September 18, 2016
Stop Being So Religious
Do sad people have in
The have all built a shrine
To the past
And often go there
And do a strange wail and
What is the beginning of
It is to stop being
Behold this Book We have sent down upon you, that you may lead humanity from darkness to light… (Qur’an 14:1)
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Human beings do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)
Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. (Psalm 119:105)
The alternative understanding of the Bible’s origin is grounded in the historical and theological scholarship of the last few centuries. That scholarship has made it clear that the Bible is a human product, not a divine one. The Old Testament is the product of ancient Israel, and the New Testament is the product of early Christian Communities…..To speak of the Bible as the “Word of God” means that it is a vehicle, a means, of communing with God. It is sacramental—divine not in its origin or authority, but in its purpose and function in the Christian life. It is a means whereby the Spirit of God continues to speak to us.
Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World
John Shelby Spong
I do not think for one moment that the Bible is in any literal sense the “Word of God.” It is a tribal story—a pre-modern story, an ever–changing and ever-growing story. It came into existence, as every other book does, out of the experience of human beings seeking to make sense out of the life they are living and the things they are experiencing.
These are words that you hear in church.
More than that, they are words or phrases that have an emotional impact, a psychic impact. We might think we know what we mean when we use them or that there is a meaning to them that we share.
We all know what the Bible is, right? We all know what salvation means. We all know who Jesus was. Or should I say who Jesus is? And God? Everyone knows what God is and everyone knows that everyone else is talking about the same thing when we use that word, right?
Far from it in regards to all of those questions.
This series of sermons on churchy words is a modest attempt to talk about the words we use in church. I hope to inspire you to ask some of these questions:
What is there psychic emotional impact of these words on you?
How do you feel when you hear the word “Bible”?
What images come to mind?
What do you think you are supposed to think about the Bible?
What do you really think?
My guide is the late Marcus Borg and his book Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored.
Marcus Borg’s view is that what I call churchy words and he calls Christian words have lost their meaning. They had a good meaning once but the meaning of these words has been distorted by heaven-hell Christianity.
The dominant form of Christianity or at least the most vociferous form of Christianity is primarily about getting people on the right team so that they can go to heaven when they die. This is heaven-hell Christianity.
Now folks might object that Christianity isn’t only about that. It is about loving your neighbor, having a relationship with God through Jesus. Praying. Caring for others. Doing good works on behalf of justice. That is all true. However, in the dominant form of heaven-hell Christianity, no matter how much we include all of these other things, being “saved” for heaven is always present.
How do I know this?
Consider Carlton Pearson, a Pentecostal preacher, who gave up belief in hell and told his congregation about it. Nearly all of his 5,000 member mega-church left him. Since then he has continued his work exploring a spiritually progressive path.
So, imagine a minister, saying there really is no hell or even heaven. This life probably is what you get. If there is an afterlife, it has nothing to do with being saved in church. If our consciousness somehow survives death, it will happen to everyone.
It would be hard to imagine a minister like that getting a church job. No matter how much the minister emphasized all the other things that people say Christianity stands for: justice, spiritual growth, love, prayer, good works of service, community, if there is no heaven or hell, no big prize or punishment at the end, then what is the point?
Heaven and hell is so pervasive that it is not far from the surface for even liberal Christians. In the big heresy trial up north, Gretta Vosper was acknowledged as being a good minister in terms of the stuff she does. This is what the committee that found her “unsuitable” wrote about her:
“This interview did not assess whether Ms. Vosper meets the Standards of Practice with respect to administration, community outreach and social justice, continuing education, denomination and communities, leadership, pastoral care and self-care. The question that Toronto Conference asked this Committee to address was limited to her beliefs and her theology and their impact on Ms. Vosper’s responsibility for faith formation, Christian education and worship.”
They don’t care that she does good things. They care that she mouths the words of the system, says yes to the beliefs.
A friend of mine commented on my blog in regards to an article about Vosper in the Toronto Star. The Star wrote:
“Vosper…does not believe in an interventionist, supernatural God. She preaches instead about love, kindness and human connection.”
“And this is going to get her canned? Love, kindness and human connection is not enough?”
And the answer is, no it isn’t enough. It isn’t enough for heaven and hell Christianity. Even in one of the most liberal denominations. Gretta herself said the United Church of Canada is the most liberal denomination on the planet.
At the end of the day, even the most liberal denomination on the planet is plagued by the demons of heaven and hell. Now, of course, they are not coarse like the sweaty evangelists waving their Bibles or our protesters screaming at us through their milk jug megaphones.
These church bureaucrats are sophisticated and they dress up the doctrine with pretty phrases, but it always comes back to power. Who holds the keys to the kingdom, the keys to heaven and hell? Their power is based on the mythical, cosmic power of heaven and hell that has been passed down mystically from generation to generation through the ordination process. This is why Gretta is such a threat. She is exposing the whole system for what it is, a manufactured means of control.
If you get rid of heaven and hell, every doctrine crumbles to dust. If there is no heaven and hell, then Jesus dying on the cross for your sins is rather pointless. What does it do for you that it doesn’t do for the person who doesn’t care? At the end of your life you both go down to the dust from which you emerged.
Even God loses potency. If there is no heaven or hell, what can God do to you? No longer does the supernatural, interventionist God wield the metaphysical carrot or stick. No longer does God, whether there is one or not, have any power to punish or reward. It is a justice system without fines or prisons or means of enforcement. You can have judges, but who cares what they say?
What is the Bible in this system? The Bible is a mythical thing as well. It is the “word of God.” For anyone who has ever tried to read it, it is a tough slog. That is why we need a whole salvation factory full of priests and theologians to tell us what it says. It says what they want it to say:
“There is no salvation outside the church.”
The Bible is God’s proclamation that unless you believe and do as we say it says, your salvation is not guaranteed. It could be hell. Want to risk that? The Bible then is the authoritative power to enforce the heaven and hell system psychically.
Yes, the Bible says lots of other things, but primarily it serves as the symbol of authority for reward and punishment.
When heaven and hell disappear, who cares what the Bible says? It no longer has power over you.
If you are at all feeling squeamish as you hear this, I would say it is possibly because you, too, have been indoctrinated with the heaven and hell mythology. It is powerful stuff. It soaks deep inside our psyches.
I think a good way to get exorcise it, to cast out that demon, is to name it for what it is. To be like Dorothy’s little dog, Toto, and pull back the curtain on the humbug who is controlling the Great and Mighty Wizard of Oz.
When we finally rid ourselves of the last remnant of heaven and hell, we are finally able to live this life.
Now, we are discovering that fewer and fewer people attend church. Heaven and hell was its primary recruiting doctrine. As it becomes less credible, church attendance becomes less obligatory.
The fundamentalist churches double down on the fear. Especially in troubling times, snake oil salesmen thrive peddling their superstitions. What can you do about them? Not much. Just try to keep them out of public office. Give yourself some peace by limiting the time you argue with them on Facebook.
The liberal denominations find themselves in a pickle. They have inherited the whole system and have it written in their codes, their confessions of belief and in their ordination questions or vows that are to be repeated on a regular basis. There are plenty of clergy who cling to the heaven/hell framework. There are others who are in the process of leaving it behind but they are afraid of the bureaucrats who don’t have the keys to the kingdom but they can mess up their careers.
These denominations and their constituent clergy have to decide if they are going to continue on with the dogmatic charade and punish the clergy who are whistle-blowing on the system, or whether they are going to defend those clergy and the freedom of thought they espouse.
Then there are the people who populate the pews and who fund the whole enterprise. They aren’t dumb. They know how to think. They have the internet. They can read books. They treat the dogma and the beliefs and the heaven and hell as the rantings of grandpa who is slowly losing his grip. They participate in their communities because they like the people, love to sing, and find it to be a place that they can do good things and perhaps even take time to think about and meditate on a bigger picture, whatever that might be.
They are you.
The revolution of church is not going to be led by the clergy. It is led by laypeople not really caring about preacher talk. We clergy are following you. You just may not realize the power you have.
When Gretta Vosper and others you may know break it all open in a public way, it is at once disturbing, validating, and liberating. Remember, Gospel of Thomas, saying two:
Jesus said, “Let the one who seeks continue seeking until s/he finds. When s/he finds, s/he will become troubled. When s/he becomes troubled, s/he will be astonished, and s/he will rule over the All.”
Rule over all doesn’t mean boss others around. It means to have agency over one’s own life. No longer do abusive and controlling systems of doctrine or external threats have power over us. We are our own agents of determining how we will live our lives.
Then, my friends, then all of the churchy words crumble to the dust.
But that is just the beginning.
Now, the words can be reconstituted in empowering ways.
Now, as a friend of mine put it, we “rake through the ashes of Christendom” to find the treasures to build a new way of living in the world.
We can’t say in advance what this might look like, but I think we can imagine that it is broadly ecumenical, celebrating the cultural gifts of other religious and spiritual traditions.
It is open-minded to the findings of science and critical thinking.
It is committed not to salvation in a heavenly realm, but to wholeness and healing on Earth, for our future, for our environment, for peace and justice.
It is about enabling people to have agency, about naming forces of oppression and systemic control and encouraging courage to resist.
It is about revisiting all of our cultural traditions to find those aspects that can help us in this task.
It is about inviting us to imagine and to build the beloved community.
Today’s churchy word is the Bible. What might it become for us?
Hard to say. It may be put on a dusty shelf along with the myths of Olympus.
It isn’t there yet. It is still a best-seller. I think there is a task to read it critically a human product, as Borg writes:
The alternative understanding of the Bible’s origin is grounded in the historical and theological scholarship of the last few centuries. That scholarship has made it clear that the Bible is a human product, not a divine one. The Old Testament is the product of ancient Israel, and the New Testament is the product of early Christian Communities.
Then we ask, did our ancestors know anything?
We find that they weren’t dummies either. It is probably in our interests to rake through it and see if there are any useful tools there for our present work and life. We don’t make a fetish of our sacred texts, we value them as conversation partners.
When we let go of heaven-hell Christianity, we find that there is a much broader way of understanding the Christian life. Whether it be the teachings and parables of Jesus or the quasi-mythological themes of exodus and promise in the Torah, or the prophetic voice against injustice, these folks did live through life and may yet have something to teach us.
Whether it does or doesn’t, it won’t be meaningful because of threat or force of dogma. It will be meaningful to us, if it is, because it has a resonance with who we are as human beings and what we value and what we might yet value.
When Jesus is quoted as saying in the pages of the Bible, “Love your enemies,” I find that statement haunting. That statement haunts me not because of heaven and hell Christianity or because it is a command from the son of God or has the authority of a supernatural being.
It haunts me because I wonder if we can do this. If I can do this. What will we gain or lose if we do or don’t? What is at stake for us? What is at stake for the world when my new granddaughter to be is my age? It haunts me because there is truth to it. A truth that matters.
I can hear her speak to me from the future:
Grandpa, did you love your enemies?
That question from her is far more important to me than from any god sitting on a mythical heavenly throne.
Grandpa, for me and for all the children who come into this world, will you love your enemies?
I will, Pippa, with the help of all humanity.