Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Death & Resurrection of Christianity:
Rediscovering the Love at the Heart of the Truth

Dear Curb-Your-Dogma Friends,

As you may have read in earlier postings, part of my reason for starting this blog is that I have been doing research for a possible book. Being a Myers-Briggs "E", I have to "think out loud" before I write and and test out ideas as I go along. Some of the entries I have already posted are in the vein.

The current working title of the book is: The Death & Resurrection of Christianity: Rediscovering the Love at the Heart of the Truth (I say "current" because my working titles seem to have a constantly evolving life of their own).

There are three things I hope to do in this book.

First, I want to look at the paradigms that the Church has adopted over the centuries, how many of these have lead directly to the current divisions within the Church today, and of which many are the process of dying because the no longer provide the church with an effective basis to understand itself in the context of reality as we know it.

Second, I want to examine movements within the earlier church which in their day transcended the paradigms by which the Church understood and regulated its existance at the time, and thus may provide us with clues as to how we might transform our understanding of what the Church is being called to by God to be and do in our day.

Third, reflecting on the above, I want to begin to suggest the broad outlines of what I am calling "a converging theology for an emerging church" -- a different way of looking at "orthodoxy" which would be at the same time more humble and more bold than the way in which we corrently conceive it -- living out of the few powerful, mysterious, and paradoxical Truths that core of Christianity "like we really believe them," rather than trying to trying to enforce a uniformity of belief.

No small task, I know. But I would welcome your review and comments as I post my "chapters."

Meanwhile, for your reading pleasure a sermon which takes on what one of the ideas that will likely be in the book: a discussion of Truth with a Capital T. It is called, "The Truth Will Make You Free . . . But First, It Will Really "Tick You Off."

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August 27, 2006 - Pentecost 12 (John 6:56-69)
By The Rev. Ken Howard

The Truth will make you free . . . but first it will really tick you off.

Because of [his words] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

This may well be one of the best known of the sayings of Jesus. Certainly one of the most profound. But a friend and colleague of mine once suggested that this was only the first half of what Jesus said on that day. That some careless scribe left the second half off. And that the full text should read:

“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free . . . but first it will really tick you off.”

Careless scribe? Could be, I suppose. Or maybe the scribe just missed the second half because the crowd was reacting so loudly to the first half’s implication that they didn’t already know the truth. Or I guess Jesus might have meant to say it, but got distracted by the crowd’s reaction. Or maybe my friend just made it up. In fact, I’m almost positive someone did. But whether Jesus actually said it or not, I think it’s a true statement all the same. Come to think of it, if I were putting words in Jesus’ mouth I would go even farther. I would have him add:

“And you shall know it is the truth, because it ticks you off.”

Because in my experience that is the way it is with Truth – and here I mean Truth with a capital T. In my experience, the Truth is not something that makes us feel comfortable, but rather something that makes us squirm, at least just a little.

This is not the common wisdom, which would have us believe that the Truth will make us feel confident, self-assured, and right with God. But in my experience, things that make us feel that way are not capital-T Truths, but rather are things that are merely “truthy” sounding. They do not so much make us confident as provide cover for our insecurities; do not so much make us feel self-assured, as disguise our self-centeredness; do not so much make us feel right, as self-righteous.
Let me tell you a story. Most of you know I came from a fairly large family: three brothers and three sisters. So maybe it doesn’t surprise you that there were a lot of arguments going on. In fact, I can hardly think of any time when I was growing up that there wasn’t some argument going on between two or more of us siblings. But with one of my siblings – a younger brother – and I, the habit has continued on into adulthood. Politically, he is about as far away from me as you can get: somewhere to the right of Ghengis Khan. Religiously? He’s an atheist.

Not too long ago, he called and asked what I thought of a political email he sent me. And off we went. After an hour or two, I finally, said, “Look, I don’t want to argue about this any more.”

“Ah hah!” he said, “So you admit I’m right.”

“No.” I said, “I’m just tired of arguing.”

“But I won,” he said, a little desperately.

“Not really.” I said, “You’ve only convinced me that this argument is a waste of time. If you want to call that a ‘win’ then be my guest. But don’t make the mistake of thinking my silence means that I think what you are saying is true.”

Too often these days people wield Truth – or what they believe to be Truth – as a weapon to wound their enemies: those with whom they disagree, or who make them feel uncomfortable or threatened. All too often they make the mistake of thinking that winning whatever argument they are waging is the same as establishing the Truth of the matter. All too often they make mistake of thinking that the silence of their opponents means that the “Truth has won out,” when it may only mean that their opponents are too intimidated – or maybe just too exhausted – to continue.
And all too often this happens in the church. Sadly, perhaps more in the church then in other venues of life. Perhaps more so even then in politics, perhaps because we know we are supposed to be about Truth, while most politicians can get by on “truthiness.”

And let me be clear here that no part of the Church is exempt from this temptation to condescend. Those on the left can fall into it just as easily as those on right. And those of us in the center can just as easily look down upon the extremes. It is just a part of our human nature to believe that we own the Truth, that we and those who agree with us are right, and that those who don’t are dead wrong. We all do it. It’s just that our preferred weapons of “truthiness” just look a little different on the outside.

The irony of the whole thing is that Capital-T Truth really IS a weapon. But it is a very different kind of weapon than the kind we are used to. It is a weapon that we cannot bring to bear against another without wounding ourselves. Like a sword that is all blade and no handle, we dare not raise it against another unless we are willing for it to cut into our heart and mind as well.
It reminds me of the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. All night long they wrestled, until finally the angel touched his hip joint and wounded him, a wound that would cause him to limp for the rest of his life. And after wounding Jacob, he gave him a new name: Y’sra El – literally “Wrestles-with-God” – because, as the angel put it, he “wrestles with God and humans.” Jacob learned the Truth about himself that night, and was wounded in the process. And he counted this exchange as a great deal. Because he learned an important Truth about God: that one could “wrestle face to face with God and live.”

This story has informed Jewish thinking about Truth since ancient times. There is an old saying: “Wherever there are two Jews, there are three opinions.” On one level, this saying merely observes the fact that arguing is the Jewish national pastime. But on a much deeper level, it means that no one person can have complete knowledge of God’s Capital-T Truth, but that when two or more people come together and engage in open-minded, open-hearted agreement a more complete picture of the Truth emerges. And when this approach is used as a theological method to argue about what God expects of humankind it is called “Midrash,” a method of teaching with which one Rabbi Y’shua ben Yoseph – whom we know as Jesus – was quite familiar.

It is also the Anglican approach to theology, as well, though we do not call it Midrash. But it is a recognition that as fallen human beings, none of us can fully know the mind of God. That we don’t always have to look at our differences as either/or, because sometimes they are both/and. Myself, I’ve always thought of it as the “Walton’s Mountain” approach: The Church is like a big family. We can argue and fight all day long, but at the end of the day its “good night Mom, goodnight Dad, goodnight John-Boy, and we go to sleep in the same house, and wake up the next morning just as much family as the night before. We are stuck with each other. And for a reason. So we can learn from each other. About ourselves. About each other. About God. And if we realized that Truth, maybe we could come to our arguments not to “win” but expecting hearts and minds to be transformed. Most especially our own.

Because we already know the Truth. And the Truth has and is and will continue to set us free. We do not own the Truth. The Truth owns us. And whenever two or three of us are gathered, there He will be . . . in the midst of us.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A Foot in Both Camps

As you may have gathered, I find things of value on both sides of many of the ideological divides in the Church these days. (This makes it difficult for my liberal or conservative friends to pigeonhole me as a conservative or a liberal theologically, because I find things with which to agree and disagree on both sides. This sometimes annoys my friends and it drives a few of my parishioners crazy).

Having a foot in both camps is not a strange experience. In fact, it is quite familiar. I was born the son of a Jewish mother and a gentile father, which according to Jewish tradition and Halakhic law makes me a Jew. And that is what I grew up considering myself to be. And yet I had to learn to understand and respect the traditions of both my parents.

I became a follower of Christ (more on this journey later) through the actions of a conservative, evangelical, charismatic friend, who challenged me to consider the claims of Jesus. And while my friend’s approach could be quite annoying (I made the mistake of taking up the challenge and trying to prove him wrong, just to shut him up), I could not make a commitment to follow Christ unless I was convinced of the truth of the claim that Jesus was God. Christian fellowship alone was not sufficient, I could have fellowship in a synagogue, and besides, they put on a better coffee hour.

Yet over time, I came to find that while doctrine was necessary for me to start my journey into the Christian faith, it was not sufficient to sustain me in that journey. Doctrine could not feed my spirit. I needed to the experience the love of Christ, and I needed to experience the transcendent yet immanent mysterious presence of God. Moreover there was much of truth and value in Jewish heritage, which I did not wish to leave behind. I found these qualities more present on the liberal side of the Church, and most present in the Episcopal Church. Not only did it allow me to experience the Divine Presence in the Eucharistic liturgy every Sunday, it was also, as I have often told people, “the most Jewish church I could find.” (Ironically, my Jewish friends in New York City seem to have noticed this as well. In describing the New York City Jewish Community they say, “We live like Episcopalians, but we vote like Puerto Ricans.)

And yet sometimes, I find the reticence of many of my fellow Episcopalians and many liberal Christians to make doctrinal, truth-claims frustrating, as well. I want to say to my friends on both sides have something of value to share with the other. I want to remind my liberal friends that Jesus said that if “you are truly my disciples, you will know truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32. Note that the word “love” -- or acceptance or empathy or tolerance -- is not mentioned. A liberal colleague of mine, the Rev. Michael Hopkins, posits that Jesus forgot to add, “but first it will really piss you off.”). And I want to remind my conservative friends that Jesus command “By this everyone will know you are my disciples, that you have love for one another” (John 13:35. Note the absence of the word doctrine -- or knowledge of the truth for that matter. A young conservative evangelical, whom I met at conference, told me that he recently had the insight that “you can believe all the correct doctrines and still be an ***hole.” A little roughly put, but it gets the point across.).

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Post-Modern Before Post-Modern Was Cool

Bear with me for a few posts while I reflect on some of the life experiences that shaped my thinking on these matters.

I remember the first time I encountered paradox. I was about five years old at the time (I'm 53 now). It was late. I was in my bed trying to fall asleep. But as usual, I couldn't stop thinking -- my mind sifting its thoughts, scavenging through the events of the day for items of interest.

It was my last activity of the day that really stood out. I had been outside looking at the stars in the night sky and pestering my parents with the usual kid questions: how big? how far? how long? Most of their answers were satisfactory to me. I might not totally understand them, but I had confidence that one day I could figure out a way to wrap my mind around them. But the last question and the answer I got to it was not so satisfactory.

"How far out does the universe go?" I asked.

"Forever," was the reply.

I did not sleep that night. Why? Because of the feeling of overwhelming awe that I felt: a sinking, queasy feeling. I was confronted with an unresolvable paradox: (1) it was impossible for the universe to go on forever, and (2) it was impossible for it not to. As my imagination soared outward through the universe, I kept stopping to put up some sort of imaginary wall (here it stops). And for a moment I would breath a sigh of relief . . . until my curiousity got the better of me and I looked over the imaginary wall. And off I went again. No matter how hard I struggled, I could not make sense of this paradox. For years afterward I often cried myself to sleep trying to wrap my mind around it. (I know . . . weird kid . . . my parents thought so, too.)

Until one day, when I was about seven, something fell into place. Here's what happened: I woke up in the middle of the night after one of those really bizarre dreams: the kind in which all kinds of fantastical/impossible things were happening (I could fly, for example), and yet it all seems so real. And as I sat there in my bed, the after-images of my dream still almost visible, suddenly it hit me: I was God's dream. If God were dreaming me, then paradoxes like the one I was agonizing over were not only possible, but to be expected. The awe-full feeling left the pit of my stomach, I lay back down, pulled up the covers, and slept like a baby . . . for the first time in years.

So what did I learn from this? I mean beside that I was weird. Well, over the years it prepared me to understand/accept several things:
  1. The Authority of Scripture. When I would later open the Hebrew Scriptures and read the opening chapter of Genesis (Hebrew: Bereshith or Beginnings), I was totally blown away to read of God speaking the universe into being out of nothing/chaos. It just fit: God really did dream all this up.
  2. The Deepest of All Truths Are Paradoxes (and Therefore Beyond Complete Understanding). Once I was willing to look everywhere around me I found paradoxical truths about reality. The same infinite/finite conundrum that defined the furthest reaches of space also described the nature of inner space (there is always something smaller, but how can there not be a foundation?) and of time (there is always an earlier time, but how can there not be a beginning?). There is no fully understanding these truths: they just are.
  3. Only God Makes the World Make Sense. The good news is: I don't have to fully understand everything. I can understand what I can understand and trust God for the rest. I can leave other people's understanding to God, too.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Be Gentle: It's My First Time...

I have to say I've been a little hesitant to enter the blogosphere...

Things seem to get a little heated out there, especially when the topic turns to religion, perhaps even more so when the topic is Christianity. It seems sadly ironic the amount of vitriol that can erupt in discussions of the Prince of Peace, especially between his followers. I think it may have been C. S. Lewis who once said that we are one of "the few armies that believe in shooting our own wounded." And speaking of Anglicans, as an Episcopalian, I feel a little gun-shy of venturing out into our own online discussions, given the us/them, "take-no-prisoners" attitude of some of the commentators out there.

And then there is the question of whether I have anything say. Anything new. Anything original. Anything anyone wants to hear. Anything that will make a difference. There is a part of me that feels that putting my thoughts out there is a little presumptuous. As odd as it may seem, despite the fact that I make my living as a preacher, I don't feel a need to "hold forth" on everyday on every topic of the day. But I do have one thing to offer that is relatively unique. And that is the perspective of someone who has come to the Christian faith as an outsider; specifically, as a person of Jewish heritage.

Coming to the Church as an outsider enabled me to distinguish between the core beliefs of the Christian faith (the overflowing love and grace of the Triune God, and Christ's human-divine essence as the conduit for that love and grace), and those that are secondary (everything else). This makes me difficult pidgeonhole as a conservative or a liberal theologically, because I have sympathies with both points of view (this drives a few of my parishioners crazy).

On the one hand, when it comes to the core dogmata of the faith, I am as "orthodox" as they come. When I say the Nicene Creed, I BELIEVE that stuff. The nature of Christ is not an abstact point to me. If Jesus Christ was not God, then I'm out of here, because my Jewish sensibilities tell me I cannot be worship a mere human, no matter how wonderful of a person he might be. On the other hand, it is precisely because I really believe that stuff that lies at the core of the faith that I am willing to "let go and let God," as the cliche goes, when it comes to everything else. If God really is what we Christians claim to believe God is -- the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of all things, the inspiration of the Scripture, the transformer of human hearts, and the source of Christian community -- then God has what it takes to set us all straight (including me), and that job does not belong to any one of us. I like to say that I am both "orthodox" (accepting the core dogmata of the Christian faith) and "paradox" (accepting that the core dogmata are paradoxical mysteries beyond human understanding or definition).

So from time to time I will offer up my musings from this point of view. And I will happily entertain any musings in return. Oh, and one more thing (in the interests of full disclosure): I am working on a book from this point of view, so anything you say may be used . . .

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