Wednesday, May 28, 2014

God the Mystic . . . or not so?

There is something about human nature that makes it very hard for us to avoid the extremes. When it comes to the issue of our approach to God being via reason or non-reason, the dance has followed the same pattern over the centuries.

You could say that the Christian journey began towards the direction of reason is the ultimate source of knowledge and truth, as advocated by the Greek society and Aristotle.  However, before that swing of the pendulum reached its zenith, it quickly moved back in the non-reason direction under the auspices of Augustine giving the voice of Plato.  This movement did continue until the zenith during the dark ages when reason was eventually despised and God was only known through the mystical (non-reason) approaches.

Then, a few hundred years later, with the Renaissance gaining full momentum, the pendulum began to swing in the opposite direction, towards the belief of an unfallen reason that we can have confidence in to lead to truth every time.  It is hard to know when this swing reached the end as the end was expressed in different times and different ways.  Surely Empiricism in Great Britain and  the Enlightenment of the European mainland represented two of the higher points of reason.  I see the zenith of this swing being in Descartes' statement Cogito ergo sum.  It was the ultimate beginning point of pure reason alone.

This movement of course didn't suddenly fizzle and start the swing in the opposite direction. But when the whole of society caught up with the Enlightenment, we had the birth of modernism.  Within it the hope that reason and science would solve all of our problems, including the problem of knowing God.  Knowing God became a technique.

But of course that became empty for both the Christian and the secularist.  The pendulum began to swing back towards non-reason two hundred years ago among the elite of society (the thinkers and writers) but didn't reach pop culture until the sixties.

Then, as the pendulum moved back to the direction of the non-reason and eventually to the anti-reason we had post-modernism among the secularists and the mysticism of the charismatic movement and the age of signs and wonders, which penetrated, in some form, all of evangelicalism and brought in a new mysticism within Catholicism.

While the height of Christian mysticism may have subsided a bit, I now find Christendom having great difficulty inserting proper reason back into the picture. Like I said in the beginning, we humans have great difficulty finding balance.

I now go to a well-educated church, and I like that. This is a thinking church.  Yet, at the same time, I'm finding that many of the people, like is true throughout this age, cannot find spirituality without defining it as an anti-rational mysticism.  Our main Sunday school class is now studying the "Great Christian Mystics."  The approach is, these people of history, who had strange experiences, have a key to being spiritual.

I'm also in a small group Bible study.  I'm enjoying it a great deal. Yet, once again, I have noticed that the conversation cannot be spiritual without being irrational.  The best example is where scripture is used as a magic book.  Rather than trying to know the history of the writer and what they intended to say, in their context, we are asked to feel the spirit take the words (like magic) and make it personal.  Those words may have nothing to do with the original intent.

This was the norm during my evangelical days.  We often threw opened the Bible, like a lucky charm, and looked at the first verse that we saw. We would take the words of that verse, like a whisper from God, totally divorced from the content, and make major life decisions on the perceived meaning.

Tonight I'm leading the group.  We are studying Psalms and I'll trying my best to do my research on the background of that particular writing and the original intent of the author.  I can draw from that story principles that apply to all of us.  I can also visit the human emotions of the author and draw major life lessons from that. But I will not venture into the magical of taking a few words, scrambling them, and allowing them to conjure up meanings for me personally that was not intended.

There has to be a balance. I do want to speak the voice of reason, but not the unfallen reason of the Empiricists, but a limited reason.  A reason that can take you most of the way to truth, but not always the whole way.

The universe is filled to brim with the mystical God of scriptures. But is should not be based on emotional feelings or psychological phenomena.  The mysteries of God include the fact we are here.  All the systems of life are a mystery. Dark matter, dark energy, the hugeness of the universe, the complexities of all that is.  This is the mystery of God.

I really think it is time to try and turn the pendulum back, but to avoid the extremes.  Can God work outside the natural laws of physics and psychology?  He could, but why would he want to?  Is this real universe not a glorious place in itself?  Why is it seen as nonspiritual to find the rational answer to the things of life?  God is the author of logic, reason and the mind. These are His gifts and not the domain of the lord of darkness.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

In Search of Authentic Christianity

I've been thinking more about how this present age has been labeled by some the age of authenticity. It is not that the people born after 1980 are more authentic than those from the "Mad Men" generation, but the point is that being authentic is the aspiration of this generation while it was not even on the radar in the 50s.  It is still an unfulfilled aspiration in my opinion.

I also ask myself constantly what would an authentic Christianity look like?  I remember in my Evangelical days that we would use the words "authentic Christian" but the connotation was totally different from what I mean here.  To us, it meant someone or substance (book, lecture, building, etc.) that was totally conformed to our particular brand of Christianity. We were the only correct Christians, so we thought, therefore you were authentic if you had drank from the same Kool Aid tank as we had.

But here is how I define authentic now, that which is most congruent with reality.  It is where people are very, very honest.  Not projecting theirselves as they want to be interpreted by others. It is not playing the game of promoting an agenda of truth that is truth to their brand (like the Kool Aid tank).  It is promoting an agenda of seeking truth wherever it may lie.  Yet, having the humility to know that with the fallen mind, we can never find all truth through reason.

My wife is now attending my church.  I never pressured her to but gave her space to reach her own conclusions. It was a difficult three years where she remained loyal to a pastor who considered me the devil. I was the devil to him, simply because I choose to leave his fold.

But now that my wife is part of my church, it gives us the opportunity to move deeper into it. While I've acknowledged that this church is the best church experience of my life, I still know that it is not perfect nor is any church.  It is still the product of 2,000 years of western civilization. But as I move from being an outsider to insider, I sense the same way of thinking that I've seen with most church people.  It is a very narrow and awkward (in my opinion) view of spirituality.  Being consistent with this whole blog, I could argue that this culture has more to do with Plato, than Biblical Christianity.  It is that division, which I don't think is Biblical, between the seen and unseen. The mysterious, unseen, always trumps the seen in this tradition.

This leads, in my opinion, a very deep emotional dishonestly.  Suddenly your daily life is filled with signs and wonders (from your imagination) because to be supernatural, is to be spiritual because the laws of nature aren't spiritual in this way of thinking.

So, I'm part of a small group.  It is made up of really good people, whom I like a lot. They are also highly educated people and somewhat deep thinkers. However, the mores of this group are consistent with those throughout Christianity.  People still define their spiritually by their supernatural experiences.  They would be taken back to hear me say this.  But I'm quite sensitive to this kind of talk and it does permeate the conversation.

I now feel very uncomfortable and un-authentic, if I were to say that "God spoke clearly to me today to do such and such." I would also not feel at ease to say that an eagle (which flew by last night) was sent by God to our group as a message. I think that our psychological selves are far too broken to know truth via these mystical experiences.  I've had patients who believed that they were pregnant (and they were not) to the point their bellies protruded (sub-consciously pushing it out).  Yet, they maintained, being 100% sure they were pregnant, for years.  Our minds cannot be full trusted.  For that reason, I am a skeptic.

I'm not here to change how others see the world. But I do want to create space where us skeptics can co-exist with the typical Christian and not be evaluated spiritually, by our spiritual talk. I'm happy to talk about scripture, about theology, philosophy and even more happy to talk about our psychological challenges of daily living in a fallen world. But I don't like to be in a situation where, unless you relate what you say to supernatural events, they have no merit.

I tried to have this conversation last night with my wife.  I must have done a terrible job trying to explain it as she got a little mad at me.  She thought I was simply being critical of a group of wonderful people. They are wonderful people, more so than myself. But still there has to be a place for total, intellectual honestly.  At times like this I feel that I'm from a different planet.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

When God Doesn't "Bless"

This is one of those topics that you can't really discuss in the evangelical sub-culture.  If you do, you instantly create this aura of awkwardness. After all, if you live right, God always blesses . . . right? While I was thinking of a personal story, I will start with one of a friend.

About seven years ago, a good friend (and Christian) of mine was diagnoses with leukemia. I will never forget when he first broke the news to me.  We were the same age and same vulnerability, so his cancer was really close to home.  He smiled and said, "Don't worry. My doctor says it is the best kind of leukemia to have.  At least ninety percent of victims have a full recovery."

To make a long story short, within two weeks he was hospitalized.  He was very, very sick.  Every treatment known was tried on him, including several experimental treatments.  All failed. Three weeks later he was sent home to die and he did. He died less than 24 hours after he was sent home.

His wife told me that the oncologist told her that my friend's cancer had taken the most horrible course possible.  Even though I knew them within a church setting, I'm glad that I never heard anyone trying to spiritualize things, like we use to in my evangelical days. You know the narrative, "God did this for a reason."  Or maybe, "This was straight from Satan because he knew he was a great guy."

But their situation led to silence. No one spoke about it period.  How could you?  God allowing a good man to have the 10% worst outcome?  It would beg the questions of if God was there and if He is, then does He really love us?

I don't want to talk about my situation too much so I don't sound like a whiner. But I'm own a medical practice that is incredibly successful, with schedules packed with patients.  Yet, for reasons that neither I or the crowd of experts I've had looking at it can figure out, we have been terrifying close to bankruptcy for three years.  Yeah, I feel frustrated, depressed and most of all, exhausted.  I could easily be drawn into self-pity.

But defying the odds of business, I'm failing.

The question far transcends my own personal journey and one huge "dark matter" of the spiritual universe.  What happens when you defile the odds and fail?  When it goes the other way, 10% chance of success and you succeed, you have a lot of self-praise and God-praise.  It is easy to say, "God blessed."  But what do you say when the plane crashed with two hundred people on board and your loved one, a great person, is the ONLY one harmed?

I know of no meta narrative that makes sense of this except for the laws of probability.  If there is just a 1% chance of failure, then when one hundred people are involved, one will fail.

I think we need to discuss failure much more often in our Christian circles. Failure must be part of the Christian lexicon. If you don't believe that it is, then you will be surprised, in a negative way, when it comes to you.  Then God becomes detached from your person.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Christianity in the Age of Authenticism Part I

I began this week, a possible futile, mental exercise of preparation for a class I want to do in the fall of this year.  It could be a short Sunday school class or an evening class. I prefer the evening context but I'm doubtful if many would come if not herded into the room by such a long tradition as Sunday school.

This class would be on the Renaissance.  Part of my introduction is to examine why it is important that we study culture and the history thereof. My opening statement would be that to understand this present culture, we have to understand the previous and the one before that and the one before that.  But what is the name of the present western cultural trend? I knew that we were no longer "Post-Modern."

As I did my real (not just a mental exercise) research I came across one important opinion on the matter from Prospect Magazine.  The author believes that the best title of this age is the "Age of Authenticity."

I understand where the author is coming from.  I have heard the mantra a thousand times, coming from the mouths of the 20-something generation, of "be true to yourself."  More directly, I have heard of, and actually heard people in this age talking about they want to chuck everything and simply search for the truth.  I, of course, deeply respect that.  After-all, that is exactly what I did about twenty years ago.

While this course of thought, seeking authenticity, is at least honorable, I suspect that there is a nativity that will eventually haunt many of these pilgrims. I picture it like the scene from A. I. where the robot-boy (with real artificial intelligence), played by Haley Joel Osment, is being led by robo-gigolo, played by Jude Law into this adult world of obsession and entertainment.  It is no coincidence that this place is congures up vivid memories of  Pleasure Island from Pinocchio. After all, A.I. is simply a re-telling of the same story. But as the boy, with his stuffed robotic Teddy Bear, wanders the streets, you see the conniving eyes of countless people who want to take advantage of him.

As people search for a pure truth, there are many impostors. The real problem is that we can never know pure truth due to our own limitations.  As a Christian I see the limitation as the Fall of Adam on our sense of reason.  But some will say that if you can't absolutely know pure truth, what's the point?  Why not give up and fall into a form of hopeless nihilism or an existentialism where you create your own truth. Of course that latter course is a nostalgic movement back the post-modernism.  The reason that this generation has moved beyond post-modernism is because it didn't work. When you create truth from nothing, within your own head, it is like creating paper money from nothing. It quickly has no value for even yourself.

So this brings me back to Christianity.  The Church, like all human institutions, is a chameleon, strongly reflecting the colors of the culture in which it lives. The problem with Christianity, more so than other institutions, is that they have never fully accepted one of their basic tenants, the fall of Adam on our reason and ability to know truth. So, The Church has always thought of itself as the barer of absolute and specific truth.

I will now bring this down to a personal level before having to pause. I'm very different that I was when I was an evangelical.  In the past three weeks I had several opportunities to interact with people from my past.  I sense from things said, but also I must admit, from my own projections of what I think they are thinking, that I'm either with them (just like I use to be) or I have fallen off the wagon so far, that I dare not consider myself Christian.

No, I find this strange because I still adhere, without compromise, to the fundamentals of the faith. I do believe that God is there. I believe that the Biblical scriptures are true, although not always meant to be literal. I certainly do believe that Christ came to save us and humanity is saved through him alone.

But I diverge from my friends on many cultural items.  Each of them seems to have segmented into certain sects. Some have become Catholic. Some one branch of the Presbyterian Church, some another. Some became Lutheran, some Orthodox.  The problem with that, is each seem to believe that they have settled into the one and only true church.  They seem to believe that you can know specific truth and know it absolutely.  So they know that the specific tenants of their denomination are the ones closes to the early Church.  But should the early Church be our standard?  It was a total mess.

I am certainly not a relativist. Truth matters and two opposites both can't be true. However, there are many unknowables. But, beyond the unknowing, is the intentional (by God) freedom of expression.

After visiting Istuanbul a few weeks ago and spending months studying the history of that fair city, I've fallen in love with Sophia (the church building, as in Hagia) and the Greek culture of Christianity (Orthodox) around her. But I can admire that culture in the same way I admire the Romantic Catholics of central Italy.  None of course are pure and perfect, but with their own glory and admiration.

My old friends, and I know this because I use to think the same way, that it is all or none.  You either believe that Sunday morning worship is exactly the way it should be (and the way your particular denomination does it), that contemporary Christian music is God's music, that God wanted us to bomb Iraq and elect Republicans, that Jesus is constantly doing supra-natural things around us, that there is a conspiracy of Muslims wanted to steal our babies, and that we are all emotionally perfect (so intense denial) because we are good Christians.  If you don't swallow the entire American-Evangelical-subculture, then you are lost.

But it is at this juncture the present church becomes incapable of offering those in the age of authenticity any safe-harbor. It is because the Church has lost interest in knowing the best truth that we can find, in order to support its false narratives, it is not a place for the authentic.  But it must change. I hope that this makes some sense.

I will be back if I can find a window of time again.