Category Archives: Christianity

Christians on High Horses

HHsA recent comment by the U.S. president led me to wonder:  What’s the difference between a modern ISIS terrorist and a Christian Crusader from 1000 years ago or an Inquisition interrogator from 500 years ago, from the point of view of their victims?

The answer: not much.

Now what’s the difference between those two above and a modern Christian, whose faith has spent the last 500 years ridding itself of crusades and inquisitions, whose faith has undergone massive social and cultural reformations when the Age of Enlightenment contributed to the secularization of European democracies and the founding of the secular democracy of the United States, events which liberated Christianity from being a tool of the State, a liberation that allowed Christianity to completely restructure itself from a political force at the command of kings to a growing and still-emerging body of Christ who take their inspiration from the actual teachings of Jesus – how would modern Christianity compare to the Dark Ages church that was more a political force than a spiritual one?

The difference would be something like the mother of Coptic Christian brothers who were beheaded by ISIS expressing her forgiveness for her son’s murderers and hoping for their killers’ salvation; it would be calls for prayer rather than calls for revenge in response to the persecution of Christians in many parts of the world, it would be the universal condemnation by the Christian community of hate and provocation that occasionally arises among them by those claiming to act in the name of Christ.

Christianity remains at or near the top of the worlds fastest growing religions, and it has successfully transformed itself into one of the world’s more pacifistic and also among the most generous of religions for global foreign aid.  Much has changed since the days the president was referring to. That Christianity existed in another time, another place, for an entirely different purpose and with a polar opposite reason for existence than the Christianity we know today.

So I don’t know if protesting the violent slaughter of those who will not convert to the perpetrators’ religion means that Christians are on a high horse of some kind.  I believe that everyone is protesting these acts of violence regardless of their spiritual tradition, and I believe that most reasonable people also accept the perpetrators’ own stated rationale for committing those acts.

Clearly the president is as horrified by this violence as everyone else is.  But the comment about being on a high horse about it made no sense at all to me, and I find that I cannot resist a brief response.

Spirituality vs Religion: Seekers and Dwellers At the End of the Road

SeekersDwellers

Back in 2003 a paper was published that examined the effects of two different kinds of spirituality on psychosocial functioning in old age. The study, Religiousness, spirituality, and psychosocial functioning in late adulthood: Findings from a longitudinal study (link accesses the pdf), used life course data from a longitudinal research project done by the Institute of Human Development at the University of California, Berkely.  The results reflected a few things that seem intuitively obvious, but found other things that some might find surprising.

The types of spiritual experience they measured were what they termed “dwellers” and “seekers”.  From the paper:

Religious dwellers tend to accept traditional forms of religious authority; they inhabit a space created for them by established religious institutions and relate to the sacred through prayer and communal worship.

By contrast, for spritual seekers individual autonomy takes precedence over external authority and the hold of tradition-centered religious doctrines.  Spiritual seekers are explorers who create their own space by typically borrowing elements from various religious and mythical traditions, and they frequently blend participation in institutionalized Western religion with Eastern practices.

…What differentiates dwellers and seekers is not the seriousness of effort to incorporate the sacred in their lives but their relation to religious authority and tradition.

Much is known about Dwellers.  They have better intergenerational family interactions, large supportive social networks, and are much more likely than others to engage in voluntary  community caregiving activies.

By contrast little is known about the late life psychological functioning of Seekers.  Some sociologists, and not just dweller sociologists, have hypothesized that the self-referential emphasis of spiritual seekers is evidence of “excessively narcissistic self-absorption” that may in fact undermine the community obligations promoted by institutionalized religions.

Fortunately for those of us who live in both worlds, that turned out not to be the case.  What emerged instead was something positive for both groups, something that hints at fertile ground for future research now that exploration of alternative spiritual lifestyles has become more common in Western culture.

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Follow-up: A bit more on Carl Jung’s perspective

carl-jung2In the previous post I quoted Carl Jung as follows:

The churches stand for traditional and collective convictions which in the case of many of their adherents are no longer based on their inner experience but on unreflecting belief, which is notoriously apt to disappear as soon as one begins thinking about it.  The content of belief then comes into collision with knowledge, and it often turns out that the irrationality of the former is no match for the ratiocinations of the latter.  Belief is no adequate subsitute for inner experience, and where this is absent even a strong faith which came miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously.

At the end I concluded, hopefully after building a halfway decent case, that:

…once the relationship between you and Spirit begins to solidify and expand the initial belief, that belief is transformed into inner experience where it transcends belief to become knowledge.

One of Jung’s major themes was the power of symbolism in the human psyche.  A symbolic system provides a structure for belief.  The mind automatically tries to interprete events to see whether or how they might affect the self, and this automatic evaluation is done even when the event happens to others.  For this reason stories about events that happen to others (or even stories that are fictional) are evaluated by the mind almost as carefully as are incidents that you experience directly.

The part of the mind that does all this is the “schema”, first described in depth by Piaget and which was discussed briefly in Spirit of Consciousness part 2.

Within the schema are bedrock beliefs about oneself.   It is from these “core beliefs” that our self image is generated.  From within this structure, using Piaget’s terminology, events (or reports of events) are automatically examined to see whether we assimilate the news into our existing schema, or accomodate our schema to include events we weren’t prepared for or else had little information about.  Or we could dismiss them entirely as either untrue or else as being meaningless to us.

Something feels meaningingful if it resonates with our personal schema; events that we do not regard as having anything to do with us will be acknolwedged as being part of the reality we live in, but not things that reflect in any way upon our selves.

Stories resonate with us when the events fit into our cognitive-emotional framework, i.e. we understand them both on a cognitive level and on an emotional level, and that is true regardless of whether the stories are news accounts or works of literature and fiction.

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Spirit of Consciousness, Part 3: Church and State

church-state-stopI want to start with a couple of quotes:

“They have cut man in two, setting one half against the other. They have taught him that his body and his consciousness are two enemies engaged in deadly conflict, two antagonists of opposite natures, contradictory claims, incompatible needs, that to benefit one is to injure the other, that his soul belongs to a supernatural realm, but his body is an evil prison holding it in bondage to this earth—and that the good is to defeat his body, to undermine it by years of patient struggle, digging his way to that glorious jail-break which leads into the freedom of the grave.

They have taught man that he is a hopeless misfit made of two elements, both symbols of death. A body without a soul is a corpse, a soul without a body is a ghost—yet such is their image of man’s nature: the battleground of a struggle between a corpse and a ghost, a corpse endowed with some evil volition of its own and a ghost endowed with the knowledge that everything known to man is non-existent, that only the unknowable exists.

Do you observe what human faculty that doctrine was designed to ignore? It was man’s mind that had to be negated in order to make him fall apart. Once he surrendered reason, he was left at the mercy of two monsters whom he could not fathom or control: of a body moved by unaccountable instincts and of a soul moved by mystic revelations—he was left as the passively ravaged victim of a battle between a robot and a dictaphone.”   -John Galt

The second quote was published the same year:

The churches stand for traditional and collective convictions which in the case of many of their adherents are no longer based on their inner experience but on unreflecting belief, which is notoriously apt to disappear as soon as one begins thinking about it.  The content of belief then comes into collision with knowledge, and it often turns out that the irrationality of the former is no match for the ratiocinations of the latter.  Belief is no adequate subsitute for inner experience, and where this is absent even a strong faith which came miraculously as a gift of grace may depart equally miraculously.  -Carl Jung

Both of these were published in 1957, which was a perilous time for the world. The Cold War was reaching terrifying new heights, the Soviet Empire was in bloody, merciless expansion in Europe, Asia, and Latin America with the volatile Nikita Khrushchev at the helm.  President Eisenhower was warning Americans to build nuclear fallout shelters and prepare for the worst, and our children were watching for flashes in the sky and practicing duck and cover in grade-school classrooms.   The two countries were fully capable of nuking each other into oblivion, and were playing a game of brinksmanship that would have erased all the gains of the Enlightenment and set Western Civilization back hundreds of years if either side had blinked.

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Sinner!

Traditional Christian teaching about sin goes something like this:

Through no choice of your own you’re born into this world a sinner (“original sin” doctrine), and if you are unfortunate enough to have been born into the 99%-plus portion of humanity who lived and died over earth’s long history without converting or even hearing about Christianity, your ultimate destiny is to spend eternity burning in hell.

Very nice, eh?  We’re supposed to talk about a God of Love after that nonsense?

I covered ‘hell’ in an earlier post, here I’ll just reiterate that there is no such place.  Hell represents endless suffering without hope of relief, which is the way all spiritual traditions describe a life without God.  It is a powerful metaphor used even by Jesus himself in his parables (which were likewise metaphors and allegories), but when my fellow Christians take it as a literal, physical place they contradict and deny everything that Spirit’s incarnation onto this earth came here to teach us about God.

So regarding sin I’ll get straight to the point: evolution bred into us instincts that have been honed and perfected over millions of years.  These instincts are about self-preservation and self-advancement within the tribe.  They’re about fight or flight, food and sex.  We’re a pack species, a social species, so cooperative instincts are also built in to us.  These instincts are experienced as the twin drives to get ahead and to get along.  To find your place within the hierarchy of the group, and as with everything else in evolution, to use the skills and attributes you were born with to rise in power and influence.

These instincts know nothing of Spirit.  If there is an “original sin” it is being born into the ape family, with all the evolutionary drives and instincts we inherited as a result.  Many passages in the New Testament discuss the differences between being “born of the flesh” and being born “of the Spirit”, and from this perspective its a perfect analogy.  We’re born as apes, highly intelligent but embedded in ape instincts.  By using our species’ capacity for intelligence and conscious awareness we can establish a bond with Spirit and be born again, reborn into union with Spirit, liberating ourselves from embeddedness in animal instinct, and begin living, working, and evolving toward something much higher.

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But What About my Dear Sweet Auntie Back Home who is still a Devout…

[complete that title sentence with some non-Christian religious tradition from anywhere in the world].  My dear sweet auntie was kind to everyone she met and she worked hard to raise a strong, loving family and regularly went to [temple/mosque/ashram/weekend voodoo goat butchering/whatever] all her life and died peacefully in her sleep after living a better life than most in this world.  God’s going to do what, exactly, with her soul?

As a Christian not associated with any denomination, and not fiscally dependent on keeping members coming in or preventing them from wandering off, I get to ask questions that are difficult or uncomfortable for lots of my compatriots.

Better yet, I get to answer them as I understand things.  My basic spiritual worldview revolves around three verses.  The first is the definition of Law given in the New Testament.  I covered this at length in the earlier post Making Sense of Love and Law but here it is again, its Matthew 22:36-40:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

With that one statement Jesus reconstructed the entire Old Testament from scratch.   Continue reading

The Real God is Love

Before he passed away, author Christopher Hitchens (see here, here, and here for more archives of his work) explained the main point of his book “God Is Not Great” in an interview found here.  From the opening of the interview:

Hitchens: The theme of the book is that it is going to be a choice between Civilization and Religion, and that the enemies of civilization, the theocrats, the religious fanatics, really mean it this time.  If you look at the way the ‘parties of God’ are destroying Iraq, or the way that people who believe in the Tooth Fairy called the ‘Hidden Imam’ are about to get nuclear weapons in Iran, all the nutcase settlers on the West Bank who think they can bring on a Jewish messiah and bring about the end of the world, whose best friends in the United States are people like the late Reverend Falwell, and the fanatical Christians who also think it would be clever to teach Creationism in schools and stultify American children, you see what I’m talking about now.

Interviewer: “Are you surprised we’re still having this debate now?”

Hitchens: “I think there’s a change in the zeitgeist, I really do… I think people have had enough of this.  They thought they could take for granted the secular values, the Enlightenment values. They thought that people would go to church and leave us alone, now we can’t be so sure of this, and I think people want to push back.”

Christopher Hitchens was one of my favorite writers.  I always found his work very insightful and in the areas where I disagreed with him, refreshingly challenging.  Unlike many polemicists, he backed up his ideas with cogent arguments and could never be waved off as anyone’s partisan hack.

What Hitchens and others object to about modern Christianity is the threat of a return to the days when Church and State worked together to dominate both the state and the church, i.e. the daily lives of all of the rest of us including making political demands regarding our spirituality.

One of Hitchens’ themes goes as follows: “Name a moral act done by a believer that would not have been done by a non-believer. Thought of anything yet?  Now think of an act of violence done by a believer because of his faith.  You’ve already thought of one, haven’t you.”

Why is a born-again, daily-praying Christian bringing all this up?  Because these are legitimate points.  If this is what others see in Christianity, then Christianity is bringing the wrong message to the world and we need to take a hard look at what Jesus’ message really is. Continue reading

Notes from an Old Battlefield

“Spirit is indeed never at rest but always engaged in moving forward.” -G.W.F. Hegel

The Industrial Revolution brought radical changes to humanity in a short period of time, and traditional and once-dominant religious institutions were feeling the need to assert themselves.  In the mid- to late-1800s came Darwin, the “godless” Marx & Engels Communist Manifesto, the early attempts to study Psychology objectively (i.e. secularly), a united Germany and the Second Reich, and an up-and-coming engine of power and prosperity in the secular democracy of the United States, in which every backwoods preacher and every farmer with a Bible and a vision and a burning mission from God Almighty could start his own religion and preach whatever he wanted.

After over 1000 years of religious domination, suddenly organized religions that were centuries old were being jostled and bumped.  The world was changing, and it wasn’t about them anymore.  Catholicism reacted by holding the First Vatican Council which resulted in the doctrine of Papal infallibility.  Evangelical Protestantism went back to basics and the Fundamentalist movement was the result.  If the Pope wanted to claim infallibility for himself, then the Protestant response was that it is the Bible and the Bible alone that is infallible.

Infallible, inerrant, and accurate in every way.  I was raised to read the Bible in fine fundamentalist tradition: you don’t play around with the words in the Bible, they came from God.  You respect that, and if the Bible says women aren’t to be permitted to speak in church, then women aren’t supposed to be preachers.  If it says homosexuality is wrong, then you have to believe that, too.  If you see that these things were written in a particular time and place in history and reflected the values of a specific culture rather than anything actually taught by Jesus, then you keep that to yourself because its in the Bible, see?  Don’t argue!  And if it says that earth was created in six days a few thousand years ago, you don’t argue with that either.

This is how I was taught to read the Bible.  But reading it is one thing.  What if you want to understand the Bible?

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Jean Piaget and the Algorithm of Human Learning

In an earlier post I looked at Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of the universe, which he along with several other writers of his time saw as a kind of coherent entity evolving from the simple to the complex, and culminating in mankind’s capacity for conscious self-awareness.  For a good summary of their ideas, see here.  In general they saw the universe as being broadly composed of Physiosphere (physical matter), Biosphere (life) and Noosphere (consciousness), with each level entirely composed of and dependent upon the earlier layers.

What Teilhard and his compatriots were not very clear about was the process by which this evolution was happening, particularly regarding conscious awareness.  To them, “complexification” (as one translation of Teilhard put it) was the universe’s natural state of being.  Increasing complexity in Physiosphere eventually resulted in Biosphere, and increasing complexity in Biosphere eventually resulted in humanity and human consciousness.

But with regard to consciousness, increasing complexity is hardly an explanation.  It almost confuses the result with the process needed to get there. In consciousness there is learning involved, and adaptation, and a host of other things that an adult conscious mind must pick up in the process of growing up.  The process by which this occurs is important to understand. Continue reading

Making Sense of Love and Law

Part of the enlightenment that Jesus brought to mankind was to center everything around love, including laws written by God the Father back in the Old Testament. The heart and soul of Hebrew Law was the ten commandments: Four about duty to God, and six about duty to each other (“Honor your parents, don’t lie, steal, covet, etc.)

Part of Jesus’ message was to change the focus, the perspective, of Old Testament law.  He did this in two ways.  The first was to get at the very essence of those ten commandments by refocusing them from something driven from the outside (Thou shalt not!) to something driven from within: Love God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:36-40).  Verse 40 emphasizes,  “On this hangs the law and the prophets.”

This is a major transformation. It parallels an individual’s years-long transformation from child to adult during which children must internalize lessons taught by their parents.  When we’re young we just have to obey: Don’t touch the stove!  Put on your seat belt!  Brush your teeth!

As we mature we understand the reasons for these things, and we’re no longer confused by the contradiction that mom or dad can cross the street but I can’t.  With more maturity, more is expected of us, but along with that comes more freedom.

So the emphasis is now on Love, but what about “Law”?  The New Testament continues to speak of it.  Paul discusses the law at length.  The commandments might have been changed to “love”, but are we legally bound to love?  The same way the ancient Hebrews were bound to follow the ten commandments and all the other 600-plus Hebrew laws?  Did Jesus just switch one set of laws that had to be followed on pain of death for a greatly simplified version that also has to be legally followed on pain of death?

How does THAT work?

Actually it does not work at all, and it never could.  Love comes from the inside, it is spontaneous and natural, and no outside force can make you genuinely feel and express an emotion like love.  Love is not experienced on demand.

So here’s us Christians saying, “Love God, or you’re going to roast in hell for eternity.”

To love under such conditions, under such a threat, is impossible.  Absolutely impossible.  The way we’re trying to bring people to Christ seems better modeled after the Stockholm Syndrome than on anything like genuine, spontaneous love.  So what’s this all about?  And could we Christians do a better job of making our case if we took a second look at it?  Continue reading