Thursday, January 27, 2011

Exploring the Garden

I don't believe in a literal interpretation of the Garden of Eden story in Genesis. I just cannot get past the talking snake. They don't even have the proper anatomy to make human speech sounds. Virgin birth? I can work with that. Talking snake? Not so much. I know there are many Christians who view the snake as a symbol for Satan's temptation or deception, but that's as far outside the box of literal interpretation as some people are willing to explore. To many, Adam and Eve were very real people and their story is a factual telling of how sin entered the world.
"The story epitomizes a psychodynamic in which progressive growth, with separation and individuation, of the young is experienced as perilous—not only to them, but also correspondingly to their procreators. In the myth, the increasing psychic and physical maturation of Adam and Eve produced a crisis. Not only was divine authority flouted, but also apprehensions were aroused that God might be humbled or diminished. This threatened him, evoking his wrath and leading to the punishment by abandonment of his youthful wards." (Marvin P. Osman)
I have to tell you, I find this myth to be one of the most exciting stories in the bible. I love to read it again and again and find new interpretations for it. It fuels something deep within. I can't understand why some people are so afraid to view the garden story as myth -as if that dismisses it as just another piece of fiction. Myths are so much more than that; they are powerful narratives meant to articulate very real, very deep truths. Creation stories are the most common form of myth found throughout history and culture.
“There is actually a historical explanation based on the coming of the Hebrew into Canaan and their subjugation of the people of Canaan. The principal divinity of the people of Canaan was the Goddess, and associated with the Goddess is the serpent. The serpent is the symbol of the mystery of life. The male-god-oriented group rejected it. In other words, there is a historical rejection of the Mother Goddess implied in the story of the Garden of Eden.” (Joseph Campbell)
In June a fellow blogger shared some of her thoughts on the subject and I've been hungry for more discussion ever since. I mean, even from the perspective of the most common Christian interpretation, it's still a very confusing story. For starters, I have to ask: didn't the snake tell the truth and God lie? God said Adam and Eve would die if they ate the fruit whereas the snake told them their eyes would be opened and they would be like God, knowing good and evil. I've had it explained to me that before the forbidden fruit was eaten  physical death was not a part of the human experience, but this explanation doesn't hold up when you consider God's words in verse 22: "Look, the human beings have become like us, knowing both good and evil. What if they reach out, take fruit from the tree of life, and eat it? Then they will live forever!" So the Lord God banished them from the Garden of Eden. They had not yet partaken of that fruit -they were destined for death even before eating from the Tree of Knowledge.
It seems to me that God never intended for Adam and Eve to live forever, and yet, that is exactly what He set out to accomplish by sending Jesus to us. Wouldn't it have been much easier to just let them eat the fruit? Or going back even further, create humans as eternal beings? And like my blogger friend said, why did He put the trees there in the first place if He didn't want them to eat the fruit? These are the problems I get into when I try to interpret the Bible as the inerrant or literal word of God. I'm much more inclined to receive the Bible as a collection of stories, historical and allegorical in which man tries to explain his  spiritual experiences. As a result of these stories, we are able to follow the evolution of man's relationship with God.
"And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? And again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally." (Origin of Alexandria)
According to tradition Moses wrote Genesis. I wonder how he learned of the stories in Genesis that occurred long before his birth. Was it oral tradition handed down or did he receive the teachings as prophecy? I also wonder if the doctrine of the Fall of Man and original sin were always a part of Jewish teachings or if they are uniquely Christian. It's a fascinating topic I plan to continue researching.

Monday, January 24, 2011

God Don't Make No Trash

Lately I'm noticing a big gulf between how I pray and some of the prayers and worship I hear others sharing. I don't think I've ever begged God for His mercy or declared myself unworthy of His love and forgiveness. I know that I am lost without God but I don't feel the need to self-flagellate or grovel at His feet. Not because I think myself better than that, but because I believe God is above that.

As a mother, I cannot imagine my child relating to me in this manner. I want my children to feel loved unconditionally; never to consider themselves unworthy. I believe in a Father who loves me beyond measure, who would give His life for me because He values me that much. If I met a child who felt compelled to sit at her father's feet proclaiming how worthless she was, that she didn't deserve his love, I'd have to conclude that she had suffered some severe psychological abuse or neglect.

Do we really need to build God up by tearing ourselves down? Does my self-loathing gratify God? How could it? I am God's beautiful creation; I belong to Him and I am part of His family. He deemed me worthy when He called me into existence. I am not perfect but I can kneel before God with respect and humilty without presenting myself as wretched, worthless trash.

Do I deserve God's love and forgiveness? You bet. But not because I did something to merit His favour; because I am something that merits it. I am His.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Security of Certainty

I feel really alone on my spiritual journey lately. I have a messy kind of faith; it rests almost entirely on a personal relationship with God. I do look to scripture for guidance and I seek counsel from those around me, but in the end it's between me and my Father. Some days I'm very good at living in His mystery but I just as frequently find myself desperate for the security of certainty. It's very tempting to believe that the answers are all there in black and white but the good book is full of metaphors, parables, vague and contradictory teachings not to mention a wide variety of translations. Who could possibly get it all right? There is no universal Christian belief system even among those who claim they follow Christ by strict adherence to His word as expressed in the Bible. To understand my leeriness it may help to hear a little about my spiritual journey thus far.

The Roman Catholic Church is the world's largest and oldest Christian denomination. It is also the church I attended most often during my formative years. It's where I learned about Jesus and the sacraments, hierarchy, hypocrisy and the abuse of power. I initially believed in the Catholic Church's authority to interpret scripture and share God's word honestly and accurately but as I grew to learn about the Crusades, the burning of heretics, the selling of indulgences, and the rape of children all trust was shattered. Yet, I sought to heal those wounds and repair my relationship with the Church so I left home and moved a thousand miles to Madonna House Apostolate; a very special Catholic lay community in rural Ontario. It was an amazing opportunity to experience a fellowship of men and women living simple, chaste lives focused on prayer and service. I had intended to stay months but after a few weeks it became apparent that I couldn't regain the blind faith I lost. The land, the lifestyle and the people were beautiful but my heart told me that I did not belong in the Catholic Church any longer. 

A few years later, desperate for reconciliation, I once again returned to the Church of my childhood. With a broken spirit and on bended knee I shared a confession that weighed heavily on my heart. The priest informed me that he could not offer me absolution (forgiveness) and I should refrain from sharing in Holy Communion because my marriage is not blessed by the Church and I am therefore in a perpetual state of sin. Ironically, my sin can be forgiven if I divorce my husband and have the marriage annulled. (Our marriage can never be blessed because my husband's first marriage was indeed a valid marriage.) This experience made me hungry for biblical confirmation of the Catholic doctrine. I read and read but could not find much support for many Catholic practices. At this point I officially became a Protestant. 

I say officially because although I continued to consider Catholicism my true home in the Church I did explore different denominations throughout my youth. A friend and coworker introduced me to the Plymouth Brethren  in the late 1990s and it was like entering a whole new world I didn't know existed in my own community. Brothers and sisters in Christ have very distinct roles: the men teach and preach but women are not permitted to address the congregation. Women also cover their heads in church to hide their glory; but men, being in the image and glory of God are not required to cover their heads. I was also surprised to learn there are no clergy among them -no priest, or minister, or pastor. Each of the men teach and preach as the Holy Spirit leads. They don't believe that unconverted people can really participate in church activities and they teach that gifts of the Spirit (such as speaking in tongues, healing and prophecy) were given to help lay the foundation of the church but cease to exist today.

I attended a handful of weekly services with the Brethren and joined my friend on a mission to Romania where we volunteered in an orphanage for three weeks. I couldn't deny that these people had a hunger for God but I wasn't convinced by the scripture they quoted to support their theology. I just couldn't make my square peg fit their round hole.

When I was in my twenties I also attended a few non-denominational services of a much more charismatic flavour. I saw people speaking in tongues and being brought to the floor as they received the Holy Spirit. I was approached and prayed over by a man and woman who were determined to get me to speak in tongues and drop to the floor. They kept trying to coax me to speak and when nothing happened they told me the 'spirit of resistance' was too strong in me. The man put his hands on my head and spoke strong words and pushed hard on my head. I laid down and closed my eyes just so they'd leave me alone. I do believe in miracles but there were no gifts of the Spirit on me that night and it turned me off completely.

I've also attended Presbyterian, United, Baptist, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican services. I've encountered very different groups of people who follow Christ and support their unique theology and practices by quoting the Bible. I'm not saying that any one of them is right or wrong in their beliefs; the truth is I have no idea because I've lost faith in any one, true authority for interpreting scripture. So, I'm at a place right now where I'm doing my best to continue asking questions and trying to keep an open mind about the answers I receive. Some teachings don't sit well with me so I don't adopt them as part of my personal belief system, but I can't close the door either. I'm not ruling out anything except for teachings that promote intolerance and abuse. I don't believe any father would pit his children against one another. It's not easy following Jesus like this. Most Christians don't know what to do with me. I've been told I'm not a real Christian; that I need to repent; that I'm intolerant of their beliefs; that I'm lukewarm; or that I just need to pray and keep at it, and I'll get there one day. ("There" largely meaning their interpretation of the Bible.)

Honestly, I'm starting to lose heart. I keep sharing my journey because I'm desperate for fellowship and the acceptance you feel when you speak honestly and are still accepted. But the truth is I'm not always accepted and it's a lonely path being the odd one out. The security of certainty, of being "one of us" is tempting, but in the end I can't commit to anything other than the truth of my experiences. I wonder sometimes if it would be easier to drop the Christian label, walk away from the institutions and just follow Jesus with no strings attached. I'm frustrated and confused and scared that maybe I'm doing it all wrong.

Friday, January 14, 2011

John Shelby Spong

 Last year I came across this interview with John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark in the US. Despite having been raised in a strict Evangelical church and serving right wing congregations as a bishop, his theology is surprisingly liberal. He stirs a lot of controversy with his progressive views on hot-topic issues, like ordaining homosexuals, and he doesn't hesitate to reinterpret basic tenets of the Christian faith, such as the resurrection of Jesus.

The first part of the interview is mostly about Spong's personal life and experiences with the church during his formative years. In the second half he touches on some of the beliefs that have earned him a reputation as an ultraliberal. It's worth noting that Spong denies his teachings are unique or radical and describes them as being typical biblical scholarship covered at most theological colleges.

I especially like what he says about how when he began to "lift the bible stories out of the context of a premodern world view" he found people hungry for Christianity. Like me, many people were afraid they had to stop thinking for themselves and subscribe to a very literal, fundamentalist interpretation of scripture in order to follow Jesus. There certainly are a great number of Christians who won't hesitate to express those exact sentiments. Thank goodness I have Christian friends and came across a community of believers who are tolerant enough to let me question everything; otherwise I may have been turned off and tuned out the gospel completely.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

In Which I Say Things Christians Shouldn't Say

(This isn't an indictment of ALL churches, ALL denominations, or ALL of the people in said churches. It's meant to be a general look at what I consider to be the darker side of Christianity.)

I sometimes wonder what my old friends and acquaintances think about my coming out. No, I’m not gay; I’m talking about coming out as a Christian. Which, given our current culture, may be much more radical. I can imagine them snickering or thinking I’ve gone a little soft in the head.

It’s been my experience that those who follow Jesus tend to make others uncomfortable. Sometimes, and especially when the new follower develops a preachy, holier-than-thou attitude, the aversion is wholly justified. But often it’s nothing more than the simple fact that you are a follower that repels people. I will confess that I used to think Christians were boring, naïve, ignorant, insular and judgemental. And the truth is, some are. But what a shame that Christianity as a whole has developed this reputation! Many of us see Christians not as spiritual seekers, but as a people who claim to have God all figured out and are quick to tell you (nicely) that not only are your own ideas wrong, but unless you get it right you’ll go to hell.

Even today I feel the need to offer an explanation for my beliefs and distance myself from the pro-war, anti-abortion, homophobic agendas of many Christian groups. A part of me is embarrassed to be involved with a religion that endorsed slavery, promoted racism, oppresses women (I really wish I didn't need to write this in the present tense), burned free-thinkers at the stake, stole children from their mothers and forcefully converted whole nations. It was often the secular world that fought long and hard for the safety and rights of women, blacks and gays –not the church. The Christian church has a history of child rape, violence and ignorance that is unparalleled. (I’m not saying the church wasn’t involved in social change –just that it was rarely a catalyst or united force for such movements. Nor am I saying violence doesn’t exist in other religions, but the breadth and scope of Christian violence is not easily matched in the histories of other organized religions.) Ours is a warring, blood-thirsty religion: we invaded, murdered, and persecuted whole cultures in the name of the gospel; we drink the blood of Christ and purify ourselves with it. And just look at what we did to God: we put the incarnate God on the cross, tortured and murdered Him, and call it His perfect plan for salvation.

Not only that, but Christians also seem hell-bent on keeping others out of God’s Kingdom. We resemble an old boys club in which you must meet certain theological standards and/or practices to be allowed entry. We seem to care less about how you express God’s love and more about what you believe. Do we really think that God is more impressed by our understanding and acceptance of the atonement than our goodwill and charity toward others? I think we are telling people just that when we say, “believe this and you will be saved.” It’s a cheap and cheerful (and wrong) interpretation of Jesus’ message if you ask me. It’s also a way to oppress independent thought and keep people in line. If a Christian questions church doctrine too loudly, or for too long, we tell them they are refusing to submit to the authority of the church; that they are proud and need to repent of their sin. We shame them into submission instead of encouraging them to wrestle with God for the answers.

It seems to me that most of us view God as a record-keeper who judges and redeems based on good works, or as a small God bound by His own law; helpless to save us unless we know and believe the story of Jesus. I have to ask if those of us who believe we are saved by grace through faith have ever doubted? If yes, at what point do we no longer pass the faith test? When our doubts occur more than 10% of the time? 50%? Isn’t having the right kind of faith or enough faith just another form of believing we can do something to earn our own salvation?

We Christians are somehow capable of twisting our brains into reconciling the belief that a) God is loving and merciful and b) sends good (Yes good! I do believe there are good people, even if they aren't perfect.) people  to eternal damnation because they didn't believe in His forgiveness and ask for help. Talk about overkill! That sounds to me like a God who needs to get over Himself.

(And continuing down that rabbit hole, what about babies and children? Do they go to hell? If not then at what point does God not let them eat off the kid's menu and make them pay full-price for their sin? Hey, if we want a black-or-white religion we should at least have the 'facts' straight!)

Maybe we tell ourselves that God gives us free-will to decide whether or not we embrace Him –that we are the ones who reject Him not vice-versa. But can we really trust that all the men and women who reject the Christian religion (perhaps even due to horrendous abuse they endured from people in the church) have made fully informed free-will decisions? Does God not see that they are recoiling like a hand from a hot stove? Will He make them victims once again?

And what about theology –are we arrogant enough to believe that our interpretations of scripture and understanding of God is all correct and complete? If not, at what point does God label us as heretics rather than Christians? (And no, I don't believe God labels anyone Christian; these are rhetorical questions if you haven't already caught on.)

It seems we have to work pretty hard to say and do the right things to fit into God's Kingdom. I’m not saying Christians won’t accept the destitute and depraved: we love a good conversion story. We claim victory over Satan (No, I'm not going there; I've got enough on my plate right now.) when a former pervert or alcoholic gets up and shares their testimony (as if it were the good end to a bad story). But what about when that same alcoholic relapses? Are we more likely to show up at his door to help or to question his conversion in the first place? Maybe he didn’t really get it. His faith wasn’t strong enough. Do we sit in our homegroups and churches to pray for him to come back to Christ or do embrace him, sharing in his pain and bringing Christ to him? Maybe we’re too afraid his sin will rub off on us.

We like to go out into the streets and shelters to help the less fortunate, show them God’s love and teach them about Jesus, but do we invite them into our homes and build real, meaningful relationships with them? Or do they make better projects than friends? Do we build these relationships based on a hidden agenda of converting them to Jesus and then lose interest when it become obvious they really aren’t that interested in being “saved”? Do we look upon them with a mixture of pity and self-righteousness?

What about us? Are we not all sinners in the eyes of God? Or do we, like the pigs in Animal Farm, believe that some animals are more equal than others? Yes, I believe we all make mistakes (are sinners) and that He forgives us equally (His love and grace is enough to cover any sin), but that does not mean all sins are equal. It’s pure nonsense, in my opinion, to believe that telling a white lie to a friend who asks if we like her haircut is just as evil as rape and murder in the eyes of God. (I get that God is infinitely good so any sin, no matter how small, is infinitely bad but that is still not the same thing as saying all sins are equal in severity.)

That’s a long-winded way of saying I’m probably one of the most argumentative reluctant incongruous Christians you’ll come across. If God is truth and love then I have nothing to worry about. I have no doubt He's with me on this journey. I can’t afford to wear blinders, act defensively or fear offending others with my observations and questions -that will only stunt my spiritual growth.I think it’s wise to discuss issues like these because they help us identify and understand our weaknesses, learn from our mistakes and dig down deep as we build the foundations of our faith.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

To Choose Love

I will not create my own hell. I refuse to willingly submit to the bondage of unforgiveness. These are the thoughts swimming in my head this morning. Perhaps I'm being influenced by my recent reading of The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. This is quite likely. I feel it (forgiveness) is not only a way to live (an ideal for which to strive) but perhaps it is the only way to live -truly live- a life of beauty and truth in the spirit.

I really must reconsider the lens through which I view this world. My perceptions: of broken self, strained relationships, corrupt and ineffective institutions -both religious and secular- are all tainted, or tinted if you will, by the lens my ego wears to protect itself. But as I grow to identify less with the ego and more with the Christ Spirit, I see with my naked eye that love is the ultimate truth -and truth cannot be destroyed- therefore I need not protect my ego but slay it and destroy the illusory lens of fear it creates. Because through Him I am transformed into love and love need not be protected, only shared.

My attack thoughts -my feelings of anger, jealousy and self-righteousness- arise from a need to defend due to the mistaken belief that I am vulnerable. The truth is that I am capable of great miracles through His salvation if only I choose to turn to Him in the moment. Salvation is not a one-time offer of eternal life after bodily death. It is Divine Providence, living waters to save us from spiritual death in the here and now: when the waitress is rude or our generosity is taken for granted; when we feel ignored or rejected; when we find our friends have been talking down about us behind our back or our spouse has been having an affair; when we are unjustly accused or maliciously abused. It is canceling all debts and calling an end to quid pro quo. It is the Holy Spirit doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. It is surrendering the ego to become a foot or arm or cell or atom in the living body of Christ. It is choosing love when fear is beckoning.