Monday, April 30, 2012

Losing And Gaining Our Lives

"The great paradox of life is that those who lose their lives will gain them.  This paradox becomes visible in very ordinary situations.  If we cling to our friends, we may lose them, but when we are nonpossessive in our relationships, we will make many friends.  When fame is what we seek and desire, it often vanishes as soon as we acquire it, but when we have no need to be known, we might be remembered long after our deaths.  When we want to be in the center, we easily end up on the margins, but when we are free enough to be wherever we must be, we find ourselves often in the center.

Giving away our lives for others is the greatest of all human arts.  This will gain us our lives."

~ Henri J.M. Nouwen

Love Rules All

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Did Jesus Rise From The Dead? (A Church Without God - Chapter V)

Rev. Ernest Harrison dedicates the fifth chapter of his controversial book from 1966 A Church Without God to the topic of Jesus' resurrection. He begins by stating that "the new Christian is called upon to face a living relationship with Jesus Christ, and he does so in terms of resurrection."  He then says that it is important to look at the Biblical account and how we interpret the resurrection story.

Harrison begins by pointing out some discrepancies in the Biblical resurrection stories.
  • The women who are to visit the tomb buy their spices and perfume on Friday, according to Luke; on Saturday evening, according to Mark.
  • The women who visit the tomb are described differently, as is the whole episode. In Matthew, two women, the two Marys - come; there is a violent earthquake; an angel descends from heaven, rolls the stone back, and sits on it; there are guards who shiver with fear; the angels tell the women what to do. In Mark, three women - the two Marys and Salome - bring the oils, see the tomb empty, and enter to find a youth wearing a white robe sitting on the right side; he tells them what to do. In Luke, three women - the two Marys and Joanna - bring the spices, find the stone rolled away from the tomb, and enter to find two men in dazzling garments at their side who tell them what to do. In John, the embalming is not done by the women at all, but by two men - Joseph and Nicodemus
  • Matthew and Luke appear to refer to the resurrection appearances as occupying a single day; John gives an account that spreads them over more than eight days; Acts fixes the period at forty days.
Harrison continues by stating the possibility that Christians came up with the empty-tomb story to counter rumours that they themselves had taken the body of Jesus. In any case, "the resurrection stories need not be taken as factual."  Harrison says that it is no surprise that Paul, while arguing for the resurrection, never mentioned the empty tomb. He surmises that the later gospel accounts beefed up the empty tomb story to back up the resurrection claims. 

He then goes on to say that "If we are not committed to taking these narratives of the empty tomb and the appearances to the disciples as precise recordings of events, we are liberated to enter a deeper response. If the writer is trying to spell out the underlying meaning of the story, then we have to meet him at a more personal level than if he is simply reciting a series of incidents."
Harrison says that while everyone living on the planet believes in death, the promise of an afterlife is becoming less believable, even to Christians. He unequivocally says that "it is a doctrine that has no meaning." I must say that personally, I have not given much thought to the after-life for many years. This is in no doubt due to the fact that I used to worry about Hell so much when I was a fundamentalist Christian that it was a relief when I gave that belief system up to no longer have to worry about burning.

Harrison argues that for Paul and for many of today's (1966) Christians, the resurrection was an eternal now, not something in the past or future. "But if you ask me to believe that my body or my personality will somehow come alive again beyond the grave, you ask me to believe something that eludes me - something that I can no longer accept.

Harrison knows that there are plenty of Christian who take the resurrection accounts literally and believe in an after-life, and says that "in the pluralism of modern Christianity, there is no reason why one should try to win over another group to one's own convictions."

Harrison continues by saying that the best evidence for the historical nature of the resurrection events is the change that took place in the life of the apostles. After the crucifixion, the apostles were weak and timid and met in secret. After Pentecost they became courageous leaders in the Church. Harrison then cites a book from 1956, When Prophecy Fails, which suggests the following. "Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief and that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong; what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervour for convincing and converting other people to his view."  Harrison then goes on to say that there have been many events that have never taken place, still many followers remain faithful. In the 2nd century, Montanus declared that the Second Coming was at hand, and though it didn't occur, many still believed. He cites forecasts by the Jehovah's Witnesses as another example.  A modern day example is the radio evangelist Harold Camping, who predicted the end of the world on a certain day, and when it didn't happen, he claimed that forces had shifted and that the end would come a few months later (we're still here).

Evangelist Harold Camping
Harrison says that one possibility is that after a period of grieving for Jesus, the disciples turned their despair (the cross) into a success, saying that it was the ultimate triumph. Still, he writes,
"The significance of the resurrection is great. In their rationalizations to prove that the cross instead of a defeat had really been a victory, the apostles were not rationalizing from an absurd belief into an absurd alternative. The death on the cross was real. Jesus died. His death was inevitable, given the circumstances of a rebel who opposed the leaders of church and state and stirred up the people into independence. It had always happened before; it will always happen again. He declared himself to be truly and fully man, and he got in the way of those who wished to use men and ride them to their own advantage. He was truly man, and he died."
Harrison says that how much of the resurrection stories stem from the apostles' rationalizations "we shall never know. Rationalizing, though it may be observed as an attempt to escape dissonance, may produce a consonance which is true in itself and to life." Basically Harrison is saying that even though the resurrection may never have taken place, the story that built up after Jesus died carries on a life of its own, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. According to Harrison, "if the apostles, faced with a clear disconfirmation of the event they had expected, turned instead to a proclamation of resurrection, then we have a greater support for the continual rising of the human spirit than the old interpretations."


The Easter story used to mean a huge deal to me when I was a fundamentalist Christian. It was a given that Jesus died, was in the grave for 3 days, after which he bodily rose from the dead.  After I left fundamentalism, I didn't quite know what to think of the Easter story, and that was just fine with me. Eventually I became involved with a movement called Unity, which re-interprets the Easter story in its own way, though my mind couldn't really work its way around that either.  Today I believe that Jesus lived in such a contrary way to other religious and political leaders of his day that they considered him a threat and killed him.  I honestly don't know what to make of the resurrection. It stirs excitement to think that a man can be raised from the dead. As far as my personal resurrection goes, I agree with Harrison and others that it is "the eternal now" and not something that happens when I die. While I do not believe that my body will be physically resuscitated, I do believe that somehow, in some way, my spirit will live on.

And that's enough for me.

The Humility Principle

"The Creator in Its wisdom has conceived principles that govern my life and the lives of everyone. One law of life I have recently discovered is the humility principle. '...for everyone who exalts himself wil be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted' (Luke 18:14). This is not a law with which  I can choose to interact. It is a principle, and therefore it is always active in my life. Either I humble myself, and I am exalted, or I exalt myself, and I am humbled.

I cannot decide to put this principle aside until I am ready to work with it. It is always working with me. However, I have a choice to make. I can choose to humble myself. At this point, I may not even know how to accomplish this, but there is something I can do today. I can choose not to exalt myself.

The best way to begin is to determine how I have exalted myself in the past. This is important because my tendency is to repeat these practices again and again."

~ Jim Rosemergy, "The Transcendent Life"


More and more I feel like I am being called to live a simpler, more humble life. This is often not an easy choice to make, as there are a thousand distractions around me: TV, the internet, other entertainment activities, maybe even people.  I think that while I often feel called to this kind of life and know that it is best for me and my spiritual life, I fear it because it leads to a stripping away. My preconceived ideas of what is best for me, what I should expect out of life, or from people are challenged again and again.  Some of the people we admire the most lived their lives in humility and simplicity: Mother Teresa, Ghandi, Jesus. Yet I can't wait to get my hands on new music, movies, or to receive attention from those around me.

The humble, spiritual life is not an easy one, especially when you're just starting out, but it is through this life that we will find true healing and lasting peace.

Friday, April 27, 2012

You Deserve To Be Happy, It's Not Too Late

I'm starting this blogpost as I stand waiting for the bus to take me to the laundromat, and I shall finish it there as my unmentionables are tossing around the industrial washer, so this post could be a little disjointed. But hey, what's wrong with that, eh?

My beginning point is that you deserve all the happiness in the world. The dreams that you've harboured in your beating heart since perhaps you were a little girl or boy on the schoolyard monkeybars are still valid and they are there for a reason. They can be rediscovered.

So what happened? Why are our dreams often left unfulfilled? Because we grew up and life became more complicated. Perhaps things happen to us that gradually beat us down.

Our family of origin becomes a nightmare, a place of survival rather than of nourishment.

High school or college relationships that we once thought were rock solid instead end on the rocks.

Religion is introduced into our lives that tell us we can only be truly happy if we do this or if we do that.

We get ensnared by drug or alcohol abuse.

We become ill.

We take a "temporary job" to pay the bills and find ourselves still there 10 years later, each year sucking the creativity out of us more and more.

So what do we do? We start to believe that true happiness and joy may not be for us. It may be for our friends or the person across the street, but it's too late for us. We're too old, too damaged, too jaded.
Yet still, as the years go by and everyone else seems to be having happy lives, we still hold a memory in our hearts of what our dreams once looked like. And sometimes that makes it even harder. We see how our lives could have been and we see the reality of how they actually are.

And so we settle, we do what we have to do in order to make it from day to day. Life isn't about evolving or growing, but maintaining or surviving.

We settle in our jobs, as I mentioned previously. I've done this.

We settle in our relationships. We don't want to be alone so we settle for relationships with people we know are not compatible with us and don't truly love us for who we really are. I've done this too. Have you ever sat in a Tim Hortons and watched old couples sitting around you, and they never speak to each other; rather they stare off into the distance? I want to be in one of those life-long relationships where you see old couples walking down the street still holding hands and talking with each other.

I want to remind you, I want to remind me, that we deserve to be happy. There is still that childlike dreamer within you whether you're 22 or 72, and as long as you have breath you can see the happiness you deserve. We have to get back to believing in our essential goodness, that's key. Statements like "No one could ever love me" or "My dreams are just too stupid" need to be tossed onto the garbage heap once and for all.
We need to build up our power again that may have been left dormant for many many years. We might need this power if we are to kick our drug habits, start thinking about a new career or new volunteer work, or finally saying goodbye to a belittling, corrosive relationship.

You can do it, I believe in you.

And here's something key: You don't deserve to go it alone. We are made for relationship. Start surrounding yourself with friends who see the true you. Find a social group that you can interact with regularly even if you're used to being alone. Maybe it's time to rekindle or discover your own spiritual path.

No matter how old you are, no matter how very screwed up you may think you are, I'm here to say that there's still time.

You are beautiful.

Your dreams live.

You deserve to be happy.

3 Great Truths

by Jim Rosemergy, "The Transcendent Life"

"For the person committed to living the humble life, a question naturally follows. How do I turn Godward? I have been trying to make contact with Spirit for quite some time. What do I do?

The answer is so simple, it is hardly believable to the human mind. Become prayerful and still and simply ask God, "Are You with me?" This human cry opens our souls and humbles us because it acknowledges that we feel alone and that we have reached that point in our spiritual unfoldment where only God can comfort our souls. From this simple question, will come to hear three messages God speaks to every human being who seeks the mystical oneness. God's answer will declare three truths:

I am with you always.
You are my beloved.
I do not condemn you.

You may never actually hear these specific words, but in ways that only spirit can convey, you will experience these three great truths. You will be lifted to the height of God's presence.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

All Will Come Again Into Its Strength

All will come again into its strength:
the fields undivided, the waters undammed,
the trees towering and the walls built low.
And in the valleys, people as strong and varied as the land.
And no churches where God
is imprisoned and lamented
like a trapped and wounded animal.
The houses welcoming all who knock
and a sense of boundless offering
in all relations, and in you and me.
No yearning for an afterlife, no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused.

~ Ranier Maria Rilke ~

Did Jesus Believe In God? (A Church Without God - Chapter IV)

Rev. Ernest Harrison provocatively titles the fourth chapter of his 1966 book A Church Without God, "Did Jesus Believe in God?"  Of course this seems like a ridiculous question for many Christians who believe that Jesus was/is in fact God. Let's go exploring.

Harrison's earlier assertion in his book that the idea of a supernatural God is dead, leads him to say that once people realize this, we are "liberated to walk into the presence of Jesus Christ." He goes on to say that "In our everyday existence, we must feel free if we are to know another person intimately. If i fear you, if I have some notion that you are above me, below me, or beyond me, then I am inhibited. In order to know you, I have to trust you completely. I must be certain of your love, whatever the circumstances." 

Harrison says that as long as we believed in a transcendent God, we were inhibited from knowing Christ. But once that idea is dead and removed from our consciousness, we can "greet Jesus as we greet the real friends of our life: in complete frankness, without hesitancy, with mutual joy, without striving, without grovelling, without delusions, with easy understanding that whatever we say or do or think, it will be interpreted in our favour, and whatever he does or says or thinks will be interpreted in his."
He says that even the smallest elements of fear, duty, or self-negation will hurt the love we give and take. And these elements are found in the belief in a transcendent God:
"Whatever was predicted of the God who lived under the Old Covenant is said to apply to Jesus of Nazareth who possesses all the attributes of Divinity. This puts him immediately outside the range of friendship. It is not possible to be friends with such a being who is by definition better, purer, and more refined. As we know in all the vibrant moments of our lives, friendship is based on what we have in common and is only possible if the gap between the life-standards of two people is bridgeable. The gap between the Divine Jesus and myself is not bridgeable"
As for the doctrine of the atonement as a "bridge-builder," Harrison says that in friendship both sides have to give and receive. "If Jesus does not need me, then I may bow my knee and praise and glorify, but we will never be friends."

Harrison continues by saying that "Mother Church" widened the gap between us and Jesus by the imagery and language it used. It can be seen in stained-glass windows, with pictures of Jesus as "Christ the King," "Christ at the Right Hand of God," or "Christ in Judgment." Harrison says that the Biblical story "tells of events that show an equal relation between Christ and his friends; but it is soon drowned in the clamour that proclaims Christ as supreme."

Harrison accuses "Mother Church" of covering up who Jesus actually was, and that scholars who undertook studies of who Jesus was were often met with contempt. Still they continued their work, though it is still difficult to see who the real Jesus was. And here we run into problems when it comes to clearing up who the real Jesus was. The first difficulty is that we cannot go back and relive history, but are often left to rely on the written works of others, or "documents that often come from other documents, themselves human interpretations of the day." Harrison's second reason  why the real Jesus alludes us is that even if a full portrait of Jesus resulted from our labours, it would still be impossible to relate the portrait to friendship or love.

Harrison continues by saying that "without transcendent God breathing down his neck, he can think of Christ and be open to full friendship with him. Harrison says that if we are disciples, we will know ourselves to be his friends, and that when we enter Jesus presence, we can do so on the basis of friendship, mutual acceptance, and an equality of bearing. In doing so, we meet and discover ourselves. Harrison puts it beautifully: "If I look into the face of a friend, I do indeed see myself; and this is the hallmark of all close friendships. For he also, looking into my face, sees himself. We are therefore one: I in him and he in me."

Harrison pictures Jesus saying to those who would listen, "Why do you call me God?"  He says that Jesus must be irritated because we keep eluding him as he is and keep seeking some far-off perfect being.
Rather, Jesus is a man, living his life to the full, pulling back from nothing, whether it gives exquisite pleasure or leads to death. He is, surely, God. "What more do you want?" He seems to be saying. "The God, who inhabits eternity, is no more; he no longer dwells in the vast untapped spaces; he no longer sits upon a throne; he no longer intervenes in history to win a war or punish a king. He is here, a man, among you. I am God," he concludes, and waits for the true response from friends."
Harrison says that it impossible to know if any of Jesus' hearers were able to respond as friends and say, "We, too, are God. We are your friends. In you, we see ourselves. In us, you see yourself. We, too, are God."

Harrison says that Jesus rarely spoke of God, instead choosing to use the term Father. But when he did use the term God, it was often in reference to the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom was not one of dignitaries or kings or transcendence; rather it was an earthy kingdom among men.  Time and time again, Jesus was saying that he was equal to those around him. Harrison boldly states that "On the cross, driven by a terrible agony of separation, he cried out that God had forsaken him. The last link was broken. The union was to be renewed, but throughout the ages, there were always those who knew that Christ had died because he strove against the "wheel of religion" and cried out for men to be free of their rulers, their driving guilt, and their tyrant God. Jesus, like Yahweh, is the great Atheist.

Harrison says that Jesus rarely taught about God, but due to his upbringing he probably believed in a deity. In his day and in his culture, it was generally accepted that their was a God "up there" who controlled things. Jesus didn't throw away such heritage, but when there was a clash, there was Jesus, challenging the authorities, breaking the sabbath, disrupting synagogue services, breaking food customs.  Jesus learned in the same way that he lived. In one passage, a Gentile woman approaches Jesus wanting healing for her daughter, but Jesus refuses, saying that he has come only for the Jews. The woman persists, and Jesus learns that in her eyes he sees himself, and he has mercy on her.
"She has given herself, and he has given himself. She has looked into his face and seen herself. he has looked into hers and seen himself. They have shared a mutual hostility; they are friends; they are one. They have both changed. She knows herself to be a full human being."
Harrison argues that we can only meet God in personal terms, so Jesus calls God "Father." Jesus picked this term, the author writes, because the image of Father can change and grow, for instance from an authoritarian figure to an equal.
The word "God" is static; the "Father" is mobile. The word "God" implies eternity; the word "Father" implies death. The word "God" admits of no equality; the word "Father" assures it. The word "God" is sexless; the word "Father" is sexful. The word "God" is supernatural; the word "Father" is human. The word "God" is isolated; the word "Father" implies a relationship.
Ernest Harrison wraps up his chapter on Jesus by saying that it is hard to know whether or not Jesus believed in God. Perhaps Jesus' belief in God was as unquestioning as a medieval Catholic; perhaps Jesus saw God like Paul Tillich and John Robinson did. Harrison argues that there is one detail in Tillich's description of God which fits all descriptions. God is our "ultimate concern." If you can discover a man's ultimate concern, then you have discovered his God.  So, the, Harrison challenges us to look at what Jesus' ultimate concern was. Again he says that we can have a friendship with Jesus, but that people will have varying opinions on what Jesus' ultimate concern was. Some see his ultimate concern as healing people or touching the broken-hearted. Indeed, Jesus seems more concerned with earthly things than with a transcendent God.
"Examining what he did, how may we suppose that Jesus thought about God? As a judge? He condemned the judging of people. As a monarch? He was vitriolic in his denunciation of rulers. As a high priest? He condemned all priestly practices. As a person who exists above and beyond mankind? He gave scant attention even to the possibility."
Harrison writes that "it may be true to say that whatever Jesus believed about God was a consequence of his desire to be close to men so that they could truly become themselves. His love for them did not derive from any love of a greater person known as God; love for his friends was his ultimate concern."

Finally, Harrison concludes that the question of "Who was Jesus" defies an answer, but that "To say that you are a Christian means that you are in a living relationship with Jesus Christ. How you proceed to describe this is for you alone to decide."


For myself, I am still trying to figure out what I believe about Jesus, some 10 years after I left the fundamentalist Christian faith. I like what Harrison is getting at here about Jesus wanting to be in relationship or friendship with us, and that in Jesus we see God and in us, Jesus sees God. Did Jesus believe in God? If by "God" you mean a transcendent God-person, then the answer may be decidedly no.  How we live our lives, how we treat each other is what seems key to Jesus, so if I want to be close to Jesus, I will love my fellow humankind more fully and realize that we are equals.

Monday, April 23, 2012

On Being Embraced By The Sky

"Sometimes it seems the sky takes me into itself - or rather reveals that I am already and always inside it, for the sky does eternally embrace everything. It holds the earth and all creatures within itself. I am always healed in such moments.

Sooner or later, I suspect, the sky could teach us everything. It is willing for that. It waits to be noticed, to be looked into. The apostle Paul is supposed to have said we live and move and have our being in God. If that's true, one might ask, how come God often seems so far away? Maybe it's something like the sky. The sky often seems distant, but it's always embracing us; it always has and always will. It not only holds us; it flows through us. We breathe it. It's in our blood, in every cell. And always we are soaring through its endless reaches, and forever we are a part of it and it a part of us. I can almost feel the sky waiting to be noticed, wanting to be appreciated, loving to be wondered at. It forms thousands of events to get our attention. It manifests a cloud right around us and we say 'it's foggy.' It showers us and we say 'it's raining.' And it storms."

~ Gerald G. May, "The Wisdom of Wilderness"

Ottawa Axes Rehabilitation Program For Prison "Lifers"

Here is a government program that is doing a lot of good, but is nevertheless being cut.

by Bill Curry
Globe & Mail

Convicted murderers are among the ranks of federal workers losing their jobs through budget cuts.

The Globe and Mail has learned that one of the many federal programs that will be cut in its entirety is LifeLine, a program aimed at helping people with life sentences – or “lifers” – successfully re-integrate into society once they’ve been paroled.
At a starting salary of about $38,000, the program hires and trains successfully-paroled lifers to mentor other lifers who are still incarcerated or who have been recently released on parole.
“It’s too bad about the LifeLine. It helped me out a lot. It kept me out of prison,” said Peter Wozney, 44, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder when he was 16 and has been successfully paroled since August of 2009. Read the full article @ The Globe and Mail.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

What's In A Name: A Sermon On The Error Of Christian Exclusivity

What’s in a Name? A Sermon On The Error Of Christian Exclusivity
Rev. Alison Longstaff
May 3rd, 2009
Church of the Good Shepherd (Swedenborgian), Kitchener, Ontario
Mark 9: 33 -40John 10: 11 - 18 

Our notion of God is deeply personal.  It starts forming when we are very little and resides in a deep place within our hearts. This inner concept of God is very sacred ground.  To mess with it in another person without their consent can be to commit spiritual violation.  This explains why we find religious recruiters so distasteful.  This can also explain why we might feel hesitant to talk about our own beliefs with others.

Today, I plan to push the boundaries of our God-image a little bit.  This is intended to be a kind of spiritual massage-therapy or yoga.  It is intended to soften and loosen what can be tightly held spiritual muscles, and it may feel a little uncomfortable.  Just breathe.  I promise to be gentle.

In the summer of 2001 I was up in Owen Sound, Ontario researching First Nations’ spirituality.  I was granted permission to sit with one of the tribal elders.  I was delighted and honoured.  I took a seat next to a lady with glasses and short curly grey hair, who was wearing a typical baggy “old lady” polyester dress.  Somehow I had expected braids and buckskin.  In any case, I said I was there to ask her about her spiritual beliefs.  She asked me earnestly if I had been saved by Jesus.  

I was heart-sick.  This was a tribal elder. It turns out that I knew more about her traditional tribal beliefs than she did.   European colonialism did this.  “Christian” colonialism, with its arrogant assumption that its religious beliefs trump those of all others, especially those of “savages,” had systematically dismantled, disbanded, and exiled her culture.  Many tribal traditions and languages in North America are lost forever.  Many more teeter on the brink of extinction, and are requiring deliberate governmental and tribal interventions to try to recover and restore what bits and pieces of what is left that they can.

Whatever gave Christians such arrogance?  History will tell us that the earliest Christians sought simply to survive, and to spread the good news, which was to tell the story of Jesus, and invite people to live a life of social justice and mutual service. But somewhere along the way, in fact, once Christianity became the dominant religion, Christians—we—switched from a mindset of service to an attitude of entitlement.  From there it was an easy step into certainty of our religious superiority.  We stopped being about living love, and started being about being right.  We started believing that forcing people to agree with us, and become like us, was our Christian obligation. 

Religious arrogance can do so much damage.  Now, now we know how sacred and precious aboriginal spirituality is.  We Christians nearly obliterated it in our arrogance. 

And it was that shift from heart to head, from love to ideology, from humble service to “possessing the right truth” that was the key to our arrogance.  It was this shift from love to “truth” that was so profoundly destructive of the health and well-being of the spiritual communities Christianity invaded.  It was truth without humility, truth without respect for God in the other, which isn’t truth at all.  Because truth, when separated from love, becomes false.  It has no internal integrity.  It loses its connection to the Source of all.  History has shown that any denomination that assumes it has a duty to impose its “superior” God-view on the cultures it encounters leaves spiritual violation in its wake.  Current events continue to tell the tale of the violence justified by religious attitudes that claim exclusive access to “Truth,” ultimate superiority, and the right to exterminate alternate spiritual views.  Such attitudes are only and ever destructive and divisive of the very things that bind us together.

Now, I’m going to ask you to go inside yourself.  Think, (and feel if possible) about times you have felt religiously arrogant, or ideologically arrogant, or simply powerfully self righteous.

Go inside and ask yourself, “What attitudes and emotions underlie those feelings of arrogance and certainty?

Let’s sit with that a bit.

As for me, I can say it feels really good to be sure I am right.  It creates in me an uprising energy that longs to spread itself.  I can feel excited and empowered, and I long to go on a crusade to fix someone else with my great insights. Fixing someone else feels good!  When I’m fixing someone else the attention isn’t on me and what I may have done wrong, but on the other, and how I might correct what they are doing wrong, or even simply how they are thinking wrong.  I have actually found myself urgently wanting to fix someone else’s idea of the trinity (because it was “wrong”), when, as to quality of life, that other was busy serving the neighbour humbly and kindly.  And I?  I couldn’t step over the bodies fast enough to go correct the Good Samaritan’s ideology. (---metaphorically speaking.  I don’t think I’ve ever actually stepped over a body in order to correct someone….)

But I’m sure you see the problem.  Whenever you or I are on a mission to fix someone else, we have lost our way.  Twelve steppers call it, “Taking someone else’s inventory” when we are cataloguing our neighbours’ faults and not our own.  Our job is to work on our own regeneration, not someone else’s.  That can be one of the hardest, hardest things for us to learn.  It can feel much more fun and interesting to take stock of how someone else should change.  It’s not nearly as fun, (not fun at all?) to take stock of how I should change.

But when you or I are focused on someone else’s foibles, we have left no room for respect.  No room for reverence of the sacred spiritual ground in the other.  Each person’s spirituality, no matter how different from yours or mine, is sacred ground.  Sacred ground!  And there is no humility when we are on a mission to fix someone else.  There is no awareness that we all live in glass houses.  We all have a massive rafter in our eye and have no business correcting someone else, especially when they haven’t asked for help.  Christians aren’t the only ones on a mission to fix the whole world, but we certainly are high in the running.

It is this righteous arrogance that has given religion a bad name.  But the thing is, religion isn’t the problem.  Having a spiritual, God-centered paradigm isn’t the problem.  Arrogance is the problem.  Certainty, entitlement, and the desire to dominate are the problems.
Having said all that, what do we do with the very common, very strong teachings that only through belief in Jesus Christ can a person be saved, and that Christians are to go and teach this throughout the whole world?

I have titled this talk “What’s in a Name?” for a reason.  I have especially tried to avoid too much “God-He” talk in this service and in our hymns today precisely so as to offer a little spiritual yoga for our minds.  Let’s stretch our God-concept a little. 

Ask yourself, what if God is more than “Jesus”?

It is easy to get stuck on what name to call the God of Love, and what face to give—Him? (Her?)  (You or I might like to reassure ourselves that our pronoun is the rightest one, but “rightest” doesn’t apply to an all-inclusive God.)  The bible tells us that God made all people, all humans, in the image of God.  That includes all colours and genders.  Swedenborg, if we want to believe him, tells us that God made all the religions too---ALL of them, each one uniquely suited to the people and region in which it is found.  And each one provides a path to “salvation” which means a path to true humanity, true humanity—which is to become a person full of wisdom and kindness.  Each religion in its original form and at its heart has this intention. But over time, people, you and I, clutter religion up with rules and exclusions, until the religion, which is supposed to be a path to God, becomes a stumbling block. 

In our Scripture reading from Mark we find the disciples arguing about who would be God’s favourite.  That’s us.  That’s you and me.  That’s the human race fighting over which religion is better, which perspective is better.  They are walking with Jesus right there with them and they are wasting time bickering over who is the best.

Isn’t that just like us?  Jesus, to wake them up, turned reality on its head.  He proposed that the one who would be greatest was one who wanted to be the servant of all.

I’m guessing this statement was a real stumper for the disciples.  Be the servant?  Be the lowest?  Human arrogance never wants to hear that!

It is never, never about the pecking order.  It is never about status, or right skin colour, or right family name, or right sexual orientation, or right religious club.  It is about what is in our hearts.

In this church, we are Swedenborgians.  We always look inside a thing.  We are about the spirit, the essence, the inner quality, not the external shape or size or colour.  The spirit of God.  The spirit of love and goodwill—this is our salvation. Swedenborg tells us that every name in the bible represents a spiritual quality.  The name of Jesus Christ, means the quality of great love—great love and great wisdom in service in the world.  Every religion that is true has some version of this at its heart. Whenever we remember that it is about compassion, not rules, Jesus is Lord.  Whenever we refuse to dominate or control our neighbour, Jesus is Lord.  When we focus on how to be of service, not how to be the best, we are acting in the name of Jesus Christ, in the spiritual quality of love and wisdom in service.

What kills “Jesus” or a life of loving, humble service is this very competing over whose God is best—whose God will rule—be we Catholic, Protestant, Swedenborgian, some other Christian or a non-Christian spirituality.  In this sense then, any religion that supports people in becoming more enlightened, compassionate, and useful is a religion with “Jesus Christ” at its heart regardless of what name they give God.  If the spiritual value that is love and wisdom is at the centre of any spiritual path, “Jesus Christ” by another name is at the centre, period. Let’s stop fretting about names and faces and different rituals.  Let us look to the heart and the life of any given spirituality, for that is where we will find “Jesus” or their “way of love.”  That is where we will find the Holy Spirit in a slightly different skin colour or garment, but the Holy Spirit, nonetheless. "Teacher," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us." "Do not stop him," Jesus said, “for whoever is not against us is for us.”

“The Ancient Church, which was spread throughout many kingdoms of the earth, was of such a character that, though doctrinal teachings and religious practices differed, there was nevertheless one spiritual community.  This is because respect and kindness were the essential things. At that time one could say the Lord's kingdom did exist on earth as it did in heaven, for such is the character of heaven. If the same situation existed now all would be governed by Love as though they were one person; for they would be like the members and organs of one body which, though dissimilar in form and function, still depended on one heart.  Everyone would then say of another, No matter what form their doctrine and external worship take, this is my neighbour; I observe that he or she worships the God of Love and lives a good life.” - Emanuel Swedenborg Heavenly Secrets (paragraph #2385:5)

There is but one fold and one Shepherd.  Can we stop arguing about who is best and just serve each other? Amen

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Thirsting For The Immediacy Of God

Gerald G. May, M.D. (1940-2005), practiced medicine and psychiatry for twenty-five years before becoming a senior fellow in contemplative theology and psychology at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland. He was the author of many books and articles blending spirituality and psychology, including Addiction and Grace, Care of Mind/Care of Spirit, Will and Spirit, and The Dark Night of the Soul.

Currently I am re-reading May's last book, called "The Wisdom of Wilderness," where he describes his encounters with God in the wilderness during a five year period in his life. The name for God that comes to him is "The Power of the Slowing," and to him, it had a distinct feminine quality.  I highly recommend this book for those on a contemplative spiritual journey. 

"From the time I was five or six until I became a teenager, Jesus - or, rather, my image of Jesus - was my way of reconnecting. Sunday school had presented Jesus as someone who was actually around somewhere in our lives, hidden from sight but very involved, loving children and animals and all creation. I prayed to him often, had fantasies of walking and talking with him, took him into my little heart as best I could. But as young as I was, I still realized that my contact with Jesus was pretty much a result of my own interpretations. And he never actually showed up. My physical eyes never saw what the eyes of my imagination did: a real Jesus walking, smiling across a meadow toward me. I never felt the physical touch of his arm around my shoulder. I wanted that. I wanted to be reconnected, not just through images and beliefs but sensibly, palpably. I wanted direct experience.

Before the encounter with the Power of the Slowing, I had many experiences of what I would call Divine Presence, but they were always indirect, what the theologians call mediated. I felt the Great Mystery through the birth of my children, through the love of my wife and family and friends, through the beauty of sunsets and music. I sensed grace abounding in people: in their healing, growing, choosing love, finding their ways. I had more of a sense of the goodness of things than any man deserves, and yet I wasn't satisfied.

To my mind, all these experiences were evidences of the Divine Presence, signs of grace, results of God's goodness, all once removed from their Source. The experiences were encouraging and inspiring, but not fulfilling. They all carried the message that reconnection is possible, but they did not actually connect me. They tantalized, teased, even tortured me by fanning the flames of my longing for direct encounter. Many around me said that I would be satisfied with what I had, for I had been given so much. But I could not help my desire. I could not make peace with seeing through a glass darkly when I yearned for face-to-face Presence. My cup overflowed with mediated experience, yet I thirsted for the immediate.

So it was that She showed up. She whispered, beckoned, called from the mountain forest that was to be the home of my encounter with Her, demanding that I come alone and vulnerable. She wanted me willing and wild enough to meet Her in Her wildness. I was in need of healing and She had so much to teach me, so many places to guide me, so many gifts to give me. But most of all She wanted what I wanted: for me to sense Her Presence directly. She wanted me to feel Her touch on an in my body as palpably as I felt the hard ground on my bare knees or the tree bark on my back or the sting of the yellow jacket beneath my shoulder blades. She wanted me to feel Her hand stilling my muscles, Her Power in my belly, Her guiding Wisdom in my heart. That is why She came.

~ Gerald G. May "The Wisdom of Wilderness"

Friday, April 20, 2012

So There Is No God (A Church Without God - Chapter III)

Rev. Ernest Harrison begins his provocatively titled third chapter of his 1966 book A Church Without God by asking, "If Mother Church is dead, we cannot long delay asking the question: What about God? She offered herself as his one true agent; and we must ask if this God, in whose name she acted, has also died." He then writes,

"There is no God. The statement sounds discordant and unreal, even to ears which do little more than hear a word without meaning. Therefore, those who call themselves Christians must explain how it is that they can do so and still believe that God is no more."
Harrison continues by saying that new ideas or understandings often take a very long time to be accepted, because old ideas and understandings often work very well for many people. But eventually they die out. He uses the example of the old belief that the sun revolved around the earth. "It was widely held. It worked. It met the questions of the day...It became integral to the thinking of lawyers and religious leaders." But, he says, "One day a simple question was asked, and history was never the same again."

Harrison says that it is a different case when it comes to religion, because emotions as well as the idea of "divine revelation" are involved, which are used to defend very out-dated ideas even when they make no logical sense. He says that there have been changes within Christianity that have occurred at a snail's place: "The Bible was written and edited like any other set of books. Jesus did not claim to be God. The sacramental bread is not the flesh of God. Jesus did not physically rise from the dead. The rituals prescribed in the Old Testament are not for all men throughout all time."

Then Harrison again asks the question, "Is God dead?" The answer, he says, is yes. He notes that the phrase "God is dead," is often attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche, but that Nietzcsche "is more in the league of the old-fashioned atheist."  Harrison continues:

"Our present generation is the first to permit a man to state several things at once: I am a Christian; I follow Jesus; I belong to a certain long-lived denomination; and I do not believe in God."
In the past it was assumed that if you asked someone if they were a Christian and they responded affirmatively, then they must believe in God. If one did not believe in God then they were not a Christian. The same cannot be said for today.

And this is where Harrison says the water can seem to get murky and he talks of "Christian atheism." For instance, what do we mean by the name "God?"  If the term atheist means "one who does not believe in a supernatural Man-In-The-Sky who controls the world and judges it, then yes, this blogwriter is an atheist. But this is not the only definition of God. The author Marcus Borg speaks of panentheism, where "everything is in God."  He utilizes the verse "In Him we live and move and have our being." It is as if God is a great ocean and we are the waves flowing within that ocean. Here, God is Spirit. This is the God that I believe in.  Harrison also talks of the Church's tendency to see humankind as fallen. He speaks of his own faith tradition, Anglicanism:

"If one turns to the prayer book of the Anglican Church, any doubts about the attitude of traditional theology evaporate. The only good in the world is the good that God gives us to counteract the human bias towards evil; with which, to be specific, he is said to be born. I can find no example in the prayer book of a phrase which implies that God accepts us as we are; in other words, that he really loves us...Those who call themselves Christians and obey the law of the Church, these alone seem to be granted acceptance. A poverty-stricken sort of love."
Rev. Ernest Harrison
The second style of "Christian atheism," Harrison writes, is evolutionary. "God is eternal and unchangeable, but man consistently develops in his appreciation of the objective reality." The ideas of God that have been set out in the Bible are continually being enlarged and refined. "Many of these ideas die and are replaced by better ones. Yet, through all the changes, we are only moving to a clearer vision of what is unchanging."  Harrison says that language must be changed, along with metaphors. Words and metaphors that must be analyzed and perhaps dismissed include: saved, incarnation, ransom, redemption. "Let us therefore, change them or explain them in new ways, so that new men may understand. "All through this process, there is no thought that the underlying meaning has changed or could change. Find a new word, explain it in new ways: we are still redeemed, still in need of salvation, still saved through the blood of the Lamb.

Harrison continues by saying that many people, such as writers C.S. Lewis, J.B. Phillips, and Dorothy L. Sayers have admitted that the term "God" holds little meaning for modern man, and so embarked on giving it more strength and meaning. However, it was an old meaning that they were restoring. "It did not occur to any of the above writers that God himself might change, or that he might have died...For them, God was alive as he had always been." Harrison commends these authors for their efforts, but says their appeal was to a declining number of people. "To the majority, they conveyed little because even the purified, strengthened, and logically attractive God they described came through as irrelevant."

Harrison then goes on to say that the work of the previous mentioned authors was pushed aside by more "radical" authors and thinkers such as Dr. John Robinson, who wrote his controversial book Honest To God only 3 years prior to A Church Without God.  And even Robinson drew extensively from other men such as Tillich, Bonhoeffer, and Bultmann. Harrison sums up Robinson`s work in this way:

``Robinson set out a thesis which made an immediate appeal, not only to those who had detached themselves from modern denominational Church life, but to those who were caught up in it and wished to remain in it. Men used to believe in a three-decker universe, with Heaven above, the earth upon which they lived in the middle, and Hell beneath. God was thought of as "up there," the devil as "below." When the flat-earth philosophy came to an end, the God "up there" was replaced by the God "out there," and the devil remained below, in the middle of the earth, though he also walked on it."
Harrison says that with new discoveries in modern astronomy, "out there" as a place for God became difficult to retain. So if God is neither "up there" or "out there," where is he? The successors of Lewis, Phillips, etc, "picked up the thought that God was a spirit and demonstrated that the old physical notions were crude, that they needed to go." For instance, Tillich concentrated on what he called "the depths of our being," When we look at ourselves, we find that we are concerned about many things. God, Tillich said, is the ultimate among these concerns; he is our Ultimate Concern. Harrison says that "The appeal of Tillich's definition was immediate and is already commanding widespread acceptance."  He was writing this in 1966, and had not been introduced to this generation's writers such as Bishop John Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg.

Harrison argues that atrocities such as the Holocaust "brought it home" that men were responsible for their actions. "The old God, who was supposed to love mankind and intervene on behalf of the weak, rarely did so and showed little concern except for the big battalions."

A Church Without God - 1966
Harrison continues that "modern man prefers to explain truth, goodness, and beauty, not by posing the existence of some Other Being, but by examining the evidence, primarily of medicine and science." Also,
"Modern man is discovering himself. Psychology and psychiatry are daily opening new strait and narrow paths to the depths of man's being. As they are opened, there are fewer extravagant claims to solving all human problems; there is more caution; there is more honest declaration of uncertainty and ignorance. There is, at the same time, more that can be seen by everyone as true discovery. As man digs to deeper levels of his being, he becomes more certain that he will never be able to say, 'I now know everything about myself, my neighbour, and mankind.'"
And then Harrison makes a very important point: "To live with uncertainty is to mature." He then states that "God is our ultimate concern, the ground of our being."

Harrison then describes a belief that was put forward in his day by several theologians/writers such as Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton that there once was a God - now there is no God. He once lived but, somewhere in history, he died. He equates this with the existence of angels, that for a long period of time angels were said to have existed, but they aren't spoken of hardly at all anymore.

If Altizer and Hamilton are correct, then when exactly did God die? Altizer says it was when the incarnation occurred. "The arrival of Jesus in the world made it clear that man no longer needed a heavenly God. God was now man, and there was no call to revert to a God who was Other than man."  Hamilton, however, suggests that God was dying in the period of the French Revolution and the First World War. Today, he concludes, we can see clearly that God is dead. God was dying in the nineteenth century; he is dead in the twentieth." Hamilton then says that he has had many conversations with pastors of the Church, and they repeatedly say, "Everything we do in the life of the Church is exciting and makes sense, except for Worship."

Perhaps the same could be said today, with many modern churches trying out "new ways to do worship," whether it be new music, dancing, a new building. But still something seems missing. This can become acutely clear when they do not have Monday to Saturday activities of service to the community which are the lifeblood of the Church.

Harrison nears the end of his third chapter by listing what he sees as the possible choices when it comes to humankind's view of God.

  1. The "traditional" view of God as a personal Other, who made the Universe and occasionally intervenes.
  2. The traditional God described in different language (but still the same God as found in #1).
  3. The traditional concept of the Other isn't possible and perhaps never was. Now we seek God as Ultimate Concern or the ground of all being.
  4. God did indeed exist but is now dead.
  5. There never was a God, there is no God now, and there never will be.
Harrison then asks: At what point in this list is it impossible or hypocritical to remain a member of the Church? At what point is it impossible or hypocritical to call oneself a Christian? The answer given here is that, though a question mark may well be placed over #5, all the above are possible to a Christian, and that it remains to be seen whether they are possible to members of the ancient denominations...To remain a Christian, one has to be a follower of Christ, and one may be such a follower while accepting any of the above beliefs, perhaps including #5.

Harrison says that the Church leaders of his day were having difficulties how to address these questions. Some said that congregants had to stay true to "the faith," (whatever that was), or they vehemently attacked him for his liberal views.

Harrison concludes his chapter by asking "Who do we turn to" for the truth about God. The church? Pastors? Theologians? Bishops? No, he says. "The answer is, as it always was, that we have to decide for ourselves."

"The choice, then, is for the individual, and for many of us it has already been made. We enjoy being members of the Church. It is here that we meet so many of the people we love. It is here that we are received as ourselves and can receive others in like fashion. We like the rector of the curate; we enjoy singing in the choir; we enjoy playing organs, drums, or saxophones. It is here that coffeehouses are organized, meetings held which give us enjoyment. It is here that our children seem to have their good times. The teaching handed out in Sunday School may range from inoffensive to wretched; but it tries to impart good standards of behaviour; the children like the teacher in spite of the teaching."
Harrison continues by talking about "shopping around" for other groups or churches:

"We may even have shopped around to see if there are any other groups that might provide the sense of belonging we need. The agnostics sound great on radio and television, but it is difficult to find out where they meet, and we like to meet people. The Unitarians sound as if they are on the right track, but there is an assumed intellectualism which may be bothersome, and their groups form something of a pattern. We occasionally have resurgences of the old convictions, occasionally feel that the old moralities had their point; and this make us embarrassed in Unitarian company. This is probably an unfair assessment of Unitarians, but events so stand for many of us."

Finally, Harrison suggests that many people want to remain members of their Church, and that if the traditional creedal follower can sit down with the more liberal thinker, then it is a great thing. "If the traditional creedal follower genuinely believes it, let us raise flags of delight. Then let us tell him what we think.  Harrison concludes by encouraging more liberal Christian thinkers to remain in their Churches if they feel it is right. "As things stand, your beliefs may well be orthodox in twenty years' time, and you may be faced with the task of showing charity to those who are challenging them."

As it stands, I currently pitch my tent with Tillich, Robinson, Spong and Borg. To me, God is not a Person-like being in the Sky, judging us and sending some to Heaven and some to Hell. To me, God is the Ground of All Being, everything lives within God, including myself.  As Spong writes, the best way I can express God is by living freely, loving wastefully, and being all that I can be.

Here we are in 2012 and while Harrison's suggestion that a radical, more liberal view of God might be orthodoxy by now has not come to pass in large swaths of the Christian church, there are some changes happening. Preachers like Joel Osteen no longer preach damnation, others like author/pastor Rob Bell challenge a literal view of Hell, and so on. Of course the fundamentalists seem most resistant to change, which should be no surprise.  But many in the mainline denominations, as well as the Quakers and movements such as Unity explore different views of who or what God is.  This is encouraging. I currently find myself at the Unitarian congregation in my city after having rejected fundamentalist Christianity. But one day may find myself within the Progressive Christian movement, something that an entire other blogpost will be dedicated to in the future.

Mark Andrew Alward

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believers Guide To The Uses Of Religion

Here is an interview with Alain de Botton, author of Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believers Guide To The Uses Of Religion.  Mr. De Botton is not a Hitchens-atheist, and recognizes both the good and bad in religion. Interviewed on The Agenda With Steve Paiken. "Religion is a buffet and we should grab a plate and take a look.

Prayer: Where Love And Pain Are Found Together

"It is a sign of spiritual maturity when we can give up our illusory self-control and stretch out our hands to God. But it would be just another illusion to believe that reaching out to God will free us from pain and suffering. Often, indeed, it will take us where we rather would not go. But we know that without going there we will not find our life. "...anyone who loses his life...will find it" (Matthew 16:25), Jesus says, reminding us that love is purified in pain.

Prayer, therefore, is far from sweet and easy. Being the expression of our greatest love, it does not keep pain away from us. Instead, it makes us suffer more since our love for God is a love for a suffering God and our entering into God's intimacy is an entering into the intimacy where all of human suffering is embraced in divine compassion. To the degree that our prayer has become the prayer of our heart we will love more and suffer more, we will see more light and more darkness, more grace and more sin, more of God and more of humanity. To the degree that we have descended into our heart and reached out to God from there, solitude can speak to solitude, deep to deep and heart to heart. It is there where love and pain are found together."

~ Henri J.M. Nouwen, "Reaching Out"

President Obama Remembers Rosa Parks

President Obama sits on the bus where Rosa Parks' protest began the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott. 

Raymond Taavel Was Just 49 Years Old

Raymond Taavel

Raymond Taavel, a leading gay rights activist in Halifax, Nova Scotia, was beaten to death outside a club late Monday night after trying to intervene in a fight between two other men.  Raymond, just 49 years old, was former editor of Wayves Magazine, and a Co-Chair of Halifax Pride.  He was also the Assistant Circulation Manager for the magazines Shambhala Sun and Buddhadarma, as well as being involved with the New Democratic Party.  

In May 2010 he wrote in Wayves: "It’s tempting in this day and age of legislated liberties to think that a personal or collective vigilance is no longer required. It’s easy to lull ourselves into complacency, thinking there’s nothing more left to fight for, or nothing more to achieve. Fighting back comes in many forms: reaching out, building bridges, educating and, if need be, defending ourselves from physical harm.”

Today I pause with the hundreds who have gathered in downtown Halifax to remember the life of a vibrant leader in the community.  To read official statements from the Premier of Nova Scotia, Darrell Dexter, and other politicians, visit the Shambhala Sun website.

We All Now Come To The Beloved's Door

Children can easily open the drawer
That lets the spirit rise up and wear
Its favourite costume of 
Mirth and laughter.

We are not in pursuit of formalities
or fake religious laws,
For through the stairway of existence
We have come to God's door.

We are people who need to love, because 
Love is the soul's life,
Love is simply creation's greatest joy.

Through the stairway of existence,
O through the stairway of existence, Hafiz,

Have you now come,
Have we all now come to
The Beloved's Door.

~ Hafiz, Persian lyric poet (1325-1389)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Your Smile

there is almost no sadness,
there is almost no storm-cloud,
there is almost no shade of the darkest blue;

that the smile of a pretty girl whom you do not know 
cannot take away.

~ Mark Andrew Alward

Your Soul Is The Source

Think of your soul as the source and created things as springs.
While the source exists, the springs continually flow...
From mineral substance you were transformed to plant,
and later to animal. How could this be hidden?
Afterwards, as a human being, 
you developed knowledge, consciousness, faith.
See how this body has risen from the dust like a rose?
When you have walked on from human you will be an angel...
Pass, then from the angelic and enter the Sea.
Your drop will merge with a hundred Seas of Oman...
Although your body has aged, your soul has become young.

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī (Rumi), Sufi mystic (1207-1273)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Angels Encircle The Earth

"When a man looks upon his wife and she upon him, God looks mercifully on them. When they join hands together, their sins disappear in the interstices of their fingers. When he makes love to her, the angels encircle the earth. Voluptuousness and desire are as beautiful as the mountains."

~ Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him.

If I Ever Learn What My Heart Already Knows

This afternoon as I sit at the coffee shop (read: as I lay here still in bed) I'm thinking about beliefs, feelings, and actions.  Over the last few days I have been presented with several examples where the concentration on what one believes in their heads seems to take precedence over what they feel in their heart or the actions that they take.

First off, beliefs can be important if they lead to a loving, caring, more compassionate life.  However, beliefs can also be limiting if they lead to a rigid ideology which excludes certain people or entire groups of society from love.  I used to be a person of the head, where I thought that if I closed my eyes and prayed enough or "just believed" enough, and if I believed the "right" things, then everything would be ok; I would be safe.  But this only led to a life of guilt and small-mindedness where people who didn't believe the same things that I did were excluded from the right to experiencing true love.  This kind of "believing" makes me very angry these days.

I want a world where love and happiness are experienced by every person on the planet, even if they look differently, love differently, or believe differently than I do. This may challenge long-held beliefs, but when faced with the heart, I think the mind has to take a bow. The mind must be informed by one's own heart, not just by ideology, or history, or pre-conceived notions.

And what truly matters is how we act.  I do not believe that the Bible is the literal, inspired word of God for all time. But there are many important things in there. Some of the most powerful verses are about loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, seeking justice and peace, and about helping the poor, the needy, the widows and the orphans. Jesus seemed to be all about the marginalized and the untouchables. I wouldn't be surprised that if he were around today he would forego an area pastor's breakfast  in order to hang out with "the fags." Lately I have encountered some people whose "beliefs" that they hold in their mind lead to exclusion and hatred. If that's what having the right beliefs is about, then let my brain turn to mush and let me be controlled only by my heart. Because my heart, when I open it up, can contain the whole world. It can contain people of all ages, all colours, all creeds, all mental, physical, and emotional capacities, and all sexual orientations.  The world is evolving, and my heart is ready for the ride.

Mark Andrew Alward

Monday, April 16, 2012

When Love Holds Us Upside Down

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God....
The Beloved sometimes wants
To do us a great favour:
Hold us upside down
And shake all the nonsense out.
But when we hear
he is in such a "playful drunken mood"
Most everyone I know
Quickly packs their bags and hightails it
Out of town.

~ Hafiz, Persian lyric poet (1325-1389)

Pluralism: A Many-Splendoured Society (A Church Without God - Chapter II)

Rev. Ernest Harrison begins his second chapter of A Church Without God (1966)  by telling a couple of stories about the divide between Catholics and Protestants. One story is of two religious adversaries who used to participate in snowball fights.

The two boys, when older, sat down for a conversation, and the Protestant thought, "When you actually got to know them, they were just the same as you were. They had the same emotions, the same deep faiths and doubts, the same loves and hates, the same pleasure at laying a girl and the same guilt afterwards. The same everything. They just played in a different part of the yard. It wasn't a question of truth, or love, or anything absolute at all. He remembered looking across at John Heller (a Catholic). You bastard, he thought, and God help us! What our religion does, separating us and making us hate, and feel guilty when we love. All that matters is that we are both men. But he had said nothing."

It is clear that a good chunk of this chapter will be about religious pluralism. "Today in Canada, the United States, and England, this pluralism, implicit in the discovery that a person of an opposite religion could also be right - is now an accepted fact of our national lives. It is very good, this many-splendoured society in which we find ourselves. No longer do we feel the need for a single focus to our lives, a single God, a single true religion, a single philosophy, or a single truth. In spite of the fears of those who dreaded the arrival of pluralism, the result has not been chaos."

I would note that Harrison was a minister in the mainline Anglican Church of Canada, and that his views probably do not reflect the views of most fundamentalist preachers of his day. For instance, when I was growing up, religious pluralism wasn't even talked about, and any ecumenical behaviour was conducted with the caveat that we "stood our ground."

Harrison continues by saying, basically, that a person can be "good without God." "The claim is constantly made that religion is the bedrock of morals and the good life. This has some merit, but the claim is inadequate. We may nowadays say that any philosophy of life, no matter how well or badly articulated, no matter how logical or illogical, emotional or unemotional, objective or subjective, so long as it is sincerely based, may be a bedrock of morals and the good life."

This is much different than what I was taught and what I believed growing up. A person could not "be good without God," but was utterly lost or deceived and in danger of hellfire.  I was allowed to spend time with non-Christians, but it was clear that I should be "witnessing" my faith to them in order that they too might be saved.

Harrison speaks of growing up in church hearing about "One God. One Faith. One Baptism. The Church's One Foundation," but then when leaving church people mingled with people of different denominations. "We learned to respect the convictions of others, and felt less and less need to convert the agnostic to Christianity or the Christian to agnostic. We learned, through experience, that conversion and communication cannot live happily together. Where conversion begins, communication ceases."

Thus Harrison speaks of the chasm of life between how one lives Monday through Saturday, and what one is presented with on Sunday mornings.  Speaking from 1966 Canada, Harrison writes: "The assumption of the prayer book is clear: there are two communities, those who are saved and those who are not. It is the duty of the first to convert the second, and God's help is necessary to do this. The definition of the two communities is, to some extent, in terms of the good life; but it is mostly in terms of concepts - what one believes about God, Christ, the Trinity, and the Sacraments. A man is not to be judged by his fruits so much as the basic tenets of his belief. The Christian may live a harmful life, and must seek forgiveness, but he is still a Christian. The atheist may show all the fruits of a deep Christian belief, be he remain an atheist. It is still the duty of the first to convert the second."

A verse in the Bible comes to mind that has Jesus telling his disciples that "He who is not against me is for me," or, otherwise, "they may not play for my team, but they're still good people."  And where did we come up with this belief that our beliefs and tenets matter more than the way that we live?  There are obviously many Christians who do little good within society, and many atheists who are involved in volunteerism, etc.  "By their fruits you shall know them."  I don't think that God cares nearly so much about us holding the "right beliefs" as he does how we are loving our neighbour.

Harrison says that often church-goers can be guilted into converting non-Christians, though this is anathema to a person's personal beliefs. I can relate to this. Even as a young boy of 7 or 8, and throughout my teenaged years, I remember feeling guilty, that I should be "doing more" to convert the heathen to my version of Christianity. But at the same time, a growing part of me was looking at "non-Christians" and thinking "Umm, there's nothing wrong with these people, they just believe differently than I do."

Harrison writes that: "More and more church-goers, though still a minority, and not represented at all in the centre of ecclesiastical power and finance, have already rejected the portrait of life offered in our present prayer books, church services and sermons. They live in hope that these will change, especially the sermons. For awhile, they are willing to close their ears and gather strength from their growing conviction that they do not, as Christians, have to believe that there is a single faith, a single core to their being, a single authority in any sphere, or a single foundation to their lives."

Harrison then refutes the claim that calamity and chaos will ensue if the "Rock" of Christianity is taken away from under our feet. Hell will not break loose. Also, he says that we do not need to belittle our neighbours who may believe different than us: both of us may be right! "All this adds a new dimension to such activities as listening to sermons, taking part in liturgies, singing hymns, saying creeds, and attending synods. The sermon, which means so much to the preacher, may mean nothing to me, a little to my wife, and everything to the young man in front. I need not suppose that only one of these views is right, or even more right than another. They may all be correct. The young theological student believes that Jesus was born of a Virgin, my son thinks it may be historically correct but can take it or leave it, my daughter thinks the whole idea is nonsense. I need not suppose that any of these views is correct or even attempt to synthesize them."

Harrison then writes at length about the pluralism within individuals, that we are more complex than being either "good or evil," or "right or wrong." "A recognition of this pluralism of consciousness is a step in maturity. It denies nothing of the love that is poured out in the name of those who believe in the One True God. It simply extends it to all and so becomes Catholic. It takes away nothing from the narrow way to salvation, but extends it to Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Moslems who have suddenly become our next-door neighbours. Modern man finds that he can only be truly himself when he recognizes all is neighbours to be as fully human as he is. The whole world has now entered his life, and no group of people can any more be excluded, denigrated, or converted."

Harrison then cautions his readers to not become complacent in their new-found plurality, or taking it on as a New Orthodoxy. We must always be open to change, pluralism must always undergo trying times.

Harrison concludes his second chapter by proclaiming, "The Christian Gospel was, and is, a noble way of life which did not move beyond a hopeful theory. As practised in Christendom, it failed, and Mother Church, corrupt and decayed, is at last seen to be dead. Pluralism takes up some of the hope, though it no longer sees Christ as essential. It will, in time, face its own distortions and has no more guarantee of solving our problems than any previous way.

Indeed, there is a form of Christianity emerging today, in 2012, where Jesus as a person is not necessarily essential. I believe that Gretta Vosper, author of With or Without God speaks further about this new Christianity. Vosper is a founder of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity.

While pluralism will always has its challenges (and challengers), it is here and it is here strongly. "It is the pattern for secular man, and it is good. Many men, knowing this, have moved out of the established Church; many more will do so. Those who remain find themselves in an apparent minority, loudly denounced from pulpit and church papers. Yet enough of them now perceive that they are in the pattern of the future and will remain in the Church to see that future take shape. it is part of the fear expressed in the latter part of this chapter that, when it does take shape, we may find the bishops of the day denouncing whatever it is that will be challenging the world to change once more. Even when we adjust to the fact that an old doctrine has collapsed, we still cling to the hope that our new one will surely remain for ever. In the realm of pluralism, the hope is as much a delusion as in any other."