This is the last in a three-part series entitled "The Perspectives of a Former Fundamentalist Christian." If you're interested in reading the first two posts, here are the links:
In the last post, I indicated that many within the church have misinterpreted the meaning of John 14:6 where Jesus said, "I am the way ... no man comes to the Father except through me." There is another way to understand these words that is more in keeping with his understanding of himself and the human/divine connection that was his joy to know, just as it was for other spiritual masters.
Those who have a problem with the alternative understanding I described in the last post -- which, not surprisingly, are almost exclusively fundamentalist Christians -- usually ask another question of me: "Don't your views of Jesus undermine his authority and that of the Bible?" And, my response is, "They do not for me. Do they for you?" If so, then you will likely disagree with all of my perspectives, cling to your beliefs, and so feel the need to vigorously defend your beliefs by whatever means possible. I understand this reaction, as I lived this way for decades myself.
As a former fundamentalist Christian, I felt the need to defend my beliefs almost continually. While I thought I was being a good "Christian apologist," defending the faith against heretics and disbelievers, I realize now that all I was really defending was a threatened little ego -- (that very "self" Jesus counseled us to deny - Matt. 16:24) with it's belief system. Someone has rightly said, "Beliefs are a cover-up for insecurity; you only ever believe in the things you're not certain about." I had many religious beliefs or, more accurately, the ego in me held tightly to many beliefs and so found an illusory and passing sense of identity in them. Like a starving person might grasp a bowl of rice, I (the ego) not only held to these beliefs but I feared they might be discredited, dismissed, or worse, disproven. So, I guarded, debated, and defended my beliefs against any perceived enemy. That is to say, the ego in me was busy making others wrong by making itself right. Consequently, I had little time for genuine inner exploration and reflection. Although I had questions and doubts, I dismissed those, at least for as long as I could.
Then, one day, I awakened. Life will give you whatever experience is necessary to awaken you to the Divine presence. I've written about this extensively in my book. One of the results of this spiritual awakening was a detachment from the ego self with its belief system. I know now that attachment to anything will cause you to suffer. So, there's a sense in which, to borrow the words of Gerry Spence, I was liberated -- liberated "to have a mind that was opened by wonder instead of one closed by belief." Only when you feel the need to argue and insist your beliefs are "right" -- by which you really mean the beliefs of others are wrong -- do you create inner conflict that then manifests itself as outer conflict. That is, you create an "us" against "them" world, a "We're right; You're wrong!" environment which is humanly untenable.
This would explain virtually all human conflicts.
Our planet may be small but it is large enough to sustain a variety of perspectives. Branches on a tree don't all have to look the same in order to draw nourishment from the same vine. So, my perspective today -- indeed my deepest passion -- is to stay open, to be reflective, and to keep seeking truth. Or, as the philosopher Andre' Gide put it, I desire to "seek the truth while doubting those (and, that would include myself) who think they have found it." "Truth," said Democritus, "is at the bottom of the abyss; and the abyss is bottomless."
I take Jesus and his teachings very seriously. More so than I ever did in those days when I ran around trying to save Jesus from the liberals and disbelievers and convert the world to my way (or "our" way) of thinking and believing. Today, I am committed to following Jesus. I trust his teachings. As a follower of his way of knowing the Divine, I am living a much more conscious, compassionate, and charitable life.
"What do you believe about the Bible?" is another question I'm frequently asked.
The Bible is my primary source of Divine inspiration, spiritual insight, and practical wisdom. It is not a book of magic to me, however. I do not presume it fell out of the sky perfectly written, free of error, bound in leather, and in the language of King James. Instead, it is to me a collection of sacred stories and spiritual teachings that span several hundred centuries of Jewish and Christian history. Consequently, there is no passage that can be read or interpreted apart from its cultural, political, social, and religious context.
I used to think that by saying things like "If the Bible says it, I believe it" I was expressing my faith in and devotion to the "good book." I now realize that I only said those things as a way of dismissing the questions I had about the Bible, particularly the inequities and contradictions that are abundant throughout it. In other words, by dismissing the questions I had about the Bible, as well as the ones it generates itself, I deceived myself into thinking I was honoring the Bible, even revering it. In truth, I was living a lie and, as a consequence, could not have done more to dishonor the Bible. I was making a mistake many sincere Christians still make today. My actions were insane and they went on for many years. Gratefully, the awakening ended the madness.
The Bible is the story of the Jewish/Christian quest to know God. But, it is not the sole sacred text that records this human longing. Other peoples and cultures have their own sacred writings. So, my perspective is that all sacred texts point toward the same spiritual quest as well as to the same spiritual Truth. The difference is only in emphasis, understanding, culture and tradition.
I have watched, even participated, as every branch of the Christian church has debated, disagreed, and eventually divided over the denomination was going to "say" about the Bible. Most of these maddening conflicts have swirled around such words as "authoritative," "inerrant," "infallible," and so forth. My own perspective is this: the Bible, just as other sacred texts, is infinitely more than anything I, or anyone else, could ever say about it. In fact, if what we "say" about the Bible becomes more important than what the Bible, or any other sacred text, says to us ... well ... what could be more insane than this?
I seek to embrace spiritual truth wherever I find it. While the Bible is still my primary source of spiritual inspiration, I find insight in living through the writings of Lao Tzu, the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, and so forth. In fact, I recently set up a website www.DailyAPPlift.com as a place where the spiritual wisdom from all of the spiritual traditions might be shared and embraced. Truth is truth wherever it is found. And, it is "the truth," said Jesus, "that will free you" (Jn. 8:32).
"In which Christian denomination do you hold membership?"
Only two officially; but, I have attraction to and interest in all of the Christian communions, as well as several eastern religions.
I grew up a Baptist -- more precisely, a Southern Baptist. I did not know it at the time but there are as many Baptists as there are flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream. But today, I regard myself as the product of many Christian traditions. All of them add value and a distinctive flavor to the complexity that is my Christian experience. Recently, for example, I joined the Roman Catholic Church. But, I neither abandoned my Baptist faith nor my membership in a local Baptist church. So, today, I actually hold membership in both a Protestant and a Catholic church. Someone heard me acknowledge this recently in a speech I was giving, and they responded, "But you can't do that?"
"Says who?" I asked. I'm not sure it will ever happen but, before I leave this planet, I've contemplated joining the Methodists, too, as well as the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, the Unity Church, and some others as well. I enjoy visiting and worshipping with people of other religions, too.
Why? My perspective is this: There is infinitely more that unites us than divides us. I so admire Buddhism and Hinduism and, lately, the mysticism of Islam expressed in the writings of the Sufi poet Rumi, I might seek to join these other great religious traditions sometime too. None of this takes away from my Christian commitment to live the way of Christ. To the contrary, these associations have added richness and diversity to my spiritual walk with God.
If any of this feels threatening to you, my suggestion is that you explore your feelings. As for me, I am committed to what the 17th Carmelite monk, Brother Lawrence, called, "the practice of the presence of God." And, some of the religions of the world, I'm discovering, have insights in how to do this that have strengthened my Christian walk. In short, I regard myself as a Christ-follower by choice, a multi-denominationalist by interest, and an ardent practitioner of the spiritual practices found within many eastern religions. All of this helps me in what I describe as "the sacred art of knowing God."
"You use the words 'Post-Christian world.' What do you mean by this?"
When I was young, all of my neighbors were Christian. Even those who were not regular churchgoers regarded themselves as Christian. Furthermore, virtually everyone thought of America as a "Christian" nation. In school, I read that America was a "melting pot." But, the pot of stew in our little world had only white, Protestant potatoes with a few Catholics here and there.
Today, however, my little world -- your little world, too -- has changed. Your neighbor might be a Christian. But, it just as possible, perhaps even probable, that the neighbor is a Jew or a Muslim, a Buddhist or a Hindu, an agnostic or atheist. What does this mean? If America is to survive -- indeed, if humanity is to survive -- religious people must actually start practicing the very things their faith professes; love, peace, and acceptance of all -- those like you and those different from you.
There have been few conflicts throughout history, down to and including the present national and international conflicts, that have not been religiously motivated. This insanity will have to end if humanity is to survive. Unfortunately, there are some fundamentalist Christians who actually believe the world is not only getting worse, but they believe history is headed toward a great showdown and there is actually no stopping it. They hold to a belief system, the Rapture, that was first popularized by Hal Lindsey in his Late Great Planet Earth and most recently by Jerry Jenkins and Timothy LaHaye in their Left Behind series of novels. In their belief system, the Rapture is a way of escaping what they deem is an unavoidable escalation of wickedness in the world.
This is a belief system not unlike one finds among Muslim radicals. Both believe the world is doomed to destruction. Consequently, the fundamentalist Christians, on one hand, withdraw from the world and cling to the Rapture as a means of ultimately escaping the world they cannot forgive and have failed to redeem. On the other hand, instead of withdrawing, Islamic radicals come forward, kill themselves with suicide bombs, and so escape to an illusory Paradise where mythical rewards as virgins await them. Both approaches are destructive belief systems and fundamentally at odds with the teachings of their spiritual masters -- Jesus and Muhammad, respectively. The Dalai Lama is right: "Until there is peace among the religions, there will be no peace in the world."
"What do you believe is wrong with Christianity?"
Wrong question. "There's nothing wrong with Christianity," as G. K. Chesterton once noted. "There's everything wrong with Christians." For all the good that most of them do, it is the Christians who are often the source of human division, destruction, and planetary suffering. Whether with bombs that maim and destroy or belief systems that raptures the Christians while leaving others behind, they repeatedly label, judge, and seek to discredit, if not destroy, their perceived enemies.
My perspective is that there is room enough for everyone on this planet. But, until Christians actually live as Jesus lived, treat others, but especially their enemies, with forgiveness, openness, and respect, even as Christ did, human division and suffering will continue. Instead of "being in the world but not of it," as Jesus taught (John 17:15-16), Christians will be neither in the world nor of any benefit to it. And, my own perspective is: that's a consequence neither I nor any other genuine follower of Christ really wants.
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