Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Subjective Spirituality

What do people mean when they say, "I am spiritual not religious?" According to Wikipedia:

·       Historically, the words religious and spiritual have been used synonymously to describe all the various aspects of the concept of religion. Gradually, the word spiritual came to be associated with the private realm of thought and experience while the word religious came to be connected with the public realm of membership in a religious institution with official denominational doctrines."

As such, "spirituality" has become synonymous with "what works for me." The spiritual person aims at authenticity and genuine encounter rather than a set of sterile doctrines, which they experience as coercive and artificially imposed by external authorities.

In Mama Lola: A Voodoo Priestess in Brooklyn, Anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown confesses her attraction to Voodoo as experiential and non-coercive:

·       No Haitian—certainly not [Voodoo Priestess] Alourdes—has ever asked me if I ‘believe’ in Vodoo or if I have set aside the religious commitments and understandings that come from my childhood and culture. Alourdes’ approach is, instead, pragmatic: “You just got to try. See if it works for you.” The choice of relinquishing my worldview or adopting another in its entirety has therefore never been at issue. (10)

Here, Brown expresses a common sentiment among those who are embracing spirituality. It is not about truth but about experience and the now.

In Soul Retrieval, Sandra Ingerman, a shaman, expresses the same sentiments:

·       As you read this book and wonder whether or not what I am talking about is real, I ask you not to enter into a battle between the right brain [reason] and left brain [intuition]. Simply read the material and experience it!... Does the information that comes from the shamanic journey work? Does the information make positive changes in a person’s life? If so, who cares if we are making it up? (3)

We want results, now! Doctrine doesn’t seem to deliver as quickly as the spiritual realm. In The Secret Ways of the Lakota, Black Elk, a Sioux shaman states, “You don’t have to wait for five years…The spirit comes and takes me somewhere.”

However, critical questions are seldom asked about the nature of the experience. In  Drawing Down the Moon, the late spiritist, Margo Adler, affirmatively quoted another “spiritist”:

·       It seems like a contradiction to say that I have a certain subjective truth; I have experienced the Goddess, and this is my total reality. And yet I do not believe that I have the one, true, right, and only way. Many people cannot understand how I find Her a part of my reality and accept the fact that your reality might be something else. But for me, this is in no way a contradiction, because I am aware that my reality and my conclusions are a result of my unique genetic structure, my life experience and my subjective feelings…This recognition that everyone has different experiences is a fundamental keystone to Paganism; it’s the fundamental premise that whatever is going on out there is infinitely more complex than I can ever understand. And that makes me feel very good.

For this unnamed spiritist, her “subjective feelings” take precedence over all else, even over understanding. Why this disconnect between mind and heart? Adler explained:

·       They had become Pagans because they could be themselves and act as they chose, without what they felt were medieval notions of sin and guilt. Others wanted to participate in rituals rather than observe themselves.

Experience is non-coercive. No one can say that your experience is wrong. It places no guilt-inducing demands on the spiritual practitioner that serious moral thinking might impose. At least, that’s the hope. Instead, it is possible that the more we live in opposition to our conscience, the more we will oppose and detest other sources of authority and tradition.

Adler argued that plurality of experience and lifestyle is preferable to a singular set of truths:

·       Polytheism is… characterized by plurality… and is eternally in unresolvable conflict with social monotheism, which in its worst form is fascism and in its less destructive forms is imperialism, capitalism, feudalism and monarchy.”

If there is one God, there is no choice. This God then is necessarily the author of a singular set of truths and moral codes to which we must conform. As Adler maintained, for the spiritual person, monotheistic truth is experienced as fascistic, imperialistic, and feudalistic, depriving the spiritual person of choice and their self-centered universe. Monotheism is the anti-thesis of the instant gratification of the “me generation” and the “now generation.”

However, the existence of objective and unchanging truths is the bedrock of science and of all learning. Without these truths, there can be no learning, just experiencing. Should we then suppose that spirituality should be absolutely bereft of objective truths?

What happens when spirituality is divorced from questions of truth? It cannot see beyond the now. But why should it? Here are several considerations:

What feels good in the short run might not be good in the long run. Drugs, junk food, and unprotected sex might suggest that forethought is important.

How does this pertain to spiritual matters? For example, Mindfulness Meditation has become fantastically popular in the West. However, many have reported on its long-range downside. Melissa Karnaze reports on 17 Ways Mindfulness Meditation Can Cause You Emotional Harm. For brevity sake, I will list only the first 11:

1.     You start to judge uncomfortable thoughts and feelings as inferior, unreal, or bad. Which gets in your way of actually learning from them, experiencing and healing them, growing from them, and integrating them.
2.     You get good at stuffing anger and other negative emotions. Which might make them go away — temporarily. But hasn’t shown to be very effective.
3.     If and when a traumatic or emotionally painful experience occurs, you don’t fully process it, and cut your grieving process dangerously short.
4.     You have low tolerance for processing grief. So if you start to remember something traumatic, you stuff it down, potentially re-traumatizing yourself.
5.     You expect meditation to fix your problems for you, resolve your relationship conflicts, and make you happy. Each of those things requires hard work, commitment, and realistically, some discomfort. When you look to meditation to save you, you stop putting in the hard work and commitment, and evade the discomfort. Which makes it harder to effectively work toward your goals.
6.     You detach yourself from conflicts in your life, expecting that meditation will get rid of the negative emotions — and fix the problem altogether. The emotions just signal the problem. Even if you ignore the emotions, the problem is still there.
7.     You detach from your partner or loved one when they’re upset or experiencing an emotion you see as undesirable. You wish they’d just meditate it away, calm down, take a walk, get a grip — do whatever it takes to get rid of the emotion. When you invalidate your partner’s negative emotions, you cause serious wounds to both of you, harming trust and intimacy.
8.     You find it difficult to connect to your feelings when you want to be emotionally honest with yourself and others. Because you’ve trained yourself to avoid them. This impairs your ability to be emotionally intimate with anyone.
9.     Your relationships deteriorate, because you lose touch with what interpersonal conflict really means. After all, no one is really experiencing hurt feelings, right? Those feelings aren’t really real; just dissociate from them. Or, “observe” them.
10. You struggle to empathize with others, or understand their pain. If you don’t feel your own pain — you can’t expect to have compassion for another’s pain.
11. You lose your ability to naturally feel upset, sad, or concerned when there’s an issue in your life that you need to address. This puts a damper on healthy discernment. 

Perhaps some of these dangers are exaggerated, but the spiritual person, having divorced himself from reason, will not even bother to research them. He will not ask, “Has mindfulness advanced the human condition?” After all, it is all about the now and experience!

An exclusively subjective spirituality fails to provide the needed guidance. It cannot answer the questions, “Why am I here, where am I going, and what should I do about it.” Instead, subjectivity divorces us from community and a common language, if all we have is our own experiences. It also alienates us from a quest for truth and even what it means to be fully human.

A plane lacking one of its wings cannot fly. If it does get off the ground, it will soon crash. The spiritual person might reject objective spiritual truth as coercive and imperialistic. However, the alternative is far worse.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Does Perfectionism go along with the Christian Life?

Perfectionism can kill, as author Khristi Adams points out:

·       I wanted to be a woman of God so badly. When people would ask me what or who I aspired to be, I always responded, "a woman of God." I would read and quote Proverbs 31, attend women's conferences, and read books on what it meant to be a virtuous woman. In my journey down the road of biblical womanhood, I heard countless messages on feminine virtue, purity, gentleness, and nobility. I remember feeling like an utter and complete failure, unable to achieve any of those things in their completeness. I was devastated further each time I fell short of the "woman of God" standard. Truthfully, I was chasing an image, a fantasy. I was so busy chasing this unattainable ideal that I denied the very parts of me that made me who I was. I listened to those girls as they described an unreachable standard of womanhood, the person they were all hopelessly striving to be. I was heartsick, because they were all so eager to be her, the "woman of God," that they didn't realize that she was already them. I realized that I didn't want to watch them journey down the winding road of shame and disappointment the way that I had.

As Adams correctly points out, this is not only her experience but the experience of many sincere Christians. And understandably so! Christ is perfect, and despite all of our strivings, we will never reach this standard. Result – shame, guilt, despair, and doubts about the entire Christian enterprise.

What then is her answer? Stop aspiring for Christ-likeness:

·       We don't have to aspire to be anyone other than who we already are. From there, God molds us into who he intended for us to be.

Adams is correct that “God molds us.” Any of our spiritual fruit is the fruit of the Spirit, but this doesn’t mean that we have no role to play. There is a place in the Christian life for striving or aspiring. The Apostle Paul affirmed this fact:

·       Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

This doesn’t mean that there was anything uncertain about Paul’s salvation or his heavenly destination. Instead, it shows that striving has a role in our lives.

Peter specified the same thing:

·       But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy." (1 Peter 1:15-16)

We have no option but to aspire! Admittedly, this sounds burdensome, even depressing. As Adams eloquently points out, we have repeatedly tried this and utterly failed. However, failure isn’t our divinely promised inheritance. Does God want us to suffer in this manner? Perhaps we are reading Scripture wrongly? Instead, we are reading Scripture incompletely.

While our Lord’s ultimate goal for us isn’t despair and self-loathing, the road to glory must pass through the valley of the shadow of death, where we are humbled:

·       And he [Jesus] said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3-4)

Humility is the soil through which all of our fruit grows. Jesus’ disciples asked Him for more faith. He answered that great faith is the recognition that we are never deserving of the slightest thing from our Lord:

·       “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'" (Luke 17:10)

Jesus only ascribed “great faith” to two people, both of whom demonstrated uncanny humility (Mat. 8:8-10; 15:28).

How does our Lord humble us? By showing us the extent of our sin and unworthiness:

·       Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every [boasting] mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable [humbled] to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become [humbled and] conscious of sin. (Romans 3:19-20)

He tells us that we have to be like Him and how to do it by following His commands. However, we fail miserably and feel shamed, but this is needful. How? To receive the blessings God wants to give us:

·       "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:14)

We are not going to humble ourselves to admit our utter destitution if we think that we are truly spiritual and, therefore, deserving. Instead, we have to realize that we are sinners in need of the sheer mercy of God if we are to be exalted.

How do we endure in our humbled, self-despairing condition? By knowing the extent of God’s love for us (Eph. 3:16-20) and His forgiveness:

·       If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)

This endears us to Him. Only when we see our pathetic condition can we also come to adore our Savior as we ought. Actually, this is liberating! He has freed me from trying to prove, even to myself, that I am worthy, that I’ve got what it takes, or that I am a superior Christian. Rather, we come to realize that it is all about Jesus, as it should be! He (not we) has become our righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21).

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mao, Humanity, and Faith

The way we think is the way we live. Our lives show off our values in sometimes horrific ways:

·       Mao Zedong, founder of the People's Republic of China, qualifies as the greatest mass murderer in world history, an expert who had unprecedented access to official Communist Party archives said yesterday. Frank Dik├Âtter, a Hong Kong-based historian… compared the systematic torture, brutality, starvation and killing of Chinese peasants to the Second World War in its magnitude. At least 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death in China over these four years; the worldwide death toll of the Second World War was 55 million. 

The extermination of 45 million wasn’t simply a matter of poor judgment. Instead, it had been the result of genocidal values. Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of World Magazine, reports that in 1957, Mao stated:

·       I’m not afraid of nuclear war. There are 2.7 billion people in the world; it doesn’t matter if some are killed. China has a population of 600 million; even if half of them are killed, there are still 300 million people left. I am not afraid of anyone.

For Mao, people, even his Chinese people, were little more than numbers. In the atheist/communist estimation of things, humans might have risen to the level of “animals,” but still entirely expendable to achieve their great progressive vision.

Mao and others were murderers. Dismissively, we call them “revolutionaries” or “idealists” to dignify their horrors.

But why shouldn’t we regard human lives as the necessary cost to accomplish our ideals? Perhaps a good idea, if achieved, is worth the price, even of the murder of 45 million?

Genocide is never justified! Why not? According to the Word of God, we are endowed with inestimable value, having been created in God’s very likeness. Without this revelation, genocide will always remain an option, however much we deny it.

Only the Bible stands against the degradation of humanity. Today, we remain numbers. We called “wet machines,” and are regarded as just another member of the animal kingdom. We are no more than products of our environment and genetics, lacking freewill, driven exclusively by deterministic forces, which dictate all of our choices. Should we be surprised when we are treated according to our diminished status?

Challenging the Racial Divide: Fight or Flight

T.D. Jakes was being interviewed on Racism by the 700 Club. He said some important things:

1.     Racism is endemic in the USA today.
2.     The Black community continues to suffer.
3.     The Church should be playing a leading role.
4.     However, racism remains the elephant in the closet. The Church will not touch it.
5.     Separation remains.

Indeed, the interview reflected this very problem. The interviewer played it safe rather than to do the risky – to enter into a genuine and needful exchange of perspectives. He declined to challenge Jakes’ ensuing narrative of Black victimization, opting instead for superficiality and avoidance. Result – the distance remains.

This reminded me of a film I attended in the mid-eighties, while in seminary. It presented us with a vivid portrait of the problems that plague the African American community.

During the subsequent discussion, I naively asked, “What can I do?” I was essentially slapped-down. The white speaker explained that this isn’t what it’s all about. It wasn’t to provide an avenue for the white to conveniently expiate for his guilt. And admittedly, there had been horrible injustices perpetrated against African Americans.

Well, what was the purpose for showing the film? I mulled over this issue for years. I finally concluded that it was about being shamed and made to suffer for what “we” have done to our African American brothers. It was a matter of accepting our corporate guilt by virtue of our skin color – a narrative that seems to lie at the heart of our increasingly polarized culture. Besides, it is an absolute conversation-stopper.

This is a narrative that many Whites just cannot receive. After all, they hadn’t been proponents of slavery or even Jim Crow. Why then should they have to bear the guilt! And even if they did play a role, doesn’t the blood of Christ bring forgiveness and cleansing from all sin once we confess?

Therefore, many Whites remain on the sidelines. Others remain on the “sidelines” in a different way. Instead of engaging the liberal and inflammatory narrative that the US is still the same racist nation, trying to keep Blacks down, they embrace it entirely for the sake of “peace” and “love.” But is this love? Will it bridge the racial divide or will it further isolate and disenfranchise the Black community?

I recalled talking to a tour-guide in East Germany. I had asked her what she felt about all of the suffering that had been inflicted upon the German people after the war. She passionlessly stated, “We deserve it!”

I was shocked! Yes, there are just consequences of sin and criminality. However, she and many Germans are still bearing the guilt and shame of the Nazi era.

Is this healthy? Well, it has certainly led to hard work and economic advancement. But does it lead to brotherhood and love? While shame can lead to needful self-examination, can persistent shame lead to other-centeredness or does it lead us to retreat into a “safe” and controlled cocoon, containing only people who think like you?

Persistent shame leads to flight. If we cannot find comfort within ourselves, we cannot find it in the presence of others, especially those who refuse to accept us. I tried to engage our tour-guide further, but it seemed fruitless.

What will it take to build the Body of Christ? We cannot run from this question. This is central to the heart of our Savior. He prayed to the Father:

·       "My prayer is… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

What is the answer? Prayer! Also, we must embrace, to the fullest, the concerns of our Savior for love and unity, especially among the races, so that the world will believe. This determination must take precedence over our desires for comfort, of being right, of wanting to punish, of resentment, of jealousy, and of everything else.

Meanwhile, we have followed the world. Instead of trying to honestly hack our way through barriers, speaking truth in love, fearful of the consequences, we have taken the safe way – the way that has replaced comfortable platitudes for real engagement and relationship.

We have to say, “I want to be your brother, but will you let me be me? Will you allow me to speak honestly in love, even if I say painful things that you don’t agree with?” Why? We will never agree on all issues, right? However, love doesn’t depend on that. My wife and I don’t always agree, but we can still love each other. Why then do we have to deal with these divisive issues?

These are festering pustules that must be lanced by the medicine of true Christian brotherhood. Without this, the distrust, cynicism, and distance remain unchecked. I think that the old ways – the superficial affirmations and platitudes – haven’t worked. It seems that they have even contributed to the distance. Instead, we have to commit ourselves to prayer and to His Word:

·       Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:15-16)

Even though speaking the “truth [of the Gospel] in love” is central to this context, it also pertains to the truth of our feelings and convictions, as Paul later reflected:

·       Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29)

Let us lead the way showing forth honest, yet respectful and loving dialogue. Let us show the world that, for the sake of our Savior, we can disagree and still love.


Now, let’s bring all of this theology home where it belongs. An elderly black woman friend recently called me aside. “I don’t have a racist bone in my body!” she confided with a smile. She knew her statement would lure me in, and it did!

She continued, “I needed to buy a house, the same house where I still reside and where I raised my children, but I didn’t have the money for the down-payment. It was a white woman who co-signed for me!”

For my friend, that was the deal-maker. What influence - the transforming power of a single act of love!