IT IS part of Man’s social nature to form himself into groups and cliques composed of people he believes to be most like himself, so it comes as no great surprise that most church congregations are similarly broken into factions, though they are often subtle in their appearances. If a member of a congregation is closely involved in the life of the church, it is inevitable that he or she will occasionally become aware of the rumors, murmurs, petty arguments, grudges, feuds and prejudices that run through his or her church family. Lately in my home congregation the winds of gossip are whispering about an issue that may engulf our congregation and threaten a genuine geographical split between our members.
If what I’ve heard is true, and if things go as they have a tendency to go, then something like the following will happen: People on each side of the issue will voice their opinion in some initial form. The response to each opinion will be a quick and visceral reaction from the other side—a reaction born of pent-up frustration, fear, or just plain disdain toward a person or persons on the other side. Side “A” will judge side “B” to be liberal and unbiblical. Side “B” will consider side “A” to be poorly educated and intellectually challenged. Each side will consider the other side to fall short of “true Christianity.” Each side will say its faith in God is stronger (which is to say, better) than the other side’s. Each side will lament that the other side “just doesn’t get it.” In short, it will be a classic Pauline scenario of the weak versus the strong, caught up in controversy over a point of doctrine. The church will end up in a festering mess of human turmoil and unchristian ugliness concerning what both sides will consider to be the most important issue their church has ever faced. Each side will distance itself from the other; if not in public then at least in private. In the worst of cases, people will turn their backs on one another. Some will turn their backs on the entire congregation. A few will turn their backs on God.
If this is anywhere close to the way things end up going, then the irony of the situation borders on the devilish. The depressing part of this scenario is that in truth, the “issue” at stake is not a real Christian issue at all. So, I’m not going to write about it. I’m not going to speak for one side or the other. Instead, I’m going to write about what I consider to be closer to the real issue.
THERE IS a meaning we should not overlook in the idea of Jesus as God incarnate; the idea that following Jesus involves, to some extent, the union of our humanity with the spirit of God. Jesus showed us what such an accomplishment might look like, and we found it so unsettling and threatening to our structures of power and piety that we collectively put a swift and violent end to it. In this sense, the crucifixion is history’s premiere example of man preferring himself—his own ideas of how to run the worlds both secular and religious—over and above God. It is a manifestation of man’s tendency to believe that he, not God, is truly God. It is, in large part, a story about living in spiritual relationship with God vis-à-vis man’s religion.
Admittedly, I’m usually one of the first to note that things are never black and white. As much as we might like to do so, we can’t throw away all religion and reasonably believe that spiritual relationship with God will magically appear as what is left over. But neither can we hold on to all religion and reasonably believe that it alone will result in a meaningful spiritual relationship with God. As has been said by others, we mustn’t throw out the baby with bath water. Yet it is fair to say that we need to drain the tub once the water is too dirty to make anything clean. The question of whether or not God’s spirit can dwell within a human being remains not an existential question or an ontological question, nor a question of metaphysics or spiritual reality. It remains as a question of man’s willingness to allow it. It is a question of whether or not we really want to have a relationship with God; whether we really want to commune with him and be his children, or not.
If we answer affirmatively, we need to realize that this communion typically isn’t carried out in a human language, with a mysterious voice echoing in a surreal ether or inside one’s own skull; few of us will ever see a burning bush or meet a donkey who speaks Hebrew. Granted, it is a mysterious communion that defies intellect and knowledge, but it is communion nonetheless. Yet, it would do us no good if we could never make some reasoned sense of it, and this creates the necessity of translating our experience of God into words, images, and other expressions of our human body, intellect and emotion. Generally, communion with God is experienced in human terms by a feeling of love seemingly beyond human capacities—both for feeling and for love—and is best verbalized as a profound and all-pervading compassion for all of creation. This experience, further contemplated and reasoned out spontaneously in our minds, leads us to decision and action in living out the love of God in our daily lives. The coincident vision of beauty, freedom and gratitude transforms our lives into experiences of austere joy, and the day to day walk within this joy forms our worship offered to God.
In this state of being, our very lives become acts of worship in which we love God by allowing God to love us. We love God by living according to, and much more importantly because of, the fruits of relationship with God. This is in contrast to loving ourselves by living according to our own ego, pride and associated desires and judgments; be they secular or religious.
WHILE ALL of this occurring as the source, kernel or germ of Christian life, other things are going on as well—some good and useful, others detrimental in the life and community of faith.
As noted, to make the experience of God something we can communicate to our own selves and with others, we utilize a language consisting of a variety of symbols; words, stories, images, icons and hymns to name a few. These low-level symbols and their associated meanings, located in close proximity to actual experience and at times inextricably intermingled with it, are the essence of mystical religion; what many people would term “true religion.”
Mystical religion, though not the experience of God, is a good and necessary thing as it is the human interface, the doorway for emotion, intellect and reason, which leads to and from that experience. It is the boundary layer, the transition region, between the physical and spiritual person in relation to God.
But today we find ourselves ill content with such a religion, and, after all, why shouldn’t we? We lack relationship with God, and therefore what living vitality can we find in a religion that can only be produced by a thing that we do not possess? Instead, we gravitate toward something else we call religion, some thing that we should, for lack of a better term, call meta-religion. This higher level, superfluous religion attempts to act as a language about the language of experience and relationship. It talks about stories, icons, images, hymns and the like as if they are important in and of themselves; as if they are the point of it all. Furthermore, it begins to judge what symbols of religion are to be considered valid or even possible indicators of true experience. It is about these judgments that the weak and the strong argue, with the weak typically arguing that the judgments are important, and the strong arguing that they are not. Either way, all of this arguing is nonsensical, counterproductive and non-germane; a point Paul makes in speaking about the weak and strong.
In practicing meta-religion, we begin to judge what is proper worship and what is not. And since (hopefully) we at least understand that the biblical idea of worshipping God consists in worship as a way of living before and for God, we begin to judge how other people should live their lives. We begin to talk about what proper living is, and what it is not. We begin to judge which ideas and beliefs about living are proper, and which are not. At such a point, we have circled back to the very beginning of things, inscribing rules and regulations into stone tablets. We codify doctrines and create dogma. The fruits of our labor become elevated above whatever initial experience might have given birth to mystical religion, which of course has also been lowered in value if not rejected outright. Our ideas become law, following them becomes process, and the law and process trump relationship. Our view of God and man has become reversed, repeating the very error Jesus tried to rectify in his own time. Although Jesus may remain Jesus to this very day, we have become the Pharisees of the present age.
The question, then, for the weak and strong, should not be about worship corporate or private, nor about how others should live. The question should be, Are we willing to follow Jesus, seeking to experience and live in relationship with God? When we ask this question seriously, we begin to understand that each of us has a personal task too large to allow room for concern over how others live in God, or over what they may or may not believe about their relationship with God. And when we do follow Jesus far enough to enter into relationship with God, we find that we have neither the right nor the need to judge how others live or believe—other than to judge that their ways may or may not be ways that are beneficial and proper for us to emulate in our own, personal lives.
BEING A Christian is about loving God and loving other people. This is not always easy, but it is not rocket science. It is not complicated. It is not hard to understand. Christianity is not about the legal, sanctioned doctrine born of meta-religion. Yet we often strive to make it so. When we fall short in our willingness to love our brothers and sisters who sit with us on Sunday morning, loving and being loved by their—and our—God, we turn to doctrine. We have a disturbing propensity to somehow believe that polishing our doctrine as if it is a sword will get the Christian job done; meaning, will show that we are right, and that they are wrong. Meanwhile, we continue to love imperfectly. We have forgotten—or perhaps never knew—what it means to love in the Spirit of Christ. We argue over doctrine, a product of man, as if it were the voice of God.
Neither Jesus nor Paul would have stood for this. The two are united in the idea that in the midst of everything, even doctrinal chaos amongst believers, we should and can love one another. This is the heart of Christ; that we will find a way to love. We will love in the midst of everything. We will even love, and pray for, those who berate us, mock us, and hang us upon a cross to die. Even if they are faithless, intellectually challenged, and just don’t get it.
What we must do, and do soon, is remind ourselves that Jesus loved no matter what. What we must do, and do soon, is take to heart the fact that the only thing Jesus opposed was that of one person detrimentally imposing his own meta-religion upon another. What we really must do, and do soon, is approach Jesus as he hang upon the cross.
But to stand correctly in a debate between weak and strong, we must go beyond the standard Christian injunction to stand at the foot of the cross. We must climb the cross, and stare into the face of the dying Christ. We must touch him, embrace him and caress him until his sweat and blood are upon our own hands. We must hear his rasping breath in our ears and feel its heat upon our face. We must feel the love he has even for those who are slaying him. And we must remind ourselves that he does not ask us to defend him against these men or any others; rather, he simply asks us to follow him. Via his orthopraxis, Jesus asks us to love in the middle of everything, above everything, and beyond everything. This Love of, by and for Jesus is the only thing a Christian need ever think of, pray for, hope for, strive for, live for and die for. For the Christian, pettiness and bickering have no place—especially at the cross.
AND SO I have decided that in the impending debate, I will not lean forward or backwards. I will not sway left or right. I will, instead, bow. I will bow down upon my knees, and I will pray for love. If we can all do this, and do it with broken and humble hearts before the God we all share and collectively call Father, then there will be no problem among us. No doom will strike our church family. If we will allow the love of God to flood our hearts, we will one day be amazed, and perhaps a bit confused, that we ever thought there was a problem.
On the other hand, if we choose to argue amongst ourselves then we will destroy in a few months what will take a generation to restore. People from outside our walls will hear of our divisiveness—of the fighting amongst people who are supposed to love one another most fully—and they will run from us. As far as I am concerned, this is so much the better for them. If we cannot offer people a place where man loves God and brother more than he loves meta-religion, it is better that we be avoided.
PAUL SAID that to the pure all things are pure, and to the impure all things are impure. Among other things this means that whether or not the debate rumored in our church comes about, if we are pure in our love for Christ then everything will be fine. It also means that whether or not the debate comes about, if we are not pure in our love for Christ then nothing will ever be fine.
The “Christian issue” being rumored in my congregation is not really a Christian issue. Rather, Love is the Christian issue. Love is always the Christian issue. If we cannot truly offer people the depth and riches of God’s love in the glory of all its grace and freedom, then truly we can offer them nothing.