02/15/2011 02:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Perspectives of a Former Fundamentalist Christian

As I indicated in part one of this three-part post, "As a Fundamentalist Christian, This I was Taught to Believe," the word "belief" seems too rigid to me. On the afternoon of my spiritual awakening, which I describe in detail in my book, many things changed. One change is that I make it my ambition today to keep an open mind about everything, as well as to have little attachment to anything. So, while I have beliefs, I prefer to think of them as "perspectives." That seems a little softer and a little more capable of changing if need be.

The following are a few of my perspectives. I make no claim that they're absolute, so I have no interest in debating them. Further, I do not write this as a polemic or treatise in order to convince you of anything. Saint Paul said, "Work out your own salvation" (Phil.2:12). What follows is my work and works for me. You'll have to do your own, if you so elect, as the spiritual path is one journey no one can take for you. In Jackson Browne's song "For a Dancer," there's a stanza, the lyrics of which go like this: "Just do the steps that you've been shown, by everyone you've ever known; Until the dance becomes your very own ... In the end, there is one dance you'll do alone."

I'm often asked, "Do you still believe in God?" Yes. But, my perspective is this: I can no more prove God exists than anyone else can prove God doesn't. When people debate God's existence I get the feeling it's little egos in either direction -- as believers or disbelievers -- needlessly engaging in an exercise in futility. You cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Those who argue for God's existence do so because they're secretly afraid he doesn't. Those who debate against God's existence do so because they're secretly afraid she does. So, in the end, what really is the point? Raised as I was to believe in God, I could no more not believe than I could stop the sun from shining or the earth from spinning on its axis.

I've tried, too. I finally concluded, however, I suspect I'm hotwired to believe. Written into my DNA perhaps. Who knows? This much I do know: When I contemplate, and then try to articulate, what happened to me one Sunday afternoon -- what I've called the "Enoch" factor in the book by that name -- I'm at a loss to explain what happened in me. For all practical purposes, it changed virtually everything in my life: how I feel about myself, others -- and particularly those I would have once labeled enemies -- and this world. What Romaine Rolland called "the oceanic feeling" descriptively expresses my experience. So, I think it's safe to say I'm addicted to God.

I call God, God. But I suspect he has as many names as she does aliases. Even among monotheistic religions -- Islam, Judaism and Christianity -- there are countless names for God, even more among eastern religions. So the question is: Who's right? My perspective is, they all are. For me, however, the name "God" works just fine.

Beyond this, however, I hesitate to say much more. In fact, anything more I do say, only diminishes this ineffable reality. How do you name what really cannot be named, as Lao Tzu put it? How could anymore presume to explain what's really inexplicable? I think one of the biggest problems in much of Christianity today is this unfortunate notion that Christians alone know or understand God. I used to think this, but my perspective today is slightly different. My suspicion is, those who think they know God most likely do not.

"What do you believe about Jesus?" is perhaps the second most common question I'm asked. To me, Jesus was a human being, as much flesh and blood, mind and emotions as I am. What distinguished him is that he lived, as did Buddha before him and Muhammad after him, at the highest level of self-realization, which really means God-realization or you might say Divine consciousness. But bear in mind, even these are just words, limiting and inadequate in conveying a dimension of living that no word, explanation or concept could ever capture.

A self-actualized life is a mystery. It is so precisely because it is so rare. To be fully human, as well as fully divine, which means the self is completely free of its-self, is a lifelong, spiritual endeavor. In my estimation, this is why Jesus said, "Follow me." He gave us a simple invitation to be sure. But as any serious follower knows, it takes the discipline of a lifelong pursuit to actualize.

Jesus lived so connected to himself -- with Mystery itself -- it wasn't long before people regarded him as Divine, as God-Incarnate. In that way, they revered or worshipped him, even if they did not always follow him. I still regard Jesus as Divine. But, I do not in the same way I did before. For example, there was a time when I viewed Jesus, and only Jesus, as capable of being divine, or living free of self-interest or self-obsession, and in oneness and unity with Source itself. Today, however, I feel I have the capacity to live a divine life, too, just like everyone else. A divine life is one lived in oneness with all. What else could it be?

When you live at this level of consciousness, there is no separation between you and another -- or between you and God. This is why Jesus said, "The things you have seen me accomplish, greater things you will do" (John 14:12). His own prayer was that the oneness he knew with God would be a reality shared by his followers as well. He prayed, "...that they may be one as we are one" (John 17:11). I love the way Meister Eckhart, the Catholic mystic, described this unity: "The eye through which I see God (or anyone else) is the same eye through which God sees me." To live in this way could only ever result in a very different world. How could it not?

For years, I thought, because I was taught, that when Saint John said, "...God gave his only begotten Son..." (John 3:16), he meant Jesus was God's one-and-only son. Text critics of scripture will tell you that this might be the meaning John wished to convey. If they are honest critics, however, they will also tell you it is equally possible Saint John was merely noting the "uniqueness" of Jesus. I think this is what he meant. There is no question that Jesus lived a unique life -- it's how he treated others, how he willingly laid down his life in sacrificial love for others and how he survived death. But that does not necessarily mean he was God's only son, or daughter, with the capacity to live a selfless, self-giving life. Otherwise, why would Jesus have invited people to follow him?

Somewhere in this conversation, I usually hear a sigh of disgust from my very conservative Christian friends (a sigh that I would have shared in unison a few years ago myself). They will press, "But don't you believe Jesus is the only way to God?" This is the deal-breaker for many Christians. Even for those who regard themselves as tolerant of other beliefs, even other religions, still regard Jesus as the only way to God. In fact, they will vehemently argue that Jesus himself claimed that he was: "I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6).

For most of my adult life, I tried to accept this -- that "believing in Jesus" was not only the only way to God, but the only way to go to heaven when you die. Today, however, I have a different perspective. It revolves around the word "believe." Though this is a somewhat small word, its misuse has caused great misunderstanding among Christians.

What does it mean to believe in Jesus? When Jesus invited people to follow him or to "believe in him," he was inviting people to trust that what he said, as well as how he lived, would result when emulated in a divine life -- one connected as deeply with the Father as he was. The one condition was this: you had to believe in him enough to be willing to follow him. But isn't it a whole lot easier to believe in Jesus than it is to actually follow him? Indeed! This explains how the church can be full of believers in Jesus, but perhaps only a few real followers of Jesus. And, not surprisingly, Jesus predicted this is the way it would be: "The way is broad that leads to destruction and many will go that way. The way is narrow that leads to life and few there will be that find it" (Matt.7:21). Maybe it's just me, but a "few" does not sound like "many."

What you might not realize is that to "believe in Jesus" is to have confidence enough in what he said and taught to make it your own spiritual practice -- daily. It is much easier to worship Jesus than it is to walk after him. This too, explains, for example, how the church can be full of people who for all practical purposes ignore the teachings of Jesus such as this one, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). It seems to me that the church is full of people who are far more interested in receiving than in giving. Ask any church treasurer.

But this is only one example. There are many, and in part three of this series, I'll address several of the sayings attributed to Jesus and how the church almost universally ignores these teachings. Yet, the church claims to follow Jesus. But isn't there a canyon of difference between "believing in Jesus" and in following him? Doesn't the former result in dogmas, doctrines and debates about Jesus, as well as division around who he was? Of course, it does. And anyone with even a cursory sense of history will know that the story of the Christian church has been, and continues to be, one of conflict, confusion, even corruption.

The latter, however -- "following Jesus" -- could only ever result in a selfless, self-giving and transformational life, one lived after the example of Jesus himself, whose divine life positively impacted this world for good.

Since we have no verb in English for the Greek word translated as "faith," the translators of scripture used the word "believe." Over time, its use or, more accurately, its misuse has resulted in the misguided notion that believing in Jesus means believing certain beliefs about Jesus. So what we have today are more than 20,000 different Christian groups and denominations, each with a catalogue of "beliefs" about Jesus, the Bible and a host of other religious doctrines and dogmas. Ask any one of these groups and you'll quickly discover that each believes its beliefs are a little more "right" than the beliefs of 19,999 others. The inevitable consequence of this kind of madness is division, which leads to more division and then more division still.

So when Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the Kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of the Father..." (Matt. 7:21), I suspect he was driving home the point that it is infinitely more important how you live than what you believe. Beliefs change no one. Believing in Jesus, however, enough to stake your life on his teachings, on how he thought and the way he lived, well, that will radically change you. And it will change your world.

In Zen Buddhism, there is this statement: "The finger that points to the moon is not the moon." You can spend your life, if you so choose, clinging to the finger of your beliefs -- debating, defending and developing an endless array of doctrines around the identity of Jesus. As for me, it is my desire to reach the moon of my spiritual potential. I wish to think like Jesus might have thought -- the Buddha, too, as well as Lao Tzu and other spiritual masters -- and to practice the way Jesus treated himself and those around him. In short, I wish to answer his invitation: "Follow Me."

Isn't that all he really asks of me and of anyone who wishes to believe in him?