Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) says: “One thing that I love so much about mill — this new generation is the radical acceptance that I see from so many and they actually take time to read and understand our history, the history of the labor movement, civil rights, history of racial struggles, history of economics, history of the United States, history of colonialism.”
I know those people she loves. Many of them are members of Circle of Hope forming the next generation of the church. Many of those members go so far as to see themselves as “transhistorical.” They not only know the history of things, they are part of an eternal now with their ancestors in the faith (like the real Valentine). They keep making history with all those faithful people from the past. I love them at least as much as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does.
I think I feel about Circle of hope like Paul did about the church in Rome, planted as it was in the first century’s facsimile of a megalopolis: “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world” (Romans 1:8ff).
But what about those who have lost history?
However, I experienced a jarring collision between my Headspace trial and Jane Pauley on the DVR last night. It did not make me happy about the way history is going and being lost.
The Headspace app I spoke about in my speech last night taught me and many, many others to shut out the world and live in the present moment. The app provides a cartoon version of Buddhist practice for anxious millennials, especially. Their withdrawal reflects “the Buddhist way,” which includes this kind of teaching: “Buddhists reject identity by saying the self is empty Anatman. They reject reality because they do not believe in external reality. They reject presence because their goal is absence, absence of suffering.”
Buddhism is a pretty big tent, these days. But pop Bushism on apps fits right into the fearfulness that leads people to find ways to shut things out and just be in the moment, history included.
When I got home from the meeting at West Tulpehocken, I sat down to watch the rest of CBS Sunday Morning. It spent a lot of time on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Here’s the best story.
The people who have spent their whole lives and millions of dollars preserving Auschwitz, so no one forgets what happened there, are frightened. As each remaining survivor dies, there is a bit more slippage in society’s grasp of the history. The CBS reporters lifted a paragraph out of the Wikipedia page about Millennials to make that point:
A February 2018 survey of 1,350 individuals found that 66% of the American millennials (and 41% of all U.S. adults) surveyed did not know what Auschwitz was, while 41% incorrectly claimed that 2 million Jews or fewer were killed during the Holocaust, and 22% said that they had never heard of the Holocaust. Over 95% of American millennials were unaware that a portion of the Holocaust occurred in the Baltic states, which lost over 90% of their pre-war Jewish population, and 49% were not able to name a single Nazi concentration camp or ghetto in German-occupied Europe.
Meanwhile, reported hate crimes are on the rise (see this WP story about kids!). The Brookings Institute collected data to show how Trump’s persistent racist and xenophobic rhetoric increases hate crimes. For instance:
Another study, based on data collected by the Anti-Defamation League, shows that counties that hosted a Trump campaign rally in 2016 saw hate crime rates more than double compared to similar counties that did not host a rally.
It is disheartening to anyone who knows what Auschwitz is to think that world leaders can find followers willing to scapegoat despised people groups and unleash hate in their direction.
Don’t gasp, act
Maybe more people will “tsk” than gasp when they read about the sorry state of the world. Thank God Rep. Ocasio-Cortez can find hope in the good people rising up in her generation. I am encouraged by the people of our church who keep hope alive.
But I don’t think any of us should be surprised that people are so wicked. I have a B.A. in history and quite a few years of personal history, now. It would take quite an effort for me to overlook how people keep inventing new ways to express the same old evil. Evil is redundant. When i saw the evil portrayed in Parasite, my first response was, “This movie is so redundant!” It was almost like people who love Bong Joon-ho’s “fresh look” have forgotten the 1930’s, or 1880’s, or 1780’s or Nebuchadnezzar. Bong hasn’t. One of his favorite movies is How Green Was My Valley, which is the same old story of cruel capitalists and their throwaway slaves.
Jesus-followers apply the same old hope to the same old wickedness and keep the possibilities of forever alive. We have to keep our ability to be appalled intact as Trump and Bloomberg corrupt the populace swimming in the mud of their mudslinging. The people least capable of enduring the same kind of evil that could build an Auschwitz are the ones who will commit more hate crimes and scare people enough to barricade themselves in their countries, homes or minds. I hope we are not afraid to face these poor people and save them. First we need to make a real relationship with God, especially now that we really need one. And we need to let that love build us into a community of others who share it. From that authentic community, we need to act with all we’ve got, to answer every piece of hate with the power behind the love that transforms it. We need to gasp. Even more, we need to keep acting.
At the CAPS International Conference, Marcus Rodriguez treated our workshop to an entertaining, enlightening and encouraging gallop through Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, focusing on “radical acceptance” – one of the many skills DBT uses. This therapy is under the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) umbrella. It was originally created to help with borderline personality disorder. Now it is used to help with a variety of other conditions. It is a very organized way to teach people to change when their behavior is damaging relationships and even threatening to destroy them.
DBT teaches clients four sets of behavioral skills under the headings: mindfulness; distress tolerance; interpersonal effectiveness; and emotion regulation. But, whether we are ill or not, as Marcus demonstrated, we can all benefit from adapting and incorporating the skills into our lives.
Christians use DBT, Buddhist-leaning or not
For some people, applying DBT skills might seem sketchy, since many of the skills are straight from the Buddhist playbook. You might know that I’ve suggested elsewhere how Christians can be friends with Buddhists. But appreciating the strengths of Buddhist or DBT philosophy doesn’t mean we overlook the core elements that could undermine our faith in the name of reducing our suffering. There isn’t much in any psychotherapy models which a Jesus follower wouldn’t need to adapt.
DBT represents some of the real differences between Jesus and Buddha. The Buddha said, “Look not to me, look to my dharma (doctrine).” The Christ said, “Follow me.” The Buddha said, “Be lamps unto yourselves.” The Christ said, “I am the light of the world.” Yet contrary to the original intentions of both, some later Buddhists (the Pure Land sect) divinized Buddha. And some later Christians (Arians and Modernists) de-divinized Christ.
Peter Kreeft sums up the differences nicely. He says, “On this crucial issue—the diagnosis of the human problem—Christianity and Buddhism seem about as far apart as possible. For where Buddha finds our desires too strong, Christ finds them too weak. He wants us to love more, not less: to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. Buddha “solves” the problem of pain by practicing spiritual euthanasia: curing the disease of egotism and the suffering it brings by killing the patient, the ego, self, soul or I-image of God in humanity.” No Christians using DBT think they are doing this, I suspect. But the modality comes from that playbook.
It is easy to say that many Christians are better Buddhists than they are Jesus followers, since they practice law-keeping designed to squash their desires before they result in sin, often at the cost of their soul. They kill their souls in order to not face the shame of needing new life. It would be better if they followed the Buddha’s example and sat under a tree until they were enlightened – that is, enlightened in the way Paul hopes: that
“the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:17-18).
In that same hope, I offer three DBT skills that everyone could practice that will increase our capacity to gain a spirit of wisdom instead of rolling around in our unquestioned behaviors that lead to sin and ruptured relationships.
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. – Philippians 4:8
“Mindfulness” has a lot of definitions. For Marcus, it begins with stepping back from your normal thinking pattern and noting how you are enacting the pattern. That’s also known as mentalizing. Other teachers say mindfulness means living one’s life more in the present moment, instead of allowing oneself to be hijacked by the past and the future.
Marcus instructed us to bring to mind a situation about which we felt deeply, but which was not changing and not likely to change because of something we could do to change it. We closed our eyes, or stared at a focal point, breathed in and then breathed out the sentence we had constructed to describe the situation. We were told to simply note the fact when our minds wandered, thank ourselves for noticing, and return to our practice.
Our teacher was helping us to get a feel for how we could step back and look at automatic behaviors we need to change using this crucial DBT skill. For instance, if you’re entangled in your thoughts, you might think/feel: “Susan is really nice. She’s such a great person. I wish I were more like her. I should ask her if she wants to go for coffee sometime. I’d like to get to know her better.” Being mindful, you get some space to reduce the extraneous thoughts and observe, “There’s a thought that Susan is such a nice person.”
We would all like to pause, check in, identify our emotions and consciously make healthy decisions. Try it. It might surprise you just how little you are thinking and feeling about what you are actually thinking and feeling. This mindfulness is a lot like what Paul is suggesting to the Philippians, isn’t it?
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. – Romans 15:5-7
This skill focuses on accepting our daily experiences and working to accept the more painful events that have happened. Marcus had many colorful examples about how fighting reality only heightens our suffering, like, “Beating up your pillow all night does nothing but make the bed sweaty.” He had a ready excuse to practice this skill during our workshop, since he needed a projector and was not provided one. That reality frustrated and embarrassed him. He said, “Instead of telling myself, ‘My life sucks’ I have to remind myself ‘It is what it is. I will get through it. Breathe.’”
This spirit of acceptance is what Paul recommends to the Romans as they face the divisions in their church. But it also applies to accepting the divisions we feel in ourselves. DBT requires a hard won discipline of living in whatever is materially real in the moment, free from desires and guilt. For Jesus followers, a grateful acceptance of being accepted by Jesus is required, but the results are similar, I think. Our faith is constantly accepting that God is with us in Jesus, and accepting that controlling our desire to control cannot really save us — although it is great cooperation with the One who can!
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God. – 1 Corinthians 4:3-5
Marcus was concerned that we learn the difference between a judgment and a fact. Negative judgments tend to boost our emotional pain. So when we’re angry, irritated or frustrated, we should pay attention to what judgment we are making or we will just make things worse. “I hate Philadelphia because it rains so much” is different from “I had hoped it would not rain today.” “My partner is an idiot,” is different from: “I worked another long day and when I got home my partner asked me what I was making for dinner. I am angry about this and disappointed he’s not making an effort to help.”
Being less judgmental doesn’t eliminate our pain, but it might take it from an 8 to a 5. If we practice the “radical acceptance” Marcus was teaching us, we might move the needle from 5 to 3. Radical acceptance does not mean agreeing with what happened, or approving, excusing, absolving, allowing, resigning, or wallowing in suffering. Radical acceptance simply means we acknowledge the facts of our lives without judgment. We often fight reality instead, which only intensifies our emotional reaction. We might fight reality by judging a situation, saying “It should or shouldn’t be this way,” or “That’s not fair!” or “Why me?!” Fighting reality only creates suffering. DBT people say, “Pain is inevitable in life; suffering is optional.”
The idea we can choose our way out of suffering is where we see how much Buddhism impacts DBT. It leans toward shutting down the desires and leading us to find a place of nothingness where “should” or “want” is irrelevant. For disordered people, this ability is priceless — and most of us could use a dose.
But we do not need to adopt the core premise of Buddhism to make us of skills that help us pay attention to our reactions so we can manage to make the choices we prefer. I think all the Bible verses I quoted are teaching variations on that theme, among other things. We have to learn new skills to be new people in Christ. The big difference, as Kreeft pointed out, is always about how we see where we started, where God is in the process, and whether we actually think the joy and suffering we are experiencing only have the meaning we assign them in the moment, no meaning at all, or are doorways to eternity.
Tim Geoffrion (a spiritual director/coach) interviewed Buddhist monks a decade ago while he was teaching Christian theology in Thailand and briefly in Myanmar. As a result, he became aware of helpful contributions Buddhist philosophy and practices offer, not only to Buddhists but also to Christians. (See “What I learned from the Buddhists.” )
Many of us are in regular contact with adherents of both Buddhism and its cousin, Hinduism, primarily through yoga. We see Buddhist monks on the street all the time, and many of us are fond of Richard Gere. In the U.S., .07% of the people are Buddhist, 1% in Philly. 1% in the U.S. are Hindus, 7% in Philly. I mention Hinduism because Siddhartha Gautama, founder of Buddhism, was a Hindu, and though the religions are clearly distinct, they have similarities. Many Catholics and Evangelicals find Buddhism attractive, as a philosophy, because of it’s demanding, principle based, self-denying, personally-responsible practice. Without looking too closely, apart from its god-less center, Buddhist-like Christianity is common. So many of us have many connections.
Helpful tools from Buddhists
Intellectually, Christianity and Buddhism are largely incompatible, but just as Christians have something most Buddhists do not, Buddhists have something Christians often do not, or need more of. For instance, Christians need to know how to effectively practice deep breathing in order to relax the body, reduce anxiety and open up to spiritual experience. Buddhists specialize in this. Buddhists develop capacity to comfortably and confidently access their inner wisdom. They develop their ability to detach themselves from the desires and preoccupations that bring them suffering. They value humility, patience, and mutual respect, in ways that actually lead to kinder, more peaceful relationships. Of course, it is true that many Buddhists do not regularly practice such things or possess such qualities. They may keep incense burning before a statue of Buddha just like other people might keep a candle burning in front of Mary, and that’s about it. But as a well developed, psychologically oriented, practical philosophy, Buddhism offers many helpful tools that are still mysteries to many Christians.
Looking to the East is nothing new for Western thinkers and seekers alike, though a concerted effort by Christian theologians to look to Eastern culture and religion for new insights into God and how God works is relatively recent. Yet, for many Christians, just the suggestion that we might have something to learn from Buddhism makes them feel uneasy, or outright furious. The notion flies in the face of traditional mission philosophy, not to mention (conscious or unconscious, stated or unstated) assumptions about Western cultural, intellectual, or religious superiority. So let’s talk about the issues.
A first question is: How can devoted Christians beneficially draw on the wisdom, insights, and practices of Buddhism (or any other religion)? I’m not trying to write about what specific benefits you should seek from Buddhism. Many of you are probably doing just fine without thinking about that subject at all, as am I, for the most part. I am being more general. How should Christians think about encountering another faith? What are the options? What are the issues? How do we keep faith with a spirit of generosity?
Among those who are truly curious, open, and willing to listen to those whose culture and religion are different than theirs, I see three different kinds of reactions.
Blenders are eclectic syncretists, who consciously try to wrap their arms around both Buddhism and Christianity, thus creating a hybrid religion of sorts. Such individuals may call themselves Buddhist-Christians (or Christian-Buddhists), believing that, in spite of contradictions and tensions that exist between the religions, their spiritual experience is best explained or best advanced by embracing them both side by side, or some hybridization of the two.
I think it matters which path one takes in seeking to benefit from Buddhism and other religions. What postmodernists call syncretism is probably a reality for many people: the media mashes up cultures and beliefs for us all day every day. For true seekers, I think it is possible that they are faithful to Jesus long before they know it, just like a Tibetan monk called Merton a “rangjung, a naturally arisen Buddha.” Regardless of all the connections humanity has in our spiritual searching, Jesus-followers need to reflect on what they believe, why they believe, and where they are going to look for spiritual truth, wisdom, and power. Our view of God and view of self are basic to how we live. How we know God and relate to God, and how we receive God’s work in our lives, affect all our beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions. I am not talking just about intellectual reflection, we all need to integrate reason and experience in community to find our true self on the true path.
We are relating to Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus said,
“Can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understandthat the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:36-8).
The incarnation of God in Jesus begins our exploration.
“If you had gone to Buddha and asked him ‘Are you the son of Brahma?’ he would have said, ‘My son, you are still in the vale of illusion.’ If you had gone to Socrates and asked, ‘Are you Zeus?’ he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammad and asked, ‘Are you Allah?’ he would first have rent his clothes then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius, ‘Are you Heaven?’ I think he would have probably replied, ‘Remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste.’ The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man.”
From our secure base, reattached to our Parent through the work of Jesus, we can explore all sorts of beneficial goodness built into creation and imagined by humanity. But every attempt to blend religions as a means to provide this base falls short of providing a spiritual foundation upon which to build. I think I have learned a lot from the wisdom and cultures found in “the East.” But Christian-Buddhist syncretistic blends tend to be so subjective that they resemble a host of individual, self-made religions. A Blender’s faith will likely depend mostly on his or her personal feelings and experiences in a vacuum, betraying fidelity to Jesus Christ in some way, and divorcing the Christian community’s reflection over the centuries that provides thoughtful examination of the implications of the competing worldviews, and a balanced interpretation of the revelation in the Bible.
Many Christians in the West have been exposed to Eastern thought through the media and popular literature, and wind up mixing and matching various beliefs, whether or not they realize they are doing so. They do not significantly alter their basic Christian world-view or faith, but they freely borrow from Buddhism whatever they think might be helpful to their life. They may embrace various insights (e.g., the power of attachments to produce suffering in human lives) or adopt helpful practices (e.g., meditation) as “add-ons” to their faith and spirituality. Often such borrowing is done without much theological reflection, and thus Borrowers are often unconscious syncretists. Post-modern scholars generally argue that all religious people, including Christians, are syncretistic. They just don’t know it. So they may have that thinking in the mix, too.
The second reaction is less radical and seems fairly popular in some circles. Open to benefit from whatever might enhance their lives, borrowers embrace meditation, yoga, ancient rituals, or anything else that they find helpful or meaningful in some other religion, but which is unavailable in their own tradition. Unconcerned about, or simply oblivious to, whatever underlying beliefs may be at odds with their Christian faith, they focus more on the immediate benefits of the borrowed ideas and practices that they are enjoying.
I wonder, though, how often these “add ons” wind up being a distraction from spending time and energy seeking a more dynamic relationship with Christ and from learning how to live by the Holy Spirit. I feel more relaxed when I meditate, and my body feels better after exercise, but the most life-changing spiritual experiences I have ever had involve being consciously inspired and led by God as I wait in the silence; involve heart-felt, honest prayer and worship; or involve hearing God speak to me through the Bible and my brother and sisters in Christ.
Then there are those for whom an encounter with Buddhism or another religion becomes a catalyst to look more deeply into their own faith tradition. They are inspired to see if they have missed something that may have always been there but has been lacking in their experience. Spiritual growth for the Inspired, stemming from the encounter with Buddhism, will still look, sound, and be very Christian, in the best sense of the term. Yet, at the same time, if you listen carefully, you will notice that the Inspired develop a larger, more inclusive view of Creation. They are more compassionate, sympathetic, and understanding. They care less about adherence to rules and traditions, and more about being “the real deal,” someone who genuinely loves God from their hearts and want to be an effective, fruitful servant of Jesus Christ. Maybe Thomas Merton would be in this category.
Most of the time, my journey looks like the third path. I’m inspired. I’m on a quest for greater understanding about God, myself, and how human beings function and best flourish psychologically, socially, and spiritually. I am open to learn from any good source, and freely and respectfully borrow insights and practices from other religions (just like I am borrowing many thoughts from Tim Geoffrion today), as long as they genuinely cohere with how the Lord speaks to me through the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ and the Bible. I have a relationship with God in Christ that guides my explorations.
I value dialogue but I do not journey as a lost soul. All along the way, I understand my way is laid out by my faith in and relationship with Jesus Christ. My quest is part obedience and part longing to better know, love, and serve God. I want to experience more and more of the abundant life Jesus offered to his followers. It seems inevitable that part of my experience will be encounters with different cultures and religions; they will help me open my eyes and mind. I respect fellow seekers and I welcome the opportunities.
As you consider your own journey, here is a prayer Tim Geoffrion suggests:
“Loving God, sometimes I feel overwhelmed and confused by all that I do not know or understand, and I want so much more for my life and relationships. Please help me to see what I need to see; give me courage to face truth wherever it may be found; and fill me with wisdom to know how to best learn from those whose beliefs do not fit neatly into my way of thinking or being in the world. I want to know you as you truly are, and to experience more of the abundant life Jesus came to give his followers. Please continue to lead me deeper into this life. In Christ’s name… Amen.”
The travel day began with the Zambians sending our new South African friend’s bag to Philadelphia and sending our beloved Bethany’s bag to some undetermined place. It ended with waiting in line for about an hour while the skeleton crew at customs processed us and a Hunger-Games-esque video from Homeland Security repeatedly welcomed us. In between, I watched movies on the plane and tried to sleep in between the baby screams. I watched most of Qatar Airline’s catalogue, I think. I even watched Deadpool, which I had been avoiding (even though no one else did — it has earned $761 million worldwide) – I admit it was clever and funny, even when vile. I think we were in the air for 22 hours, so there was even room for vile.
Near the end of the last leg of the journey, I finally met my row mate. I found out he was an Iraqi returning home to his job at a Red Lobster in Kentucky after attending his mother’s funeral in Najaf, home of Imam Ali’s shrine. When he arrived in Najaf he learned his visit would start with the funeral of his cousin, who had just been killed in an army battle. Eventually we talked about religion, since I also told him why I had been travelling. Part of that conversation is what I want to talk to you about, mainly.
The universal rule
After we both recounted our horror at the bombing campaigns that devastated Iraq at the beginnings of both wars (he evacuated just before the first), he brought up how people should treat each other like they would like to be treated, like it says in the Qur’an – and in the writings of all the other major religions. His version is that Allah is the one God, the same as the Jews and Christians, so we will all be judged by him for how we follow the rule. We had been talking about how refugees, especially in Palestine, never get the justice they want by repossessing their homes, even though everyone knows that they would hate to lose their homes, their friends, their feelings of belonging, and hate to have to work long hours at Red Lobster to buy a ticket to attend your mother’s funeral 6500 miles away.
It seemed, as usual, very tidy of him to sum up all the religions with one rule – the one thing they all seem to agree upon. And, in the case of Islam, to tidy things up with one Ruler who will judge people according to their capacity to fulfill the rule:
“Allah knows best how long they stayed. With Him is (the knowledge of) the unseen of the heavens and the earth. How clearly He sees, and hears (everything)! They have no Wali (Helper, Disposer of affairs, Protector, etc.) other than Him, and He makes NONE to share in His Decision and His Rule” (Surah 18:2).
In the end, the Moslem is judged according to their full submission to the way of Islam, and their deeds. Like many Christians do with Jesus, Muslims reduce the requirements of belief to following the rules and avoiding judgment — especially following the “golden rule,” since everyone thinks that makes sense.
Poorly working rule
The problem is, people are very bad at following the golden rule. Israelis are not giving people back the land they know the dispossessed want and Palestinians are not forgiving them for taking it. The people of the United States do not rise up in revolt because the government dropped 265,000 bombs on Iraq in 1991 and did not stop for twenty years, even though they would not like someone to do that to them. We keep learning the lesson, but never seem to get the application right. We don’t treat our children the way we wish we had been treated as a child. We don’t even treat ourselves the way we wish someone would treat us. Even when we think God is treating us well, we don’t love as we are loved. The whole thin plot of Deadpool was about his quest to get his mutated face restored so his girlfriend would not judge him ugly and reject him. He was sure she would not treat him well unless he was unjudgable; he is a realistic superhero.
Jesus repeats the common sense of the golden rule. Unlike in Islam or Buddhism, he is not giving people a maxim to sum up justice or balance, he is commanding the self-giving love he will demonstrate on the cross. Regardless, when he says it, it serves to point out just how badly we need a Savior. We all love the golden rule and long for it to be applied, but it never gets applied, even by those who are devoted to it. My Iraqi friend looked at me after he talked about Daesh squeezing into a crack in the system so they could get the power and money that the greedy rulers all want, and he said, “I just don’t see a way for this to change.” I have been thinking of him saying that ever since.
I don’t know everything about Islam or all the other religions. I tend to feel generous about people seeking God from wherever they start. But I don’t think all the seeking merely leads to the need to follow the golden rule no one follows well. I think the seeking leads to Jesus whom God has made the final judge. Life is not about becoming good enough to love or not being bad enough to kill. The way Paul describes his experience with Jesus is that he has already received the mysteries of God and lives with a clear conscience. Not because he is perfectly knowledgeable or faithful, but because Jesus has poured out the love of God. That undeserved grace is holding back the end of time with its inherent judgment. We can live in the hope God gives us in the middle of our personal and corporate failures to follow what we all agree is the truth.
What I finally hear from pondering my conversation with this friendly Iraqi is that Jesus entrusts us with the golden rule, not condemns us with it. Like in the ending of Deadpool, Jesus removes the mask that hides our mutancy and kisses our scarred face, and the scarred soul that goes with it. Only that will undo whatever evil we have committed or will commit – like the impending sequel.
We’ve got to do better than Disney thinking in a disintegrating world. I know, I’ve been to Disney World.
Disney World is such a theological place! It recently set my head spinning again when I visited. Simba, Aladdin, Pooh, Peter Pan, etc. were all trying to teach me lessons — and everywhere, it was “Have a magical day!” which is like a liturgical response to everything for people from the Magic Kingdom. With Disney, the basic message is relentlessly, “Find the dream in you and follow it” and there is always a choir to tunefully follow up the message, like the famous song from Cinderella (below) that sums it up:
After the song, we all go ride the rides that give a little jolt of experience that proves the magic is real. A little magic, a large group of fellow-worshipers, a promise of more (if you buy a ticket) sounds like religion to a lot of people. It is, in a way. But it is religion that resembles what N.T. Wright calls present-day “gnosticism” more than it resembles the way of Jesus, as he warns:
Gnostic-like thinking says, “Whatever you need is in you, you just need to find it and unleash it.”
Some people go for that with gusto: “I believe I can fly!”
Many more wither under the responsibility of self-creation in an uncaring world.
We need the third way that is following Jesus, risen among us.
The world is confusing right now.
There is a lot to say about what is happening to the world and how people are making sense of it, and I hope we will say a lot, because Jesus is the ultimate meaning maker. It is an opportune time to see what is going on right now, since it is an election year and the beliefs of the masses get up to the surface and we get a chance to see them again — and we get a chance to make sense of them (if the pundits don’t steer us completely). How do we keep discerning the way when there is so much shouting from either pole? A lot of people I’m talking to are quite confused, how about you?
I think we can keep our heads on and our love intact if we stay somewhere in the middle and keep moving toward Jesus. There is a third way. Jesus is not a stance or a platform, but he is the way and a destination. I often find myself trying to steer a middle course among the people of the world, and, unsurprisingly, between the poles I often see in the church. It is something like what Paul teaches when he says I must not be, “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14).
On the one extreme we have people who preach that “your dreams are a wish your heart makes,” just keep believing — and for many a traumatized person in Philadelphia, to do that would be a brave step out of the disaster they have experienced their whole life.
And then on the opposite extreme, we have people who can’t say the word “Disney” without an ironic inflection, who think a material “reality” is all there is so make the most of this mess and spend your efforts getting yours and loving your friends — for many people moving in to Philadelphia, to say such a thing might be an honest step away from the delusions in which they can no longer believe.
It is surprising how often the church seems unconscious that they have another way, a third way, that is not for or against, with or without the present age.
Is there a way to relate to people in the middle of the turmoil?
Here we are in the middle of the polarization: Spirit-indwelled people, living in a tangible community, persistently telling the story of our resurrection with Jesus and our future as world-redeemers by his side. We have our work cut out for us if we want to have any conversation at all.
Let me try to demonstrate how to think in a way that isn’t at one of the poles or merely disagreeing with them, a third way Take one subject that makes Christians at odds with most structures: WAR.
The one side might just let people decide whether being a pacifist is “right for them.”
The other side might use all the power at hand to keep what is theirs, as long as they are safe and don’t have to do anything too dangerous.
What does a Jesus-follower do? I don’t think Christian peacemaking is the same thing as political pacifism, but since they always get lumped together, let’s just use the word. What is the third way in thinking about war? – and I mean what is thinking as a Spirit-indwelled person, not just a spirit trying to escape a body or a spiritless body trying to prolong life as long as possible?
To begin with: pacifist is not passive. Not being pacifist is being pacified.
That sums it up. Proactive peacemaking is a lifestyle, not a leisure-time activity. Loving others, including enemies, is a character trait, not an application of theory. I say (and I think Jesus does too) that if you are not “pacifist” you are pacified. You may think you have love in your heart and that’s enough, or you might think you are not required to address the subject of loving people at all, but those are just more ways to be under the sway of the powers Jesus came to upend. Being disembodied is not an option.
If you want life coursing through your body as you proactively make peace on earth with Jesus, I think there are at least three important reasons to think about forging a third way that is moving toward Jesus rather than getting stuck bouncing between the prevailing poles of arguments looking to make you an adherent.
There is only so much time.
We should make the most of our time. So many of us like the election cycle because it is a big overdose of arguing that lets us off the hook from deciding. As long as we can find a reason not to choose, we feel a strange lack of responsibility that we like. I was just with five-year-olds for a few days. They were adept at pretending they never did anything they feared might be construed as wrong. Ever. No lie was too big to get me to swallow in that cause. We’re all like that a little, I think. If we can avoid it, we will. But our minutes matter. The clock is ticking and the life Jesus offers is being wasted if we are not telling the truth we know.
Donald Trump said: “In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians, we have people chopping the heads off many other people. … I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” There is no time to wish that away and no time to lose by merely avoiding. We need to choose Jesus.
2. Faith is public.
The idea of a public faith is heresy to most Eurocentric people. They think faith is private. We are taught in any number of ways to be autonomous beings responsible for ourselves. And we believe the law protects our private beliefs (until those beliefs go against the powers that write the laws, of course). So we are furious at poor people for not getting richer and furious at rich people for taking all the poor people’s money — people should fulfill their potential and no one should take away the possibility of that. Even when it doesn’t happen, the prevailing authorities can’t think of anything else to do but blame individuals for not being good enough, since they are sure the world is an economy run by an invisible hand and people get to do whatever is in their heart.
Nothing in the life of Jesus or anyone else in the Bible, for sure, would imply that faith is anything but a life one lives in public, in view, unashamed, assuming one’s life matters as part of the whole. “Privacy” is the luxury of being complicit with some power that protects one’s capacity to go unnoticed. Meanwhile, Jesus is enduring a public execution. He tells his executioner that he will not use his power to participate in a war that might save him from the acts of evil he came to share and overcome. That is about as public example of pacifism as possible. There is another way.
3. Meditation without action is self absorption.
Orthodox Christians tried to root out gnosticism in the 200’s and 300’s, but the spirit of it was well-preserved in the meditation teaching of my cherished monks, I have to admit. By the 20th century, they realized that Buddhism, Sufism and all sorts of other religious people long to leave the body for complete union with God. These days, mindfulness and irreligious yoga instructors teach the out-of-the-body mindfulness without any spirit at all.
I appreciate the reality and the feelings of contemplative prayer. But I am mindful to meet Jesus in prayer, not just my own capacity for contemplation. Just because I am doing spiritual things doesn’t mean I am connecting to the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. What saves me from the self-absorption so popular these days is remembering Jesus in history and meeting the risen Lord in my own history: spirit to Spirit, heart to heart, mind to mind, strength to strength. From the peace I experience in prayer, I make peace.
There are ways between the poles:
Keeping my eyes on my minutes rather than wasting hours on political redundancies and absurdities, as if they were as breathlessly important as the CNN would like us to believe.
Keeping my faith public rather than being driven into privacy or giving up on making a difference.
Keeping my spirituality looking to Jesus rather than just “spirituality” or just my own physical sensations.
Being actively on the way, connected to Jesus and his people, allows me to be a pacifist, to choose to love, to even risk the danger of brazenly escaping the clutches of the powers in their own backyard. They don’t have me pacified because I left reality for my dream and they don’t have me pacified because I gave up my need to be a personal alternative and to create an alternative society, the church. Jesus has me, right in the middle, making a peaceful way through, a third way.