Here’s a great post a read not too long ago from one of the blogs I follow called “Living the Kingdom.” This was a striking piece for me as it seemed to hit very close to home and greatly mirrors not only much of my own thoughts and feelings on the subject of religious institutions and particularly Christianity but, is also very similar to the writings and reflections of my own work, especially in pieces I’ve written such as such as “Religionless?” and “Authentic Christianity?” both of which are written as polemical reflections of the origins and current state of Christianity. Also, on similar grounds are two posts I wrote regarding the observance of Pentecost in the Christian liturgical calender, where I seek to sketch out historical degradation of the degradation of the early Christian movement.  You can find them here and here. Enjoy!

Living the Kingdom

Being a good Christian sounds nice.  But to me, it  is trying to feed the ego so that I can feel better about myself.  It is trying to build up churches, ministries, fellowship, etc. in order to serve the self.  It is worshiping pastors, doctrines, denominations, and convenient interpretation of Bible verses, not serving others like Jesus taught us.  It is not even about Jesus or God, it is simply about the self.

Being a good Christian is  looking for “salvation,” waiting to go “up there” in heaven, or hoping to have some miraculous revelation from God.  Not being a good Christian, on the other hand, would be to stop looking, and simply being.  It means to stop following the church, and start following Jesus.  Now, my personal experience of being is to embrace what I have learned is good and practice it everyday.  It is not to do what…

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The Problem of Pentecost: Part II

This is the continuation of a previous post entitled “The Problem of Pentecost: A Festival of Perversion in Two Parts.” This is the second part of the two part post, in which I attempt to explore and draw out the conceptual in-congruence and contradictions implicitly present within the cognitive social psychology of the modern practice and observance of the liturgical celebration of Pentecost.

If one was to ask a celebrant observing Pentecost what the impetus of the event is, more than likely the answer given, in one form or another, would suggest that Pentecost, in it’s Christian context, celebrates the birth of the Christian Church. Yet, when the original events of Pentecost are studied contextually, historically, anthropologically, sociologically, and, of course, religiously, one cannot help but notice that “The Church” given birth to at Pentecost in Acts 2 is quite simply nothing like what we have come to understand as the Church. The Church at present is the utter antithesis of what is witnessed in the community immediately following Pentecost. This was a bottom-up, grass-roots, non-hierarchical, egalitarian collective with no organizational structures, no committees, no creeds, no statements of faith, no building, and certainly no clergy. When set side by side, even a scant perusal reveals that these early “Christian” communities hold almost no parallels or commonalities with the ecclesiastical constructs we have before us now. What we have before us in the West is an externalized homogeneous objectification of what was once an internalized subjective individuation, i.e. a geographic space, an architectural edifice, and a fixed set of systematized beliefs and practices versus a fluidly eclectic non-standardized grouping, in which “The Church” is defined or demarcated as the differentiated individuals that comprise the community. This begs the question are we, in all actuality, celebrating the joining together of these counter-cultural discontents in the observance of Pentecost, or something else?
Being something of a veracious student of the sociology of religion, I recently read a book by Dave Ferguson and Alan Hirsch called On the Verge: A Journey into the Apostolic Future of the Church. While I more than adamantly disagree with many, if not most, of not only the authors’ starting points but also their conclusions and propositions as well. This is not to say that there are no point of interest or that the work is entirely devoid of value. There are several instances of elucidation or endeavors that do prove to be some what fruitful. They do effectively point out this differentiation in the conceptual understanding of the “Church” as an emancipated individual over and against the “Church” as an authoritative institution. Ferguson and Hirsch write that “We know intellectually that the church isn’t a building but a people, but our language and actions betray what we really think. That’s why we can talk about “going to church” or “getting married in the church” or “the Presbyterian church,” and so on.” Here, we see that in reference to the “Church” there is a chasmic gulf of divergence between intellectual cognizance and that which is phenomenologically experiential or understood in practice and practical engagement and application. Ferguson and Hirsch make clear that “We understand the word church in the context of its formal structures and institutions, rather than as dynamically located in the people” and that “most of us mistake the forms, theology, and models of church for the church itself.” As a result the “Church” is conceived of “as being made up of buildings, programming, creeds, rituals, denominational templates and formulas, symbols, clergy and religious professionals, and so on.”
One of the other areas in which I agree with the assessment of Ferguson and Hirsch is in regards to where they locate the origination of this conception. They propose that “this institutionalization of our way of thinking and doing church stems mainly from the period when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.” Beginning in the third century of the Common Era, Emperor Constantine had accepted and embraced Christianity, and in 380 CE Emperor Theodosius decreed Christianity to be the official religion of Rome. This would begin to ultimately shape, formulate, and systematize Christianity into the modern establishment of the present thereby impacting the whole of Western society. It seems that, as Ferguson and Hirsch conclude, “The previously subversive Jesus movement of the early church was now given magnificent buildings at the epicenters of towns and cities, was pressed by the emperor to standardize its theology and formulate creeds and to develop a formalized clergy caste to guard and maintain the affairs of the church.” The early Christians began as a loose confederation of radical heretics, heretical both Roman standards, in their dismissal of the state gods and state religion, and also by Jewish standards, in their rejection of many of the formalized ritualizations of the Jewish religion. Reza Aslan points out (here) that “Jesus himself was the quintessential reformer.” Aslan goes on to say that Jesus’ central message resides in this “one fundamental truth: the Temple does not have the right to define what it means to be Jewish; authority rests in the hands of individual Jews, and they need no mediator” and the Christ followers after Pentecost took their place in what Aslan calls “a long line of individuals who have seized the authority from institutions to define their religion for themselves.”
 Yet, after having been co-opted by Constantine the cusp of Christianity contrarily became obsessed with orthodoxy and weeding out heresy, that is any view that deviated from the creeds and doctrines formulated by the accepted mainstream of imperial Constantinian Christianity. Much in the same way that Lenin would eventually take over and declare an orthodox Marxism, Christianity had been high-jacked and its revised format has become normative, revealing that, as Ferguson and Hirsch suggest,”Constantine is still the emperor of our imaginations, of the way we see and experience ourselves as church, seventeen centuries later.” The radicality of the early Christian community gave way to the systematic subversion of everything Jesus and the community of Pentecost stood for.
Returning once again to Ferguson and Hirsch they stipulate that “Christianity is designed to be a people’s liberation movement, a social force, a viral idea passing from person to person through the medium of gospel and discipleship, creating gospel communities in its wake. And yet, by all accounts, most churches can be described as primarily institutional in form and nature.” What then is being celebrated in the institutionalized observance of Pentecost as the birth of the church? It is not the celebration of the empowerment of the first century community depicted in Acts but, rather a festival held in honor of the third century birth of Constantine’s organized perversion of Pentecost.
An authentic expression of the “Spirit” of Pentecost is not to be found in sacraments, tradition, or liturgy. It is not in the cloister, at the alter, or in the sanctuary. It is not in creed, council, or clergy. But, in the world, in the city, in the streets, the highways and byways, standing at the side of both the neighbor and the enemy, at the disposal of those in need. It is not within a Messiah, a Christ, or even in God, but in the death of God and the renouncement of all ideological, socio-religious, and socio-political constructions that impede the becoming of the individual. It is in the disavowal of that which we have sought to mask the traumatic responsibility of existence. It is in the rejection of what Nietzsche described as the “formula for every slander against ‘this world.'” and “every lie about the ‘beyond’…the deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced holy!” It is the acceptance of being adrift on an infinite sea, a horizonless ocean, with no objective guide and no absolute compass.
In a recent interview with Chris Hedges, Bishop George Packard expressed these notions astoundingly and poignantly clear, saying:
The spirit is calling us now into the streets, calling us to reject the old institutional orders. There is no going back. You can’t sit anymore in churches listening to stogy liturgies. They put you to sleep. Most of these churches are museums with floorshows. They are a caricature of what Jesus intended. Jesus would be turning over the money-changing tables in their vestibules. Those in the church may be good-hearted and even well-meaning, but they are ignoring the urgent, beckoning call to engage with the world. It is only outside the church that you will find the spirit of God (Read Full Interview Here).
It is well beyond the ecclesial doors that Pentecost is actually experienced, in a place without pews, scripture, or vestments, amidst outcast, excrement, and refuse. As Marie L. Baird suggests, “Christianity’s ultimate self-realization is in secularization” and perhaps truer words were never spoken when Ernst Blochdeclared that “only a Christian can be a good atheist, and only an atheist can be a good Christian.”

The Problem of Pentecost: A Festival of Perversion in Two Parts

Part I

For those who follow or are familiar with the liturgical church calender, this past Sunday was Pentecost Sunday. While I wasn’t planning to write a post on this event but, after reading two great posts by Bo Sanders from Homebrewed Christianity, which you can read here and here, and after watching a short Vlog by my friend and Pastor of Riviera UCC Scott Elliot (watch here), I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It certainly wasn’t what was said that bothered me, it was what wasn’t being said. Amidst  all these interesting discussions there was much that I felt was not being addressed or spoken of.

There dramatic differences between what Pentecost is and what it is now. Pentecost, in the Christian faith is an annual celebration of the events depicted in Acts 2, in which the “Holy Spirit” descends upon Jesus’ remaining disciples and those gathered with them in a cramped upper room during the Jewish celebration of Pentecost. The story’s placement within the New Testament canon is representative of a remarkable turning of events for these early Christ followers. It is a landmark moment in their formation.
Occurring not long after the events of Easter, in which Jesus is seen screaming “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” from a merciless Roman cross, Pentecost finds those who once followed the charismatic leader confused and in turmoil in the wake of their leader’s loss. So they gather together in wait, but of what? Here, is what is truly unique  about the text, the pronounced appearance of this “Holy Spirit”, referred to as the Paraclete in Greek, which play a predominating role. Though only briefly mentioned directly, the “Holy Ghost/Paraclete” is rich with symbolism, impact, and implication.
Jacques Lacan, here defines that “The Holy Spirit is the entry of the signifier into the world.” Carl Jung, too, proposes that “It is the task of the Paraclete…to dwell and work in individual human beings, so as to remind them of Christ’s teachings and lead them into the light.” Jung goes on to say that “The future indwelling of the Holy Ghost in man amounts to a continuing incarnation of God.” This represents the democratization of divinity, or what Jung describes as the “Christification of many.”
Slavoj Zizek writes (here) that in the very death of Jesus “with this ‘Father,why did you forsake me?’ it is the God-the-Father who effectively dies, revealing his utter impotence, and thereupon rises from the dead in the guise of the Holy Ghost.” Thus, Zizek states elsewhere that “The ‘Holy Spirit’ is the community deprived of its support in the big Other.” Zizek, unpacking Lacan explains that “the Holy Spirit stands for the symbolic order as that which cancels (or, rather, suspends) the entire domain of ‘life.'” This is a community of loss and in mourning, a group ripped from their ideological grounding, and now haunted by God’s Holy apparition, which seems to be equal parts Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, combined. It is freighteningly empowering, displaying what has been and what can never be again, the trauma of where we are now, and the weight of responsibility we must shoulder to be who we must now become.
Kester Brewin writes evocatively (here) that an experience such as this “is not about experiencing the sacred in the remains of religious beauty, but about experiencing the abandonment and desolation, the responsibility to the rest of humanity, when we realize the sacred is not found in the stain glass, but in the slum outside the church.” Directly following Peter’s sermon after the in-filling of the Holy Spirit, the text states that “they devoted themselves to…fellowship,” “were together and had everything in common,” “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need,” and “They broke bread in heir homes and ate together,” “enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2: 42-47). Pentecost then, is ultimately a mobilizing movement that calls the community to their feet, into the streets, and into a deeper fellowship with all of humanity. It is the formation of an egalitarian space that is fluid and non-hierarchical. It is the collective given birth to by the death of God, exploring what it means “to take up the challenges of that absence” (Brewin).
But, is this actually what is now being celebrated when Pentecost is being observed? It doesn’t seem to be.
To be continued…

Religionless?

Is the sociological purpose of religion self-gratification or selfless actions?

I think this is a profoundly insightful and deeply probing question. It is also astoundingly complex and cannot be answered simply but, it is precisely questions such as these that will provoke the most necessary of investigations.
In many ways you could say that religion by its very nature is aimed at self-gratification. R. L. Johnstone’s working definition of religion is quite conducive to this point, it is as follows:
Religion is a set of beliefs and rituals by which a group of people seeks to understand, explain, and deal with a world of complexity, uncertainty, and mystery, by identifying a sacred canopy of explanation and reassurance under which to live (Johnstone, 2007, p. 14).
Here Johnstone draws out that “Religion thus serves to provide answers to peoples’ questions and concerns over purpose, destiny, and mystery, as well as comfort and support in times of danger, bereavement, and death” (p. 14).  Comfort, answers, support, these are all self-serving endeavors and are also incidentally the primary motivations for seeking out the religious experience in most cases. In a world beyond one’s control, full of turmoil, angst, and uncertainty, people seek security and religion is but one of the most utilized to attain a sense of comfort and consolation.
At its core then, the religious desire could be said to be the desire to self-soothe or self-medicate, a method of relieving one’s self from the wiles of the world. Religion thus, provides a lens through which one may see the world, as well rhetoric and models for relating to and engaging with the culture in which they are a part. Yet, all of this motivated by the desire deal with, cope with, and ultimately avoid despair. Peter Rollins explains that “religion at its most basic defined a particular way of thinking about and relating to God, a way of approaching God as the solution to problems such as fear, ignorance, or despair” (Rollins, 2011, p. xiv). Here the divine becomes little more than a deus ex machina  or something of “a psychological crutch” (p. 7). Jean-Paul Sartre points out that “it is plain dishonesty for Christians to make no distinction between their own despair and [atheist’s] and then call [atheists] despairing” (Sartre, 1996, p. 319).
To act selflessly is to be decidedly self-sacrificial. It is act without any concern for one’s own interests, well being, comfort, and security for the greater good. It is the abandonment of all those things one seeks to attain from endeavoring to be religious. Perhaps then the greatest acts of selflessness are at once acts of religionlessness.
Johnstone, R. L. (2007). Religion in society: A sociology of religion (8th ed.). Upper Saddle, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Sartre, J. P. (1996). Existentialism and human emotions. In L. N. Oaklander (Ed.), Existentialist philosophy: An introduction (2nd ed.) (pp.310-319). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

The Prayer of the Wounded…

God, if you are there, come among us.

…if you are not…

May we be found faithful in the wake of your memory.

May we give raise to song in the remnant of the Event.

May we be found mournfully joyous in the knowledge of who we must now become,

The answer to each other’s prayers…

Amen.

Dialogues of a Christian Atheist, pt.2

A few weeks ago I posted a blog entry titled “I Don’t Believe in God but, I Take Jesus Seriously,” and a few of my close friends were kind enough to push back on some of the ideas expressed there in. This is quite possibly one of the most beneficent attributes of dialogic relationships with those  who are of divergent views and perspectives. Rev. Scott Elliott, who is the pastor of Riviera United Church of Christ and the host of A God Vlog, is one such friend. He offers engaging conversation that is both probing and never content to simply allow my notions to hang in the air unquestioned. This often forces me to chase down my own thoughts further than I may have initially been prepared to. I’d to think that is reciprocal, that my own suggestions push him out of his comfort zone but, his arguments are often far more conducive then those I present. Thus, in this post below and the next few that will follow will consist of some of his thoughts in response to the aforementioned blog entry and my follow up to his appraisals. Enjoy!

Rev. Elliott: I have yet to find a way to satisfactorily convey my conviction that this love siren and loving way we are drawn to can also –if we want or choose–safely, sanely, rationally be named God. This experience of being we are in has that siren you/we hear in it, and if we go to where it is beckoning we end up loving. We don’t have to call it God; we can believe it is not God. It only matters because it means (aside from semanitics) that we are on the same page, love is the point. And love by any other name is still love. (Or as this theologian spins it, if God is experienced as love –a very Biblically sound claim– then love by any other name is still God).

 Hmmm I still didn’t get it right, but, this all depends on what the definition of God is. I’m assuming that the “God” you do not believe in, is something other than love.

Response:  I can’t confess to have the capacity to conducively convey my thoughts on this subject in a satisfying manner either. Perhaps, in some regards, it is a question of semantics. For me, the “word,” as well s the concept, “God” is problematic. It seems that in many ways, “God,” is a void of meaning word. Paul Van Buren said that the word God itself is “either meaningless or misleading.” Van Buren goes on to say that “we cannot identify anything which will count for or against the truth of our statements concerning God.”

Its here that the word operatively falls into utter subjectivity, it is filled with our own contents, meaning that “God” has meant something different to everyone. As such, Merold Westphal has said, “I’ve never prayed to a God that wasn’t an idol.” In this regard what i garner from atheism is its ability to act as a critical examination, objection, and perhaps even a rejection of all our conception of deity.

To say it another way, any God that I can conceive of is immediately a God hat should be denied or disavowed, as it is ultimately of my own construction.

Perhaps, too, it is a question of “presence” versus “absence.” Given my previous religious upbringing the “presence” of God was the most emphasized aspect of religious worship, practice, and experience. Perhaps, then, an over-exposure to the emphasization and stimulation to this heightened idea or presence is numbing. Thus, what I find more resonant is absence, not the absence of the experience of God but rather the experience of the absence of God.

For me it seems that the imperative call to the “Song” of love beckons more urgently and sings more resoundingly in the absence.

Rev. Elliott: And yet we cannot deny we HEAR that siren call to “LOVE” and feel lured, compelled and on a quest to answer it. Which is a close to truth and identifying as as we can get. Idolizing Love is all that matters. And that I cannot deny or disavow –and empirically it seems to not be of my own construction (though I have certainly dinged, dented and re-painted it on my own, but it still runs).

Response: I would whole heartedly agree that the “idolization of love” ( I Love that by the way) is most central. It is compelling above all else. Here we are precisely on the same page, where we diverge perhaps is that I am content simply with “love,” this is a word powerful enough, that doesn’t necessarily need to be renamed. I love that you said “if we choose to” we can call it God, I can willingly admit that I “choose” to just let love be love and let love be enough.

Dialogues of a Christian Atheist, pt.1

Last week I released a post entitled “I Don’t Believe in God but, I Take Jesus Seriously.” This entry managed to stir quite a bit of dialogue, discussion, and debate between myself and a few close friends. It was nice to know that something I wrote helped to solicit and foster such an engaging discourse. As a result I thought it might be beneficial to share several portions of this conversation. Feel free to interject.

I should also preface what follows by saying that I am in no way philosophically or theologically learned enough to significantly, meaningfully, or effectively participate in the argumentation of such a rich and complex subject, so feel free to disagree and throw away anything I have to say. Nearly 80% of what I say is 95% bullshit 50% of the time. (Did I mention math really isn’t my strong suit either?)

Directly below you’ll find the comments of one of my friends to the aforementioned post, after which will be my response. Enjoy!

 Isn’t the fact of accepting the concept of a incomprehensible God still a construct of your imagination and hence putting you into the same dilemma? Seems like a paradox to me. Could it be more that we were created to look upon him with our own imaginations so that we might learn how much bigger he is than we can conceive and hence realize the magnitude and vastness of the eternal form? (God) my 2 cents…

Yes and no.To start, the idea that you present in your concluding remarks does not evade the paradoxical either, but falls neatly inside as a further example. Steeped within the very rhetoric of your expression is found the very traditional image of a creative Male/Patriarchal, omnipotent, supernatural being that has imbued humanity with wonder and imagination. This is just as much a cognitive construction as any other.

Thus, to be free of paradox is an unattainable objective. One could say that existence itself is an entangled mesh of contradiction, paradox, and that which is often found to be counter-intuitive. Paradox is inescapable. Also, in many ways the reconciliation or resolution of paradox is phenomenologically and existentially irrelevant, i.e. often it has little to no bearing in one’s lived experience of the world.

Too, I’m not sure that I’m “accepting” the concept of an incomprehensible God.What I am suggesting is not a critique of “a” conception but, a critical objection to “all” conceptions, as such that no conception is free of subjective construction. To quote Paul Van Buren once again, the word God itself is either “meaningless or misleading.” I’m not rejecting a particular idea of God but the idea of God itself. Nor am I proposing that God is utterly inconceivable of infinitely beyond conception. I’m suggesting that perhaps “God” simply isn’t there.

This is not to caste conceptions of God in a harsh light. I am not saying that one should be required to abandon their ideas of God (as would a Dawkins or a Hitchens). What I am asking for is the acknowledgement that there is no conception of the divine that is not personally posited. There is no God that “exists” (for lack of better word) that was not brought into existence by those who believe that God exists. Perhaps, then, a more accurate rendering of the opening lines of Genesis should read, “In the beginning, when man created God…”

To be clear, however, this should not be read as an attack. I’m not opposing theism. I’m not opposing religion. I don’t believe in God and here I am very intentional in my use of the word “believe.” It is just that, a belief, and one that I choose to lend ascent to in the way that a theist would “choose” to believe in God. It is a decisive move. I choose this path of “rejection” for much the same reasons that “believer” would choose affirmation. It is existentially provisional. It instills something ( I use this word loosely) within my being that is transformative to both my material reality and my engagement with the world. I am compelled to love more deeply, called to a more critical concern, if my hands are the only means by which love enters the world.

My stance is ultimately one of utility and pragmatism, as all such beliefs are. I am concerned with functionality. If holding a conception God lures one to love, then I will stand in affirmation of that system of belief. If it takes there being a “God” for one to love their neighbor as themselves then I will abide in solidarity that person’s belief. If a six day creation and a literal, infallible, and inspired “Word of God” causes one to love their enemy, to feed the hungry, to cloth the naked, and to stand with the orphan, the widow and the stranger, then by all means cling to that but, do so with an open hand and a humble heart. For me, however, the absence of the Big Other is more alluring action. To fill the void left by the absence of the divine compels me to a deeper place of calling more so than the “presence” of any idea of deity ever could.

Perhaps tomorrow I will awaken to a renewed sense of imbibed theism. Perhaps years from now I will look upon these writings as the confused ramblings of a mixed up kid and as the confessions of a damaged mind but, for now, if I am honest with myself, with those whom I love and care for, and with those who love and care for me, this is a space in which I feel I MUST dwell, if for nothing else than for a season.