Is God ‘A Recovering Practitioner of Violence’?

“Recovering? Who said I was recovering?”

I was recently watching some sessions from 2004’s Emerging Theological Conversation that I attended at All Souls PCA Church in Decatur with Jasmin and Seth in the fall of 2004 – some eight years ago. Walter Brueggemann was the presenting scholar, and Brian McLaren, Tim Keel, Troy Bronsink and others were emceeing the dialogues with him (Yes, ladies, there were lots of dudes on stage back in 2004…we got better).

It was the first time I’d met Troy; the second time I’d met Chris Seay I believe, and the third time I’d met Brian – I got up the courage to approach Brian afterward and ask him if he needed editorial feedback on any of his work; to my grateful surprise I got to informally work on The Last Word and the Word After That. Good times.

Soo, yeah. It was at this conference that Brueggemann presented his 19 Theses:

1.     Everybody lives by a script. The script may be implicit or explicit. It may be recognized or unrecognized, but everybody has a script.

2.     We get scripted. All of us get scripted through the process of nurture and formation and socialization, and it happens to us without our knowing it.

3.      The dominant scripting in our society is a script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socializes us all, liberal and conservative.

4.     That script (technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism) enacted through advertising and propaganda and ideology, especially on the liturgies of television, promises to make us safe and to make us happy.

5.     That script has failed. That script of military consumerism cannot make us safe and it cannot make us happy. We may be the unhappiest society in the world.

6.     Health for our society depends upon disengagement from and relinquishment of that script of military consumerism. This is a disengagement and relinquishment that we mostly resist and about which we are profoundly ambiguous.

7.     It is the task of ministry to de-script that script among us. That is, too enable persons to relinquish a world that no longer exists and indeed never did exist.

8.     The task of descripting, relinquishment and disengagement is accomplished by a steady, patient, intentional articulation of an alternative script that we say can make us happy and make us safe.

9.     The alternative script is rooted in the Bible and is enacted through the tradition of the Church. It is an offer of a counter-narrative, counter to the script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism.

10.  That alternative script has as its most distinctive feature, its key character – the God of the Bible whom we name as Father, Son, and Spirit.

11.  That script is not monolithic, one dimensional or seamless. It is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent. Partly it is ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because it has been crafted over time by many committees. But it is also ragged and disjunctive and incoherent because the key character is illusive and irascible in freedom and in sovereignty and in hiddenness, and, I’m embarrassed to say, in violence – [a] huge problem for us.

12.  The ragged, disjunctive, and incoherent quality of the counter-script to which we testify cannot be smoothed or made seamless. [I think the writer of Psalm 119 would probably like too try, to make it seamless]. Because when we do that the script gets flattened and domesticated. [This is my polemic against systematic theology]. The script gets flattened and domesticated and it becomes a weak echo of the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism. Whereas the dominant script of technological, consumer militarism is all about certitude, privilege, and entitlement this counter-script is not about certitude, privilege, and entitlement. Thus care must betaken to let this script be what it is, which entails letting God be God’s irascible self.

13.  The ragged, disjunctive character of the counter-script to which we testify invites its adherents to quarrel among themselves – liberals and conservatives – in ways that detract from the main claims of the script and so too debilitate the focus of the script.

14.  The entry point into the counter-script is baptism. Whereby we say in the old liturgies, “do you renounce the dominant script?”

15.  The nurture, formation, and socialization into the counter-script with this illusive, irascible character is the work of ministry. We do that work of nurture, formation, and socialization by the practices of preaching, liturgy, education, social action, spirituality, and neighboring of all kinds.

16.  Most of us are ambiguous about the script; those with whom we minister and I dare say, those of us who minister. Most of us are not at the deepest places wanting to choose between the dominant script and the counter-script. Most of us in the deep places are vacillating and mumbling in ambivalence.

17.  This ambivalence between scripts is precisely the primary venue for the Spirit. So that ministry is to name and enhance the ambivalence that liberals and conservatives have in common that puts people in crisis and consequently that invokes resistance and hostility.

18.  Ministry is to manage that ambivalence that isequally present among liberals and conservatives in generative faithful ways in order to permit relinquishment of [the] old script and embrace of the new script.

19.  The work of ministry is crucial and pivotal and indispensable in our society precisely because there is no one [see if that’s an overstatement]; there is no one except the church and the synagogue to name and evoke the ambivalence and too manage a way through it. I think often; I see the mundane day-to-day stuff ministers have to do and I think, my God, what would happen if youtook all the ministers out. The role of ministry then is as urgent as it is wondrous and difficult.

Want to see the talk for yourself? Here it is.

It’s interesting that what disturbs us sometimes the first time we hear it ends up comforting us the next time we hear it. More explosively than even his challenging theses, it was at this conference that Brueggemann wonders out loud if  “God is a recovering practitioner of violence.” As Geoff Holsclaw summarizes – “By this he means that God used to think violence was a good idea, but then gave up on it. However, like all addicts, He has relapses. Of which the cross is either the final deliverance, or another relapse.”

Of course this is potentially disconcerting, as we don’t like to imagine the repentance of God – and yet, this is precisely what is suggested in Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan (thanks, Jack Miles!). Incarnation inaugurates a genuine new-ness in God’s new covenant with humanity & cosmos. As Geoff continues, “Concerning faith and knowledge, Brueggemann says: “We all have a craving for certitude, but the gospel is all about fidelity.” By this he means that certitude is an epistemological category while fidelity is a relational one. And the way of the Cross is to depart from our certitude, to die to our answers/desires/scripts.”

Part of the ‘inner reflex’ is Centering Prayer is letting go. For 20 minutes twice a day, it’s a continuous letting go of thoughts and emotions that well up inside – kind of like a fisherman catching fish, but not to eat – just for fun. She’s sitting in a boat (the mind) and her pole rests in the water (the field of consciousness). Little fish (thoughts, ideas, emotions) come up and nibble on the line (ordinary awareness) – the fisherman doesn’t shoot the fish with a revolver or cut the line. Instead, she pulls the little fish up, but doesn’t keep them in the boat – it’s catch & release.

Catch and release, catch and release, gently, graciously – because you recognize that even the lake is situated in a much larger ecosystem (God). You can let go because the earth is abundant; you will be fed. Centering Prayer is a journey of trust in God, even on the unconscious level, where all kind of mis-trustful thoughts bubble up to the surface. The life centered in surrender to & trust in God is a life of profound peace and productivity – and our Scriptures attest, in a myriad of ways, that such trust (faith) ‘pleases God.’

But when we’re faced with the disturbing truths that Brueggemann elucidates – God’s irascibility for instance – what do we do?

There are two ways to do handle this. One is the way of definitive, forceful – almost violent – denial that there is (or has ever been) anything troubling in God’s character or actions according to revealed Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. It’s the route of “trusting” God via suppression of the more unseemly parts of our sacred canons and sacred canopies.

But there is another route – more painful, more adult, more complex – but I think it can still end in deeply-rooted, childlike trust. It’s a path that I’ve learned from many guides over the years, including:

(Did you read that list, Ken Silva? Its semantic relations were practically tailor-written for you, LOL. If you don’t write about me, Discernmentalist Mafia will!)

And this is the path: As Grubb and Bill Volkman propose in a substantially panentheistic reading of Holy Writ: There is only One Person in the Universe. (Y’know, like “I Am the Lord your God, there is no Other?”) Creation unfolds inside of God. And within this unfolding, it moves from gross to subtle to causal (see Integral theory) – meaning that God, our our sacred history, once walked around and acted, anthropomorphically, as a human being. Gradually across the narrative shape of the Hebrew Bible, God began to withdraw God’s conscious presence in this way – “I will hide My face from them, and see what their fate may be.” God goes from walking around earth to appearing via angelic intermediaries; to public miracles, to dreams and visions and prophets, to private subjective experiences to interpretations written out in a Book. In Ruth and Esther, God is scarcely mentioned at all. (God then repeats this process again in Jesus – but the same progression from overt to subtle takes place on the pages of the New Testament and in Church history)

We could lament this move as somehow connected to God punishing us; withheld manifest presence as a result of our sin or some such thing. On the other hand, what if we as a human race are growing up, maturing, and therefore God appears to us in more mature ways? In this way, God is very actively involved in our history as a parent, but then gives us space to get older – not becoming more distant, but in fact closer than our very breath. God’s presence moves from the obvious to the sublime. (Which would explain, to me, why Monotheistic Western religion – in the form of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – starts out very concrete-operational in orientation and almost inevitably move to the mystical, with increasing circles of empathy for God, self, world, and others. The majority adherents might not make that leap, but it undeniably does seem like a leap forward.)

Now, here’s the same thought from another trajectory: God influences us, that we’ve always known; but what if we – the sum total of we, human and non-human life alike – influence God? If we’re bound up in God, marked off in God before our conception, our learning and growing is God’s learning and growing – what if? I don’t mean to rehash the entire Open Theism vs. Calvinism debate of the 1990s here, but I think that it’s possible to simultaneously hold that God is good, wise, and powerful while also affirming the ability of God to learn and (even) change God’s mind – we see so many examples of this in the narrative of Scripture, that it seems fool-hardy to deny this in order to preserve our cherished Greco-Roman structured systematic theologies.

So, today, in a secular age, we affirm that God is true and real, but we wrestle with what this means. We stake our lives on the goodness of God, but we recognize that ‘goodness’ might be different today, as it truly seems to be if you’re looking at Covenantal unfolding in Scripture. This simply seems developmentally apparent: If you’re someone who, like me, is committed to peace and justice work today but grew up watching the 700 Club approvingly as a kid, you’ve experienced the dissonance that God, just possibly, has experienced: What made perfect sense in the 1980s seems cruel and inhuman today. And this is precisely what Abraham and Moses are recorded as having argued to YHWH some 4,000+ years ago: “Don’t wipe out this-or-that people, LORD; it’s bad PR. It does not magnify the glory of Your Name; it does not add to the praise of Your reputation.” Sometimes, YHWH did what he was going to do anyway; sometimes, he listened and changed course.

What does this have to do with our lives today? Is this a wildly unstable theology of God? Is such a changeable God not worthy of worship? I don’t know about that. I think that, if the evangelical mantra is true, and we can indeed have ‘a personal relationship with G-D, then this relationship is a genuine one with real give-and-take, real learning on both sides. I think that I can be an orthodox Trinitarian Christian with a high Christology, and still hold that the Universe is one important aspect of the unfolding of God – and that we are the co-unfolding of God, within God. And that we recognize this unfolding, and respond to it, and even initiate its furtherance of it, on a deep, nourishing level when we learn to trust the God Who Is – as opposed to the fantasy God whom we fondly wish Would Be. This path is more difficult – but this is real trust.

Watch or listen to the complete 2004 Emergent Theological Conversation with Walter B. here.

This post originally debuted on November 21, 2009.

Walter Brueggemann

Wheel Within a Wheel: Fellowshipping with the Trinity in the Dance of Life

A couple of weeks ago was ‘Trinity Sunday’ in the Christian liturgical calender – an artifact of public worship that many contemporary Jesus-followers don’t pay much attention to. Even among those who do mark time in this way, “Trinity Sunday” often makes communities of faith squirm – it can be difficult to celebrate what might seem to many to be an obtuse doctrine.

Even so, I am an unabashed Trinitarian geek, to the consternation of some of my fundamentalist and uber-progressive friends alike. One reason for this is the unparalleled enthusiasm and scholarly work of Baxter Kruger. Another is an excellent teaching series done by Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bougeault. Recent, Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation have been re-presenting snippets from this series in their daily emails.

These reminders – God as community, God as weakness, God as giver and receiver of boundary – have been especially core to my spiritual energy during this recently-mentioned difficult period in my life. Also, 18 months ago, I discovered that I’m half-Turkish. Yes, there’s a blog post or two in that story – stay tuned!


For now, I’ll just say that I’ve been embracing my Turkish heritage, which contains everything from Saul/Paul of Damascus, the Cappadocian Mothers and Fathers who first lucidly articulated the mystery of God-as-Trinity, as well as originating the rich history of love-drunk Sufi poets and mystics, like Rumi and the Mevlevi Order of Dervishes. What all of these diverse influences have in common is an embrace of God that is both intensely interior as well as leaving nothing out of the wider world out of sense, absence, experience and surrender. God – as experienced and understood by Paul, the Cappadocians, and the Dervishes – is God-in-motion. This makes songs from my charismatic youth about ‘riding the wheel of God’ take on new meaning.

Because it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, I’d like to share with you this week’s reflections from the Center for Action and Contemplation on the Trinitarian revelation. If you like these, be sure to subscribe to Richard’s daily email. It’s the only “daily devotional” I have delivered to my main (eg, real) email address.

If you’re feeling adventurous, listen to Wheel of God by my friend Kevin Prosch while reading the reflections below!

Trinity (detail), by © Andre Rublev, ca. 1410

MEDITATIONS
ON THE MYSTERY OF THE TRINITY

In the name of the Holy One
In the name of the Son
In the name of the Spirit
We are made one

God for us, we call You Father
God alongside us, we call You Jesus,
God within us, we call You Holy Spirit.

You are the Eternal Mystery that enables and holds
and enlivens all things
—even us and even me.

Every name falls short of Your goodness and greatness.
We can only see who You are in what is.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. 

Amen

~ Richard Rohr

Reality is Radically Relational

One reason so many theologians are interested in the Trinity now is that we’re finding both physics (especially quantum physics) and cosmology are at a level of development where human science, our understanding of the atom and our understanding of galaxies, is affirming and confirming our use of the old Trinitarian language—but with a whole new level of appreciation. Reality is radically relational, and the power is in the relationships themselves!

No good Christians would have denied the Trinitarian Mystery, but until our generation none were prepared to see that the shape of God is the shape of the whole universe!

Great science, which we once considered an “enemy” of religion, is now helping us see that we’re standing in the middle of awesome Mystery, and the only response before that Mystery is immense humility. Astrophysicists are much more comfortable with darkness, emptiness, non-explainability (dark matter, black holes), and living with hypotheses than most Christians I know. Who could have imagined this?

The Delight of Three

Our Franciscan Saint Bonaventure, who wrote a lot about the Trinity, was influenced by a lesser-known figure called Richard of Saint Victor. Richard said, “For God to be good, God can be one. For God to be loving, God has to be two because love is always a relationship.” But his real breakthrough was saying that “For God to be supreme joy and happiness, God has to be three.” Lovers do not know full happiness until they both delight in the same thing, like new parents with the ecstasy of their first child.

When I was first becoming “known,” people wanted to get close to me and be my friend or have a special relationship with me. I asked myself how I would choose between all these friends and I realized that the people I really found joy in were not always people who loved me nearly as much aspeople who loved what I loved. That helped me understand what I think Richard of St. Victor was trying to teach. The Holy Spirit is the shared love of the Father and the Son, and shared love is always happiness and joy. The Holy Spirit is whatever the Father and the Son are excited about; Sheis that excitement—about everything in creation!

A Participatory Verb

In our attempts to explain the Trinitarian Mystery in the past we overemphasized the individual qualities of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but not so much the relationships between them. That is where all the power is! That is where all the meaning is!

The Mystery of God as Trinity invites us into a dynamism, a flow, a relationship, a waterwheel of love. The Mystery says God is a verb much more than a noun. God as Trinity invites us into a participatory experience. Some of our Christian mystics went so far as to say that all of creation is being taken back into this flow of eternal life, almost as if we are a “Fourth Person” of the Eternal Flow of God or, as Jesus put it, “so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:3).

Interbeing: The Weakness of God

Paul says, “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25). That awesome line gives us a key into the Mystery of Trinity. I would describe human strength as self-sufficiency or autonomy. God’s weakness I would describe as Interbeing.

Human strength admires holding on. The Mystery of the Trinity is about each One letting go into the Other. Human strength admires personal independence. God’s Mystery is total mutual dependence. We like control. God loves vulnerability. We admire needing no one. The Trinity is total intercommunion with all things and all Being. We are practiced at hiding and protecting ourselves. God seems to be in some kind of total disclosure for the sake of the other.

Our strength, we think, is in asserting and protecting our boundaries. God is into dissolving boundaries between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet finding them in that very outpouring! Take the rest of your life to begin to unpackage such a total turnaround of Reality.

Boundless Boundary: A Waterwheel of Love

A Threefold God totally lets go of any boundaries for the sake of the Other, and then receives them back from Another. It is a nonstop waterwheel of Love. Each accepts that He is fully accepted by the Other, and then passes on that total acceptance. Thus “God is Love.” It’s the same spiritual journey for all of us, and it takes most of our life to accept that we are accepted—and to accept everyone else. Most can’t do this easily because internally there is so much self-accusation (self-flagellation in many cases). Most are so convinced that they are not the body of Christ, that they are unworthy, that we are not in radical union with God.

The good news is that the question of union has already been resolved once and for all. We cannot create our union with God from our side. It is objectively already given to us by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us (Romans 8:9—and all over the place!). Once we know we are that grounded, founded, and home free, we can also stop defending ourselves and move beyond our self-protectiveness, too.

Just As I-AM-ness, Without One Plea

Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist who was a major contributor to quantum physics and nuclear fission, said the universe is “not only stranger than we think, but stranger than we can think.” Our supposed logic has to break down before we can comprehend the nature of the universe and the bare beginnings of the nature of God.

I think the doctrine of the Trinity is saying the same thing. There is something that can only be known experientially, and that is why we teach contemplative prayer and quiet. Of all the religious rituals and practices I know of, nothing will lead us to that place of nakedness and vulnerability more than forms of solitude and silence, where our ego identity falls away, where our explanations don’t mean anything, where our superiority doesn’t matter and we have to sit there in our naked “who-ness.” If God wants to get through to us, and the Trinity experience wants to come alive in us, that’s when God has the best chance. God is not only stranger than we think, but stranger than the logical mind can think. Perhaps much of the weakness of the first 2000 years of reflection on the Trinity, and many of our doctrines and dogmas, is that we’ve tried to do it with a logical mind instead of with prayer.

Prayer:
God is a circle dance of communion.

Join the dance of mutuality, love, and endless giving and receiving that is the Mystery of Trinity.

Listen to more wisdom on the Trinity from master teachers:

The Divine Dance: Exploring the Mystery of Trinity 
with Fr. Richard Rohr 
(CDMP3)

Shape of God: Deepening the Mystery of Trinity 
with Fr. Richard Rohr and Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault
(CDDVDMP3)

Did you get this message forwarded from someone else? Wish to sign up for CAC’s email lists yourself? Subscribe to CAC email lists here.Please direct inquiries to cac@cacradicalgrace.org.

Copyright © 2012 Center for Action and Contemplation
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PO Box 12464, Albuquerque, NM 87195-2464 (mailing)
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www.cac.org

If you liked this, you might also enjoy…

You Are the Dance (a poem)
You Are the Dance: Now on Tim Coons ‘Frailty After Party’ Album!

- and – 

The Way of the Heart – Cynthia Bourgeault Part 1: What IS the Path of Jesus?
The Way of the Heart – Cynthia Bourgeault Part 2: See What Jesus Sees; Do What Jesus Does
The Way of the Heart Part 3: Cynthia Bourgealt’s Four Proposals – Beyond ‘The Imitation of Christ’
The Way of the Heart Part 4: Heartfulness Practice Transcends & Includes Orthodoxy
The Way of the Heart Part 5: Upgrading Our Operating System
The Way of the Heart Part 6: A Rorschach Blot for the Mind
The Way of the Heart Part 7: When 20/20 Hindsight Becomes Blindsight
The Way of the Heart Interlude: Kenosis Hymn
The Way of the Heart Part 8: Heart Surgery

Recommended Trinity Reading & Listening:

 

Weeping with the Goddess in Jake’s Kitchen

A couple of weeks ago I was dog-sitting for my friend Jake who was out of town. At one point after breakfast, I found myself prostrate on the ground, weeping and talking with an intimate stranger…the Goddess, in fact.

But before I go into all that, it’s probably helpful if I rewind a bit and share a less-known slice of my personal history with the Good Lord.

As longtime readers of this blog might know, my family and I live in Raleigh, North Carolina, where we moved from our native Atlanta are in 2006. We moved here with over a dozen of our friends from undergrad days at Berry College, as well as with new friends and co-dreamers from across the country to ‘seed’ the planting of an ‘organic’ expression of church life – what some variously know as house church, simple church, or intentional community. We were part of a national movement that began to come apart at the seams right around the time we moved; we lasted ‘till about 2008.

Back to me and the Goddess for a second: What caused a nice Jesus-lovin,’ evangelical-reared boy like me to be weeping in front of the Sacred Feminine on my friend’s linoleum floor, a Lassie-looking pup looking docilely on? I was going to write an original explanation of all this, but then I looked back into my ‘Writings’ folder here on the computer, and found something I shared with our house church community back in 2007, on the topic of…

What You Might Not Know About The Lord & Me

You see, our church structure (ideally, at least) was open, participatory, egalitarian and interdependent with others in our ‘family’ or network of churches. Our typical gathering was initiated by singing, and then any number of us sharing for 3-5 minutes, drawn from what we reflected on throughout the week – our “portion of Christ” as we saw it. From time to time, we were given outside direction. We were ‘planted’ and ‘watered’ by those we called ‘workers,’ what those in other traditions might call anything from ‘circuit riders’ to ‘apostles.’ (But we in the Watchman Nee/T. Austin-Sparks post-Brethren lineage that we were, we called them workers.) Our worker at the time, who had a day job as an influential financial manager in the Northeast, challenged us to get to know one another better by having a series of gatherings wherein one person would ‘take’ the majority of the meeting, sharing on What You Might Not Know About the Lord and Me. It was a rich time of hearing new facets of people who lived among – some whom we’d known for years. What follows are rather detailed notes on what I shared:

“The Lord”?

I’m sorry, but this question just lends itself to some rather shady pronouncements. Like “When I was eight, the Lord beat me up and threw me behind a dumpster…” [Dark, Mike. Dark.] But no. I appreciate the impetus behind this question. Many of us have secret pasts and presents with God; dark and mysterious and wondrous things, and it would be good to share.

The first thing you should know is that I don’t call God “the Lord,” not usually. While it’s utterly true that he is our Lord—our Master, the Maestro of the Art of Living—I find it ironic that we’ve picked up on this most formal of titles and made it our choice term of intimacy. The standard placeholder “God” works for me fine, though I also enjoy the Hebrew proper names, like the dynamic and revelatory YHWH, “I am as I shall show myself.” Or El Shaddai.

Let me say a few words about El Shaddai. It’s the most common way I address God while enjoying fellowship with God in Centering Prayer. Now don’t get the wrong impression; I don’t do this nearly as often as I want to; I don’t have a daily ritual of time ‘wasted’ with God like our brother to my right does, though I hope to soon. But when I can, I do the following:

  • I’ve chosen a name of God as the symbol of my awareness of God’s presence within, through and around me.
  • Sitting comfortably and with eyes resting, I briefly and silently introduce this name—El Shaddai—as the symbol of my consent to God’s presence and action within.
  • When I become aware of thoughts, I return ever-so-gently to “El Shaddai.”
  • At the end of about 20 minutes—I typically use a timer—I just sit for a moment or two. I might slowly say the Lord’s Prayer.

There are two reasons why “El Shaddai” is my most intimate of names for addressing God. One is that, with my proclivity toward eating God, it makes the most sense; one rendering of this name is “The God who feeds.” But there is a second reason. A deeper and more literal rendering of this name is “The God with breasts.” El Shaddai means provider precisely because she is the breast-feeding God. Also known as “The voluptuous God,” this is one of the many female depictions of God that has fallen by the wayside in popular use. (See my Appendix handout for Scriptural depictions of God-as-feminine.)

Why is this important to me? Well for one, becoming familiar once again with the many feminine faces of God in Scripture and history gives dignity and power to our sisters in Christ; it is an abandoned memory that needs to be recovered in our words, in our worship, and in our reflections on who God is in our midst.

But for me as a man this has an altogether more close-to-home meaning: recovering the eroticism of God in my devotional life. About a decade ago—first with certain songs coming out of the Vineyard movement and charismatic renewal, and then from the teachings of our itinerant church planters—I was introduced to a vigorous, full-on God-eroticism via bridal language.

Drawing from the Song of Songs and the many bridal images in both Old and New Testaments, I saw painted for me a love affair between the God of Israel/Christ and the people of God, both Israel and the Church. It was illustrated to me as a male suitor pursuing his beloved with fervor that can only be described as sexual, finally culimanating in the saucy, sensuous repertoire we see in both Song of Songs and the end of Revelation. I’ve seen how this understanding has revolutionized the devotional lives of our sisters in communities across the globe; I’ve also seen men in our churches try to get in the game, with varying results. Jesus-as-our-lover has a kind’ve mixed resonance for men because we’re men – it’s even parodied in our larger church culture by men who are uncomfortable with this level of intimacy in contemporary worship songs as Jesus-Is-My-Boyfriend Music. (I wonder: Have any of these critics ever read Bernard of Clairvaux? Hildegard of Bingen? Teresa of Avila?) We recognize that “In Christ there is no male or female,” so in a real sense we too can enter into the ‘bridal experience’ and feel what it’s like to be ravished by our bridegroom via imaginative prayer and resting in divine fellowship. But for those of us who happen to be heterosexual men happily inhabiting our bodies, this is never quite an intuitive experience, is it?

So for me, seeing the sacred feminine as Sophia in Proverbs, or El Shaddai in the Old Testament, or Jesus-as-Mother in several New Testament depictions (not to mention in the writings of mystics like Julian of Norwich) gives me back something I’ve never had as a man: the Voluptuous God, the female creator and nurturer who is comfortable with the space she inhabits. El Shaddai is self-possessed with a powerful, seductive eroticism, one that can both initiate and follow. When I spend time with God, she can ignite my senses with insight and proposition; she can also receive everything I have to give. When our workers encourage us to “Make love to your Lord,” guys, it’s worth reframing this!

The early Genesis poem recounts that both male and female are needed to fully bear the Imago Dei, the image of God on earth as s/he is in heaven. I have taken this to heart, and have sought to incorporate both the male and female in my multi-faceted relating to a many-splendored God.

*                 *                *

That’s what I shared in 2007. So. Many. Words. These days, words are failing me. I feel like Thomas Aquinas at the end of his life, when he fell into a profound silence that lasted weeks. When prompted by one of his assistants to continue writing the thousands of pages of analytical theology had was known for, he replied: “I cannot write anymore because all that I have written seems like straw to me, compared to what has been revealed to me…”

Recently, I’ve been through a dark and challenging time in my life. It isn’t over quite yet. And no, dear readers, I will not be disclosing. Some things are best not blogged. But it really doesn’t matter: If you’re breathing air, you know what I’m talking about: The dissolution of something you once held dear, or thought was solid – perhaps in an outside relationship or job; perhaps within yourself. Changes are taking place; sometimes it feels invigorating, sometimes it feels scary.

I was in just such a place while dog-sitting for my friend Jake – doing dishes, listening to music via my iPhone dock, wondering what was next. I was specifically listening to Krishna Das, an American Kirtan singer – his album Live on Earth. Das’s voice is deeply masculine and totally enchanting all at the same time, the depth of devotion he infuses in his songs is hauntingly beautiful. I’d bought his memoir Chants of a Lifetime: Searching for a Heart of Gold at one of the liquidation sales of the late, lamented Borders, and started reading it recently. As far as coming-of-age-in-the-1960s-and-now-being-an-enlightened-superstud stories go, I enjoyed the writing and pacing of Keith Martin Smith’s A Heart Blown Open: The Life & Practice of Zen Master Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi better. But still – Krishna Das’s story of finding grounding and expansiveness through a life of chanting the Names of God is inspiring – and challenging, as stories like these from varying faith traditions threaten to make me a perennialist yet.

But here I go again with words, words, words – layers of interpretation. Let’s return to the heart of the story: A song came on, Das’s rendering of the Devi Puja, or Goddess Prayer.

From the first notes of his harmonium (an instrument I first heard with powerful effect by my friend, the street-smart yogi and Kalachakra monk Kir – aka Kirantana – at last year’s inaugural Wild Goose Festival), and the repetition of the words He Maa Durga, I stopped drying a glass and froze. Then, I dropped to my knees. I knew that I was in the presence of God, but in this familiar-but-still-culturally-foreign form of El Shaddi, Ruah, Sophia…and more particularly still, Shakti, Shiva, Kali – but more generally, The Goddess.

If you’re one of those people who needs to know what the words mean, here’s an approximate translation of the Devi Puja. But I didn’t know this at the time:

Oh Goddess, you are the one who conquers all
You are the One beyond time
The auspicious One beyond time
The bearer of skulls who destroys all difficulties
Loving forgiveness and supporter of the universe.

You are the one who truly receives our sacrificial offerings
To you I bow.

I did not know, but I had the sense of this personified feminine Love, upholding the universe – and yet being difficult (or perhaps I was the one being difficult). And I was certainly bowing. I began crying – a little bit at first, and then weeping. Who was this One I was in the presence of? Somehow familiar, yet utterly foreign. Goddess. A complex swirl of thoughts, memories, and emotions began to swirl within me. Last May, I was initiated into the ManKind Project – a totally awesome secret society (we aren’t really, I just like to call us one); my initiation and subsequent, consistent time spent in a local circle of men has done wonders for digging deep into and integrating my experience of masculine energies – making peace with the idea of being both a real man and a good man. And now, it seems, that Femininity herself is knocking on the door of my heart. My integration continues.

After ten minutes or so of weeping and verbally asking questions of the Goddess, I decided to write them down. I picked up my journal. This is what I wrote:

May 22nd.

Goddess, I can’t be a man without you. 

Who are You, who’s been refracted so imperfectly through the women of my life? 

Abandoned
Smothered
Wounded
Unattainable
Complex

…why is Your energy so inaccessible, O cruel archetype? 

I long to know You as Mother, Lover, Friend. 

But You are aloof – You play games with me.

The absence of You divorces body from soul, heart from access and flow.

In my life, I’ve idolized You, and I’ve hated You.

I want neither.

Instead, I want to flow into You – to be lost in Your warmth, intoxicated in Your sensuality, recognizing and honoring Your essence in all things.

I also want to feel like a man in Your presence, to give you my essence and have it received, with gratefulness and joy. 

In many ways, my journaling strikes me as being like a Psalm – structured in complaint and collapse into Love. Clearly, I have some issues with feminine energy – and clearly, I long for her. At times, I am misogynist and feminist: This is my confession. Both are true.

The Devi Puja ended, and so did the experience. But she has lingered.

In so many ways, I’m at a crossroads of life and experience. While composting the best of my past, I feel like the first-century church at Pentecost, watching and waiting for the Spirit to hover over the face of my waters. And sometimes, this Spirit comes to me in distinctly feminine form. My prayer – for healing, wholeness, integration, and fresh creation in the world – is summed up in many ways by this song from the band Live at the turn of this century:

Sitting on the beach
The island king of love
Deep in Fijian seas
Deep in some blissful dream

Where the Goddess finally sleeps
In the lap of her lover
Subdued in all her rage
And I am aglow with the taste

Of the demons driven out
And happily replaced
with the presence of real Love
The only one who saves

I wanna dance with you
I see a world where people live and die with grace
The karmic ocean dried up and leave no trace
I wanna dance with you
I see a sky full of the stars that change our minds
And lead us back to a world we would not face

The stillness in your eyes
Convinces me that I
I don’t know a thing
And I been around the world and I’ve
Tasted all the wines
A half a billion times
Came sickened to your shores
You show me what this life is for

I wanna dance with you
I see a world where people live and die with grace
the karmic ocean dried up and leave no trace

I wanna dance with you
I see a sky full of the stars that change our minds
And lead us back to a world we would not face

We would not face
We would not face
We would not face…

See also my “Biblical Proofs” for the Feminine Face of God in Scripture

Recommended Reading if you want to explore the feminine imagery of God more fully:

In Memory of Her by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (Feminist)

Is It Okay to Call God “Mother”?: Considering the Feminine Face of God by Paul R. Smith (Evangelical)

Embracing Jesus and the Goddess: A Radical Call for Spiritual Sanity  by Carl McColman (Episcopagan)

Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power by Rita Nakashima Brock (Womanist)

Revelation of Love  by Julian of Norwich (Contemplative Catholic)

She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse by Elizabeth A. Johnson (Feminist)

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain (a general literary-historical investigation)

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd (Post-evangelical, post-Mainline)

The Maternal Face of God by Leonardo Boff (Catholic-Liberationist)

The Unknown She: Eight Faces of an Emerging Consciousness by Hilary Hart (Perennial)

The Wild Goose Festival: Erasing the Sacred/Secular Divide to Reveal a World that is Wholly Holy

The Wild Goose Festival trailer debuts today!

I think my friend Travis Reed (founder and visionary behind Alter Video Magazine and The Work of the People) did an amazing job capturing the essence of our heart, drive, & passion to create a ‘temporary autonomous zone‘ for freedom, exploration, and action at the intersection of vibrant faith, restorative justice, and generative arts. For the past two years, I’ve been privileged to work with the Wild Goose Festival to help set our tone, create our culture, and expand our space in the marketplace of ideas. I’ll be saying more about my particular passions around the Goose in an upcoming Wild Goose blog entry, but for now let me direct you to our trailer, because a picture truly is worth a thousand words:

 

If you were at the Wild Goose Festival last year, I already trust you’ll be back. You know as well as I do that there’s simply no other space like it in North America. And if you haven’t been yet, I hope you join us in 2012. I see our little grassroots festival as erasing the sacred/secular divide that so plagues our culture, revealing instead a world that is wholly holy, infused with God’s gracious, transformative presence. These aren’t just words; you feel this as you’re on the 70 acres that is Shakori Hills, taking in music, making art, smiling at a child, hearing a world-class speaker, sharing food with new friends, camping under the stars. By the very way we’re set up to encourage conversation and mutuality, we’re erasing violence in all forms to re-connect with God, ourselves, others and our environment through the way of Jesus. It’s an altered state of consciousness that lasts for four days, and reverberates long after.

Maybe you’ve been reading my blog for a few days now, or maybe you’ve been a reader for years. Either way, I’d like to meet you at the Goose this June 21st-24th! If you enjoy (or are infuriated by) what I post here, I’d like you to take advantage of a special ticket offer that my friends at the Goose have granted me permission to extend: Purchase your festival passes by next Thursday, February 16th, and receive 15% off your total purchase (not including camping) by entering “FriendOfMike” at the checkout!  Purchase your passes here, enter “FriendOfMike” where prompted, and save. For one week only. And then we can camp together. :) 

I’m going to close with these easy ways to share the Goose with friends & family from our amazing new marketing maven, Sarah Cunningham:

Are You A Wild Goose Alumnus or Supporter?

If you’ve been to Wild Goose or are a friend of the festival, we’re asking you to invite your friends to check out this video by posting it on your Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr or Blog.

1. You can click here to share an easy, pre-written tweet inviting people to check out the video.

2. You can click here to share a pre-set video link on your Facebook page.

3. You can email a friend or email list using this pre-written subject line.

4.  You can embed the video on your blog or other pages by pasting the following code into your HTML:

<iframe src=”http://player.vimeo.com/video/36375347?title=0&amp;byline=0&amp;portrait=0″ width=”650″ height=”366″ frameborder=”0″ webkitAllowFullScreen mozallowfullscreen allowFullScreen></iframe>

To which I’ll add a fifth:

5.) If you are part of an organization, ministry, nonprofit, business, or philanthropic foundation that would like to partner with the festival to help make us happen, would you be in touch? You may leave a comment here, or email me at mike [at] wildgoosefestival [dot] org. I’d be happy to discuss opportunities to feature your organization with our growing community.

Thanks for tuning in, dear readers. I love our online interactions, and I’m grateful for the physical space the Wild Goose Festival affords for similar conversations, as well as opportunities for spiritual formation and action. This movement is happening. Our moment is now. Let’s flock together and be the change we wish to see!

Nondual Week: Panentheism & Interspirituality – What’s Jesus Got to do With It?

I want to follow up yesterday’s Ken Wilber interview with this blast from the past – something I wrote for the previous iteration of TheOOZE, right after Jasmin and I got married six years ago. Carl McColman & I have become quite good friends since then, and some of my inclinations & language have doubtless changed. But I think I’ll preserve it as-is for the sake of its integrity, to be followed up with fresh thoughts this week.

panentheism logo

This is my response and interaction to wonderful and incisive questions raised by Carl McColmnan’s post, Notes on Manifesting a Truly Interfaith Spirituality. (You should definitely read it first) I hope that I can respond as an “interfaith-friendly post-evangelical.” In Carl and I’s correspondence, he mentions that “a core issue for me personally is the ongoing question of where the balance point is between the old-Pagan-me, the new-Catholic-me, and the overall-Christian-me,” and I suppose it is very much the question of where does pantheism stop and panentheism begin–a core dilemma of Christian mysticism.”

Panentheism In Brief

It is indeed a core dilemma! I think of myself as a panentheist, and probably have for the past half-decade or so. I first encountered the notion through the post-denominational contemporary Christian mystic, Norman Grubb. If you’ve never read Grubb you really should; he’s fascinating (I’d recommend starting with Who Am I? or Yes, I Am). He began his life as a missionary, biographer and publisher. He never really left these passions, but lived them all out from a Center of what he would call “fixed awareness of union with Christ.” In the last several decades of his life he was a wanderer. He’d go anywhere and life for awhile, with anyone who would have him–he spent years with house churches, Messianic Jewish synagogues, all-summer camp retreats, and I learned a few years back that he spent several years at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Rome, Georgia where I went to school! His life exemplified his conviction that God was truly present in all things as the All in all.

I have more recently encountered the panentheist message in the writings of Marcus Borg and others, such as in books like The God We Never Knew. And I appreciate these writings, I truly do. But I suppose a significant difference between the vision of panentheism that lives in my heart and the interspiritual vision that informs Marcus, Matthew Fox and others is that I believe that the Divine which permeates all reality is the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

[Ouch! In the intervening years I've read both Borg & Fox more, and have to interject that this statement is rather unfair. While I don't align with either of them 'jot and tittle,' they are both committed to the person and spirituality of Jesus.]

Like a good post-evangelical (Over the cultural and political commitments of this particular epoch but cherishing Scripture and good news nonetheless) my panentheism is biblically informed. I see unmistakable cadences of the all-inclusive Christ in such passages as (you’ll forgive me for not citing precisely) –

“I am God, there is no other,”
“God causes it to rain on the just and the unjust alike”
“There is a Light which enlightens everyone”
“God is the all in all”
“Christ will be the all in all”

…and of course that pagan poem that Paul quotes to pagan friends at Mars Hill in Acts, appropriating for Jesus Christ–“In Him we live, move, and have our being.”

This break with functional Deism came to me as liberation–very good news indeed! Not only did Christ’s spirit indwell me (a message which was good news enough after hearing from Calvinists that God only “positionally” indwelt a regenerate person–whatever that meant–and the Pentecostals who seemed to treat the Spirit like a rather elusive guest), but God was in everything in some sort of real and compassionate way. I like panentheism because it emphasizes immanence while still preserving transcendence and awe. Certainly many of my conservative Christian brethren squirm at such an understanding but I have to to go with what I’ve discovered.

Interspiritual Relevance

CoexistBut now I’m afraid that some of my progressive Christian and interspiritual brethren and friends might likewise squirm at my working understanding of “panentheism.” I know how much well-intentioned people wish to see panentheism as the vehicle for all interfaith dialogue and even interfaith worship, as some Great Core Spirit that, when you get right down to it, is shared by all the great faiths or life-paths. But I think this is more of a deus ex machina than it might at first appear, and I hope that I can respectfully explain why I feel this way.

I think that dialogue, learning, and appreciation among faiths, spiritualities and religions is crucially needed in our day and age–I will elaborate more in a moment. I am significantly less comfortable, however, with co-worship and integration as it seems to transgress something, and disrespect all faiths involved. Further, syncretism of this sort seems as if it would have the fruit of only further dividing people, giving them yet another religious option (interspirituality) to embrace or reject.

Does this make sense? You get a bunch of nice, open-minded progressives together to share their hearts considering their journeys as Pagan, Christian, Sufi, Unitarian, Buddhist, or Snake-handling sex cultist. Wonderful. But then if someone says, “These are all vital emanations from the same Source,” many in the room nod solemnly, but a few people look up like “Wait.” Then what? A new multifaith dogma has just formed in the room, and everyone has to either accept or reject it. Call it the curse of Martin Luther’s endless fragmentation.

Education and mutual understanding through interfaith dialogue might seem a whole lot more modest (read: lame) than constructing a bold new interspiritual outlook, but I think its small gains can do much to build mutual esteem and trust in our shakily pluralistic world, all without going the “all roads lead to the same path” route.

Getting back to the internal integrity of one’s faith, and speaking from my “Jesus-y” (as Anne Lamott puts it) perspective, where does fidelity to God come in? I consider myself thoroughly postmodern, but do postmodern people of faith always need to put ironic, self-effacing quotation marks around everything they “believe” to be “true”? I am personally struggling to live life through the Jesus Way–not the pop culture, American Jesus, but the Jesus I see in the Gospels and New Testament and mystics and marginalized church history through the ages. One thing I’ve come to discover is that Jesus loves everyone but he does not agree with everyone. He embraces and forgives the Woman at the Well but–before acknowledging the universality of the coming eschaton where God can be known everywhere, in Sprit and Realit–he engages her in a little Jewish versus Samaritan debate about the appropriate place for Temple worship!

My friend Brian McLaren says something like this: “Jesus is the Way to God and abundant life, it doesnt mean he stands in the way to divine access!” I believe that “Jesus is the savior of the world,” whatever that ultimately means, I can only speculate and hope. I cannot limit the meaning of this to a particular model of atonement, or a particular scope of redemption. All I know, based on Jesus’ revelation of God’s character and intention, is that the Godhead loves his enemies, forgives those who persecute, and practices restorative justice. I have every confidence, with Julian of Norwich, that “all will be well.” Please keep this in mind as you read, knowing that I’m not coming at this to Bible-beat dissenters into submission or condemn anyone to eternal flames! I’m simply talking about faithfulness to the light we’ve been given, and how that light might be unintentionally dimmed or blurred.

Clearly Carl feels more free than I do to “play with the poetry of an interfaith spirituality,” no doubt owing to your diverse background. On an intrafaith scale I am similar–I grew up equal parts Baptist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian, and was always more willing to integrate the best of each of these denominational traditions. What was effortless to me in this regard always seemed like a huge sticking point to some of my friends, who grew up in a particular denomination. Perhaps because of this, there are ways that I can appreciate a “humble model” of interfaith interaction:

I value interfaith dialogue because it’s educational. So many people of all faiths are fearful of “the other.” We have no idea what our neighbors hope for, believe, or practice, and we tend to draw the worst possible conclusions because they’re not following Jeee-suz (or ‘the Prophet,’ be it Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or Elizabeth Clare). In an integrated society with a pluralist public square, this simply will not do. I love to participating in interfaith sharing times–whether formal sessions or conversations with friends and neighbors–to gain understanding about the diverse religions of the world.

Models of Pluralism in Christian Perspective

ConnectionFurther, I believe that I can truly learn, spiritually, from the world’s religious traditions–things that Zeus or the Vishnu decreed can give me an altogether fresh perspective on an obscure passage of Scripture or way that I reach God. But this is a qualified learning. I was talking about this with a good friend of mine in ‘church life,’ aka house churching. Right now he’s reading Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. Because she’s coming from an “apophatic” contemplative perspective, she quotes freely from what she’s gained from her Buddhist background. As I was talking to my friend, I asked:

“I’m curious: Do you, personally, feel put off by Bourgeault’s references to Eastern spiritual practice? I personally feel like she’s simply giving credit where credit is due: she has a background in these practices and she feels like they have wisdom to illuminate the Scripture and our own tradition. I don’t feel like she ever says “Buddha is just as important/relevant as Jesus Christ,” or any such thing. It’s fascinating that, as people of different faiths began getting to know each other, you see this “borrowing of wisdom” take place. You see it all over Merton as well. It seems like there are several different ways professing followers of Christ have related to those of other faiths:

  • Way One: All other religions are simply false. (Their “gods” or philosophies are nonexistent and irrelevant.)
  • Way Two: All other religions are demonic. (Their gods or philosophies are real and dangerous to body and soul)
  • Way Three: All religions contain shades and gradations of the Truth. (Their gods or philosophies are incomplete revelations, tainted by the humanity’s fallen and fractured state, that nonetheless contain glimmers of the story of Christ)
  • Way Four: All religions lead to a singular (or at least similar) path. (There is a beneficent Force governing the cosmos that none of us can quite grasp; this Force communicates to people in different times and cultures in different ways, but there’s no significant qualitative difference between them)”

I then continued, “As for my .02, the First and Fourth Ways seem too black and white and simplistic, though they stand on opposite poles. Even though later Judaism seemed to view all gods who weren’t YHWH as nonexistent, Jesus makes much of genuine spiritual forces who were nonetheless malevolent. And of course in Daniel you have the angels doing battle with the Prince of Persia, etc… The Third Way, advocated most notably by CS Lewis, is the one I want to believe most–that God has not just communicated in symbols and shadows not just to the Hebrew people, but to all times and cultures (See, for instance, the contemporary East Orthodox book Christ the Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene.

Common sense and experience, though, suggests to me that Way Two is frequently the case– humanity being what it is sometimes, faith becomes so twisted as to be demonic and dangerous, as is the case with televangelists and Vodou and fundamentalist Islam.”

So, to recap: I think that I can learn about communion with God from a Buddhist or a Sufi, but I inevitably see God’s clearest speaking in Jesus Christ. Jesus does not always negate the spiritual experience of other faiths, but–and this seems unkind and un-PC for interfaith dialogue–he sometimes does. When Christ calls us to conversion, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “He bids a man come and die.” We’re called to die to different things–different ingrained mindsets, different patterns of being, different destructive religious and cultural beliefs. I am not comfortable dictating what beliefs and practices are to be abrogated by people whose cultures I do not belong to–that is between them, God, and their Christian community.

Thank God for Pagan Christianity! :)

Born Again PaganFor this reason I don’t have any beef – sacrificed to idols or no – with Carl engaging in “folkloric Irish practices (that have been practiced by Irish Catholics for centuries) that are clearly Pagan in origin.” I believe that when the Holy Spirit came to Ireland, God wasn’t pissed at the Irish for being who they were. Since I believe that Jesus’ call to make apprentices of the Kingdom of God applies to all people and cultures, and don’t think any culture has imperialist preference in YHWH’s book. God’s great transition was from one chosen people to “every tribe, tongue and nation,” and so when the Spirit brooded over Ireland, God lovingly extricated the Irish people from harm and embraced, and transformed everything else. God loves the beauty of worship from every tribe, people group and culture. This is, though, a break with a certain pluralistic orthodoxy that insists that every region will have their own inherent cultural religious expression, and that expression should never be tampered with. At this point any attempt at sharing another point of view becomes verboten from the start; I simply don’t think this is fair.

Of course I realize that missionary history has a definite dark side, where financial opportunism and cultural imperialism can run rampant. But what many of my non-Christian friends (and even some Christians) might not know is that missional or apostolic work among indigenous people can and does take place with care and respect to the cultures involved. I’d recommend reading Roland Allen, Leslie Newbingin, or even my own church’s planter Gene Edwards’ The Americanization of Christianity to see how Christ can incarnate into a culture in an authentic way.

Anyway, at this point your many readers of other faiths are reading all this talk about conversion and Jesus coming into other cultures and you’re either offended or colossally disinterested. “When will this exclusivist bigot be finished?” you tire. Okay, well let me see if I can bring this to a close and earn just a bit of your continued interest. Carl asks, “What are workable, creative boundaries for interfaith spirituality?” Can a “druid with a rosary” really work? How can we all be “friendly” to faiths with which we might (and indeed must at some point) disagree? And, “Where is my ultimate loyalty?”

Sharing Faith

Clasping the ShadowsI resonate with shunning the “smarmy sales job” of snake-oil evangelists out to sell a quick conversion. And yet…I’m not averse to sharing Good News, or the conversion of heart and priority that may result. I suppose, working with my appreciation of interfaith dialogue, I always respect the space that I’m in. To me (like a good Calvinist) conversion is God’s job, and being open and engaged with others is my job. Because of the love of Christ within me, I’m naturally drawn to hang out with people and spend time with them, with no particular agenda. But the Spirit being who s/he is, I am “always ready to give an answer when someone asks you about your hope,” as the first-century church planter Peter encourages (in 1 Peter 3:15). I don’t necessarily think I’ve earned the right to knock and a stranger’s door and bombard them with a plastic gospel. As my favorite faith-sharing group, Off-the-Map, says, Christians should “count conversations, not conversions.”

I agree whole-heartedly with what Carl says about not selling people with chaos and fear. And yet! I affirm this even as the purifying fires of hell could be relevant, and God just might care about how we relate to others with our genitals. I like living in this tension. In another paradox that I’m going to have to chew on and digest, Carl says:

“As a Christian, I am in fact called to be an evangelist; but I understand that to mean that I am called to spread good news. And in today’s world, and especially among Neopagans, talking about the Christian religion is the quickest way to subvert “good news,” instead sounding like a tired old purveyor of religious negativity.”

I think you’re absolutely right, and I think that Jesus would agree with this completely. In fact, in one popular translation of scripture, Jesus says:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

When you talk about being faithful to your values, I feel you…obviously you don’t want to embrace so-called “spiritualities” that are hurtful, selfish, or unloving. I feel like a lot of Christians don’t understand that God doesn’t care about “Jesus” as some sort of abstract cosmological category; Father is in love with his Son because of his beauty and character. Jesus said “Whoever is not against me is for me.” When some people at the end of their lives stand confidently before the Big J and read off their religious resume, he tells them “I never knew you.” I think the Christian family’s views on “who’s in” and “who’s out” are out of sync with an intimate knowing of the risen Christ.

I like what Carl said about cultivating the positive and embracing the contributions of other faiths. Forgive me for pushing back a little, though: is there ever a place in interfaith dialogue to loathe aspects of faith–starting with your home faith to be sure–and repent, or turn from these patterns of being? I mean, in the physical realm most of us have no problem telling a friend they’re engaging in destructive and life-threatening habits, from “You should really quit smoking” to “self-immolation is not the way!” Yet if the realm of spirit is at least as real as the material realm, couldn’t certain cosmological choices have dire consequences?

Carl closes his reflection with the statement “I am free to love.” It echoes my interview with Anne Rice a few months back, a Gothic horror writer-turned eclectic Catholic. When I asked her what she’d like to share with fellow Christians, she told me:

We need to stop being so afraid that the devil is winning. The devil’s not winning–we are winning. Jesus is winning. God is winning. We have the strength and the time to open our arms to absolutely everyone. Rushing to judgment, condemning whole classes and groups of people–that is not in the spirit of Christ that I see in the Gospel. I can’t find that spirit. I see the spirit of love, taking the message to absolutely everyone.

Amen?

Update

Well, that wasn’t the final word, thankfully. Carl had a great follow-up, and Jon Trott did too. Here are the comments from the original Ooze post. It also opened me up to a fair bit of heresy-hunting, which I’ve covered extensively. I interviewed Anne Rice again shortly after she renounced Christianity. Carl has re-published a classic of his dealing with all of this material, titled Spirituality: A Post-Modern and Interfaith Approach to Cultivating a Relationship with God – I highly recommend it, as I do his recent article in the Huffington Post, Interspirituality: A Meaningful Alternative to ‘Spiritual Not Religious’. One of the most significant voices I’ve discovered in the intervening years exploring panentheism (and its implications for science & spirituality) is Philip Clayton of Transforming Theology. Since writing the above post I’ve discovered both the Interfaith Youth Core and Faith House Manhattan, which are living experiments in putting flesh on the bones of interspiritual engagement.

Enough rambling by me, past or present. What do you think?

Other posts in the Nondual Week series:

Radical Incarnation: Thoughts on Nondual Spirituality by Matthew Wright
Nondual Week: Ken Wilber on ‘One Taste’
Nondual Week: Panentheism & Interspirituality – What’s Jesus Got to do With It?
Nondual Week: Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity
Nondual Week: David Henson on ‘How Hinduism Saved My Christian Faith’

Paint-by-Numbers to Picasso: God Is No Pet

When I first came to trust in Jesus, I was four years old. I’m glad I received faith’s message in a plain, thick-line-drawn, coloring book format as a child. It was what I could apprehend, a “handle” on life in God. Each year, I’d pick up a new crayon to color The Picture in a little bit. I had teachers who–sometimes lovingly, sometimes not–would exhort me to “stay in the lines.” Through my teenage years, I began experimenting with markers and watercolors, and in college I traded in the coloring book altogether and graduated to a paint-by-numbers Monet, I think. I finally realized that I’m not much of a visual artist, but I can appreciate the work of others and collaborate in my own way. From Rembrandt to Dali to Picasso, art keeps looking different but it’s still art. Similarly, God keeps looking different, but it’s still God. Everytime I grow and mature, there God is. And whenever I stumble or regress, God is right there as well.

I’m glad God isn’t like so many other artifacts from my childhood, my adolescence, my early 20s. God isn’t like a Pet Rock or Chia Pet or Giga Pet–God is untamable, simple and complex at once. God and life and love and loss keep on looking different depending on the medium, but the art is getting richer and more satisfying.

This was originally posted on September 9, 2007.

Housing Faith: Open Gatherings and Life’s Wisdom

From 1998 to 2008, I was heavily involved in intentional house church communities, even moving from Georgia to North Carolina to help ‘seed’ a church plant consisting primarily of a dozen collaborators from my undergrad alma mater, Berry College. (We even had a launch conference at Duke, and everything) Long story short, somewhere around 2008 our church began to disintegrate, and we’ve all moved on. Even so, much of the core DNA of ‘house church’ (also known as ‘organic church’ and ‘simple church’) remain with me. This week, I want to revisit some of this still-central resonance, which I think can be a gift to the larger community of faith as we’re navigating 21st-century changes.

I had a really long comment over at Andrew’s blog this past week, in response to a challenge from a friend of his. I thought might be worth revisiting here. Because I’m a big fan of getting people’s permission before quoting correspondence–even if its on a public blog or forum–I’ve changed her name to “Beth.” Here’s what ‘Beth’ said to Andrew:

Wow. Let me say that is seems you are personally very conflicted about your faith and beliefs. [LOL!! That's Andrew. Mr. Conflict. : ) ] I am new to your blog, so perhaps you have ‘core’ beliefs that are stated elsewhere, but I didn’t see any mentioned in this post. Anyhow, your post seems to include many different views (of so many different things!), some your own, and others that you have come into contact with. I think you were attempting to be well-rounded and thorough, and yet you honestly missed much.

I feel like, after reading that post, that you’ve always lived on the other side of the earth and feel you’ve a good understanding of the whole earth. Yet I live on the other side and don’t recognize anything you’re talking about. I hope that makes sense. lol

I won’t make a long post in your comments here – this is your blog, but I do want to give you something to think about. Your view of a pastor and church seems very close to dictator (or royalty or czar), as opposed to a democracy. In order to establish this point, go back and re-read your second to last paragraph, with substitutions like this:

Robert Webber, who tirelessly worked to turn the consciousness of the contemporary government back towards the ancient government, brings this to light by point out the compartmentalized nature of elected leadership in the some of the countries where his students worked as public servants: “As the course proceeded, it became clear that…the various ministries of the country – worship, evangelism, discipleship, spiritual formation, and assimilation into the country (INS…lol) – were compartmentalized. In the larger countries each division of government was represented by a different public servant…A common complaint that emerged was that each elected official worked alone without a great deal of his or her division integrated with other government divisions in the country (Ancient-Future Evangelism, 18).” This observation speaks to me in two ways. First, it points out the weakness of a democratic system in which the burden of government is placed on one person or a small group of elected persons rather than shared by the entire country. Second, it illustrates that the current view of the elected official as a “professionally trained leader” has the effect of making what Viola calls “mutual ministry” a virtual impossibility because it assumes that only those who are trained in the latest techniques and theories of democracy should be allowed to serve those roles in any significant way in the country. Of course, these problems can be traced in various ways to the individualistic nature of contemporary North American and much of European culture that sees the individual as the primary unit of existence and is suspicious of community modes of leadership, even within the government”

Housing Faith: The Priesthood of All..?

From 1998 to 2008, I was heavily involved in intentional house church communities, even moving from Georgia to North Carolina to help ‘seed’ a church plant consisting primarily of a dozen collaborators from my undergrad alma mater, Berry College. (We even had a launch conference at Duke, and everything) Long story short, somewhere around 2008 our church began to disintegrate, and we’ve all moved on. Even so, much of the core DNA of ‘house church’ (also known as ‘organic church’ and ‘simple church’) remain with me. This week, I want to revisit some of this still-central resonance, which I think can be a gift to the larger community of faith as we’re navigating 21st-century changes.

The mysterious PostScript (who on earth are ye??), asked something insightful in relation to yesterday’s post:

Random question…If the church is a community of priests, for whom is it interceding?

My first response is “the world!”

Of course, I’m not a Hebrew or Greek scholar (unlike my interlocutor, whose identity is actually not mysterious to me), nor am I versed enough in a religious-socio-historical account of the development of ‘priesthood’ concepts globally. But my gut instinct is that when people say ‘priest’ they mean ‘ministering,’ in a deep, true sense of the word. And this could be directed in, oh, any and all of four ways–ministering unto God, Godself; ministering unto one another, ministering on behalf of humanity, and indeed, creation and the cosmos.

The question takes on even more compelling twists in a “Jesusian” context as the author of Hebrews seems to invert certain commonly-held priesthood concepts. I’m not sure if the other New Testament authors follow suit in a similar way, but for all there seems to be an emphasis on Jesus as the High Priest (fulfilling and completing a certain epoch of God’s dealing with the cosmos and humanity), and us as a ‘kingdom of priests’…or are we?

Some, such as my friend Kevin, add another tantalizing idea into the mix: What if the priesthood, the ecclesia, as “called out” ones, were called out for an important but limited season in the first century: As a first-fruits signifying the whole harvest, or as some fore-running yeast giving rise to an entire loaf of Reality? In other words, what if now in the 21st century, the need for any priesthood has ceased as those in century one “made up for what was lacking” in Christ’s priestly sacrifice?

It is a strong possibility, methinks, though I’m well aware that there are many involved in the front lines of justice work who would beg to differ, saying that we still need a cadre of wounded healers–mediators, reconcilers, indeed, priests–today. And if this is the case, I hope we’re part of the healing balm rather than part of the problem.

I’d love for people representing different perspectives on this potentially-urgent matter of the nature and duration of priesthood to feel free and jump in. Share your wisdom!

Note: Andrew Tatum has written a reprise clarifying some of this thoughts re: clergy.

Recommended House Church Reading:
(Even for those in more bricks-and-mortar and institutional settings, there are spiritual, relational/organizational, and theological treasures to be mined from a house church critique of organized religion and its proposed alternative. One need not be a fundamentalist or a primitivist to appreciate these insights. Here are some of the best works available.)

This was originally posted on October 17, 2007. Except the recommended reading list, which is brand-new.

Spirit Week: East Orthodox Spirituality, Charismatics, & the New Monasticism

Tomorrow I’m about to introduce what I feel is the latest significant entree into Pentecostal/charismatic dialogue with emergent/progressive followers of Jesus – but first, I’ve declared this Spirit week on my blog! My ongoing Wisdom Christianity series with Cynthia Bourgeault will be continued next week, but first I want to delve into some older, popular posts exploring the relation of Holy Spirit to fresh emergence. Starting here…

Remember how Thursday in the comments section of my entry I mentioned the 24/7 prayer movement? Okay, maybe not. Well anyway, my friend Lenz Philipp Müller emails me the other day and asks a great question that is related:

“Hi Michael, I’m curious about the book you’re currently reading -Punk Monk: New Monasticism and the Ancient Art of Breathing. [Not be confused with the other punk monk, my friend Brother Karekin M Yarian - though I think he and Andy Freeman would get along if they met!]  I’d cherish your opinion of the book and am wondering if it’s about the Jesus Prayer and hesychasm? I’ve started an exploration of orthodox spirituality and would like to know if and how the new monastics dig into these parts of the cloud of witnesses. On the one side I’m fascinated by the early fathers, on the other hand I don’t see how hermitism is Biblical. So for now, I think even or especially the hermits acquired wisdom and methods and more that are worthy to be rediscovered in our day and age and might even be keys to a spiritual awakening of life in community. Is that an approach Freeman and Greig would ascribe to?”

Lenz is referring to my previous Myspace blog where I display what I’m reading with entries. Punk Monk has been a breath of fresh air to me as I’ve been moving from a kind of theological cynicism in certain places to a second naivete,’ a place of wonder, astonishment, and trust in God that comes out the other side of world-weariness and incredulity. Wow, that’s a mouthful! I’ll try and unpack it in some upcoming entries, not to mention the rest of my life.

So: This book has been a great ride, Lenz, a moving tribute to the power of street-level, embodied prayer and compassion…but it isn’t , alas, dealing directly with hesychasm or the Jesus Prayer–as the subtitle might lead one to suspect. In my reading so far, it doesn’t directly engage Eastern Orthodox spirituality much, though it certainly engages with the Western contemplative tradition, particularly Celtic saints as well as Benedictines and Franciscans. What the subtitle “The Ancient Art of Breathing” refers to is not breath prayer but rather the synergy of action and contemplation, “breathing in” with our lives rest in God’s presence, and “breathing out” with our lives hospitality and acts of compassion. They see this “art of breathing” as key to the spiritual awakening of life in community…and I’m inclined to agree! All in all, its an excellent addition to the growing body of New Monastic literature.

With that said, I’d like to see some post evangelical/charismatic engagements with East Orthodox spirituality–particularly hesychasm and the idea of theosis, or “divinization,” which I feel is a far sexier (or if that language offends you, more evocative) way of framing “sanctification” for the 21st century. Of course, there probably are just such works out there, and I’m just not familiar with ‘em–input, anyone?

A fascinating paper comparing the “Glory Dust” phenomenon of certain chrarismatic gatherings for worship and the “Visible Glory” reported on the faces of practicing hesychasts in the East Orthodox tradition can be read here. What on earth is “glory dust,” you ask? I recount my own experiences with it in this blog archive from a few years back.

This was originally posted on August 25, 2007. Coming tomorrow: My brand-new interview with Leif Hetland, author of Seeing Through Heaven’s Eyes.

I Confess

Christine Sine from Mustard Seed Associates has tagged me for a confessional meme related to Christians Confess. Accordingly, I have three confessions, some “collective” and some personal, addressed to the planet-at-large from those of us who profess to be friends of Jesus.

“Repentence” by Yolanda Parsons

Here they are:

1.) I’m sorry that we in the Christian family have done such a poor job marrying soul to body. So often different streams of the Church pit one against the other, giving you either metaphysical abstraction or weak social proclamation; we draw and quarter Jesus into either “Teacher” or “Savior,” and therefore all give you a weak parody of “life to the full.” I confess that most of our actions as “the Church” have been utterly self-referential for our own perceived survival, taking little risk in truly getting to know/explore/wonder at either God or you. By being neither heavenly-minded nor of any earthly good, we have failed to provide you a true, creative, challenging alternative to life-as-usual.

2.) I’m sorry that I seem so cardboard when I share my faith with you. While I live most of my life being authentically me for better or worse, when it comes to the hope I find through God in Christ I suddenly begin speaking in a cadence that I don’t recognize, like I’m transformed into some kind of used-car salesman trying to get you to buy a Pinto or something. I think this points to my need to be more natural with God and seek out forms of Christian community that foster this honesty before I attempt to foist my idiosyncrasies on you.

3.) This is related to both above–I’m sorry that we as Christians have found it necessary to make you feel bad about yourself in order to share our “antidote,” which by implication is supposed to make you feel about the “symptoms” that we likely induced! Even though we profess that cleansing from wrong-doing and dis-integration with God and neighbor in an atmosphere of ‘no condemnation’ is the entry point to a sacred kind of living, we often resort to shaming and finding fault in order to gain the rhetorical upper-hand with you in our speech about God and Christ.

As it does little good to confess and apologize without metanoia–repentance, changing of the mind and heart–I have some things I’m saying “yes” to publicly here. I resolve to be a more integrated human being, loving and pursuing God with abandon, and having a heart that breaks with the things that break God’s. I will open my mind, will, and emotions to catch up to my human spirit in caring about life in the here-and-now, living fully in the present moment and exercising proper foresight into future opportunities and challenges. I will care more deeply about spirit and my inner development to become a more integrated, authentic person in the way of Jesus; I will pattern my outward actions accordingly, giving myself to you and our shared ecology more fully. And no matter where you are on your spiritual journey, I will honor you as someone in whom God is already at work. Perhaps if we become friends we can share perspectives with one another; I know I can learn alot from you, and I really do have a Hope within me that I’d like to open up about if you’ll give me the chance.

Tag! Absolutely anyone reading this is welcome to confess, but I specifically tag the following five ten folks (the official guidelines call for five, but I simply must ask these ten friends, as I’ll be fascinated by their replies):

Kevin Beck
Jo Guldi
Johnny Thomas
Brittian Bullock
Carl McColman
Jasmin Morrell
Bill Colburn
Gareth Higgins

There are so many others I am thinking of, but I have no idea if you’d be up for such a thing. Feel free to prove me wrong. : )

Here are the guidelines, from Christine’s blog:

“1. Apologize for three things that Christians have often got wrong. Your apologies should be directed towards those who don’t view themselves as part of the Christian community. Alternatively, apologize for things you personally have done wrong towards those outside of the church.
2. Post a comment at the originating post so others can keep track of the apologies.
3. Tag five people to participate in the meme.
4. If desired, send an email with the link to your blog post at the Christians Confess site, giving permission for your apologies to be added to the website.”

Oh…and one last one: I’m sorry for all those who have tagged me in memes previously without my participation! I’m not in this instance obligating myself to every such future invitation, but I probably really meant to act on yours. It’s just that I’m finally blogging now!

–Confessional Mike

This post was originally posted on August 7, 2007. Since that time, I think I have gotten better at #2.