some visualize “Jesus” as everyone around them. He is the crack whore. He is the business man. The suicidal teen. The President, Obama and Bush. The unemployed mechanic and the unemployed graphic designer. The pedophile priest and the abused altar boy. He is Pat Robertson and Richard Dawkins. Bill O-Reilly and Stephen Colbert. Marilyn Manson and DC Talk. Perez Hilton and Ted Haggard.  He is the starving Haitian child and the little blond darling in the Baby Bjorn. He is ‘The Situation’ and Mother Teresa. The illegal alien and the Arizona lawmakers. He’s the person behind the ‘Jesus’ Twitter handle. He is you and me.

For those, he is a person, and yes, maybe he is a set of teachings too, but teachings that have become more than a concept because they are lived out, made alive in those who see everyone around them as the one who said, “When you did it to them, you did it to me.”

It’s a concept embodied rather than imposed.  And so “Jesus” becomes synonymous not with a “longing” but with everyday living, when we live intentionally, regardless of what we believe.

I’m trying to rediscover, and stutteringly live out, the teachings of that person in spite of the concept, in spite of the beliefs swirling around him. And to see that person in everyone around me. And in that sense one can’t “Turn to Jesus,” because if we really believed his teachings, they are “Jesus.” Not his concept, but maybe his spirit or something, just as we all are part of each other. At least we share the same elements, if nothing else. We are all star dust. And so was/is Jesus.

But maybe that is in itself nothing more than an idealistic concept.  And so maybe this is all one big logical fallacy, a bunch of bullshit not worth writing about.

***

I know this was a long one, and even with all these words I still don’t think I’ve expressed exactly what I’m trying to get at. I ended up preaching more than posing the right questions. So it’s a source of frustration. But if nothing else, perhaps this will at least stir up others’ thoughts to help me. You got anything?

Are You an Ex-Christian?
July 11, 2010

Whether using the label “Ex-Christian,” “Post-Christian,” “Non-Christian Christian,” “Outsider,” or whatever else, many of us have grown up in Christianity, and have grown tired of it. Maybe we now call ourselves atheist or agnostic, or have just moved over to another religion or non-religion, but my qualifier here is that we once called ourselves Christian and now we don’t, or at least hesitate to. I’d love to know why you don’t.

For me, I am not anti-Christian. But technically I cannot call myself Christian simply because I no longer meet the traditional criteria, which for ages has been disputed but seems to be essentially agreed upon. Some say that a Christian is defined, just as it was in the first century, as simply someone who follows the teachings of Jesus, “The Christ.” Easy enough, right?

Well, that last little part of his name is where things get tricky, and that’s why Christians who try to lure people in with the simple definition are not being honest with themselves and others. Because “the Christ” for most went from simply meaning “anointed one” to “The Messiah” or the only true Son of God by whose name all things in Heaven and Earth are unified and in whose name one must believe in order to obtain eternal life, or for that matter, in order to obtain a truly whole life here on Earth…and the list of associated belief  requirements goes on and on, and I won’t get into the arguments thrown about from each and every perspective on that. But that’s one criterion that has become a sticking point for me, technically speaking…and it’s just one example of some of the things by which most people agree to define a Christian. And most of these things are mentioned in the Christian Creeds, like the 12 doctrinal items of the Apostle’s Creed.

And I have difficulty with these items, so I prefer to call myself agnostic regarding these points. (For more explanation see my FAQ and Definitions pages.)

But rather than wallow in the technical aspects, I want to focus on the fact that, for many who prefer not to call themselves Christian, it’s more of a personal issue…meaning, dealing with people. Some…no, many have been really hurt by those professing to be Christian. Some have been turned off, to put it mildly, by the hypocrisy or other behavioral factors of Christians. Gandhi, for example, said he “would probably be a Christian if [he] had never met one.”

For me, I was the Christian that turned me off. I was the one that “hurt” me. I was the hypocrite. And I did not want to be that anymore.

Of course, I feel that I was not really hypocritical in the typical sense. I was sincere in my faith, and I honestly tried hard to be genuine in the way I lived out my faith (I still do). But the word hypocrite comes from the Greek plays during which the actors wore masks to portray their characters. I look back and see that I was playing a role, (method acting maybe, because I was deeply sincere), and when it came to certain things, I was not being true to myself. And that ended up causing me serious internal, existential conflict.

And I can say that relieving myself of the burden of belief freed me to really pursue God in deep honesty. Today I feel that I am true to myself and true to that “still, small voice” inside me moreso than when I was living the life of a model Christian. And while some areas of my life are definitely not easier, today I am more content and peaceful than I have ever been.

***

I still consider myself a Christian in the sense that I follow the teachings of Jesus, but I also cannot call myself a “Christian” because I do not necessarily believe all the doctrines I’m supposed to. So that makes me an outsider, or, what might be more apt, a “non-Christian Christian.” That’s a term I heard recently by a guy interviewed in the just-published DVB (DVD + book) called The Outsider Interviews, (trailer here) by Jim Henderson, Todd Hunter, and Craig Spinks. The work was inspired by the book UnChristian, by Barna Research Group president David Kinnaman.

A few years ago I reviewed unChristian and was thoroughly pleased. While the Barna Group occasionally has been criticized, David Kinnaman is a good guy and his book, citing numerous statistics from in-depth surveys, really woke up some Christians to the reality that there’s good reason why some people hate them. And Outsider Interviews puts a face to the statistical evidence. It interviews atheists, agnostics, other “outsiders,” as well as young Christians who tend to agree somewhat with outsiders. And while the language is geared toward Christians, the authors have done an impressive job at letting outsiders speak for themselves, unfiltered, about why they don’t want anything to do with Christianity, or at least Christians. So I highly recommend it.

***

Anyway, what’s your story? Are you an ex-Christian? Why?

Or maybe you’d like to be an ex-Christian. Well, consider this your anti-altar call: (cue soft piano…)

With all heads bowed and every eye closed, how many of you tonight would say, “You know, Dave, I wish I could free myself of always trying to believe the right thing, but I’m afraid I’ll go to hell, and I’m afraid I’ll be an outcast.” If that’s you, could you just raise your hand right now? With no one looking around, if that’s you and you’ve raised your hand, I want you to just stand to your feet and don’t be ashamed; be honest with yourself… (Can we play that last song again, Tim? That’s right, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”) Let’s all just sing that right now as we stand together…Join with me… I have spoke with the tongues of angels. I have held the hand of the devil… But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for….I believe in the Kingdom come/Then all the colors will bleed into one…But yes I’m still running…You broke the bonds/And you loosed the chains/Carried the cross of my shame/You know I believe it…But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for….

As I often say, You are not alone.

Straight Guy + Gay Pride?
June 6, 2010

[I would often make fun of gays, lesbians, and anyone else who wasn’t unquestionably heteronormative. Of course I never directly harassed or assaulted “them” because that just wouldn’t be Christian of me, but I would certainly mock them and speak terribly of them behind their backs. Perhaps the most common and most justifiable way I would do this was to tell my Christian friends and family to “pray for them, because they’re really messed up” or something to that effect. I would then segue into mocking them, doing my most flamboyant caricature. And then I’d go back to saying something like, “But just pray for them.”]

For many if not most Christians, the gay issue is the line in the sand. Once you cross it philosophically, you are officially “out there.” Sure, there are other issues that define the barriers of Christianity, but for many, one’s stance on “the gay thing” is currently the single most combustible topic. One might be considered merely “iffy” if they were to deny or question some basic tenets of the faith. But if one even vaguely affirms the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT/Q) community, they have crossed a line that deems them truly deceived.

Churches that welcome and affirm non-hetero people represent the ultimate edges of Christianity. Even if those churches were to believe some of the most conservative doctrines in Christendom, if they, for instance, allow a gay man into leadership without requiring him to denounce his “lifestyle” as sin, they are a “weird” church, or a cult or something like that, but they are certainly not really Christian. Because affirming non-hetero individuals is, for many, the one thing that is most definitely incompatible with the Bible.

So doing what I did this past weekend was a big deal: I marched in a gay pride parade. Yes, I am straight (and so is my wife). And no, I wasn’t there to protest. I was there to walk beside and affirm my brothers and sisters who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, and those of other non-hetero nature. And I wasn’t alone. I was with many other Christ-followers from my church. And there were scores of others from other churches as well. And we joined with thousands of others in the streets of Austin and celebrated the beauty of us all.

The cheers were amazingly celebratory when the crowds watching us realized we were a church, and when they saw our banners, which said things like “You can love God and love gays too!” and “God loves everybody!” Onlookers whooped and hollered in agreement.  People pointed and took pictures of our signs, some teared up, some gave us hugs and high-fives. And some looked confused. And to be sure, this was definitely the first time I’ve ever seen the LGBT community actually cheer for Christians. Because Churches are known to be the ones that protest pride parades, not march in them. And because Christians are, unfortunately, the last people expected to fully accept, much less affirm LGBTs.

But enough of this dancing around the issue. What you really want to read in this post is what I believe about homosexuality, right? What side of the line do I stand on? So here it is:

I believe that what I believe does not matter unless it helps make things better. I believe that God has not pronounced that my approval or disapproval of someone or something has any credence whatsoever. What I do or do not deem as “sin” will change absolutely nothing. But I do believe that when I am face to face with another human — when I look into their eyes, when our hands touch or when we exchange a smile — if I can see them as beautiful and valuable to the universe, as a representation of God, and not just as an anonymous representative of an argument or a mindless pawn of the devil — if I can treat them with the same love that I so desperately seek — I think we can get a glimpse of the better way of living that Jesus talked about. When we join hands as humans instead of pushing against “the other,” we can create a tiny spark of divine beauty that opens a door to let God’s plan enter our lives. That’s what I believe is the Kingdom of Heaven. And while there are  arguments on both sides of the line, none really matter in the big scheme of things. But actions do.

That’s why I believe that every Christian should march together with LGBTs in a pride parade at least once. Whether I do or do not approve of something or someone makes no difference. But the way I see people does. The way I treat people creates either an environment that’s open or closed to divine possibilities. My words and actions — not my beliefs — determine, moment by moment, whether God’s will is or is not being “done here on earth as it is in Heaven.”

And when I allow God’s spirit to talk more than me, I begin to see that the line is in fact drawn in sand, not concrete. And God made the sand; we just decided to scrawl in it. To make ourselves feel more secure, perhaps? To call the best players over to our side to ensure that we’ll have the winning team in a meaningless game? I say these things not as a statement that I’m on the opposite side of some line, nor to demean people who disagree with me. I say these things because a powerful love that I feel deeply tells me that there does not have to be a line. But if there is, I choose to let God do the drawing. Because his artwork is so much more beautiful than my little lines.

Of course, many would say that God’s already drawn a firm line on this issue, based on the same ancient middle-eastern laws that also defined menstruating women as untouchable, and on the opinions of the first Christian missionary (Paul, not Jesus). So this is why LGBTs are the untouchable lepers of our society. I just choose to believe that God’s drawing does not consist merely of a series of straight dividing lines. I suggest instead that what some may see as a singular dividing line is really just a tiny section of an infinitely big circle that includes everyone.

My LGBT friends are precious, beautiful people. And one of my gay friends has been for me an amazing example of what a real man should be: integrous, loving, genuine, honest… Because people like this are in fact people like all of us, these individuals deserve the same rights and privileges. They deserve for their loved ones to be able to visit them in the hospital and make decisions on their behalf. They deserve to have their marriages acknowledged…as marriages. They deserve to be left alone. They deserve to not be mocked by people like me. They deserve the unconditional love of God as much as anyone. And they are not untouchable.

I think I may have caught a little glimpse of God’s artwork this weekend when we gathered with thousands of others to celebrate the touchableness of each other. And especially when, in an incredibly rare moment, people actually rejoiced and cheered when Christians came around…