Jesus: A Theography – the Sweet/Viola Interview + Recommendation

In the third century, Origen of Alexandria taught that there are four senses of Scripture. In Chanting the Psalms, Cynthia Bourgeault summarizes these as follows:

  1. Historical (or “literal”), where Scripture is “all about facts and linear causality” (50).
  2. Christological (or “allegorical”), in which “all the stories and images in the Bible [are]…pointing toward the Christ mystery” (51).
  3. Tropological (or “growth”), in which the stories of Scripture are seen as “holograms of the soul’s journey” (51).
  4. Unitive in full blossom, (others say “anagogical”), in which “we begin to realize that there is only one story, the great biblical drama of salvation, and our own life is perfectly mirrored and contained within it” (52).

For many contemporary readers of Scripture and followers of Jesus, we’re stuck at the literal or historical sense of Holy Writ. Now granted, for alot of us, this is actually a step up; I know that when I was a kid and even a high school and college student, so much of the Bible was reduced to a one-dimensional morality tale, a story about how to “be like David” (the giant-slaying David, mind you, not the Bathsheba-bedding David!) or the Proverbs 31 woman (well, not me, specifically) or whatever. So when I began to discover the historical context of Scripture through scholars like NT Wright or Amy-Jill Levine or James Dunn or Bruce Chilton, my world opened up, as did my Bible and my faith. Still, as Cynthia‘s outline suggests, the ancients had a far more multi-dimensional approach to our sacred text, and it wasn’t just for reading – it was to to experientially know the God of the Bible (as revealed in Jesus Christ) and move through our own soul’s journey into a sense of union with God and the fullness of our destiny.

To put it mildly, contemporary Bible studies don’t do that. Most of them stick to morals that are often shallow, dubious, and/or partisan. A few of the best dip into the historical context of Scripture and paint the narrative in a compelling way. (For fine examples of this, I’d recommend my friend Sean Gladding‘s The Story of God, the Story of Us from Likewise, with its accompanying DVD set for group reading – as well as the Network of Biblical Storytelling and the International Orality Network) But what if there was a resource the bridged the Historical sense of Scripture with the Christological – the latter being a style of interpretation that has been out of favor with the academy and churches alike for centuries – paving the way for the reader to be catapulted into the Tropological and the Unitive fellowship of the Godhead?

I daresay that Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet‘s Jesus: A Theography does precisely this.

I’ll say more in a minute. But first, I wanted to share with you some about the book from the authors’ own words. I sat down with Sweet and Viola (virtually speaking) over the weekend to glean the following (note – the words are the interviewees, but the links are mostly mine. I like you to be able to engage the conversation with as much depth as you desire; Andrew Jones doesn’t call me “Dr Linkage” for nothing!):

Mike: Thanks for taking the time out to talk to my readers and curious potential readers everywhere. My first question about your new release concerns your sub-title. “Theography?” What’s a theography?   

Len: “Theography” literally means “the story of a god.” Even though I’m not averse to coining words (some would call that an understatement), we did not make up the word “theography.” It’s an actual genre of literature which has a long history. Rather than write a “biography of God” (Jack Miles) or a “history of God” (Karen Armstrong), we decided to lay our cards on the table and write the story of someone we believe is, as the Nicene Creed puts it, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made.”

Frank: A theography is a theological biography. The book, therefore, tells the story of Jesus, beginning from eternity (John 1:1), all the way through the Old Testament (where Christ is foreshadowed, prefigured, and prophesied about), all the way through the New Testament and ending in Revelation. It seeks to marry theology with biography, bringing together Christology with historical Jesus studies.

Mike: You resurrect an ancient way of reading Scripture that’s nearly lost today – what some would call allegorical, or typological. Can you each say something about this way of finding Christ on every page of Holy Writ?

Frank: It’s not allegorical. We make a clear distinction in the book between subjective allegory (which we don’t subscribe to) and classic typology – which is basically a semiotic reading of Scripture. The latter is how the NT authors interpreted the OT. It’s also how Jesus taught His disciples to read the Scriptures. We unpack those two statements in the book.

Let me add something else. There are three things being emphasized today by some Christians and our book speaks directly to each one:

First – there is an emphasis on being “Red Letter Christians.” For better or for worse, one result of this emphasis is that many people have the idea that in order to really understand Jesus, we have to focus solely on the Gospels, particularly the places where Jesus tells us what to do. The “red letter” emphasis is no doubt a reaction to those who have pushed the gospel strictly in Pauline terms. But the net is often that we end up pitting Justice against Justification and people take sides.

By contrast, we believe that we will never fully understand Jesus simply by reading the red letters in the Gospels. Nor do we believe that we can fully understand Him by reading the writings of Paul only.

It is our conviction that we can only fully understand Jesus by learning to discover Him from Genesis to Revelation and interpret the Scriptures the same way that Jesus taught His disciples to interpret them.

Luke says that the risen Christ opened the understanding of His disciples, revealing Himself to them through Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. Those are the three parts of the Hebrew Bible – the Tenack.

In addition, if we understand that Jesus is speaking in and through the Old Testament as YHWH, then all of the Bible should be in red letters.

Consequently, we’re all for being “Red Letter Christians,” if by that we mean Genesis to Revelation should be written in red.

If all Christians learned to discover Christ in all the Scriptures, it would constitute no small revolution in the Body of Christ . . . and in turn, the world. I believe the earth begs for such a revolution.

Second – there’s a re-emphasis on discipleship today in many quarters (“discipleship” was also big in the late 60s early 70s, then it went off the rails. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, many who are on the discipleship band-wagon today don’t know their history. And ignorance of history usually ends up in a repetition of it.)

Most of the people who promote this emphasis talk about the importance of reading the Bible. But reading the Bible on its own doth not a disciple make. The Bible must be interpreted.

In Jesus: A Theography, Len and I demonstrate how the first Christians (the NT authors) interpreted the Old Testament. And then we use that same hermeneutic (method of interpretation) to unveil Christ from Genesis to Revelation.

Consequently, beyond being a book that converges NT scholarship with theology and canonical criticism, our volume is a handbook for discipleship, showing God’s people how to read the Bible in the light of Jesus Christ. Reading the Bible this way brings it to life on so many levels.

Third – we live in a time where there is perhaps more diversity among Christians than ever before. Last year, Christian Smith wrote a little book about this and asserted that the cure for the interpretive pluralism that plagues biblical interpretation among Christians today is the rediscovery of the Christocentric hermeneutic.

We believe that there is a lot of truth in Smith’s proposal. While it’s no panacea, reading the Scriptures Christologically can help us profoundly on this score. Thus our book seeks to show what a Christocentric hermeneutic is, what it looks like, and how it can be applied to the entire Bible – both Old and New Testaments.

Len: Nowadays christology is the weak slat under the bed of theology; Frank and I believe it should be the whole bed. That is what we tried to show in this book—the seamless garment story of Jesus.

There has been a renewed interest in both ancient approaches to the Bible known as allegorical and typological. Although Frank and I contrast the two, shunning the allegorical and embracing the typological, there are some scholars who argue that we are mistaken in this and that any crisp contrast between the two is misguided (e.g. David Dawson, Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria [University of California Press, 1992).

But we maintain the distinction in our book, and believe that the “storied world of the Bible” (Hans Frei) needs a unitive telling that requires a typological hermeneutic. If we are to move the biblical narrative from its historical context into any present and future setting, “translation” must transition into typology.

Charles L. Campbell’s excellent book on typological preaching defines typology as “fundamentally a Christological and ecclesial form of interpretation. That is, the movement is from events in the story of Israel through Jesus as the center and ‘archetype’ of the story to the church as the ongoing bearer of the story” (p. 253 of Preaching Jesus [1997]).  I personally prefer the lens and language of “semiotics” to “typology,” but the consensus of the publishers was that this would be too confusing to the reader.

You say some intriguing things about gardens and temples in your book, and how they reveal Christ. Could you summarize and preview this a bit here?               

Frank: The garden-temple theme stretches from Genesis to Revelation. We trace it in great detail throughout the book. It’s everywhere in Genesis 1 and 2 (we dedicate two chapters to Genesis 1 and 2, in fact). The garden-temple theme reappears in Revelation 21 and 22.

Jesus uses these motifs often in pointing to Himself. In John 1 and 2, which is “the new Genesis,” Jesus describes Himself as the new temple. In John 7 and John 14, images of living water and a vine tree hearken back to the garden. Christ embodies both the temple and the garden. The details, which we explore in the book, are no less than fascinating.

Len: The world’s oldest profession is not what you think it is. The First Adam was a gardener. The Last Adam, whose mission it was to return us to that garden relationship with God, had the imagination, not of a tool-guy, but of a gardener. In his first post-resurrection appearance, Jesus was mistaken for a gardener. As a writer, I think of myself as a gardener with words, and my computer as a garden bed. The Bible begins in a garden, and ends in a garden city . . . .  Have we teased you enough with the metaphor?

Mike: Yes Len, you’ve given me plenty to plow through. :) (Ba-dum-bum!)

I’ve read both of you since the 1990s, and feel like I have a good handle on your respective themes and styles; I feel like this volume is much more ‘blended,’ style-and-content-wise, than your first collaboration together, Jesus Manifesto. Has your collaboration process evolved since then? How did you go about writing Jesus: A Theography?

Len: The more you spend time with someone, and think their thoughts with them and after them, the more you start to vibrate on the same wavelength. We wrote this book showing how Jesus is our tuning fork to the Eternal, God’s Perfect Pitch. As we disciplined our “tunings” to Him, our voices began to harmonize in a rich and rare way. I think you can still hear our distinctive frequencies, but it’s an ensemble of harmonious difference, not clashing differences.

Frank: Jesus Manifesto was a much shorter work and it reads more like an anthology of collected essays on the same topic. Jesus: A Theography is over 400 pages and it seeks to tell one story – a story that’s based in the discoveries of two lifetimes (Len’s and mine). We tried our best to write it with one voice. Some of our readers have observed that it reads similar to a novel. Each reader will have to decide if we succeeded in our intent.

Mike: Len, Frank – you’ve both served in ministry for decades, and yet I feel you both have as hallmarks of your ministries how everything old becomes new again – especially the ever-newness of God’s mercies in Christ. So I’m curious: In the process of putting words to paper (or pixel, as the case may be), did you each, personally, discover something fresh about the Christ you were unearthing in the pages of Scripture?           

Len: Our ancestors used to sing, “Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before.” That’s the ultimate in discipleship. Jesus is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. But he also wants to be fresh every morning.

The Living Bread requires we bake fresh bread, which is what this book is: the freshest bread the two of us could serve up. Painter Robert Motherwell confessed one day that “most good painters don’t know what they think until they paint it.” I don’t think we really know what we believe and who Jesus is until we live our faith, put fingers to feelings and legs to thoughts. In writing this book, I discovered so much about Jesus I never knew or imagined.

Frank: When asked how long it took me to write my part of the book, my answer is that it took 30 years. I’ve spent my entire Christian life exploring Jesus in all the Scriptures, in the community of the church (present and ancient), and in day-to-day life. Yet there’s no way to exhaust Him.

So putting the story down in one place with Len took my breath away. And I hope it does the same for those who read our book cover to cover. There’s always more light to break forth from God’s Word whenever we look at it in the face of Jesus Christ. All Scripture really does point to Him (John 5:39).

People can take a look at the Introduction of the book (which includes endnotes), a full description, a Publishers Weekly review, the Table of Contents and a free audio where I share the untold story behind the book (including why we chose not to have any endorsements) and another audio where Len shares why he and I wrote the book. Just click http://frankviola.org/jesuschrist

Frank & Len: Thanks Mike!

Mike Morrell: You’re welcome. Thank you.

* * *

A couple of closing thoughts: I’ve been listening to Jesus: A Theography in audio book form in the kitchen this weekend, while the fam has milled about. My five-year-0ld daughter has been listening in, and started drawing pictures “of God.” There’s a lot of storytelling in the book, and the stories have kept her attention – and ours.

I personally believe that every evangelical, charismatic, missional-minded disciple and Reformed Jesus-follower should read this book. Youth groups and campus ministries especially (can you hear me, Cru, Inter-Varsity, and Campus Outreach?). It can form a True North that everything else you do is oriented toward.

Further, I hope that emergent, progressive, Integral, poststructural, Radical Orthodox, New Monastic, and liberation/anarchist-minded Christians and Questians don’t ignore this book. The authors throw some hermeneutical curve-balls that you may not agree with, but if you stay with the source material (take it, if it helps, as coming from the best of the devotional-Pietist tradition as informed by the Canoncial Critical school of Biblical interpretation), there will be rich material for reflection and community-formation, even if there are points you’d debate with as you hold this vision of Christ in creative tension with a Christology from below.

For readers of every stripe – including those who would not identify as Christian – I believe that Viola and Sweet have done a magisterial job of bridging the Historical and Christological senses of Scripture in a way that can connect and resonate with contemporary readers, which puts Jesus: A Theography at a distinct advantage over similar Patristic and Medieval texts that (at first encounter at least) cannot bridge this divide in the contemporary mind.

Check it out!

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

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)

Evolution & the Two Trees in the Garden

Evolution. The very word struck fear into the hearts of 1980s homeschoolers everywhere – myself included. I remember my first encounters with the term, in an Answers in Genesis video series that our Douglasville-area homeschoolers association banded together to purchase and watch. Kids 4-17 huddled together in the Prays Mill Baptist Sunday school room, adjacent to the gym, to watch long, sweeping caricatures of evolutionary theory dismissed with two refrains said derisively-yet-sweetly by Australian creationist Ken Ham (who still had red hair back then):

It’s only a theory!   and,

Were you there? 

 This video series (and the accompanying subculture) were all we needed to realize that the universe was created in six literal days 6,000 years ago, with carbon dating a sham and evolution a Satanic plot to discredit the bible and promote abortion, homosexuality, and one world government by the same godless people who took prayer out of public schools and watch Susan Sarandon movies.

Fast forward to college around the turn of the century. A philosophical young lad and fellow student turned me on to Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe, with his argument that the Big Bang and an old earth/universe was indeed compatible with the biblical narrative of Genesis. I took to Intelligent Design like a duck to water – it was refreshing to not have to believe that God made rocks and stars appear old as a test of faith (as SBTS president Al Mohler apparently believes). It turns out some friends in my Atlanta-area house church were Hugh Ross fans, and indeed he was invited to speak at the school where one of them teaches – so I joined them there one night for a lecture from the man himself. While I was more convinced than ever of the scientific arguments for an old earth and cosmos, I learned that night Ross did not extend the same courtesy to biology that he did to physics – he rejected ‘macro’ evolution outright, seemingly on theological grounds.

It wasn’t until 2007, when I with TheOOZE helped put on Soularize in the Bahamas, that I heard a clear, passionate, positive articulation of the relationship between science and faith – in one Michael Dowd, pastor and author of Thank God for Evolution, curator (with his wife, scientist Connie Barlow) of the Evolutionary Christianity interview series. From Dowd I discovered Bruce Sanguin, author of Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos: An Ecological ChristianityThe Emerging Church: A Model for Change and a Map for Renewal,  and the beautiful, poetic, prayer/worship book If Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics. Finally, thanks to my buddy Tripp Fuller, I discovered the dizzyingly brilliant heart and mind of Philip Clayton, whose insights on evolution and Christianity are many and substantial. I really want to read his The Predicament of Belief : Science, Philosophy, and Faith, coming out in a few days!

Coevolution from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Do yourself a favor and watch the video above, and the rest of this series by my friend Travis Reed at The Work of the People/Alter Video Magazine. Even if you have to stop reading this blog post – they’re that good, and might change your life. Seriously.

From their insights (and the many antecedents they point to), I began to see the evolutionary impulse as emergent nested creativity, a divine spark that is ever-expanding in complexity and empathy, bringing us, quite possibly, to an approximation of Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin‘s idea of an Omega Point, where the universe is becoming conscious of itself (vis-a-vis us) and all of reality is forming the cosmic Body of Christ. Celebrating the gifts of the scientific community, these thinkers and idea-leaders embrace science with zest as (to put in Augustine’s terms) God’s other Sacred Book – nature.

More recently still, I’ve been reading some more cautious, but equally vital, works of scholarship: Peter Enns‘ magisterial Evolution of Adam, The: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins and Christopher Southgate‘s The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil.

With all this as preamble, I’ve been thinking a lot over the past year about the second creation narrative in Genesis 2-3 – with Adam, Eve, the Serpent, two Trees, God and the garden. I’ve been pondering its significance, and how certain epiphanies in this narrative have led me to substantially re-imagine an eleven-year personal writing project. I’m currently staying in a lovely rural house with friends about 40 miles outside of Raleigh, on a writing ‘semi’ sabbatical. In addition to serving my many clients (don’t worry folks – I am still working!), I’m looking to at long last complete at least the ‘First Act’ of my Four-Act book. The book – and this is the first time I’ve said this publicly in 11 years – is titled Eat God, provisionally subtitled Taste Heaven, Party like a god, and Save the World.

Yesterday, my e-friend Shane Crash asked a pitch-perfect setup question via Twitter and Facebook – the kind of thing that primed the pump for me to road-test some ideas for the book. Here it is:

“People who believe God is punishing humanity because a chick ate an apple. Why?” 

There were some fun answers, which you can read if Shane’s privacy settings are sufficiently low (I’m not sure). Here’s what I said, edited slightly for better coherence:

I’m not always fan of Augustine, and I’d like to get away from the idea of “The Fall,” believe me. I enjoy Matthew Fox’s Original Blessing, and I think he makes some compelling arguments for the original and sustaining goodness of creation, affirmed in Scripture and our experience. And yet, I can’t believe that humanity was just blissfully enjoying life when one day some grumpy religious people made up the myth of Eden and the rotten fruit. No…we must have felt something happen, some kind of existential shift, and then told this story of a primal human pair, two trees, and a tragic dietary choice.

Do I believe that God is ‘punishing’ us? No way! Do I believe a literal piece of fruit was ‘eaten’ by some first woman? That is highly debatable. But here’s what I think happened:

For some 200,000 years, homo sapiens enjoyed a pretty good life. Far from being ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short,’ a growing number of today’s anthropologists and archaeologists are pointing to a quite new vision of our deep pre-history. During the paleolithic era, we seemed to enjoy a deep sense of connection to our own bodies, one another, our natural environment, and our sense of the sacred (the last one of which seemed to include a High God/Creator, an immanent sense of the ‘spirit-ness’ of everyday objects and things, plus an ongoing communion with ancestors who have gone before us). We can see this way of living mostly neatly glimpsed in the rare, surviving aboriginal cultures on our planet today.

During most of our history, we shared everything. And there was abudnance – enough. We lived on a relatively ‘virgin’ planet, and population was much lower, for instance. Women were equal to men, and organized warfare was unheard of. I know this sounds like pie-in-the-sky, but read some Jared Diamond or Jetha and Ryan’s Sex at Dawn. It’s astonishing, the new consensus emerging about our original culture.

But then…something happened around 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. A magnetic pole shift, climate change, or the dawn of complex agriculture – there’s debate about which factor(s), but there’s a clear demarcation in our collective psyche, beginning in the Fertile Crescent and radiating outward along trade paths and weather patterns. Suddenly (over a period of 2,000-4,000 years – but ‘suddenly’ in geologic time), something changed in our fundamental psychological functioning. Whereas before consciousness was distributed through our entire bodies, now it all rushed up into our heads. Where we used to be instinctual, feeling, tribal creatures, every condition was now in place for us to be discursive reasoning, thinking, individual decision-makers. Psychologists call this until-now-unheard-of process self-reflexive consciousness.

Self-reflexive consciousness, the ability to reflect on ourselves “as though” from the outside, turned out to be a burden as well as a blessing. Over the milennia it’s given us planes, trains, and automobiles, but also war, pestilence, and famine. It’s given us art and ache, innovation and envy. This development of the ego is fundamental to all that is recognizably human. And yet, it is what gives us this undeniable feeling of four-fold alienation: from God, self, others, and our environment.

I think that the Hebrew bible and it’s narrative arc is wise beyond it’s years, but of course we (whether fundamentalist or modernist) over-literalize and argue about details. In its broadest strokes, though, I think that the break with ‘oceanic,’ interconnected ways of knowing to this four-fold alienation is “the fall.” I think that the Tree of Knowledge represents self-reflexive consciousness, dualistic thinking, and discursive reasoning, whereas the Tree of Life represents a kind of non-dual seeing, a holistic living in the present moment that embraces all of life as it arises.

This ‘Tree of Life’ consciousness, which is more a practice than anything (a practice I call eating God), is both backward-reflecting on our deep-time roots as humanity and forward-looking to our aspiration of integration: Taking the best attributes of our recent 10,000-year adolescence in division, judgement, and Fruit of Knowledge indigestion, putting us on a Tree of Life de-tox regimen so that unripe knowledge is purged from our systems, making way for the ripened fruit of the Wisdom we need before it’s too late for us as a species or an ecosystem.

[As a parenthesis, the story of Cain vs. Abel is the story of ascendant complex agrarianism (on its way to nascent urbanism) clashing with hunter-gatherers and simple pastoralism. God prefers the worship-connection of the hunter-gatherers over those of the upstart agrarians - the violent farmer knows this, and murder is born. For more on this perspective, see Brian McLaren's novel The Story We Find Ourselves In, and Daniel Quinn's fascinating Ishmael trilogy]

I think that Christ can point the way, or even BE the Way, if we ‘eat Christ‘ and take him as both Life and the Wisdom of God. Seeing what Jesus sees, and knowing what Jesus knows, is the route out from the dead-end of small-egoic consciousness and the on-ramp to four-fold re-connection with God, self, neighbor, and ecosystem.

Moby is a fan of 'Eat God'...don't you want to read?

Eat God: Act 1 (‘taste heaven’) transfigures the classical Christian mystical stages of ascent – illumination, purgation and union – into tasting, de-toxing, and digestion – and looks at how to make this practicable every day. It should be juicy. But in the meantime, if you’re interested in these concepts, I’d recommend you check out The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History. It’s not from a ‘Christian’ perspective (which is fine by me though the author missed some obvious, rich literary material) and the guy could’ve used an editor, but the research he pulls together is pure gold.

Eat God: Acts II – IV weaves all of this together with spiritual practice, Jesus’ subversive meal-sharing habits, and our contemporary food and water crises as a clarion call to a new way of being spiritual and human in the 21st century. It’s rooted in the deep tributaries of the Christian tradition, but incorporates science, poetry, and a good deal of strategic foresight and systems thinking as it applies to our food and water systems.

As I mentioned, I’m at a farm-house outside of Raleigh making a dent in writing part one, as I’ve been working on this puppy since a few months before the twin towers fell.  I’m realizing now how much more editorial work is needed to keep it fresh, concise, and accessible. I hope this isn’t my own ego talking, but I see this as an important work – spiritually, culturally, and ecologically – as we need a contemplative, mystical, “deeper life” literature for today that inspires us, from our deepest convictions and highest apsirations, to live – sacrifically if needed – for the good of our children and our planet. Because I want to take advantage of the freedom and innovation that is contemporary self-publishing, I’m considering a Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaign to raise funds for the completion of the manuscript(s) and their innovative word-of-mouth marketing. So – a poll for you dear readers: Would you consider supporting a Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaign if it meant that a.) This work could get out there in the world, and b.) You would get the first copies of it? There’s no wrong answer here – I’m just curious what interest is out there.

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(If you answer ‘yes,’ please leave a comment below! I’ll want to let you know if I actually do this. :) )

I’ll close with a gem from Joesph Campbell‘s Thou Art That which has deeply informed my thinking and intuition:

When Man ate of the fruit of the Tree, he discovered himself in the field of duality instead of the field of unity. As a result, he finds himself out, in exile. The two cherubim placed at the gate are there representative of the world of the pairs of opposites in which, having been cast out of the world of unity, he is now located. You are kept in exile by your commitment to that world.

Christ goes past that – “I and the Father are one” – back into the realm of unity from which we have been expelled. These are the mysteries. Here is an echo and a translation into another set of images of what we ourselves are experiencing. What comes forth now with the grain, as particles of that one life that informs all things, is the revelation of the spiritual unity in all its aspects.

Adam and Eve are separated from God and they are aware of this break in their sense of oneness. They seek to cover their nakedness. The question becomes, how do they get back to the Garden? To understand this mystery, we must forget all about judging and ethics and forget good and evil as well.

Jesus says, “Judge not, that you may not be judged.” That is the way back into the Garden. You must live on two levels: One, out of the recognition of all life as it is without judging it, and the other, by living in terms of the ethical values of one’s culture, or one’s particular personal religion. These are not easy tasks.

I’ve Been ‘Sliced! (or, when heresy-hunters attack)

Heresy-hunting is everywhere these days – even in presidential politics. Think what you want of the various candidates (I’ll not go into any stump speeches here), but when a presidential candidate criticizes the current president, not over disagreements in policy, but for “phony theology” as Santorum did Obama, well, you have presidential-level heresy-hunting. Here’s the scoop on that:

 

Targeting people with different spiritual and religious perspectives with appellations like “phony” and “heretic” has, of course, been going for a long time – arguably since the very existence of religion, but in contemporary times at least since the publication of John MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos in 1993. A few years ago, it was finally my turn…

Glory be, my day of infamy has arrived–the biggest heresy-hunting ‘blog this side of Ken Silva has targeted little ‘ol me for witchery! Ingrid Schlueter of Slice O’ Laodecia sez (in a piece titled Christian Witchcraft is Here) that my main website, zoecarnate.com, advocates “cool new “Christianity”, including an ad for an emerging conference, and links to all the emerging sites of Dan Kimball, Doug Pagitt, and a host of others listed under the category, “Dispatches from the Great Emergence”.

Guilty! Of everything except being cool. (My wife will tell you that I’m a big nerd, and I still dress funny if she doesn’t have any input.)

Apparently I made the ‘mistake’ of being linked to by a website called RavenWing, whose authors, Charlie and Melody Jenkins, are exploring the tensions and commonalities between neopagan practice and Christian faith. I’ve gotta admit, Ingrid, they have some pretty interesting beliefs. The thing to keep in mind of course is a.) They found me, not vice-versa, and b.) I’d love to hang out with the Jenkins over tea or something, and talk with them about their lives and faith journeys, rather than make some appraisal of their beliefs with the degree of easy finality that you do. I guess that’s just ’cause I’m just soooooooooo emergent. Either that or because I think there’s something to that whole ‘ministers of reconciliation’ thing.

But this isn’t all I’m being Sliced over. Ingrid continues,

“The ZoeCarnate [sic] site is also promoting The Shack as must reading for emerging Christians.”

Interestingly, she draws this connection because of the banners I have up on this blog and my site for the book, not because I’m one of the endorsers easily visible on the back cover. Why, oh why, does Eugene get all the attention? I feel slighted. To apply “eye salve” to this clear oversight (If you’re gonna play guilt-by-association, the heresy-hunters’ favorite game, you can’t miss key links like this), let me clarify just how much I love The Shack. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

“Finally! A guy-meets-God novel that has literary integrity and spiritual daring. The Shack cuts through the cliches of both religion and bad writing to reveal something compelling and beautiful about life’s integral dance with the divine. This story reads like a prayer–like the best kinds of prayer, filled with sweat and wonder and transparency and surprise. When I read it, I felt like I was fellowshipping with God. If you read one work of fiction this year, let this be it.”

I said it. I believe it. That settles it. : )

Siiiiiiiiiiiiiggh. This isn’t the first time self-proclaimed Christian Watch Doggies have targeted me, and I doubt it’ll be the last. If they only knew the company I keep, the friends I have, and the ideas that run through my mind while invoking Baphomet in my blood-drawn pentagram!

In all seriousness (and c’mon guys, that previous sentence wasn’t, so no fair quoting it as though it was), these folks might be surprised to know that I (and every alt.Christian I know) believe that there is such a thing as harmful or destructive teaching, we do think about our beliefs, and we don’t rip Jude or 2 Peter out of our Bibles. But the warning passages there (and in Timothy and the Gospels) aren’t biblical wax noses that we can bend at whim; there were specific heresies (dualism and legalism) being addressed in the pages of the New Testament. We’d do wise to treat these ‘attack passages’ (as they’ve become) while wearing asbestos gloves, with fear and trembling. We should pray and fast before ever leveling them at a sister or brother in Christ. Our reverence for Holy Writ (and the Holy One whom we confess has inspired it) demands no less.

In other news, the fundies seem to be devouring their own

The intro to this post is new. The bulk of this was originally posted on Feb 29, 2008

See also Resisting the Logic of Heresy-Hunting: A Cautionary Tale
Gutless-Grace Girlieman Inspires Po-Motivators…Story At 11

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’

Spirit Week – Crowder & Morrell Final: Sweet Mystical Communion

Godka

This post concludes a five-part interview with arguably the most controversial contemporary charismatic minister, John Crowder. It’s worth noting that Crowder’s ministry has evolved since 2008, when these interviews first appeared. He’s recently released two new books reflecting this: Mystical Union & Seven Spirits Burning. Our interview here reflects the interest in this pair of books: what does ‘union with God’ look like?

So this is John Crowder and I’s final dialogue, for now at least. Despite some of our differences in previous installments, it’s here where we talk something near and dear to our hearts. It’s precisely here where I fear we’re going to alienate at least some of you dear readers. Why? Because if there’s one thing that most middle-of-the-road Christian moderates distrust more than ‘extreme’ charismatic experiences, it’s mysticism – Christian or otherwise. The word ‘mystic’ is heavily freighted for many people, synonymous with ‘heretical,’ ‘apostate,’ ‘unbiblical,’ etc.. To add insult to injury, John & I don’t spend even a second justifying our use of the term, or indeed explaining any of the terms, dates, movements, and spiritualities we discuss – it’s a kind of conversational machine-gun fire. This isn’t intentional; it’s simply an exchange where we hit the ground running, sharing a mystical lingua franca – though we still come out in somewhat different places. [This is the bridge, perhaps, between my Spirit Week series and my Wisdom Christianity one, exploring the teaching of Cynthia Bourgeault.] Let’s dive in…

Mike: Thanks so much for your time here this past week, John. You’ve given me and my blog-readers much to digest. My final questions have to do with developmental-transformational growth in God – what Protestants typically call sanctification, what Catholic mystics call union with God, and what East Orthodox call theosis or divinization. Wesleyan and holiness preachers – who laid the seed-bed for Pentecostal theology and praxis – advocated what they called a ‘second work’ of ‘entire sanctification,’ known variously in those days as ‘Spirit baptism’ or ‘fire baptism.’ The charismatic and ‘third wave’ movements, as best as I can tell, hold onto a ‘Spirit baptism’ point but stress the continuing in-filling of Holy Spirit, moving from ‘glory to glory’ as it were in increasing supernatural experiences. I guess my first question for you here on this, our final post (for now!), is where do you see this present move of the Spirit you’re involved in going? Where is it heading?

John: I see full-blown transformation of every human paradigm of reality itself. A generation completely raptured in the overwhelming love of God. I don’t care about pioneering new theology, cultural movements or witty new ways of delivering the gospel. I want to love and to experience the love of God more. I think this is the corporate goal of the Holy Spirit. This is true mysticism.

Mike: The great mystical/contemplative writers of ages past talked in great detail about manifestations of the Spirit (they usually called them ‘consolations’), but they had a complex relationship with them: The mystics usually discouraged dwelling too much on the consolations, or trying to keep them coming. To give you a contemporary example, Contemplative Outreach cofounder Thomas Keating says:

At this crucial period in one’s spiritual development, it is important to realize the sharp distinction between charismatic gifts such as tongues, prophecy, healing, etc., and the Seven Gifts of the Spirit. According to Paul, the charismatic gifts (with the exception of tongues) are designed for the building up of the local community. They do not necessarily indicate that those who possess them are either holy or becoming holy through their exercise. If one is attached to them, they are an obstacle to genuine spiritual growth. For those who have received one or more of these gifts, this is clearly part of God’s plan for their sanctification and a cause for gratitude. But they must learn to exercise these gifts with detachment and not take pride in themselves because they happen to be the recipients of a special grace. Generally God provides sufficient external trials to take care of this human tendency. Prophets, healers, and administrators can greatly benefit from opposition, because it tends to free them from the fascination of their gifts and to keep them humble.

Paul himself emphasizes the distinction between charismatic gifts that are given to build up the body of Christ and the substantial gift of divine love. According to him, one possessing the charismatic gifts is still nothing unless one also possesses divine love (see I Cor. 13:1-3). Hence, the basic thrust of charismatic prayer and the exercise of the charismatic gifts should be ordered to the growth of faith, hope, and charity. To remain faithful to the clear invitation to divine union extended by God through the grace of baptism of the Spirit, one must not be diverted by secondary manifestations of spiritual development. Moreover, there is need for discernment with even the most genuine charismatic gifts. It is the duty of the community…to discern these gifts and to determine whether they spring from grace or from the natural energies of the unconscious. Those who possess them should willingly submit to this discernment for the good of the community Otherwise, the exercise of the gifts may be destructive of the common good rather than a means of building up the body of Christ.

Along with the charismatic gifts, which may be given to anyone without a corresponding level of personal spiritual development, so-called “mystical” phenomena, such as clairvoyance, locutions, visions, levitation, trance states, and many others, may accompany spiritual development as one accesses the divine emerging from the ontological unconscious. These also are of little significance compared to the graces of interior transformation set in motion by the Seven Gifts of the Spirit. The unusual and sometimes showy character of “mystical” phenomena makes them a hazard for immature mystics. It is difficult for even advanced persons to avoid taking a certain self-satisfaction in them.

The Charismatic Renewal needs spiritual guides who are thoroughly qualified through knowledge and personal experience of contemplative prayer to distinguish what is essential from what is accidental in the spiritual path. They should be able to recognize when someone is being called by God to interior silence and solitude and when someone is being called out of solitude into some particular ministry or service. People must be encouraged to follow the attraction to interior silence in prayer even if this means not attending prayer meetings for a time. This is especially necessary if, because of the duties of one’s state in life, one cannot attend prayer meetings and still have time to practice contemplative prayer. Periods of silence in the liturgy and during prayer meetings are essential for groups whose members are growing in prayer. To allow one another space in which to develop the contemplative dimension of the gospel is an integral part of commitment to a Christian community. [Full piece here.]

It’s clear from your book The New Mystics that you value the Christian mystics. What do you make of their contemplative caution of the charisms?

John: We must remember also in scripture that Paul tells us to “lust” after the gifts. How can we do this, unless certain gifts and manifestations should be considered “extensions” of Christ in some way, rather than competitors for His affections? We think of these things in too linear a fashion, through a veil of modernistic hierarchy and competition. We’ve all heard this type of wet blanket statement: seek God’s face & not His hand. It’s been used to keep us from chasing miracles, manifestations, etc. The phrase sounds noble and holy, but it is very unscriptural. We need ALL of God: hands, feet, fingernails and even His serotonin gland. Otherwise we’re screwed. I love my wife’s face, but I’m also very thankful that she has hands as well. They are quite helpful. We’ve been told not to seek manifestations, but the apostles did so in Acts 4 (“Lord, stretch forth your hand to heal the sick and work wonders,” etc.). Cessationists tell us not to seek after signs and miracles, but the apostles did so, for a greater end, that God would be glorified.

Mike: So is there any line to be drawn between seeking the things of God and simply seeking God?

John: Is there some sort of subjective rubber ruler here? Or is it possible that we are splitting hairs that weren’t meant to be split? Jesus is the ultimate manifestation of God’s Glory. 1 John 4:9 says, “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him.” If Jesus is a “manifestation” of God’s love, a “consolation” if you will, could one make the argument that all Christians are called to worship a manifestation of the unseen God, which happens to be God Himself?

The perceived need to clinically separate God from the experience itself is a two-dimensional, linear way of thinking. Since biblical times, trances have been marked by visions and spiritual encounters, as well as frenzied physical manifestations and miracles. The lines between everyday lifestyle and divine encounter are going to be blurred in these days. Manifestations, ecstasies, consolations – these are not just a form of prayer, but a comprehensive way of living. Dwelling in unbroken pleasure. Letting our days become a fragrant song where Heaven and Earth continually collide. We will not be counting beans and trying to figure out if we are enjoying the worship service too much. We will be overwhelmed. We must worship God to excess in body, soul and spirit. With ALL of our mind, heart, soul and strength.

Mike: I agree with you in principle, but…those YouTube videos of you and your friends still seem pretty weird!

PhysMysJohn: While ecstatic experience is biblically orthodox, it is far from tame or ordinary in its practical application. Ecstatics have always produced the most bizarre physical manifestations: falling over, fainting, shaking, trembling, uncontrollable laughter, running, shouting and convulsing. Not to mention the signs, wonders and miraculous phenomena. Such strange outward behavior has marked the lives of many great saints and prophets, past and present. And these wild ecstatic contortions have been evident in every great revival – at the birth of every mainstream denominational movement in church history. The inward working of God’s goodness tends to produce an uncontrollable wildfire when He takes the helm of clinical, religious sobriety – when He turns our water into wine.

Mike: I’ll drink to that!

John: God’s sheer goodness is so great that it is uncontainable. Maybe the “self control” God desires is for us to control the old dead, dry, boring, sober self – so that we can demonstrate His true happiness. This goes far deeper than a surface manifestation of laughter, shaking or bodily demonstration.

Mike: Do you think some of the worshippers at your meetings are faking it?

John: Are some manifestations feigned? Of course. In churches that are experiencing renewal, I often see people “fake” their joy in order to look spiritual – as if their laughter is a supernatural manifestation when it is not. This usually comes out of insecurity, as people seek to find their identity behind a particular manifestation. Of course, there is no need to over-analyze every laugh, twitch, crunch or yelp. We need to keep it real, but who am I to intervene into their communion with the Lord? Besides, I see people faking smiles and laughter in many mainline churches as well.

Mike: Ouch! But what about the peer pressure to conform to what your neighbors are doing – y’know, to look more spiritual?

John: There is no need to recreate a past experience, fake a manifestation or feign your happiness. But I don’t think this is a grievous sin that is going to ruin us all. Ultimately, God wants to give true joy that is thorough and lasting. Manifestations are valid, and I am a proponent for daily encounter. But truly encountering God should cause you to be changed. Don’t tell me you’ve seen an angel, but you still look like hell! When God really shows up, you are not just twitching to look spiritual in front of your friends. You are undone. One cannot stir up the soul with emotion, in order to gain a spiritual experience. But the crazy thing about the gospel is this: you are already having a spiritual experience! Whether you feel it or not, you are already united with Christ and seated with Him in heavenly places. As these spiritual realities impact your soul, there is no limit to the excess of emotions that are ignited.

Mike: So much of what you’re saying here an “old mystic” or contemplative could agree to. The main difference, I think, is that they’d say some of the most flamboyant emotional displays would last a season ‘till they were purged, leaving a more whole and balanced person in their aftermath. But you seem to see this as an ongoing, normative stage of theosis.

John: Physical manifestations of ecstasy have been termed “fits”, “enthusiasms”, “the jerks”, “convulsions” and many other names in various revivals. But the similar thread of losing control to the Spirit of God has always been present.

It is humorous to consider the writings of great 18th and 19th century revivalists and missionaries of the past, when they spoke of gathering together to be “refreshed” in the Holy Spirit. Ever wonder what that looked like? We’ve stereotyped so many of our forerunners as stiff-necked, starch-collared holy rollers. But many of them were complete Holy Ghost drunks. Ecstatic trances and manifestations of spiritual intoxication did not end with the days of Samuel, David and Elijah.

Mike: Humor some of my more skeptical readers. When has this happened with the safe reivivals? Y’know, the ones far enough away from us in the present that they’re okay to talk about, even among cessationist types?

John: The First Great Awakening is a classic example. In Jonathan Edwards’ meetings, people swooned and fell over and entered trances under the weighty hand of God.

Mike: Fire-baptized Calvinists? Get out of town!

John: Describing the revival of 1740-1742, Edwards notes, “It was a very frequent thing to see a house full of outcries, faintings, convulsions, and such like, both with distress, and also with admiration and joy.” Remember, this guy is the founder of Princeton University. And the early Methodist meetings were deemed to be “more like a drunken rabble than the worshipers of God.”

Mike: Well then, it must have been that pernicious Arminian Methodist influence. : )

John: One of Edwards’ present-day disciples, John Piper, is known for his theology of Christian Hedonism. He purports that our enjoyment of God is the very essence of true worship. Are we to draw a line between our enjoyment of God and God Himself?

Mike: I can hear my Calvinist friends’ jaws hitting the floor that you’re invoking Edwards and even Piper in service of your genre of divine enjoyment. If you’re game, I will personally accompany you to Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis to interrupt one of Mr. Piper’s sermons with blowback from a Holy Spirit Spliff. We’ll pray and see what happens to the Christian Hedonist himself. PiperCrazy

John: Consider this view: rather than pitting the manifestation against God (i.e. worship God vs. worship the experience), we must see the experiences as means of worshipping God, to which there is no limit. For in the experience, I am partaking in the pleasure of God – the very thing I was created for – to be interdependent upon Him, enjoying Him forever.

I will make another analogy: as a married man, I am not continually comparing the love I have for my wife to the love I have for God. My wife will never be an idol who threatens to steal my devotion to the Lord. This is because I understand that in loving my wife, this is somehow a mystical extension of my love for Christ. By caring for her, I am worshiping Him. In the same way, when I give a cold cup of water to the poorest of poor, I am also doing this to Christ. I am not worshiping the beggar, but I am worshiping Christ through the beggar. It is foolish to draw lines of competition between God and experience that were never intended to be dissected in such fashion.

Let me also say that manifestations can be quite “extreme” if not outright fanatical, yet still be divine in origin. The radical nature of the manifestation is not in itself a determining factor of its source. I have considered myself nearly on the brink of insanity at times when God swept over me for hours of uncontrollable drunken behavior, yet the corresponding fruit was altogether tremendous, miraculous and life changing. I am always filled with joy and expectancy in these encounters.

Mike: I am all for diversity in the ways we love, enjoy, and worship God. Like I said when we were discussing charis-missional last post, I think that one of the ways we can love God is by loving others. I have no problem adding ecstatic worship and divine manifestations to the mix. But back to the mystics: They argue for a kind of divine detachment, from both people and manifestations. They encourage Christians to hold people, manifestations and all things subordinate to the indwelling Trinity and our deepening communion with God. People never go away, of course – but manifestations are seen as a transitory stage leading to greater (even if more subtle) intimacy with God.

John: Is it possible that this type of activity (manifestations/consolations) is a valid form of dwelling on the Trinity? That in allowing God to sing through us – body, soul and spirit – in all this craziness, we are somehow practicing His presence? Forget the loud and crazy orthopraxy for a moment, in all its various forms – is God’s tangible presence apparent in the midst of it all, and if so, how would you know? Do some propose to conjecture, who have never actually tasted? I believe that the more we taste and practice His presence, the more we individuate from the consensus orthodoxy of society, and grow into what Kierkegaard called the true “religious” sphere of life (religious meaning truly “spiritual”). We stop swimming with the pack, and we start to make waves.

Mike: God’s tangible presence, tasting God for oneself, individuating from consensus orthodoxy to actualized religious life…I like it! I’ll buy it. But I have to keep going back to these pesky mystics, whom we both love. They usually warn folks not to get ‘stuck’ at the level of manifestation but press on to the level of fully recognized Union.

John: But did they always practice what they preached? Teresa of Avila was continuously in ecstasies with documented eye-witness accounts of her levitating in mid-ecstasy, along with her own numerous admissions of this stuff (read her Life ch. 18 and onward). She sure impacted mystical theology, and didn’t seem to ever tone it down. Joseph of Cupertino was whacked all the time, and often struck mute. Catherine of Sienna and Catherine Emmerich literally spent years of their life in ecstatic states, with wild manifestations happening continually. Your readers wouldn’t believe some of the supernatural things that happened to them. This happened not because they focused on manifestations, but because they contemplated Christ.

Teresa, a doctor of the church, also acknowledged that all the levels of manifestation overlapped (recollection, union, ecstasy, prayer of quiet, etc.), but she also stated that full-blown ecstasy, the highest level of mystical prayer, is actually where all these manifestations were the craziest (ligature, inability to move, drunken stupor, levitations, etc.) She said that this was a level wherein the will almost ceased to function entirely because of the heavy pleasure of her inward raptures. I freely surrender my free will to the pleasures of Christ!

Others like John of the Cross and some of the darker mystics were absolutely depressed, so you have to take what they say about this with a big fat grain of salt. Anything that smacked of enjoyment was on the naughty list for them. You may note that we have coined a term “the new mystics” because we can now filter their theology through 500 years of rich, post-reformation grace theology. I am not into the morbid self-mortifications and false humility that many of the older mystics espoused, because it simply contradicts the finished works of the gospel of Jesus Christ – the good news that only God can save us, and that He did so with one fantastic checkmate of love on the cross. If you want a dark night of the soul for the romance of it, then go for it. You’re not going to earn any extra points with God. Depression is not a fruit of the Spirit, but joy is. I choose the free gift of grace.

Mike: I think the ‘dark night’ might be a bit more complex than that. Since neither of us are even close to 40, I’ll refrain from commenting for at least a decade. But I agree that the Reformation had valuable contributions to Christian spirituality. Grace informs mysticism by making it less a striving to attain union with God, and more a letting go to consciously awaken to the union that was always there.

John: Yes, the mystics all had their seven-step programs of spiritual advancement. Call me a Calvinist [There he goes again! – ed.] (you’ll only find a few charismatic ones), but I’m of the opinion that there is a one-step program called conversion. I believe that grace has to be drunk straight. No additives. What if God wanted to blow the whole “stages” and “levels” and “Christian growth curve” theology right out of the water, and somehow made us all pure and holy and perfect and obtaining all of Heaven’s goodies through one simple event: the spilling of Christ’s blood? What if just maybe, this whole religious mortification issue was put to death in one fell swoop, when we died together with Christ (Rom. 6, Gal. 2:20)? That would mean the craziest non-stop Holy Ghost party has just begun, and we’re all invited!

Many theologies have been built around an idea that manifestations are the lowest rung on the spirituality ladder. I just don’t see any scriptural support for it. Why would God take me from a fun experience to a boring one? I think this Christian journey is about getting progressively better, “from Glory to Glory.” You can try to mortify the soul, but it will never happen. Your best bet is to plug the soul’s desire for pleasure into socket it was created for. The only answer to counteract the pleasures of sin is not to kill yourself. The answer is to find a greater pleasure. He never gives us a lesser covenant in place of a better one. This is the whole “Galatian bewitchment” that Paul addressed. We think that after God gives us a treat, it is then up to us to suffer, work and earn our way through the rest of life. God would not grace us with consolations, just to bait us into a morbid, suffering-centered religion.

Mike: I think one of the blog commentors the other day said, helpfully, that boredom isn’t the ultimately enemy. And I’d beg to differ that silence and stillness is boring and a step down – it can be of course, but it all depends on one’s consent to God’s loving presence with you in the moment. I sit still, I center, I speak quietly in tongues – it’s kind of nice actually. But I digress…

Thank you again for all the time and energy you put into this dialogue. Hopefully we can do it again sometime. Since you’re like the only charismatic-oriented Christians I’m aware of who have a clue as to the mystics and their teachings, I guess I’m asking you what I’d like to ask the charismatic/prophetic movement on the whole: Do you see a day where the average ‘Spirit-filled Christian’ becomes a full contemplative in the classic sense? If not, what do you see?

John: Will everybody get this? I don’t know. This is Christianity 101. It’s just the gospel. The good news that God cracked open Heaven’s wine barrel for us. But for some reason, not everybody is thirsty. They just want to sit around, debate about the menu and scoff at the drunk guy in the corner.

Peace – Oinga Oinga Oinga!

John Crowder

And there you have it, folks. Your thoughts?

This was originally posted on June 4, 2008.

Spirit Week Guest Blog: John Crowder Speaks!

This is the post that started it all – a four-part interview with arguably the most controversial contemporary charismatic minister, John Crowder. It’s worth noting that Crowder’s ministry has evolved since 2008, and that he’s recently released two new books reflecting this: Mystical Union & Seven Spirits Burning. And now, without further ado…

And this is why I value talking to people and not just about their ideas, beliefs, and actions. Dialogue opens up so many doors of mutual understanding, respect, and maybe even partnership in common endeavor, despite (or because of!) the real differences that exist at the end of the day. When I posted Charismatic Chaos or (Holy) Spirited Deconstruction? I emailed John Crowder and Ben Dunn privately to a.) Let them know about the post and b.) Let them know that in addition to my cautious and idiosyncratic support for what they were doing, I had some questions and concerns. John quite graciously took time from his busy schedule to write me a novel in response – something I’ve not often seen any challenged people in ministry do, from any stream of the family of faith. I’m quite taken with the breadth, depth, and tone of John’s response, even while some differences of spirituality and praxis remain. So without further ado, I’m going to hand today’s blog entry over [with only the barest occasional interspersions-and hyperlinks-from me]. Ladies and gentlemen, Brother John Crowder!

Hi Mike – Thanks for writing and thanks for what you do. Enjoyed your blog and we would love to contribute something for you. Feel free to use any of these rambling thoughts for the site. [Thank you, John! I shall use them all. And if this is how you ramble, I'd hate to see you focused!] bento.png

Crowder 2I am normally quite busy for something like this (doing my circus road show in church basements all over the world! : ) ) but I appreciate your honest questions and know that you reach a lot of people who have a clear hunger for the things of the Spirit. We are quite familiar with the emergent church, and while not actively involved in Emergent as an “entity” we are having a lot of fun watching the fur fly, as we seem to have inadvertently broken a few sacred paradigms over the past few weeks. It’s an entertaining ride. It was exciting to garner a full expose in the Wittenburg Door – a magazine I have secretly loved for years! I feel like I need to buy a white suit now and preach from a golden throne to live up to all this notoriety. We also got an indirect slap on the wrist from Charisma this month in the editorial (for smoking Jehovah-wanna and Baby Jesus). When it rains it pours!

You hit the nail on the head in discussing the deconstruction of Pentecostalism – and kudos for addressing the topic of “emergent snobbery,” something the emergent camp has long winked at, if not openly coddled (especially toward “Spirit-filled” ministries – how dare those charismatics have a brain!)

[Mike sez: I think this is actually a little more complex than that - of course, wouldn't I, being emergent and all? ; ) But really. A whole term has been coined, 'post-charismatic,' (not 'anti') to describe many 'emergers' who love the Holy Spirit but who feel down-and-out about many aspects of Pentecostal and charismatic culture. In our own efforts at deconstruction, we've tried very hard not to throw the - ahem - baby out with the bathwater, but I know we've fallen short in many areas.]

I would love to talk about this just a little, as well as to give a brief anti-apologetic on the ongoing blogger fray, before getting to your questions.

[Yes! Please do.]

Apologia

Crowder 3Obviously, there are many bloggers better educated than I, who have an edge on what God Almighty is doing, who will never be able to acknowledge His movements outside their own personal experience (Bless their hearts). I would not waste time trying to convince someone who already has all the answers. For this reason, we do not engage in defensive diatribes (not trying to be negative, just honest). But I do love constructive (& deconstructive) controversy in the name of our Lord. Rather than offer up an apology to anyone who has a beef with us, we have just chosen never to defend ourselves. A form of radical pacifism I suppose, or else its just too much work to keep track of it all, considering the trail of carnage we leave behind us. Our nonresponsiveness on the blog circuit should not be mistaken as elitism – we do not assume ourselves too posh to combat these rampant strikes at our good names (My favorite are those blogs which end with the classic pomo courtesy tag at the end: After viciously lashing out at us, they say … “Or maybe I’m missing something and Crowder is right after all.” True Christian humility, I am sure).

[Aww, Steve's not so bad. Next time you're in C-Town hanging out with Ricky J and Company, look him up. He'll have a drink with you - though spirits or Holy Spirit on tap, that y'all will have to work out!]

Anyway Mike, you are the first person to approach us directly, so we appreciate the chance to talk.

[And I appreciate that you're talking!]

Of course, nasty emails are common for us, but I know where the delete button is. We’ve found the freedom in not caring about reputation or having to spend ourselves on the already satiated. I’m too addicted to the Wine Room to care about that stuff. And there are so many thousands of hungry people who want to experience God in fresh new ways, why get sidetracked by a few resilient critics? Other than this forum, folks should know we won’t be scrambling to correct every inaccuracy that floats around about us on the web. In fact, we like to intentionally chuck rocks at the hornet’s nest, just to stir things up all the more, then run away snickering at the mess we’ve made. Crowder 4

Just wanted to clear that up, so that readers know our motives in writing this. We want to be available to the thirsty, but this is not a knee-jerk reaction to some cyber-persecution. Whenever we get defensive, we cease to be on the offense. Life is too short to continually be explaining yourself.

I honestly believe that the age of apologetics is over, and the age of activation has come. Experience is more important than explanation. Not that explanation is irrelevant, but it is subsidiary. When we look at the ministry of Jesus, He rarely gave an explanation, prior to the experience. Mystery must be embraced before it is explicated. Jesus only explained Himself to the inner circle who were truly hungry. To those on the outside, he always spoke in parables and enigmas. It is almost as if he put up an intentional roadblock to the minds of men, offending their thoughtwork in order to reveal their hearts. Consider when He told the multitudes to essentially “Eat Me.” He knew that half of them would walk away, but He said it anyway.

What we see today is a lot of people looking for a Pneumatology without the Pneuma. They want the package without the Toy. What if God is intentionally making the package raw and offensive to these, in order to reveal their true colors? Maybe the package is irrelevant, as long as we’ve got the Toy.

It’s Hubris but it Makes Me Feel Cool!

Let me say something quickly about the emergent movement, while I’ve got your ear:

[Please do. You've got it! The emergoblogosphere is listening.]

While I have long acknowledged the existence of postmodernity as a reality of the age, this very intellectual elitism on which you have commented is one of the chief reasons I have been hesitant to dive headlong into the trendy “fad” aspect of the emergent discussion. I should add at the onset that I would not consider myself “emergent” anymore than I would consider myself “charismatic.” But both camps try to pin me down into the other. In the same way, you could say I am neither catholic nor protestant (I am not protesting anything; I am pursuing Someone). Like most emergents, I reject labels. Without the restraints of such labels, we are more apt to truthfully address the sacred cows in every respective camp. My orthodoxy may not be as generous as McLaren’s, but I am not ignorant of the discussion and appreciate the influx of new ideas. This openness is a God-given dispensation, but it must be guarded in the context of true humility. Whether they like to admit it or not, many emergents are entrenched in a religious package of trying to look cool and trying to impress a select audience with their perceived edginess of theological progression. The melee of anti-charisma these past few weeks is an indicator of a deeper problem. It surfaces clearly, for example, when they do not have a grid for someone who comes along with an outlandish orthopraxy.

[I'm not gonna say much here...but...most of those who came out strongest in response to some YouTubes they saw of you, actually are charismatic folks who would consider themselves 'moderate' and also in some way 'emerging.' I hope to be hearing from some of youse in the comments below...]

Crowder Baby Jesus TokeTo many emergents, some of my colleagues and myself will always be a challenge to the “new” intellect-based models of Christianity. I believe the intellectual pursuit of mystery is intrinsically modern in nature, by the way. It is an old hag carried over from the Age of Reason/Enlightenment, or shall we say further back – it is gnostic in origin (the idea that we are saved by knowledge is perhaps the very antithesis of the gospels, which say we are saved by the finished work of Jesus Christ). Gnosis is not the gateway that reveals mystery – faith is. And so for all the talk of pressing into terra nova, I believe there is inherent danger of building an intellectual religion of non-religion that is rooted in “ideas” and “discussion-only” without true, tangible interaction with the divine. I love the emergent notion of pulling outside the ecclesiastical boundaries of dead formality. But without radical possession by the Holy Spirit, we are simply “moving out” of something, and never “entering into” Someone. I do not see a majority of emergents discussing personal, supernatural experiences with this God we so glibly talk about, though many are quick to lay charges of charlatanry on anyone who does (by supernatural experiences I mean far more than the simple, goose-bumped quiet time, as beautiful as they may be. What is so far-fetched about healings, dead-raisings and even more extreme miracles, if we claim to know Big Pappa Himself?). I do not say this of ALL emergents, only those who are quick to shoot with their religiously non-religious anti-bullets. This criticism of what we do not understand (or have maybe never experienced firsthand) can be the most detrimental element to our spiritual walk. It is the very essence of hubris.

A Lack of Discernment

Lakeland

According to the recent blogstorm surrounding us, we are accused of being anti-intellectual, if not throwing our “discernment” right out the window (love the graphic, Robby Mac. God still loves you). I’ve previously made the point that I am rubber and the critics are glue, but nevertheless, allow me to respond to this topic. Let me say for one that “discernment” is not an intellectual tool made up of theological principles and opinions. I would die for good theology, and we all need sound doctrine. But discernment comes not from the head, but from the belly. If I may be so fundamental as to use a scriptural example, consider Luke 1 when Zechariah (a priest highly educated in theology) encounters an angel. Zack’s discernment of this encounter was so poor that he essentially asked the angel to “prove himself.” Zechariah, a well-studied priest, should have comprehended that this experience was from God. Because of his spiritual dullness, doubt, fears or all of the above, he was struck mute. He should have been on the cutting edge, but he missed it.

But hold the phone! In this very same chapter, a young, simple, likely uneducated girl named Mary had a similar angelic encounter. She lacked the theological armory and Princeton training of Zechariah, but she could taste something of Heaven on this experience. Mary was given a much more far-fetched word: you will give birth not merely to a prophet, but to the Son of God Himself! How crazy! Yet somehow, because of her intimate relationship with the Lord, her hunger or her faith – she instinctively discerned that this encounter was legitimate. She did not say “prove it to me.” She said “tell me more.” She said “let it be according to your word.” Her discernment was greater, because she intimately knew God enough to recognize how He felt, tasted and smelled. She had been with Him, not merely read about him. She could smell the cassia and aloes of Heaven on this encounter, and she jumped right in without having to process it. She discerned correctly. Not from her head or her theology. From her belly.

Intellectual discernment is a holdover from modernism. Moreover, it is paranoia-based (always focused on keeping the devil out, but never recognizing God when He is trying to come in). This spirit of fear is the bread and butter of the heresy hunter pages. The greatest discernment you will ever have is to be able to recognize God, not the devil. Anyone, the most depraved sinner, can point out the devil. But will we recognize God when He is trying to come in? We should embrace Him, even at the cost of our present level of understanding. I want to intimately experience Him. And I trust Him enough to explain later, if an explanation is even necessary. I would rather my spirit and heart to fully engage in experiential interaction, and allow my mental paradigms to catch up later. Is this anti-intellectual? Far from it. It is simply putting the mind and its Greco-rationalistic structures in their place, secondary to heart. What many consider “intellectual” is actually mental insanity (1 Cor. 2:14-15). True sanity only comes through conscious-altering epiphanies with God.

God wants the intellect to bloom and flourish. He does want a renaissance of fresh ideas and creativity to revolutionize not just the face of Christianity, but to transform all of society in a holistic fashion. But how arrogant to think our minds can be supernaturally renewed at such a colossal fashion apart from the very Spirit of God Himself! Who are we to limit God to the academic diagnoses of the seminary, or to the reading of books? I know Who I have experienced. I have seen His power. I have tasted His freedom. I’m done trying to make sense of it all. I am in for the ride.

If I am a nutbar for shaking on the floor – and yet I am experiencing the love of Jesus – then count me with the crazies. I am tired of running endless mental circles and playing religious games. The time for playing games is over. The time has now come to play games.

And there you have it, friends! Not quite the staggering HolyGhostDrunk response many anticipated, eh? So whaddaya think? Keep it respectful, please, but be free. And yes – there’s more! Over the next week, John and I will be discussing, one at a time, all the “Yeah, but…” ‘s that occurred to me as I dipped into my past and their present concerning the Holy Spirit’s wild side.

Originally posted May 30, 2008.

You Are the Dance

Dancing With GodSome days, I want to be a poet or songwriter, or at least good storyteller – because I know that if I’m going to influence our culture’s core sense of who we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going, then nonfiction, essay-style is about the worst way to seep deeply into the bones of people! But mostly, I want to be able to give voice to the stirrings in my own heart.

Sometimes, I take some faltering steps in a verse-writing direction. This is one of those times. I imagine the song below sounding something like Kevin Prosch‘s song ‘The Wheel of God‘ (sorry, I couldn’t find any audio online). The lyrics are inspired by some delving I’ve been doing into what Phyllis Tickle calls one of the deepest mysteries the Christian faith has been called to steward – the revelation of God-as-community, the perfect Relationship: the Trinity. My own sense of the fellowship of Godhead was nurtured in my ‘church life‘ (aka house/organic/simple church) days by voices like Frank Viola in From Eternity to Here or Milt Rodriguez in The Community Life of God. This haunting sense of the significance of Trinity as the prime metaphor for God was deepened in my emerging church engagement via Ian Mobsby‘s The Becoming of G-D, among other sources. And of course, there’s that little book that I endorsed, Paul Young’s The Shack, with its marvelous and subversive portrait of a God who defers in love to each portion of Godself, and wishes to make their “especially fond” fellowship planetary in scope.

Most recently, I’ve been experiencing a veritable Trinitarian renaissance while doing the dishes, which is happening a bit more frequently these days as my wife recovers from some minor surgery. This is thanks to both Baxter Kruger‘s amazing teaching – in book form in The Great Dance, & in MP3 form via Grace Communion International‘s free series Dancing with the Trinity – and two awesome teaching series from Richard Rohr (on the latter joined by Cynthia Bourgeault): The Divine Dance and The Shape of God. I’ve begun to see both Trinity-as-Relationship and Trinity-as-Process as holding both the promise and the delivery of transformative change of most significant spiritual, political, and ecological crises of our time. We get to enter into the shared life of God and creation, and from this three-fold perspective break out of our dead-end, binary thinking into true metanoia, a renewed frame of mind and living.

Enough prose already! Let’s get into the poetry.

Yours is the flow

That created kindness

You are the Dance

That ignites all Light

You are the Three

Who contain all Oneness

In You we gaze

With Single sight

 

Abba

You ground all things eternal

And kiss the earth with glad embrace

Christ the Son

In a world of sorrows

Transfigures pain with healing grace

Spirit of Love

Sows new creation

In every soil weak or strong

Your beloved

Mirrors every gesture

In this our wild,

Reconciling song!

 

God alone

There is no other

Apart from You what can take form?

You are the play in every atom

Trinity

In You we’re born

 

This hour brings sorrow and challenge

Never before have we faced so much;

Upon Your goodness we’ll incarnate

Release our hands for Your healing touch

 

Bound to You

We’re Your wounded healers

Binding earth

With heaven’s balm

Boundless here in realms unscripted

Tree of Life

Is your free-verse psalm

 

And so today we dance Your circle

Rhythm of life Your cadence grows;

Let the circle be unbroken

Drawing all in

To Your radiant flow.

It’s a work in progress. It reminds me of Jesus & Paul’s own probable spiritual practice of meditation on Ezekiel’s Chariot…eh?

Feel free recommend revisions and additional stanzas (not to mention maybe a chorus) in the comments below. If it gets polished, I’d like to introduce it to my home church – (appropriately enough) Trinity’s Place.

Further recommended reading: