The Shape of All Reality

The story that most of us in Western Christendom have received growing up goes something like this. Six thousand years ago, God created two literal human beings named Adam and Eve. They lived with him in a perfect garden until one day Eve was naughty and believed a snake who tempted her to eat a forbidden fruit. She shared that disobedience with Adam and both of them were cast out of the garden and punished with death and suffering. Because they were naughty and disobedient, all of their descendants had this “naughty gene” as a part of them, and all of creation which was initially created good became twisted and so all sorts of nastiness entered the universe.

Then, one day, about four thousand years later, God incarnated himself into an individual by the name of Jesus. Jesus was an overall nice guy who taught us all to be nice people to one another, and most importantly to repent of our sins continually. He then died on the cross to make a payment to his angry Father who was otherwise going to send everyone he had created to a nasty place called hell where the fire would never be quenched and the worm would not die. But for those very few who accepted Jesus into their heart, the payment would be effective and they would not have to go to that nasty place. As long as they kept being generally nice people who continually repented of their sins and didn’t do anything really bad like be gay or have an abortion. But for everyone else, it was fire. Sorry!

But what if we got the story all wrong? What if we focused on the part of the story that made us feel like we and our tribe were the chosen people and everyone else outside that we actually didn’t like already were really evildoers? What if we chose a story that allowed us to be okay with our own brokenness because we didn’t engage in the sins of “those people?”

Maybe, just maybe, if we opened our eyes and listened to the story that all of creation has told since the beginning of time, and that the scriptures have attempted to tell us from the very beginning, and that Jesus modeled for us in his life, death, and resurrection, we would hear the melody of a song that is very different and much, more beautiful.

In this story, a trinitarian God always in loving relationship with its other parts creates this universe 13.7 billion years ago by incarnating one part of the Trinity, Christ, in all of creation. This God is a lover, who, to paraphrase Richard Rohr, loves all things by becoming them. And God sees that the universe that God has created is good, good, good, good, very good. And into this universe, through processes of natural selection, God creates living things on at least one planet, and a very intelligent primate that can perceive the universe, it’s physics, and even God. Now, the universe is not perfect and this primate does terrible things to its fellow primates as well as to creation, but God incorporates the good with the bad for the sake of a master blueprint God has in store.

So, after 13.7 billion years, a specific incarnation of the Christ that has existed in all of creation from the very beginning comes into the world as a baby, Jesus of Nazareth. This baby grows as any human would, ultimately becoming a man (as Rohr also teaches and which rings true, with a feminine spirit) who is given a mission by God the lover to live a life in the shape of all reality. Jesus spends his three years of ministry loving EVERYBODY and especially the outcast, welcoming the broken, healing the sick and the spiritually and mentally oppressed, feeding people, and building a beloved community on earth. And he teaches this beloved community, and anyone who would listen, that they should do the same in order to be the first fruits of what God had planned since the beginning of time.

But the world liked the first story better. So after Jesus spent his three years in ministry, the religious leaders conspired with the empire to kill Jesus. But this, too, was part of the blueprint God had laid out since the beginning of time. On the cross, in solidarity with the imperfections and suffering of all of creation, Christ suffered and died.

But the blueprint also had one more part. After three days, the specific incarnation of Christ named Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected as the universal Christ. His resurrection was the first fruits of God making “all things new.” The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the pattern of all creation. The shape of all reality.

But again, we missed the point. Because after an initial period of the early church getting what the story meant, and with the exception of a few monks, nuns, and mystics who also understood the story, by and large the church decided it liked the first story better.

The Pattern of the Universe

Since this whole spiritual re-awakening thing started a few weeks back, I’ve been slowly adding back the spiritual practices that were so meaningful to me in my “post new wineskins” period around 2006/2007. One of those is what I will call a contemplative walk, although I honestly can’t remember the real name for this practice. I took one today.

My goal on this walk through the woods by our house was simply to be present. I focused on my breathing. The steps I took along the trail. The sound of the stream as it flowed. And, for part of the walk, the music I was listening to. My mind wandered, certainly, and I wasn’t overly concerned with that. But when it did wander, I would redirect it back to being present.

Toward the end of the walk, I really started to notice that it was winter. The trees were barren, there was no one else on the trails, and I could feel the cold against my skin. And then something mystical happened.

Richard Rohr talks about the “cruciform shape to reality”. The fact that Jesus’ death and resurrection is the model for all of life. And while intellectually, I could kind of follow the logic, I never really understood it.

Until today.

I thought of the patterns of the seasons. New life in the spring yields to maturity during the summer, then a decline in the fall before nature goes to sleep for the winter. And then, the next spring, resurrection!

And then, I thought about our human lives, defined by a spring of birth and youth, a summer of striving and establishing, a fall of physical decline before winter comes and we go to sleep. But Christ’s promise is that we, too, will follow the cruciform pattern and be resurrected.

And then I thought to the very universe itself. The Big Bang and the hyperinflation of its spring. The stable universe we know today with galaxies and stars and solar systems. Its eventual decline either in a big crush, or based on what is now reasonably widely accepted due to the measurements of dark matter in the universe, more likely a big freeze as everything flies apart at faster and faster speeds. Now, science can’t tell us much about what comes before, nor about what comes after, but the cruciform pattern can still be seen (and, pro tip – there are some stories in the Bible which hint at the non-scientifically observable parts of the story).

And so it is with life. To quote Richard Rohr, “Loss precedes all renewal; emptiness makes way for every new infilling; every transformation in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous ‘form.’ This is the big fly in the cosmic ointment!

There is mystery in the fact that the way of the cross appears to be baked into the entire fabric of the universe. We are constantly seeing new incarnations which ultimately die and are resurrected. The only question is will we still ourselves long enough so that we can see it and be transformed by it?

Construction

Faith has never been easy for me.

I was raised in a home without any religion whatsoever, and basically considered myself agnostic through High School, although for some reason I never considered myself an atheist. Even though I was never taught much about religion, I would still from time to time pray to God/whatever. And I LOVED Christmas. I remember being little and looking for the Star in the sky on Christmas Eve, being too ignorant of the Bible and of science to know that it was a one time event two thousand years ago. But perhaps I was a budding mystic even then. That was basically the extent of it for me. And to counter any religious stirrings I might have had, we had the original Jerry Falwell and the Religious Right, people telling me I was going to hell, and all those “wonderful” things about conservative American Christianity in the 1980s.

So in college I met some Christians who didn’t seem like that. They didn’t judge me, they all seemed to like being around each other, and so I went to their Bible Studies. And I fell in love with the real, historical Jesus. The Jesus who was nothing like the Religious Right. The Jesus who would not condemn those that society was quick to condemn. The Jesus who was on the side of the poor and the oppressed. The Jesus who exposed the hypocrisy of the Religious Right of his day. And so I decided to follow him.

But, still, faith didn’t come easy to me. I remember struggling with the idea that my High School friend who had probably kept me from committing suicide during a really dark period in my life and had later committed suicide himself could possibly be in hell for it. I struggled when the evangelical prayer toolbox left me feeling like my prayers were bouncing off of the ceiling. For a time, I had to excuse myself from a house church I was a part of because of the pastor’s interpretation of the Revelation of John (eschatology is hard). I had weird thoughts that God would punish me physically if I sinned.

As I continued in the evangelical world, the tensions increased. The concept of the Bible being inerrant made no sense to me since there were obvious contractions between accounts of the same story. The need to make the Bible literal, especially with regard to the Creation narratives, made me come to the conclusion that either the literalists were wrong about the earth being six thousand years old, or God was evil to make the universe look billions of years old.

And then there was homosexuality. I could never reconcile the idea that the same Bible that told of a God of infinite compassion, love, and forgiveness could condemn people to hell because of who they are or who they love. It came to a head when I was serving as the “Social Concern representative” for my church and that denomination decided that it needed to come out publicly in favor of a political initiative to officially outlaw gay marriage, and it fell to me to stand in front of the church in support of this so-called “Social Concern.” By the grace of God, I was able to express my opposition to the pastors, even though they went ahead without my involvement. I resigned my position shortly thereafter, and while I would like to say that I heroically left that church because of that moment, I did stay around for awhile before leaving because of this and other issues. Always a work in progress, sadly.

But about this same time, God gave me new wineskins. In the gospels (Matthew 9, Mark 2, and Luke 5), Jesus talks about not being able to put new wine in old wineskins because the old wineskins had become rigid and would burst as the new wine continued its fermentation process and expanded. I went to a conference in Pasadena, CA called Politics and Spirituality with Jim Wallis, Anne Lamott, and Richard Rohr as its keynote speakers. And suddenly, it clicked.

It was wonderful learning in a community of believers who saw Christianity as primarily an expression of the love of God for all people and not an exclusive clique providing fire insurance for the “elect” few. It all felt very subversive coming from a reasonably conservative evangelical environment (although this being California, not nearly as conservative as in other parts of the country). No offense to Jim Wallis, but Anne Lamott and Richard Rohr stole the show for me. I loved the way Anne Lamott told stories about kindness and the love of God. One of her stories that stays with me to this day was about how she would call out to kids in her Sunday School class who were wearing certain shirts and then hug them and tell them that they were so loved and so chosen. Being a father of really small kids at the time, it spoke to me about the love of Christ for all people.

And then there was Richard Rohr.

I had never heard anyone speak the way he spoke. The concept of “how you see determines what you see” was transformative. The introduction to the ideas that the dualistic mind of the Western church is not the way the early church and the great mystics saw reality and the fact that we needed to have a “non-dual” mindset in order to truly grasp the nature of God reoriented my prayer life forever. And learning contemplative practices at the feet of probably the greatest contemplative of my lifetime was truly an honor. It absolutely transformed my faith.

I left that conference and devoured everything off of the evangelical “safe and approved” list. Brian McLaren. Rob Bell. More Richard Rohr. Anne Lamott. The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, who sadly passed well before his time several years back. Robert Farrar Capon. And many others.

I finally had an intellectual construct for what I had intuitively felt my entire Christian life. I didn’t have to subscribe to the doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture because the scripture itself doesn’t claim to be inerrant, and in fact is a conversation among the people of God that God uses to point us to Christ. I didn’t have to believe that everyone not in my tribe was going to hell, because the arc of the scriptures points to a God who has generated a “tidal wave of grace” that will eventually “soak everyone,” to paraphrase Michael Spencer. And I didn’t have to believe that my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters were not a part of this story because the dissonant voices in scripture used to justify their exclusion were outside of the narrative arc of what God is trying to communicate to us through word and tradition.

And I learned to love the historic church, contemplation, and mystery.

But I was still evangelical, despite my non-evangelical beliefs. Or at least attending evangelical churches.

After a few years of tremendous spiritual growth, I think I just kind of settled into life. I wasn’t happy in evangelical churches and generally felt like an “other” who couldn’t speak up about what I really believed. If they only knew, they would kick me out for sure. But I also didn’t really want to rock the boat and so I just kept my head down, kept my mouth shut, and tuned out the things I didn’t agree with.

But that’s changing. God has awakened me again. The funny thing about contemplative prayer is sometimes God shows up. And when he shows up, things change. It’s changing again.

Evangelicals and Trump

Apparently I’m not completely free, because I still have more to say about evangelicals. It’s a process, y’all.

Previously I’ve talked about how the election of Trump was a watershed moment for my faith with respect to evangelicalism, but I’m only now able to put into words why that is.

You see, evangelicals voted for Trump not in spite of their beliefs, but because of them. At its core, evangelicalism is really just fundamentalism with a pretty face. It is the direct descendant of the modernist need to create a dualistic alternative to science. The whole concept of inerrancy is a reaction to Biblical criticism and scientific fact. Well, once you jettison the tradition of the church, and the Patristic teachings, and you put the Bible in a straightjacket of inerrancy and literalism, funny things happen.

This is how you end up with complementarianism, with its corollary “no women in leadership.” This is how you end up cherry picking a few verses in scripture outside of the entire context of the revealed character of Christ, and saying that some people are going to hell just because of who they love or who they are. This is how you create a militaristic God to support your country’s foreign adventures. This is how you support a culture of incarceration (primarily of the race you are not) because of a need to submit to authority. And this is how you end up with health and wealth theology that has more in common with magic than with the teachings of Jesus.

Because if everything in the Bible is perfect, you have to take the most out-of-context scriptures seriously and come up with some sort of zany theology to match it.

Which leads us back to Trump. When evangelicals looked at Trump and Hillary through the lens of their theology, there really was no choice for them. Hillary was a woman, so she can’t lead the country because complementarianism. And Mike Pence was the kind of guy who will really put the “homosexual agenda” in its place. And Trump waves the flag and promises to protect us from the infidels. And “All Lives Matter,” after all, and the people going to jail really deserve it anyway, and Trump says he’s going to get tough with them. And the Republicans are really God’s party because they acknowledge that the really rich are blessed by God and those who aren’t are just poor slackers who deserve what they get. And Trump is super rich, so he must be super blessed.

And one more thing. Fundamentalism is at its core a deeply insecure belief system. It basically says that the Christian faith is not strong enough to weather the challenges of modernity, and so we must build a “wall around the law” like the Pharisees did to keep people inside. And this insecurity encourages racism, because it encourages a fear of people different than yourself. It encourages misogyny, because once you empower women, what’s next? It encourages homophobia, because that’s one “sin” most evangelicals don’t feel is relevant to them so it’s easy for them to cast the first stone.

So, long story short, the 2016 election was really a clarifying moment for me. It allowed me to see that not only did I not really believe evangelical theology on many key points, but in fact the consequences of adhering to that theology are in fact, dangerous to my relationship with God.

Free

2016 was a watershed moment for my faith. After years of trying to hold onto the tension between my obviously non-evangelical theological views and my desire to stay within the evangelical tradition I belonged to my entire Christian life, the election forced me to jump completely off that train. But it wasn’t until this week that I finally viewed myself as being fully outside of the tent of evangelicalism.

And I have to tell you, I feel free.

I really don’t know WHAT I am yet, and perhaps a label is just reductive and should be avoided anyway. But it ain’t evangelical. And it feels great.

I no longer have to care what evangelicals think of my theology. I no longer have to just go with the flow in a church where the majority of the people I see on Sunday somehow think that it’s okay to vote for white supremacy because abortion or Hillary or lols or whatever. I no longer have to keep looking for an evangelical church that will support me as I am in my spiritual journey because I’ve realized that construct is the mythical unicorn.

Maybe I will end up in a mainline church, or maybe I will find a group of like-minded people and start something new. But the days of pretending and worrying are over.

I’m free.

Clarifying my re-imagining

After reading back my previous post, I feel like there are a couple things that need to be clarified, for myself.

1. This is not a church that’s against anybody. It’s a church for people. Mainline, Catholics, Orthodox, and yes, even evangelicals are still our brothers and sisters, even though we would prefer to worship in an environment different from all of those. And of course, we are more than happy to reach across doctrinal boundaries to advance God’s reign.

2. It’s political but not partisan. The way of Jesus is by its very nature political. When you assert that you are a part of the vanguard of a new reign, you are necessarily political. When you come to bring justice for the oppressed, to raise up the poor, and to break down barriers based on race and gender; you are inherently political. But Jesus never sided with the Zealots, or the Saducees, or the Herodians, or Caesar. Because his reign judges all of those things. For 1700 years the church has been held captive by Christendom. And evangelicals are the latest to cozy up to power and its institutions of oppression in a drastic attempt to hold onto Christendom. And while we may be Republican or (more likely) Democrats politically, we must always be a prophetic voice to both parties and all other centers of power, and must never seek to impose our theological perspective on others through abuse of that power. We may march for black lives, but we shouldn’t lobby or desire access to the politicians themselves.