But one thing I will not do, not for anything in the world. I will not--by suppression, or by performing tricks--try to produce the impression that the ordinary Christianity in the land and the Christianity of the New Testament are alike ... I want honesty; but till now the Established Church has not been willing of its own accord to go in for that sort of honesty . . . Kierkegaard (March, 1855)
Let us consider the unmistakable situation as it is today...religion no longer has the same influence on people that it used to...and this is not because its promises have grown less but because people find them less credible.
What litany you use
I leave to you,
but let it be the testament of touch
A Mass to keep the cold out.
At the breakfast table
or your dresser altar.
Let us now proclaim
the new religion real
After far too many trial runs.
Dedicated to those who
taught me these errors
provoking me to the fun
of thinking for myself
shared their pain with me
confirming my efforts
in seeking corrections
strive to proclaim
and personify these ways
of seeing things
will discover the errors
of our insights
hopefully encouraged to further honesty
in the continually new challenge
of reaching for the garments of truth
and to Hal, my friend,
who sent his love
and editing shortly
before stopping the
process of his own
struggle in our common
Popular Christianity is, I believe, currently riddled with a number of crucial errors which sap its strength, thwart its efforts, and prevent individual Christians from achieving the salvation they proclaim. The fault lies not with Christianity itself nor with the sincerity of Christians living today. We have, unfortunately, embraced mistakes so gradually over an extended period of time that we are largely unaware of their existence. We mean well, even in our errors.
Nevertheless, an error is an error no matter how sincerely it is believed. We pay for our mistakes even when unaware of making them. As has been said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I believe this observation is valid within the confines of popular Christianity. Well-intentioned, many of us within the organized Christian church have both proclaimed these errors and suffered privately for having made them.
In the following pages I amplify a number of what I see as errors and suggest ways of correcting some of them. The observations are of course personal. Many churchmen disagree with me. I know that I too may be in error. Strong cases, including biblical support, can be made for the opposite of each so-called error I confront. There is, however, a growing body of evidence for the positions I take. The Bible, I believe, also supports my conclusions.
I relate the errors to "popular Christianity" since many theologians, ministers, priests, and alert laymen have never fallen for them. Unfortunately theoretical Christianity and popular practice seldom correlate well. For sake of clarity in presenting the errors I shall imagine a mythical John or Jane Doe who are typical members of an American Protestant church. These folk comprise what I call popular Christianity. Though they may never exist in pure form, I conjure up their images as a vehicle for exemplifying these popular errors which are quite real.
Since John and Jane Doe are not real, my generalizations concerning them will appear grossly exaggerated in many instances. Hopefully no person falls for all these mistakes in understanding. Even so, in spite of what we ministers might like to think, I suspect that John and Jane are far more prevalent on our church pews than we realize.
Although I speak primarily of the Protestant perspective, I note that the same errors emerge in Catholicism, Judaism, other major religions, and are even widespread in secular Americans who claim no religious affiliations. Wherever these errors emerge, I believe they are crucial mistakes undermining not only the historical goals of Christianity but also the quest for happiness of all persons who hold them.
I should note too that the errors are in understanding, not in the language which expresses them. In some instances, after pointing out errors in popular thought, I will use the same biblical words to convey the understanding I hold.
Error: Making another world the subject of religion.
Fact: Religion is about the ultimate in this-world-ism.
Error: Using religion to structure illusionary escapes from reality.
Fact: Religion is concerned with getting with, not out of, reality.
The most gross errors in popular religion are related to its subject and purpose. Broadly speaking, they are: that the subject of religion is a separate reality from the ordinary physical world, and that the purpose of religion is to help one escape reality and evade apparent facts of life. These tragic errors are not necessarily revealed in the language or beliefs of those who make them, yet they form the substance of popular religious thought and practice.
The subject error assumes that religion is about something other than what most people call "real," namely, the physical world which we encounter through our senses. It is assumed to be about something "unreal," like ghosts or a separate reality apart from the tangible world. Religious "things" are otherworldly. The personages--God and Satan--are ethereal or immaterial entities. The places--heaven and hell, are in some other domain than the earth where we find ourselves. The religious events--salvation, rapture, going to heaven or hell--are mysterious "spiritual" happenings, essentially different from "real" physical occurrences such as, growing up, orgasm, or going to California.
From the perspective of this-world, the erroneous subject of religion could more accurately be defined as magic or the supernatural rather than reality or the natural. It is about miracles and suspensions of laws of nature, such as returning from the dead. Magical things are done for a person, for instance, instantaneous cures from fatal diseases. Physical dimensions of space and time are erased, as in the assumed present existence of the 2000-year old Jesus ("He is with us now"), or in the concept of everlasting life. Freud speaking from a this-world view point correctly labeled popular religion as "illusion."
The second error, which probably preceded the first chronologically, involves the use of religion as a way out of reality instead of into it. Popular religion is indeed, as Marx noted, an "opiate of the people," a narcotic to dull one's terror of reality. In this "religion" one escapes from the real physical world into an illusionary security of an imagined "spiritual" world. From the moving sea of reality one climbs onto the "rock of ages"; from the wild world he escapes into the "bosom of Abraham" or "arms of Jesus."
Safety-and-security are the themes of this other-worldly religion, as opposed to the danger-and-risk characteristics of this world. Permanence, not found here, replaces change, which is abundantly evident.
Theology notwithstanding, this "religion" is essentially a way of maintaining out-of-touchness with reality of this present world instead of helping one get-in-touch. Those persons most "religious" are often most out-of-contact with the physical universe. As an observant wag noted, such churchmen are "so heavenly minded they are no earthly good."
Theoretically, popular religion is about freedom and life. In practice it supports bondage and focuses on death. Though seldom heard anymore, its logical theme remains "prepare to die" rather than "come alive." Its words about liberty are lost in its repressive directives. Freedom to feel, think, and be sexual--essential components of human capacity--are primarily denied.
The "best" Christians are emotionally up-tight, mentally prejudiced (closed-minded on doctrinal issues), and sexually repressed. This "religion" functions to curtail rather than expand human experience. It is primarily prohibitive--against rather than for, no-saying rather than yes-saying.
Most human liberation movements from mental and physical bondage have been initially resisted and hindered by the popular church. Scientific inquiry was suppressed for centuries by the otherworldly church. Freeing of slaves, racial integration (the business world integrated long before the church world), women's liberation, the sexual revolution, and most recently, the gay liberation, have all suffered at the hands of the repressive church.
Predictably, "religious" expression is a long face rather than laughter. Otherworldly religion is deadly serious--literally. Its proponents are rigid rather than flexible. In spite of their words of love, they are in practice rejective.
Their churches, while touting the virtue of honesty, are actually gatherings of phoniness. One may be at no time as unreal as when he goes to church. Saturday night truthfulness is replaced by Sunday morning fakery. While proclaiming "whosoever will may come" the popular church is essentially exclusive rather than inclusive. One may theoretically come to Jesus "just as I am," but everyone knows he must clean up his act--as well as body, clothes, and speech--before he goes to church. There is more real acceptance of one as-he-is in almost any bar than in the popular church.
The most crucial errors I note in popular religion are in what it is commonly understood to be about--a separate reality, another world--and how it is frequently used--as an escape from confronting the vicissitudes of living well in this present world.
To correct these errors we must come to view the subject of religion as the ultimate in this-world-ism. We must see religion in the deeper nature of how the physical world actually functions--not as a separate reality, but as the heart of this reality. A proper goal of religion as I see it is to lead us into more harmonious contact with what is real, not seduce us away from it. It must help us get-with-it rather than sanctifying our illusionary escapes.
The religion which matters to me is about this world in which we find ourselves, the physical universe of which we are a part and which we encounter through our senses: the real world. It is about how things are rather than how I wish they were; it is about the facts of life, not the fictions of fantasy. It is about the natural rather than the supernatural; it encompasses reality, not magic.
The spiritual world which I care about is the essence of the tangible physical world around me, not some other reality above or beyond the rocks and soil, flowers and people of this planet earth. The religious personages, places, and events are all to be understood and experienced in the here-and-now.
The mysterious nature of religion lies not in its subject (that is revealed), but in our partially lost contact with reality. It is not hidden and hence mysterious; more accurately, we are blinded and thus perceive it dimly. The larger mystery lies in our own mystification. We are confused and consequently perceive reality in a confused manner. Not sharply focused ourselves, we perceive it as out of focus. Out of touch with reality, we think it is mysterious.
In our relative separation from the real world, lost in our own mystification, we do indeed face the possibility of "another world." But it is another world of experience, not a separate reality or another location. It is a new quality of living, not an extended quantity of existence.
The purpose of organized religion, as I view it, is to help us return from fantasy to reality, to guide us out of mystification and into the presence of revealed truth. From the bondage of merely existing, it should lead us to the freedom of fully living.
True religion sharpens all our senses, loosens our emotions, unbinds our minds, opens us to being sexual, and deposits our infant hearts at the doorstep of caring. It teaches us to smell, taste, and touch all that we can, responding to the real world with deep emotion and sharp reasoning. It challenges us to ask difficult questions rather than offering us easy answers. It calls for our passionate presence, our patient listening and spontaneous speaking. It leads us to say yes to life. It opens our hearts to love.
Repeatedly it confronts us with reality until all our false godhood is dissolved in humanity, all obscenities are brought on-scene; all men become our brothers; all ground becomes holy; and we stand continually in awe in the presence of the infinite.
Then religion is no more, as we become religious.
Error: Conceiving God literally.
Fact: "God" is a symbol for the ultimate in reality. Literally, "God" is a name for the inconceivable. All God-talk is metaphorical. To conceive God is to practice idolatry.
The name God is a symbol for the ultimate in reality, the supreme in being, the heart of existence, the essence of all that really is. So that we may think, talk, and write about the ultimate, such a symbol is needed. Furthermore, in speaking about the ultimate in reality, we may use almost any form of reality for descriptive purposes. Any metaphor may be useful in describing God. Indeed, figures of speech are required if we are to communicate about the profoundly important matter of knowing God.
For example, certain things about a father are like God. In describing these attributes we may think of an earthly father and say that God is a heavenly father. Or, there are similarities between light and God. We may thus say that God is light. On the other hand, there are qualities of God similar to mothers and to darkness. We might also say that God is a heavenly mother or that God is dark.
These and countless other metaphors may be useful in describing innumerable qualities of God. Probably any metaphor one could imagine might be helpful in a particular context. Some are obviously more useful than others, but attributes of the ultimate in reality may be found in any form of reality.
So far, so good. The error only emerges when we go the next step and begin to take figures of speech literally. It is one thing to say "Jack is a rat" or "Jill is the apple of my eye," but quite another to look for a long tail or try to take a bite. Proper use of metaphors is limited to comparing qualities. Certain things about rats and apples are like qualities in Jack and Jill. Certain things about fathers and light (or mothers and dark) are like qualities in God. But that is as far as it goes. Whenever a metaphor for God is conceived as literal fact we have made a crucial error.
To image God is to practice idolatry. Any metaphor is potentially useful; but no image is possible without committing idolatry, a sin which excludes us from the kingdom of God. Whether the image be physical or mental the sin is the same. To reduce the ultimate in reality to some form of reality--physical or mental—is to commit idolatry. Worshipping an image in the mind may be more sophisticated than kneeling before an image on the mantle but the former is no less sinful.
Nor is the sophistication of mental image the issue. Some who are amused at the childish images of God as a kindly, bearded grandfather in the sky image him instead as the creator of the universe or the creative force on the earth. The critical error lies in the act of imaging, not the quality or sophistication of the image. As noted, any metaphor may accurately describe a quality of God, but none can be taken literally.
Popular schools of such idolatry include deism (God created the world and turned it loose), theism (He created and still runs it), pantheism (Many gods work through the forces of nature), and atheism (none of the above). The first three may be considered positive, the last negative. Such schools of thought are concerned with the imaging of God in the form of either acceptance or rejection.
This error of idolatry is of course not limited to nor defined by thinking alone. The sin is in the practice. Even without a particular mental image one may live as though God were an entity of one sort or another. For example, a declared atheist may pray from his foxhole just as an theistic preacher may pray from his pulpit: "Stop the bombs," or, "Stop the rain." Each imply the image of an entity controlling the war or the elements. Living as though such an image exists, despite one's mental convictions, is the error I note.
Among the possible results of confusing metaphors about God with God are: indulging in human irresponsibility; believing in prayer as magic; polarization of reason and faith; and loss of God as knowable.
If, as in theism, God is imaged as one in charge of the world and human history, it follows that he is primarily responsible for all that happens. Prayer is reduced to religious plea-bargaining, an attempt to influence a grand magician to dispense special favors. Thus one may be irresponsible about personal health and then plead with God to intervene in illness; he may be politically irresponsible and prayerfully petition for peace.
Once God is reduced to an image, reason and faith are often polarized. Images, like faith, are notably evasive to reason. To reduce faith to the act of accepting something without reason is a simple step. Once the step is made, reason becomes the enemy of religion. Faith then becomes believing the unreasonable and is thus the opposite of reason.
Consequently, to be very religious is often to be quite unreasonable ("I just take it on faith"). Numerous theological dead-end streets, such as, "How could a loving God allow suffering?" commonly follow. Unreasonable mental gymnastics are required for maintaining even a semblance of reason. Finally, rational absurdity prevails. Reason and faith are polarized. To be reasonable is to be faithless; to have faith is to be unreasonable.
The most tragic result of imaging God is the lost option of knowing God. An image may be idolized, possessed, used, or rejected, but not known. Since heaven is knowing God, this error of imaging excludes us from His kingdom. Only those who resist the idolatry of images can meet God in the here and now.
Error: Making the possibility of life after death the major Christian hope, with
the resulting theme: prepare to die.
Fact: "Resurrection now" is the Easter hope. A proper theme is: prepare to live.
No other Christian tradition so logically tempts us to such crucial errors as does Easter. Taken at face value only, the apparent message is that God raised Jesus from the grave and he will do the same for us. The popular Easter theme is: celebrate Jesus' rise from the tomb and anticipate your own postmortem resurrection. For all its apparent logic and common acceptance I believe this message contains errors crucial enough to cost us eternal life.
The danger is not in agreeing or disagreeing with the idea of resurrection from the grave--either the Western version of body and/or soul, or the Eastern notion of reincarnation. These are only physical possibilities with no inherent connection to spiritual life now. Many believe in such resurrections or reincarnations. Many do not. The error lies not in our speculations about the possibility of life after death, but in our use of the resurrection idea to avoid responsibility both for personal resurrection now and for tending this earth on which we find ourselves.
Whether or not we shall eventually rise from our graves is a legitimate speculation. The possibility of life after physical death has fascinated man since the beginning of recorded history and probably before. It is a question worthy of scientific research.
Unfortunately this possibility is popularly used to divert us from the spiritual quest of happiness now. Life after spiritual death--that is, resurrection from the living grave, the daily hell in which many exist--is a real option. Focusing Easter on the physical issue (a post-mortem event) easily leads us to be irresponsible with the spiritual issue (current resurrection). After all, if God is going to do it for us later, why bother now? All we really need to do is get ready for life after death. The predictable result of this error is the prevailing Christian theme: prepare to die.
This is, I believe, a grand perversion of the true Easter message: prepare to live. I think that Jesus was graphically portraying to spiritually dimmed eyes an event which is possible for every walking dead person in the here-and-now: namely, resurrection from this body of death which our sin thrusts us into. "Because I live," said he, "ye shall live also." "I am come that ye might have life and have it more abundantly." "The kingdom of God is within you." "The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand."
Both in his teachings which they failed to grasp and in this final dramatic exodus from the physical tomb, I think Jesus' message was, in effect: "Hey, folks, no need to keep walking around dead. You can be raised to walk in newness of life now."
However, acting on this message takes faith. We in popular Christianity have been understandably tempted to take the Easter event literally, leaving it as a postmortem possibility which requires credulity but not faith and frees us from the challenges of being raised again in the here-and-now.
The error is common, but crucial.
The true Easter message is, I believe: celebrate the possibility of new life now. No matter how dead you are--how hardened your heart, confused your mind, or depressed your spirit--you can come alive. No matter how sinful you have become--how bad and guilty you are--you can be forgiven. No matter how crazy you have gotten--disturbed, disillusioned, hopeless--you can be sane. You can be resurrected now. Easter is here. Prepare to live.
The error is in using the possibility of life after death to avoid this option of abundant life now. Sometimes I wish Jesus had hidden Easter eggs instead of using the grave event. Certainly this would have been less newsworthy and probably would not have survived in our historical memory. But if so, the tempting error would have been less likely.
I commend devoting ourselves to resurrection-now, instead of to a post-grave possibility. Then, if we do rise, we shall be better prepared for the afterlife; and if the grave is the end, so be it. At least we did not waste our lives in the here and now.
SOUL AND GOAL ERRORS
Error: Conceiving soul as a possession, as in the notion, "I have a soul."
Fact: Soul or spirit is a potential state of being, a quality of experience rather than a quantity of anything.
Error: Making saving souls, being good, and helping others the goal of life.
Fact: A proper goal is being with soul (spirited) and loving others.
Am I my brother's keeper? (Cain, outside of Eden, pretending ignorance of his murdered brother's whereabouts.)
Being humane has not paid off. (Deputy Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, explaining plans to tow 76,000 refugees out to sea--and shoot any who tried to come back.)
Question: Are we here to keep our brothers? Is being humane supposed to pay off? The popular error I wish to confront now is the answer, "yes."
Many believe that we are our brother's keeper and that the goal of life is to help others. "Saved to serve," they think, and then to be eternally rewarded for doing so. Being humane is supposed to pay off--forever.
These socially functional and widely accepted ideas contain enough truth to give an authentic ring, yet are, I submit, fundamentally wrong and personally destructive when taken literally. Though Cain and Mohamad (quoted above) spoke in defense, each pointed, I believe, to the deeper error of this popular notion. Life is indeed more than taking care of our brothers, and helping is often counter-productive.
To understand the error we may begin by exploring its roots. Historically the "saved to serve" idea probably emerged from a deeper misunderstanding of the reality of soul. In this notion soul was viewed as a permanent entity residing in the temporal body.
At death it was presumed to exit, going to everlasting reward or punishment. On this premise it reasonably followed that the prime personal goal in life is to secure the destiny of one's own soul in the place of reward rather than punishment. Quite logically all other human endeavors are of lesser importance.
Next, saving of the souls of others, especially one's loved ones, became the major goal of those who were themselves saved. Crudely stated, in this perspective the goal of life was to get your ticket to heaven and then help others get theirs.
Though many still subscribe to this literal understanding, the basic ideas have been diffused. Soul and body are more often interrelated; heaven is more earthly; and "saving souls" is generalized into "helping people." Though many religionists still major on souls, an average layman thinks more of "being happy" than "going to heaven," and views the goal of "service" in more physical terms, such as providing food, shelter, clothes, education, etc. for others.
Although the older understanding of soul is less widely believed today, the primary errors which emerged from it are still broadly accepted. We are yet "supposed to be good"--an aim originally designed to "save our souls." Insofar as others are concerned we "be good" by "trying to help them," (which formerly meant "saving their souls" also).
To summerize, the popular errors I confront here are these answers to our most significant human questions: Who am I?, and, What am I to do with myself?--I am a soul and my goal, after getting myself saved, is to save others. Or the secular answers: I am a self and the goal of life is to be happy by helping others either directly or by making the world a better place in which to live.
For clarification I will now approach the soul and goal errors separately.
The popular religious error is viewing soul as a thing rather than a state of existence, a possession ("I have a soul") rather than an experience, something you have rather than a way you be. The error is to think of soul or spirit like a ghost in a machine rather than as a quality of the functioning of the machine.
Once the initial categorical error is made, the question about where a soul goes after death becomes reasonable. Western religions have traditionally answered in terms of extraterrestrial geography--heaven and hell; Eastern religions have stuck with this world and held for reincarnation. Both have accepted the fundamental error. To each, soul is a thing.
The issue is of course more than grammatical. When "having soul," an accurate colloquial expression, is taken literally it also implies possession. This, however, reflects a limitation of our language rather than understanding.
The definitive grammatical issue is the use of the article a. If we can apply the article, as in "a soul," and mean it literally, then we have made this error. The expression, "having soul," is in the same category of meaning as "having fun." Both refer to qualities of experience rather than possessions. To speak literally about soul or spirit (used synonymously) we could only use phrases such as "being spirited," or, "She is a spirited person."
Outside religion the same categorical error is made when one thinks of having a self (rather than a soul). The error is in identifying human existence with a possessed entity rather than with processes of experience. In reality we can be spirited ("have soul") but we can never have a soul. We can "be ourselves" (a colloquial expression) but we cannot "have a self (literally)."
These philosophical/psychological issues are relevant in this context only as they have given rise to the logical practical errors related to the goal of life. Based on this soul or self as an "it" philosophy, erroneous conclusions about saving "it"--as the goal of life--have developed. Then, in relation to others, the goal of saving their "its," followed logically.
Notions of how to save it (a soul) have varied from religion to religion. The general answer, however, in spite of theories of theologians, has been popularly understood as "by being good," most commonly taken to mean, pleasing parents, being unselfish, conforming to rules, and helping others.
The "good people" who will get to heaven are the "nice people" who put themselves last and serve others first. I summarize this theme with the phrase "helping others." To be good--in order to get to heaven--one must "help other people" rather than "be selfish." Such "goodness"--humaneness--is the main goal in life and is supposed to be rewarded eternally.
The secular version has commonly been but the flip side of the same record. Unselfishness has been replaced by selfishness as the path to happiness (secular heaven). "Serve others" becomes "serve yourself." "Put yourself last" becomes "put yourself first."
Efforts toward personal immortality become amazingly similar in appearance as churchmen and secularists each strive to win, be the best, in their own ways. Churchmen win by gaining the most souls (helping the most people); secularists win by gaining the most dollars (helping themselves the most). Each strives to make his mark on the world and thereby gain the trophy he values most. One works for the prize in the next world, the other in this; one works to save his soul, the other to save his self.
The philosophical error of presuming to have a soul as a possession is corrected by realizing that soul is a name for a quality of experience, not a quantity of anything. We may become spirited, but to reduce this profound spiritual event to a mere entity is a dangerous mental error with dire practical consequences.
A proper goal in life, once the error in thinking is corrected, is to become as spirited as possible, to "have soul" all the time. Almost everyone has occasional times of spirit which are properly measured as the highwater marks of life, A worthy goal is to increase these times. Such moments of soul are like high water marks, or, telephone poles between which lesser times of life hang suspended. The goal I project is to bring the poles closer and closer together, gradually eliminating the slack, spiritless times.
This is in contrast to popular goals of striving to be good by being unselfish or happy by being selfish--that is, trying to make some mark on the world in one way or another. In relation to other people, a proper goal is to be spirited with them, also to "have soul" in the presence of others.
In practice this will result in loving them rather than trying to help (in the popular sense of the word). Being spirited with others naturally involves caring with them. Caring will of course include responding to the needs of those cared for. In practice this may appear much like what has traditionally been called helping, yet such responses to need will be essentially different from the standpoint of the one caring. Experientially such events will be more like reaching-out appropriately, sharing spirit through things, rather than doing-things-for or giving hand-outs. The "services" of love are but extensions of spirit, not deeds of charity.
To an outsider they may look the same. In terms of spirit they are radically different. "Helping" can occur without spirit; loving is always spirited. For example, in "helping" one may hand out food to the hungry. This is an act of charity. In loving, food may also be shared, but it is then a spiritual event of caring rather than a "good deed."
The point is, with a goal in life of being spirited alone and with others, one will often function in a manner which appears as "helpful." In reality, however, in contrast to the popular error of helping as an act of virtue, he will be loving, sharing spirit, through things or deeds, rather than trying to benevolently "do something for" a less fortunate brother. What appear as acts of charity are actually expressions of spirit. The loving person looks-out-to and responds appropriately rather than looking-down-to and acting righteously.
This distinction may be difficult to make with words, but in reality the difference between loving (extending spirit) and helping (doing deeds of service) is significant. My point is not to quibble over language (It is okay to say that spirited people are sometimes "helpful"), but to distinguish between the goals of those who aim at being spirited with people and those who are trying to serve others.
If you agree with me about these popular errors and accept the philosophical correction about soul, what can be done in practice? Here are several suggestions.
Stop striving for immortality and start becoming mortal. Shift your efforts from being "good" to being yourself, from using yourself to achieve something to becoming who you are. Stop trying to make a mark on the world. Strive instead to move care-fully through life without disturbing the universe. A sign in the bottom of Grand Canyon reads: "You packed it in; you pack it out." Another hiker's creed is: "Take nothing but pictures; leave nothing but tracks." Moving gracefully through our limited tenure, polluting the earth as little as possible, is a worthy goal.
Instead of striving for attention, to stand out, to be noticed, to be a winner, to come out on top, to gain trophies--whether in the religious manner of service to others or the secular manner of service to self--try instead to become fully human, lovingly blending in with the world in which you find yourself. Shape the garden as is needed for productivity, without falling into the error of trying to stand out as the best gardener. Immortality is Godly business. Strive instead to become completely mortal; that is human.
Instead of trying to be "good" in the popular sense of nice or "better than" or perfect--that is, not yourself, strive to be a good human in the same way a tree or lion might be good--that is, fully themselves. Being spirited, a proper goal for people, is the result of embraced humanity, being who you are.
The missionary-type person is one familiar result of the popular error, saved-to-serve. As a fundamentalist he may be trying to save souls only. As a liberal Christian he may be trying to save bodies and minds through medicine and education. As a secularist he may be a politician or scientist trying to make the world a better place to live. As an ordinary person he may simply be a do-gooder, an adult version of the boy scout image--one who is always trying to help people. His motto is: I'm here to help you.
Whatever his stripe, the missionary-type person is like a benevolent saviour in a foreign land, sent there to help. If you would avoid this popular error of reducing yourself to an "it" and trying to aggrandize yourself through service, strive instead to become a world citizen, one to whom this earth is home.
As a local citizen striving to be spirited wherever you are, you will naturally seek to shape circumstances in ways more conducive to being spirited humans together. You will likely try to establish justice and freedom in society and prevent pollution and destruction of the earth. These activities will, however, be but natural expressions of a spirited citizen, not benevolent services of a missionary.
Finally, I suggest, stop trying to help people and start trying to be loving with them. As you learn to be spirited through embracing mortality, becoming human alone, be equally spirited and human with others. They may at times say you have helped them. You, however, will know that you loved them and they helped themselves.
SHALLOW SIN AND TEMPORAL SALVATION
Error: Viewing sin and salvation as merely "religious" subjects.
Fact: They are about the universal human condition--how we go wrong and how we can again find fullness of life.
Error: Reducing sin to doing something wrong--physically, mentally, or emotionally--or not doing what one "should."
Fact: Sin is the spiritual act of assuming godhood; it cannot be identified with any acts of body, mind, or feelings.
Error: Reducing salvation to securing a ticket to a blissful afterlife.
Fact: The good life is available in the here and now; the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Sin and salvation are crucially important concepts in Christianity and, I think, in everyone's daily life. I affirm the reality of them both--something really is wrong with us, and we can get right; but I note that serious errors in popular understanding of these doctrines have rendered them almost irrelevant in real life and certainly difficult to apply to our concrete situations.
The first major error is in relation to the subject of both doctrines. It is made when the subject is reduced from something universal to something merely "religious." The doctrines are about the human condition, mankind in general and every man in particular. Though named with religious words and described with religious language they apply to the whole secular world.
Conceptualizations of "sin" and "salvation" include the same realities confronted by secular philosophers and treated by secular psychiatrists, although the labels are different. To view sin as merely a religious matter or salvation as relevant only to pious churchmen concerned with saving souls is to seriously misunderstand the subject itself. Though the language has slipped from everyday vocabulary and is primarily used now in the institutional church, the subject remains universal. Sin and salvation are about us all, and about all of us--body and soul.
"Sin" is a religious word for what is wrong with us. It deals with how we have gotten into spiritual trouble and missed the happiness we long for. "Sin" is the answer to the universal question, "What's my problem?" "Salvation" is a name for how we get right, how we achieve the happiness and peace of mind we desire. "Salvation" answers the question, "How do we achieve the good life?"
The primary errors in popular understanding are the reduction of sin to doing something wrong, and salvation to going to heaven. These understandings are accurate figures of speech, but popular errors lie in taking them literally. Sin is reduced to bad deeds, thoughts, or feelings (something one literally does); salvation is reduced to geography and chronology, isolated in space and time (as in the idea of perpetual bliss, which not being evident here must logically be postponed to another world to be entered after death).
This leaves us with a shallow concept of sin and a spatial/temporal view of salvation, both of which logically appear as irrelevant to modern man. It is a small wonder that the secular public has largely abandoned the words and turned to psychology for help with obviously real human needs.
To correct these errors we must first realize that sin and salvation are about the universal human condition of mankind, about whole persons--all that we are--rather than merely a religious part, such as, a ghostly soul. The popular figures of speech--doing wrong and going to heaven--must be viewed metaphorically rather than taken literally. Sin and salvation are spiritual experiences, existential conditions, not activities in space and time, such as, adultery and missing church or harping on golden streets forever.
In the erroneous understanding of sin, spiritual activity is reduced to physical, mental, and/or emotional deeds. The resulting lostness is reduced from a current existential condition to a geographical destination--hell--after bodily death.
Sinful deeds are broken down into two types, called sins of commission and sins of omission--bad deeds done and good deeds not done. These physical activities may be of body (hand and mouth), of mind (thoughts or motives), or of emotions (bad feelings).
Though the first are external and the latter two internal, all are physical acts done or left undone. Typically, sins of commission involve breaking religious laws, such as the Ten Commandments, and are conceived as disobeying God. Bodily examples are theft, murder, and adultery. Mental sins include coveting, thinking there is another God besides Jehovah, fantasying fornication, or doing something good for the wrong reason. Hatred, anger, and jealousy are commonly viewed as emotional sins.
Sins of omission include not praying, not going to church, or not helping someone in need, not agreeing with the "right" doctrines or thinking positively about others, or not feeling love for everyone.
In summary, all sin is understood literally as something done or not done, either bodily, mentally, or emotionally. The concept is shallow because it ignores the person who does or does not do the deeds. It deals with surface matters only, potential signs of sin but not sin itself. Using medical analogy, this understanding treats symptoms--the fever--but ignores the disease, the poison. This error becomes crucial when, in effect, aspirin is prescribed for spiritual cancer.
If we are to understand what is wrong with us, we must look deeper to spiritual disease which is sometimes revealed by physical symptoms popularly called "sin." In reality any of the noted symptoms may occur when there is no sin, or one may sin deeply without having any of the symptoms. While doing all the right things one can still be a sinner. Sin can never be identified with body, mind, or feelings, apart from a particular person in his own circumstances. The source of sin is deeper than physical deeds.
In biblical language sin is an issue of heart ("Out of the heart are the issues of life." "Man looketh on outward appearances, but God looketh on the heart."). Sin is a matter of being rather than doing. It falls in the sphere of who we are rather than how we act. Since doing may emerge from being, acts can reveal sinful being; but since the connection is not inevitable (we can do without being, or be and do nothing), doing cannot be identified with being.
In biblical language, one can be sinful in his heart while acting righteously, or be doing deeds labeled as unrighteous and yet be pure in heart. Much of Jesus' preaching was directed at self-righteous hypocrites, those who were outwardly good but evil of heart.
How can we grasp the meaning of heart and being, the source of our sin? Perhaps with the metaphor activity and the modifier spiritual. Sin, a matter of heart or being rather than body or mind, is a spiritual issue rather than physical activity.
Spiritual acts may or may not be reflected in physical deeds. Although they may occur in conjunction with one another, they are essentially unrelated. For example, love is a spiritual activity. Love may or may not be reflected in physical deeds. I can love you and do things for you, or I can love you and do nothing. Love, a matter of heart or being, is essentially unrelated to any particular physical activity, including thought or feeling. One can also love you while feeling angry at you.
Love and all other matters of heart (hope, faith, sin, etc.) fall in the dimension of who I am rather than what I do. The modifier, spiritual, is intended to remind us that the metaphor of activity is descriptive rather than literal. Technically all "spiritual acts" are ways or states of being. They are conditions rather than literal moves, something we become, not do. And yet to speak of being, metaphors from the realm of doing can be useful as long as we remember they are metaphors.
With this understanding of language usage we can now proceed to speak more specifically of the"spiritual activity" called sin. To summarize, I have tried to distinguish being from doing, suggesting that sin can be identified only with the former. The error I am noting is to identify sin with doing rather than being. The metaphor of "spiritual activity" was introduced to distinguish matters of heart from those of hand (body). What now is the nature of this "spiritual activity" called sin?
I begin with the human condition before sin in order to describe the contrast. Although I speak of mankind the reference is to individuals. Only specific persons sin; sin is an individual's event. Yet as Paul noted in the Bible, apparently "all have sinned."
Before we do, however, we exist as integrated parts of the whole world. In the imagery of Genesis we are creations of the Creator. To use a family metaphor, we are children of God, that is, we belong to the family of mankind. We are finite elements of the infinite, real parts of the ultimate in reality. We are beings at-one-with being-itself. This means we exist in harmony with creation. Adam (Hebrew for mankind) walked and talked with God in this garden called Eden (meaning pleasure). At-one-with all nature, Adam and Eve were "naked and not ashamed."
To use colloquialisms, before sin we are "in touch with reality" (God is a symbol for the ultimate in reality). We are "really with it," "in sync" (synchronized). We are "connected," that is, in connection with all creation, "in harmony with the universe." We are "in tune with things,"--at peace with all that is, at home in the world.
Specifically this means that we are sensitively and emotionally responding naturally to reality as it is revealed to us. Gifted with a greater concentration of capacities than other creatures (bigger brains and more flexible equipment), we humans can manage and control more.
We Adams and Eves can tend the garden and name things. Yet we remain an integral and integrated part of all creation--more than, but not better than. With our larger brains we can store memories, know time, and make plans. We respond thoughtfully as well as emotionally, yet without judgment--before we sin.
Sensually, emotionally, and mentally integrated within and responsively in harmony with all that is without, we exist joyously in our gardens of pleasure. All this, of course, before sin.
But to us all, at some very early time, the symbolic serpent comes with the temptation to sin. What is this spiritual "act" which we fall for, this poisoned apple in everybody's Eden? I shall describe our common fall with these linguistic distinctions: religious language, colloquial speech, psychological words, common talk, and existential language.
In Genesis the serpent's invitation is to "become as God." Sin is the spiritual act of assuming godhood which is manifested as: omnipotence (more power than we actually possess); omniscience (more knowledge than is humanly possible); and immortality (more time than a creature can command). Sin is giving up our real humanity in favor of imaginary godhood. Specifically, we sin when we assume a position of unrealistic power, either more or less than is truly ours. For example, omnipotence is revealed in the stance: you can do whatever you want to, if you want to bad enough.
We sin when we take a mental stance beyond our actual limitations, such as, any ultimate knowledge. The Genesis metaphor is "eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." As limited humans we can approximate reality. We can determine what seems to be practical or impractical, what has or has not worked for us in our limited experience, but we cannot know anything for sure, such as what is ultimately right or wrong.
We can and must continually make decisions, yet always without full information. After any decision we may approve or disapprove of what we did, but we lack the ultimate perspective to draw final conclusions. We sin when we assume we can. To say literally "This is good," or, "That is bad" about any thing, person, or human activity is to have eaten the forbidden fruit. This is the spiritual activity called sin.
Immortality, having perpetual existence, is a third mark of godhood. We humans are temporal. We may know time with our big brains, but we cannot control it, as in, giving ourselves tenure beyond our natural life span. All creatures are timed, not timeless. We live and die, each within our natural chronology. To assume more or less time than we actually have (for instance, to presume continual existence, as when one says, "See you later," or to act like we will live forever) is to have "become as god"--which is to say, to have sinned.
In summary, religiously speaking, sin is the spiritual act of separating oneself from God. Instead of reaching the goal of full humanity we miss the mark and come short "of the glory of God." Rather than remaining human in the presence of God, we attempt the impossible by "becoming as God" ourselves.
Now I speak of the same spiritual act in colloquial language. To sin is to lose some degree of "contact with reality," to get "out of touch," to be "bent out of shape." When one sins he gets "out of sync" (is no longer synchronized with things). He gets "unconnected," "confused," "a little off," "out to lunch," or is in some degree "crazy." Sin is a "not-with-it" state.
In psychological language sin is becoming neurotic or psychotic. To sin is to get "emotionally disturbed" or "mentally ill." Psychiatry has a long list of labels for specific forms and degrees of psychic imbalance which in religion is called sin. Not all forms of emotional disturbance are the result of sin. Some are apparently hereditary or the result of brain damage or chemical imbalance. That portion of mental illness, however, which is the result of individual choice, is also the result of sin.
In common language to sin is to become self-conscious. In the biblical allegory Adam says after his sin, "we were ashamed because we were naked, and we hid ourselves." Shame and embarrassment, or their counterparts, pride and self-righteousness, are the results of the spiritual act which is sin.
The act itself is becoming a self to be ashamed or proud of. In reality we can only be ourselves. We have no other real choice. With our sizable brains, however, we can at the same time be consciously aware. We can be ourselves consciously. This is the human blessing. We shift it into a curse, we sin, when we go the next step, moving from consciously being ourselves to becoming or having a self to be conscious of--either ashamed or proud.
We in effect cease being who we are, create an imaginary entity called "I" (separate from myself), and then become this separated self ("I"). Thereafter "I" may be ashamed or proud of myself, but in either case separated from myself, split within. In time I may develop many such imaginary selves; that is, I may split myself off into a number of different entities so that I may say with the Gadarene in the Bible, "My name is Legion, for we are many."
Whether one or many, sin lies in splitting myself, becoming one or more imaginary selves--leaving who I am in favor of what I am not. In biblical language, secular "becoming a self" is called "becoming as God."
In existential language sin is the condition of non-being. To exist in a state of estrangement from reality, not to be, while in the presence of being is to sin. We sin when we cease to any degree to be who we are.
In an erroneous understanding of salvation the graphic metaphor of heaven is taken literally. Salvation then becomes the physical act or process of going, or securing a ticket to go, to a geographical locale. Since this heavenly place, this religious Camelot, is not evident on earth or during ordinary bodily life, it is popularly conceived as existing "out there" and in the future--"beyond the sunset." This "sweet bye and bye" is presumed to be entered in an afterlife beyond the grave. Heaven, taken literally, becomes a place where one goes after death to live forever in bliss.
Based on this concept, salvation is the business of securing one's place in heaven in the afterlife while still in this present life. Doctrines of how to get the ticket vary from denomination to denomination; they share in common the erroneous understanding of salvation as preparation to go somewhere forever.
In Eastern religions the location of heaven is shifted from some other world back to this one. Instead of going "there" one is understood to keep returning in successive reincarnations to this world. Salvation becomes the process of improving one's status here through continually higher grades of reincarnation. Thus in both Christianity and Eastern religions salvation is popularly viewed as going toward or achieving perfection, either "there" or "here."
Taken figuratively either language can be a graphic description of the real process of salvation; perceived literally, however, these concepts easily result in serious errors in our common pilgrimage toward happiness. Salvation may be described in metaphors of space and time, but the process itself can never be contained in geographical and temporal symbols. In reality it remains a spiritual rather than a physical process--a matter of being, not doing. We may become saved, but we can never get salvation.
I am attempting to point out that we err in shifting salvation from the sphere of being to the realm of doing, from spiritual to physical activity, from heart to hand. Just as sin is misunderstood as "doing something wrong"--that is, physically wrong (theft, coveting, adultery, or getting angry), so salvation is misunderstood as doing "right" things, such as believing in God or Jesus, going to church, and helping others.
Specific prescriptions differ from group to group, as do the lists of "sinful things to do." Some prescribe mental acts (believing in God, agreeing on dogma); others require emotional deeds (conversion, "giving your heart to Jesus," or, "baptism of the Holy Ghost"); still others expect bodily deeds such as joining the church, doing "good" and behaving in certain ways. Most groups call for some combination of all these--mental, emotional, and bodily deeds. They differ in content; in common they share the understanding of salvation as doing something in order to get somewhere.
This, I submit, is the error: reducing a profound spiritual event to a merely temporal happening in space and time. Even when the results are understood in terms of ideal space and everlasting time the eternal nature of heaven is missed.
All these things-to-do may be signs of salvation, just as listed "evils" may be symptoms of sin, but if we are to understand the actual event we must look beyond space/time and deeper than deeds of mind, emotions, or body. Salvation, like sin, is a matter of heart. It is a spiritual rather than physical activity, it is something to become, not something to do or some place to go.
How can we grasp the spiritual activity of salvation? Again I shall use several types of language to describe this significant change of heart. Beginning with biblical language, the Hebrew word used in the Old Testament has a root meaning of "to be wide" or "spacious." To be saved means "to develop without hindrance," "to be able to win."
The Greek word in the New Testament has the same root meaning as the English word "salvaged," as when a sunken ship is able to float again. It means to be "loosed," "delivered," or "freed." Specifically this is described as from darkness to light (I Peter 2:9), from alienation to acceptance (Ephesians 2:12-13), from guilt to pardon (Colossians 1:14), from fear to assurance (I John 4:18), and from slavery to freedom (Galations 5:1).
In modern language these biblical descriptions might be translated as becoming a "winner" instead of a "loser." To be wide means to "have space," to "not be crowded" spiritually. To be able "to develop without hindrance" means to "have room to grow." Salvation is being freed from guilt and bondage which our sin casts us in. From fear we are loosed to love, Perhaps freedom is the best summary word. To be saved is to be free to become and be ourselves.
Specifically, this existential process is a reverse of the movement into sin. Instead of "becoming as God" one turns in the opposite direction and "becomes man"--that is, he gives up godly attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and immortality, and embraces human capacities of sensitivity, emotionality, and rationality. Instead of playing God he turns toward becoming human.
In psychological language, salvation is "getting well" from mental illness, getting over being psychotic or neurotic. It is the movement from emotional disturbance to mental health. Salvation is going sane.
Colloquial terms for salvation include "getting in touch with reality," "getting your head on straight," becoming "connected," "in sync," "in tune with things," or simply "getting with it."
Common secular language for this spiritual endeavor includes such phrases as "becoming yourself." One "gets over" fear of himself, giving up pride or shame and all related escapist activities, in favor of being who he is. He confronts inner division--being split into more than one self--and moves toward integration, achieving wholeness or unity. "Learning to love"--both oneself and others--is another way to speak of salvation.
Existentially speaking, he gives up alienation and estrangements--all forms of non-being--and returns to being himself in the presence of being-itself. In religious language this is "knowing God." Salvation is returning to Eden, the garden of pleasure, where, "naked and unashamed," all Adams and Eves meet God continually. Separation from God, the result of sin, is replaced by communion with God.
Geographically speaking, the heaven to which salvation leads is here. The Garden of Eden is potentially everywhere. As Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven "is within" or present. The time, he also noted, is now. To posit heaven in any other place and time is to do violence to biblical teaching, and, I think, to the facts of life.
A second set of errors, often more dangerous in practice than the first, emerges when we turn to the pragmatic question of what-to-do, or, how-can-we-be-saved? The biblical answer, "by grace, through faith," that is, through forgiveness or accepting being accepted (or by "believing in Christ," to be discussed later), gets lost in an effort to achieve salvation through good works--doing good rather than becoming whole.
The error is logical when sin is erroneously identified with wrong doing. Reasonably, "bad" doing is corrected by "good" doing. If we think we got in trouble by misbehaving (including mis-thinking and mis-feeling), then perfect acting, thinking, and feeling should bail us out. It should, but does not.
Thus we find many persons, especially religious folk, who consciously believe in doctrines of grace and forgiveness, trying to find happiness by acting "right." They struggle in perfecting their minds, feelings, and behavior, trying to do-it-right. The multimillion dollar how-to-do-it book market is abundant testimony to the doctrine of salvation-by-works in both religious and secular covers.
The medical model of sin--as illness rather than misbehavior--offers a great advance over the older error insofar as description is concerned. Sin is indeed more like being sick than acting bad. However, when we turn to the question of how-to-be-saved the medical model is perhaps more dangerous than the older religious model of bad behavior. Salvation (spiritual well-being) is similar to physical health in that one is healed, whole, and "well" in both cases, but the process of achieving spiritual "health" and physical health are essentially different.
Insofar as responsibility is concerned, physical healing can in large measure be done for you. When sick, go to the doctor, take the proper medicine or have the necessary surgery, and health will likely follow. In effect, one delivers his body to a professional and healing is seemingly done for him. The patient is irresponsible except in following orders. The doctor does it for or to you.
Spiritual "healing" does not work this way. In salvation the entire movement is left up to the "patient" or sinner. One must do it all (accept grace) on his own. No spiritual "doctor" can dispense salvation in the way any physical doctor can dispense medicine and offer healing (if you follow directions).
We sinners often make the logical mistake of seeking salvation in the same way we seek health. We try to get someone to do it for us. If religiously oriented, we try to get God, Jesus, or a priest to do it for us; if secularly inclined we may look to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor.
We erroneously try for spiritual or mental health in the same mode as physical health. We look for a religious pill (seen as a placebo of belief in a later chapter), or a tranquilizer or stimulant to "make us feel good." Always this is a long-range mistake. Spiritual "medicines" may work temporarily but true salvation by whatever name--heaven, happiness, or peace of mind--is only achieved, as best I can tell, "by grace, through faith (as worded in the Bible)." No doctor can do that for us.
The religious version of this mistake is more dangerous than the secular variety because the doctrine of "healing" by God is theologically correct. The error is not in the idea but in its popular interpretation. Forgiveness is, in fact, from God, but God does not do it--force acceptance--for us.
Furthermore, secular priests (psychiatrists) are less likely to play God for a patient than most preachers seem to for parishioners. That is, they are quicker to admit their limitations and to require their patients to assume responsibility for themselves. Religious gurus, on the other hand, may verbally declare personal limitations but generally convey a stance of omnipotency through their message that God will save you.
They say in effect, "I can't do it for you but I know a God who can." Parishioners wanting a religious doctor to function like their physical doctor, easily miss the declaration and go to church/priest/God as though they were all synonymous, seeking to get spiritual healing in the religious version of this secular ritual.
The theological truth that spiritual "healing," literally forgiveness, is from God (whether mediated by a priest, psychiatrist, or lover), but must always be accepted by every person (the "work" of salvation), is commonly lost in the blind effort of religionists to get salvation from God as they do health from their doctor.
The problem is that it does not work that way.
Another subtle but dangerous misconception emerging from the medical model of sin is that, like physical disease, it happens to us. Germs invade our bodies, making us ill. When sin is viewed as an illness it logically follows not only that the "cure" can be done for us, but also that the sin is separate from us.
In this way of thinking, we "fall into sin," become tainted by "it," and may be "washed clean by the blood of the Lamb." In all these figures of speech the sinner remains essentially separated from the sin. He does it or falls into it, but he does not become it.
Physical illness may happen to us, so that our essential being remains separate from the disease infecting the body. Not so with sin. Sin is neither something we do nor have done unto us, but rather a way we become. Disease inflicts us, but sin becomes us. After sin we are not merely dirty or tainted and in need of cleansing, but lost and in need of saving. Salvation is more than a religious wash-job; it is literally rebirth--resurrection from spiritual death.
This fact of being a sinner rather than being an innocent person who happens to have done sinful deeds becomes critically important in the process of legitimate confession. True confession is much more than telling what I have done--or what has "happened to me." It is revealing who I have become, or literally, exposing my non-being.
The shallow concept of sin (what is wrong with us) leaves it on the physical level of things done or not done--feelings, thoughts, words, and deeds. It fails to confront the deeper level of spirit. In reality sin is a matter of heart and being, not head and body. The "activity" of sin is escaping humanity and becoming as God--that is, ceasing to be ourselves and trying to be what we are not. The spiritual moves of sin may be revealed in what are popularly called sinful deeds, but can never be identified with any of them.
Salvation (how we get right) is erroneously conceived in terms of space and time--taken literally rather than figuratively, as going to a place for perpetual bliss. Ticket-getting recipes vary among groups, but all of these popular concepts leave salvation on the temporal/physical level rather than embracing its existential possibilities. They presume heaven must be there and later rather than here and now.
WHAT TO DO
In recognizing the existential depths of sin, we take our first positive action. Begin by seeing sin in terms of who you have become (or un-become) rather than merely what you have done or not done. Approach it as a spiritual condition rather than through various physical activities.
Shift your thinking about heaven from the spatial/temporal sphere to the realm of being. Think of knowing God in this present world rather than going to some other world. This will require rethinking the process of being saved. If you have had a ticket-getting concept previously, start thinking about current-resurrection instead.
As you correct these popular theological errors in your mind, start confronting your real sin, your false godhood and inhumanity, instead of spending all your spiritual energy on cleaning up your act. Remember, even a perfect act won't fool God. Consider your activities as potential revelations of sin, but look deeper to your actual escapes from being-who-you-are.
The path to salvation is through forgiveness--accepting being accepted. This requires confession. Instead of striving for perfection, or trying to get Jesus or some local priest (religious or secular) to do it for you, get busy in the demanding process of full confession, working out your own salvation. Muster the faith to receive grace that is already given to you.
Start affirming glimpses of heaven as they come. Remember what Jesus said: the kingdom of heaven is within you. Seek it in the here and now.
JESUS: RELIGIOUS SUPERMAN
Error: Transforming Jesus into an inhuman superman who was inherently different from the rest of mankind.
Fact: The Nazarene was an ultimate human.
Error: Trying to have--or become--a superman.
Fact: Becoming human is the proper goal.
New Orleans (UPI) - "Too much TV" led 3-year-old Ronald Rickett to imitate his hero Superman by diving out a third-story window, the child's mother says. But like Superman, Ronald came out relatively unscathed. Ronald, who landed head-first on a soft patch of dirt, suffered cuts and bruises on his head and complained his stomach hurt.
With due respect to the influence of television I suspect that Ronald's problem goes much deeper. The human condition seems to include a perhaps universal desire to either be or have a Superman. Fortunately we don't all try our wings out of third-story windows or attempt other superhuman feats. Unfortunately we seem less wise spiritually. Even when we abandon fantasies of personal omnipotence--of being superhuman--we often fall for the displaced version of the same theme: if we can't be one ourselves, we at least can try to have one.
At this point we may confront Jesus and this the most commonly accepted and personally damning error I now recognize in popular Christendom: making him into a religious Superman, specifically one with power to transcend laws of nature--to do magic, such as, float on clouds, turn water into wine, and raise the dead--or to transcend laws of spirit, and save people even 2000 years later.
The secular Superman who leaps over tall buildings and rescues ladies in distress is paralleled by this religious version who not only walked on water in his own time but also leaps over the pages of history and rescues the souls of people in our time as well.
Christians today may not be Supermen themselves, but a popular belief is that at least they have one in the person of the Galilean called Jesus. Nor is the notion a new one. In his own time followers likewise sought to so elevate him. They claimed that he healed their diseases; he said their faith made them whole. They called him Son of God; he said, son of man. They said he did miracles; he said "Greater works than these shall ye do."
Once a man called him good. Jesus asked why, replying that only God is good. But for 2000 years we have ignored him, insisting that he is not only good, but the best--indeed, the only real saviour who can rescue our souls.
This is, I conclude, the error: making Jesus into a religious Superman who can and will do our spiritual homework for us--that is, save us, make us whole, give us eternal life--if we will but believe in him, try to follow his ways, or "give him our hearts." The bottom line is: do it for us, be good in our stead, be our own personal Superman.
Ignoring the spiritual law that, as Paul said, every man must "work out his own salvation," we project our fantasies of omnipotence onto him and presume that he will do our work for us. We try to take the easy-out of thinking favorably about Jesus rather than the difficult course of coming to be in Christ.
Instead of the demanding process of working out our own salvation through coming to exist in the way, truth, and life (Christ), we make the fatal error of installing Jesus as a Superman who will do it all for us, if we only believe it so.
And of course it works--temporarily--just as will believing in a rabbit's foot, a witch doctor, or a mother's kiss. Magical belief in anything, including Jesus, will provide a sense of well-being in even the most trying of circumstances. As long as we can keep reality from crowding into awareness, such a feeling may be extended indefinitely.
However, no kind of positive thinking about Jesus, even supplemented by trying to act like him or transferring our hearts to him, can take the place of coming to be in Christ, insofar as real salvation is concerned. Only when we abandon omnipotence, both personal and projected, and come to exist truthfully in the way life really is--which is to say, in Christ--can we know the salvation to which I think Jesus called us.
And yet the error is rampant today, not only in tent and TV evangelism but in the private hopes of countless ordinary, sincere, churchgoing, Christian people who exist on the hope that Jesus is going to do it for them, in the disillusionment that, try as they will, they cannot find what certain other believers appear to have, or in the cynicism of "nothing works," following a stint of such magical belief in Jesus.
This religious phenomenon finds expression in displaced form when, under cover of Jesus ideology, magical belief is placed in certain of his current representatives, such as Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, a host of TV evangelists, or innumerable local priests, preachers, and priestesses. The religionists of course vocally denounce the error of believing in themselves, saying they only represent Jesus, while their followers also consciously deny the fact. Still, both leader and listener commonly function as though these current representatives of Jesus have superhuman powers to help, if not to save. If not the real thing, they become semi-superman for their followers.
Although I focus here on the Christian version of this classic projection of omnipotence, the phenomenon is by no means limited to organized religion. Numerous secular versions abound. Movie, television, political, and sports stars such as John Wayne, Robert Redford, Winston Churchill, and Mohammed Ali have all been elevated to superhuman status in the belief of many.
Perhaps the most obvious secular examples, especially in regard to direct expectations, are doctors, counselors, and psychiatrists. Commonly these persons are viewed as having extraordinary powers to heal, to bring emotional relief and mental health. In addition, uncountable parents, spouses, friends, and lovers have been installed as idols for individuals, imbued with superhuman powers to give security, peace of mind, well-being, and happiness--secular salvation. As in Christianity, one is singled out, idolized, and then looked-to for special personal favors.
The bottom line again is: they do it for us. Though not called or even thought of as Supermen, such contemporary figures are related to as though they have extra-ordinary powers to turn us on, make us secure, emotionally well, or spiritually happy. This is the Superman phenomenon, no matter what it is called or how it is denied. The error is living as though someone else--religious or secular--can do our spiritual homework for us, as though we do not each have to work out our own salvation.
Back to would-be Superman, Ronald. While the projected form of the error--having a religious or secular Superman--seems most common, Ronald's effort to be Superman himself is by no means unfamiliar. Happily we most often avoid the physical version of one who leaps over tall buildings--or off them; but unhappily we sometimes fall for the spiritual form of playing Jesus and trying to save the world or at least a few selected inhabitants, especially loved ones or ourselves.
Examples include those who play Super-mom, Mr. Boy Scout, everybody's helper, Super-stud, amateur psychiatrist, and Super-independent (I-don't-need-anybody-I-can-make-it-on-my-own). Ignoring the spiritual law which Paul stated as: "Every man must bear his own burden" (or my father's version: "Every tub must sit on its own bottom") such present day Super-persons may literally try to carry the spiritual weight of their children, friends, or loved ones.
Or, evading our common needs for one another, they may strive to be spiritual Supermen, independent of everyone.
Why, one may wonder, would we humans make such irrational errors? This apparently universal phenomenon is understandable when we consider the size of the human brain which gives us great capacity both to reach back into the past through memory and into the future through fantasy. It seems that we all must have a primitive recall of the womb and those early times when everything was done for us. To take this memory and, through our capacity to fantasize, to recreate a situation where either someone else is again doing it all for us, or else we have the superhuman power to do so ourselves, is predictable. Our big brains make reasonable the fantasy of having or being a superman.
The situation is exaggerated for most of us who begin in families where parents act like gods, giving us models of Superman (or Supermom) by appearing to have all knowledge and be able to do anything they choose. Or, conversely, our parents may treat us as though we are gods, catering to our fantasies of omnipotence and in effect reconstructing immediate wombs where everything is done for us, or various combinations of the two. The result is that we are set-up, programmed either to have or be little gods ourselves.
When we also consider the massive amount of faith, energy, and often money required to actually work out our own salvation, small wonder that so many of us seek to find or become Superman ourselves.
So what? What if we do look for religious or secular Supermen to do it for us? What is wrong with magical belief as long as it works? Certainly the notions of Jesus as savior and friend have eased the rocky courses of countless persons in the two thousand intervening years. Belief in the extraordinary powers of mothers and lovers has also provided immeasurable comfort, security, and happiness. So why not?
The dangers of having a Superman are serious, even in the face of these obvious advantages. First, magical belief requires suspension of reason, plus obedience rather than initiative. At times when one should be growing and learning to take care of himself, he is suspending his capacities for personal responsibility. Having a Superman (or Mom) schools one in dependency rather than in autonomy. Energies more properly devoted to the difficult process of growing up in society are directed toward pleasing or courting favors from the Superman.
Secondly, in spite of womb-worlds created and sustained among those with similar magical beliefs (as in Jesus), reality often has a way of creeping in. The outside world of real life predictably breaks into the fantasy world of true believers. Tragedies happen, loved one's prove untrustworthy or die, dreams crash. Fears appear when they should not. Fantasized security often begins to crack. Rationalizations must be expanded to support irrational beliefs. As in drug addition, dosages of belief must be continually increased to maintain previous levels of spiritual euphoria.
Thirdly, projection negates the possibility of personal encounter with an assumed-to-be Superman. One may use, idolize, adore, or worship a Superman, but the two cannot be close as humans. The nature of the projection requires that one be up and the other down, one high and the other low. The gulf is un-crossable in a real encounter.
For example, a teenager might swoon if she sees a movie star, say Robert Redford, but she cannot meet him as a person so long as she idolizes him. Or a Christian might fantasize Superstar Jesus transforming her or him in religious ecstasy, but one is at the same time sadly barred from an honest, mental encounter with the man from Galilee. Another tragedy of the popular error of Superman Jesus is that he is lost as an example and guide or as a fellow-human.
When the projection is made internally--that is, when one attempts to be rather than have a Superman, the same irresolvable conflict occurs. I, being human, cannot relate to either a Superman "out there" or "in here." I may idolize my fantasied superhuman self, but in setting up myself as Superman I create an inward division which makes personal communion impossible. Peace of mind is removed as an option so long as I remain split by my fantasy.
Once we understand the error of trying to have or be a Superman, what can we do? First, a deep respect for the fantasy is in order. The wish is a natural result of human brain power. This capacity to remember and imagine is a significant part of what allows us to be human. To deny fantasy would be inhuman. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be or have a Superman.
However, it is also within our natural options to be able to separate wishes from reality, to both fantasize and yet recognize that a dream is not real. Without negating or even belittling a wish for superhuman powers, personal or otherwise, we can still function within the range of our natural limitations.
Once we develop a healthy respect for the fantasy and occasional indulgences of a wish in our minds, we can proceed to separate the dream from reality. This may include the following steps, depending on the specific nature of our errors.
Let Jesus down. If you have fallen for the Christian version of the error, projecting your fantasies of omnipotence onto the wise Galilean and relating to him as a Superman, you have unwittingly crucified him as a human. Let him down from the cross in your mind.
Hear him ask you also: "Why call you me good?" Return him to the level plane of all humanity so you can begin to relate to and learn from him realistically. Your rewards in meeting the human Jesus may far outweigh those previous illusions of the Superstar doing it for you.
Be immensely careful of religious leaders who play on the Superman fantasy, tempting you to re-crucify the human Jesus and escape your responsibility in working out your own salvation. Respecting your understandable wish, be alert to any temptation to elevate one of his current representatives to semi-saviour status, living as though he can do it for you (and often paying accordingly). Hard-earned money freely given in support of current Jesus-figures would, I suspect, be astounding if revealed.
If your stars have been secular rather than religious, be equally diligent in letting them down to the human plane. For example, if you have projected your you-can-save-me fantasies on to public figures or private persons--movie stars or parents, doctors or lovers--let them down from thrones in your mind. Previously noted dangers are often greater with flesh-and-blood Supermen than with the ethereal Jesus or his local promoters. Secular gurus, less often bound by ethical compulsions, can be even more demanding of their financial backers or stage-door groupies. Human bondage in this religiously enlightened age is often more insidious than the remnants of religious bondage.
Also, those idolized not by choice may be greatly relieved to be freed from the entrapment of your projections and allowed to return to humanity. Parents, for instance, still treated as Supermen by grown children, will often be glad to be allowed common human foibles. Lovers carrying the burden of projected power to turn one on (or off) may often be pleased to become their real selves again. Many marriages might again become positive if spouses dropped their you-could-make-me-happy-if-you-only-would projections on each other.
And of course you must stop playing Superman, either for others or yourself. Pretending, for instance, to be a Supermom who can carry the spirit of a child in the world as she did the body of a baby in her womb is a predictable disaster for both parent and offspring. Everyone must "bear his own burden." You may walk along with, sometimes lending a hand, but to play Supermom or local saviour is to leave reality and invite others to join you.
Accepting your human limitation of not being able to do it for anyone, no matter how much you love them, may be a challenge, but falling for the temptation of believing you can is a tragedy. You cannot stop others from projecting their omnipotency fantasies on you, but you are required neither to fall for them nor to live them out.
Nor can you in reality be a Superman to yourself. That we are required to work out our own salvation does not mean that we can become saviours for ourselves, or in the secular version, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. To be human is to be inter-dependent. We do need one another in the realization of our fuller humanity. The be-damned-you-world, I-can-save-myself stance is as predictably disastrous as its more popular opposite.
To live well we cannot have Jesus or any secular version as a Superman, nor can we become one ourselves. Heaven, I think, is limited to those who instead are becoming human.
BELIEF: RELIGIOUS PLACEBO
Error: Substituting positive thinking for existential believing; seeking salvation through mental activity, such as, thinking favorably about Jesus.
Fact: Only the existential experience of being in Christ--the way, truth, and life--leads to fullness of life.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have everlasting life.
Andi, my two-year-old granddaughter, bumped her head on a chair and ran crying to her mother, as her mother had run to her own mother many times long before. Tela gave her a tender kiss, said, "Now, it'll be alright," and in a few seconds a smiling Andi was back at play.
Here I want to affirm the magic of a mother's kiss, but also the danger of the religious placebo called belief.
The verse quoted above is perhaps the most widely known of all Bible passages. The doctrine of belief to which it points is, I submit, one of the least understood of all religious doctrines, with possibly the most far-reaching and damaging results. The error has eternal consequences.
The Christian version of this popular error goes something like this: if you think positively about Jesus, agreeing that he is the all-powerful only son of God, that he died for your sins, if you are sincerely convinced and have no doubts about it, then you will be saved. Some attach the rider requirements of "living right," trying to be like him, and being faithful to the church; however, the crux of the matter is a blind faith in Jesus.
Often it is called "giving your heart to Jesus" or "letting him come into your heart." While Billy Graham-type evangelism, plus the current TV religious "clubs," most blatantly demonstrate the practice, mainline churches, both Protestant and Catholic, often preach basically the same doctrine in a toned-down version.
I submit that this is a gross error, doing violence to Jesus' teachings and to the reality of salvation. The error is to reduce a profound spiritual experience (believing in Christ, that is indeed the path of salvation) down to a shallow mental act of thinking positively about Jesus and then expecting to be saved thereby.
Even when the requirements (leading a "clean life," going to church, etc.) are added, the phenomenon remains but a religious placebo. Modern churches and many Jesus-group variations on the theme contain deeply disillusioned and existentially lost persons who have been led astray by this error. There is, so far as I know, no kind of mental activity called belief, no "right thinking" about Jesus or any other object, which will save a person.
Which is not to say that such magical belief does not work within its own sphere. Much of our dis-ease of body, soul, and business is mentally induced. Confused thinking causes many bodily woes. Mixed-up minds result in emotional pain. Short-sightedness leads to low business productivity. Consciously or unconsciously we think our way into many problems; we can also think our way out of them.
This is the sphere of magical belief. Any accepted procedure or object will help as we think our way out of mental traps we have fallen into. If we believe in mother's kiss it will help us stop clinging to the memory of pain after actual pain has gone. A doctor's sugar pill, if we believe in it, will help us relax our self-induced tensions of brain or bowels and thus "get well."
Carrying a rabbit's foot or whistling in the dark will relieve imagined fears of the unknown, if we think they will. Many of us are poor and failing in business not because we lack ability but because we think we cannot produce. Our problems are in our minds. With a bit of magical belief, "Think and Grow Rich" might save us. Dr. Peale has illustrated this well in his book, The Power of Positive Thinking.
It does work. All self-induced limitations can be removed by magical belief in any chosen object, including Jesus. We can make significant changes in our health, happiness, and productivity within--and this is the crucial issue--certain real limits. The problem is not in the use of magical belief within its legitimate sphere, but in trying to go all the way with it, pretending, e.g., that germs, human limits, etc., do not exist.
Faith healing and Christian Science are effective in a large number of cases. A doctor I know estimates that 75-90% of his patients could be helped by placebos. Because so many of us are doing so much less than we can, fantasizing that we can do whatever we want to "if we try hard enough" may certainly increase productivity. There is enough false-guilt rampant in society to allow for considerable magical forgiveness.
However, germs, limits, and sin are real. Much disease is not all in our heads and hence subject to the magic of placebos—secular or religious. No positive thinking can extend actual limitations. And damnation that is not self-imposed cannot be escaped by magical belief in Jesus. Real problems require real solutions.
To summarize, I wish to affirm the utility of mother's kisses, rabbit's feet, and Jesus--secular and religious magical belief--for helping us out of imaginary woes (self-induced mental ills). But I also wish to affirm the reality of real human ills which are not subject to magical belief. Such bodily sickness requires medicine. Actual
limitations require acceptance, and spiritual dis-ease requires believing in Christ--not to be confused with positive thinking about Jesus.
I focus now on the difference between the spiritual experience of believing in Christ and the mental phenomenon of magical belief in Jesus. The error I am attempting to amplify is confusing these two distinctive events which unfortunately bear similar names. My point is that whereas temporary relief from mental illness is possible through magical belief in Jesus (or other selected objects), salvation is only possible through believing in Christ.
The initial problem addressed here is one of language. Since we are using similar words (belief/believing, Jesus/Christ) to refer to distinctive experiences, we may pause to note that the difference is more than grammatical. The word problem emerges from the error in understanding, not vice versa. In fact we are grammatically correct in using the words belief and believing interchangeably.
The first is but the noun form of the verb. When we add an object--Jesus or Christ--again they are grammatically interchangeable. However, because these are our available words, I will attempt to point out the error through distinctive definitions of the words now used synonymously. Aware that English dictionaries and popular thought do not make these distinctions, I will try to separate "belief in Jesus" (magical belief) from "believing in Christ" (saving belief). Although the labels are similar, the experiences so named are distinctively different.
I begin with a distinction between belief and believing. Although the difference is not apparent in English, the Greek words of the New Testament ("whosoever believeth in him...") were, I think, more revealing. The Greek verb, pisteuo, translated "believe"in English, meant "standing in a similar or right relation to." The noun form of the word (pistis) is translated as "faith." Believing is thus the same as "faithing." The event is a deep and profound spiritual experience. To "believe in" is to existentially "be in"--to find one's existence in that which is believed. In contrast, the popular understanding of a "belief" today is a religious tenet or doctrine--an idea.
To "believe in" is to agree with a tenet, to accept an idea as true. If, for instance, I "believe" the earth is flat, I agree that this idea is true. If I "believe" God created the earth in six days, I accept this notion as correct. If I "believe" that Jesus is the son of God, I agree that the statement is accurate.
The New Testament spiritual experience of believing has thus been reduced to a Twentieth Century mental activity of thinking a certain way. "Being in" has become "agreeing with." The profound existential event is replaced by a shallow mental association, perhaps accompanied by emotional reactions but not requiring them. The noun (pistis) naming the event has likewise been distorted to mean accepting the irrational as correct.
"Faith" today popularly means "believing something you can't prove." Thus, "I take it on faith," means I accept it without evidence. The more irrational an idea is, the more "faith" it requires to "believe" in. "Faith" accordingly is pitted against reason. We may accept something on the basis of evidence--because it is reasonable, or we may accept something on the basis of "faith"--that is, not supportable by reason. In either case, the event is primarily mental--an accepting with or without evidence. To say "I believe. . ." today, is to say "I think. . ."
As I understand the Greek concepts of faith and belief, today's popular understanding completely misses the point. Believing falls within the realm of existential experience, not mental agreement. Faith is in a distinctively different category from thought, rather than being a type of thinking (unreasonable as opposed to reasonable). Even when thinking called "faith" is accompanied by emotionalism and acted out in prescribed behavior ("being good"), it is still essentially different from the New Testament experience of believing.
Before amplifying this experiential difference I note the second word problem related to the object of believing (in what:). Today "Jesus" and "Christ" are used synonymously, as though Christ were the last name of Jesus. "Jesus Christ" in popular usage is comparable to "John Smith." When we say Jesus or Christ or Jesus Christ we refer to a man born in Bethlehem, just as John or Smith or John Smith might refer to a man born in Boston. We may assign different qualities (supernatural or natural) but the naming procedure is comparable.
Not so in biblical language. "Christ" in the New Testament (Greek: Christos) is a verbal adjective meaning "anointed." The Hebrew word with the same meaning in the old Testament is the participle mashiach, from which the English word "messiah" is derived. The biblical words are about a function, stance, or role—not a particular person. Any person might be "anointed" and function in the role of a "messiah."
A comparable use of language is the English word clown. "Clown" is a verbal adjective about a function, or role--a way of being. In reality there is only the activity of clowning (playing the fool), but to name this role we make the noun clown. It is impersonal. Any particular person may become a clown when he lives accordingly. If, for example, John Smith starts clowning around, we might call him John the Clown, or shorten the title to John Clown. Actually "Clown" is not his name, but a label for what he has become.
So it is with the biblical title, Jesus Christ. Jesus the person, became Jesus the Christ, which we often shorten to Jesus Christ. So far, so good.
The problem emerges only when we forget that omitting "the" is a language convenience, not an actual fact. Both "Clown" and "Christ" are names for functions--ways of being--rather than the name of a person. Clowning and "Christing" fall in essentially different categories from John and Jesus. Johns and Jesuses (people) may become clowns or Christs, but the proper names and the ways-they-become remain inherently distinctive categories.
This may appear to be quibbling over words at this point. However, the theological issue is crucial. I point out the language distinction in order to clarify the problem with an object of believing. In reality we may believe in Christ (in the New Testament sense) but cannot believe in Jesus.
Jesus was a person, a proper noun; Christ is a verbal adjective, a way of being. Grammatically we may mix proper nouns and verbal adjectives (John, Clown and Jesus, Christ), but when it comes to existential experience we can only be in (find our existence in) verbal adjectives, not proper nouns. We can think about (agree or disagree with) proper nouns (John or Jesus) or any facts about them (where or how they were born, for example), but we can only believe (be in, be committed unto) some verbal adjective which stands for what they become.
Technically, thinking is applicable only to things (objects and events) and believing is applicable only to experience (ways of being). I may think about (e.g., agree or disagree on the reality of) a person or historical event--say, Jesus or his virgin birth, or believe in Christ--the Christian way of being. But I attempt the literally impossible when I try to believe (be in) an object or event, as Jesus or his manner of birth.
Once this technical impossibility is assumed, then it becomes logical to speak of believing in Jesus or believing in the virgin birth. In reality one can only think about these things. He can believe in Christ or in being Christian, but not in any things (persons or events). Thinking applies to things; believing applies to being. Not vice versa. This popular error is in confusing these distinctive categories.
To further clarify we may note that thinking and believing--the mental activity and the spiritual experience--may be in contradiction to one another. Although one's thinking will normally correlate with his believing, the opposite is often true. One might think favorably about the idea of loving and yet believe (be in) an opposite way (unloving). Or one may think positively about Jesus--agree with all the church-approved ideas--and yet not believe (be in) Christ; that is, he might be quite unchristian. Or one might mentally reject the person Jesus, even disagree on his historical existence, and yet believe (be in) Christ in contrast with his thinking.
To this point I have tried to distinguish between thinking (popularly called "believing") and the biblical understanding of believing as an existential experience or way of being. I have noted that believing (in the New Testament sense) may or may not be reflected in compatible thought, but is in either case an essentially different matter.
Now I will amplify the specific nature of the Christ symbol, understood as a verbal adjective for a way of being, rather than a proper noun for Jesus of Galilee. How can the Christ-way of being be distinguished from other ways of being? What is the difference between believing in Christ and believing in, for example, evil?
We may begin with Jesus' own words. He said, "I am the way, the truth, the life" (John 14:6). The Christ, what Jesus was--the way-of-his-being--he summarized in these three symbols. Jesus (the man) became "the way, the truth, the life" (Christ). Jesus = person; Christ = way, truth, life. The New Testament also describes him as love. In becoming Christ, Jesus also became loving. "Christ" then becomes a symbol for these ways-of-being: in the way, in truth, in life, in love. As Jesus the person came to be in the way, truth, life, and love, he came to be Christ.
In "the way" may be contrasted with out of "the way." In reality there is a way-things-are, in contrast with a way-they-are-not. Jesus came to be in the way they are. In reality there is truth in contrast with falseness. Jesus came to be truthful rather than phony. In reality there is being lively as contrasted with the merely existing. Jesus came to be truly alive instead of just breathing. In reality there is the possibility of loving or of not caring. Jesus came to be loving. In these ways--joining how-things-are, getting honest, coming alive, and being loving, Jesus became the "Christ," that is, he became Christian.
To believe in Christ, again, is not necessarily synonymous with thinking positively about Jesus. It is to be committed unto or be in what Jesus was in, namely, the way, truth, life and love, rather than to be out-of-it, dishonest, spiritually dead, and unloving. The believing which saves us is the spiritual process of actually becoming truthful, lively, and loving. We come to believe in--literally, to be in--Christ when we come to exist in what Jesus was, that is, to also find our being in the way, truth, life, and love.
Note again the distinction between believing (being in) and thinking (agreeing with). They may go together, but not necessarily so. One may agree heartily with the idea of being truthful, yet exist as a dishonest person, deceiving not only others but himself as well. Even though he says he believes in honesty, in the New Testament sense of the word he believes in dishonesty, since that is the way he exists. Or one may affirm the idea of love, declaring "I believe in loving everybody," while actually existing in an uncaring manner. Despite his thinking, such a person believes (New Testament meaning) in not-caring.
Conversely, one may mentally disagree with the idea of Christ (as say, truth) and yet believe (be into) living truthfully. Or he may think that love is only a sentimental idea for weak people, while he exists lovingly with others. Contrary to his thinking, he believes in loving. The point again is that mentally favoring Jesus or even the forms of Christ, bears no necessary correlation with the spiritual experience of believing in Him.
To summarize these distinctions I use the phrase "saving-belief" for the spiritual experience which I understand the New Testament to be about, and the term "magical-belief" for the popular understanding. Technically, this English word "belief" does mean an idea or doctrine, and "believe" means to accept or agree with. However, if we are to apply the same word to the biblical concept, some distinction must be noted. "Saving-belief" I use to stand for the experience which saves us from real sin; "magical-belief" is the kind of experience which relieves us from self-induced or imaginary limitations.
Saving-belief is a spiritual experience, an existential happening for the whole person. Magical-belief is mental phenomenon, a set of the mind, a freezing of thinking. This mind-set on particular ideas such as "Jesus was the son of God," may be accompanied by emotional reactions and behavioral modification, but it remains an essentially mental stance without spiritual roots.
Saving-belief is literally a being-in, a particular way-of-being. Magical belief is a way-of-thinking and actually a way-of-not-being. The frozen mind-set required by magical-belief--where doubting is not permitted--prevents open-mindedness which is the nature of being. Saving-belief involves fluid thinking, a continual mental openness to reality, flexibility of thought allowing constant correction. It can never be prejudiced.
Magical-belief, in contrast, is essentially prejudiced. One's mind is made-up, closed on all those subjects deemed important. For example, there can be no debate about Jesus' super-natural powers or resurrection from the dead. The mind is also closed on prescribed behavior patterns accepted as inherently "right."
Saving-belief can only be in being (God, Christ, Being-itself); magical-belief can only be in objects (persons, such as Jesus, places, or things--tangible or intangible). In reality the two are not reversible. Saving-belief, by nature of itself precludes an object; magical-belief, by its nature, requires an object. The word, object, is used here for anything which can be literally represented by the pronouns, he, she, or it. It may be material or immaterial, such as, an idea, doctrine, or belief.
Saving-belief is in Christ; magical-belief is in Jesus. By nature of these differing experiences bearing the same name they cannot be reversed. One cannot have saving belief in Jesus since it is literally impossible to be in this man who lived long ago. Nor can one have magical belief in Christ since Christ is no thing (love is no object).
Magical belief can be placed in the idea of Christ (reducing the experience to a notion), but that is to remove the potential event from reality, making it a mental object. Specifically, saving-belief is in the way, truth, life, and love. Magical-belief is in Jesus of Nazareth. With the first, the historical man is relatively incidental except as an expression, personification, and example of the Christ. With the second the experiences of truthfulness, living fully, and loving are relatively incidental in comparison to the physical facts about Jesus' birth, life, and death.
"Believing in being" (God, Christ) can be expressed in secular language as "trusting in reality" (God is the ultimate in reality). In this language "trusting in reality" is to be distinguished from trusting in any of the forms of reality--persons, places, things. Saving-belief is trusting in reality itself--that is, existing openly, responsively, in the presence of reality in any of its forms. In this state of existence one is openhearted--sensitive, emotional, thoughtful, as contrasted with being uptight--insensitive, cold-hearted, and closed-minded.
Such trust is not in--placed on--any particular part of reality, including oneself, but is in the totality of reality itself. It would be equally correct to say that a trusting person "trusts everything" or "trusts no-thing ('nothing,' taken literally)."
To believe in being (trust reality) is thus an experiential way of existing, characterized by openness and exposure rather than closure. To have any object of belief or trust is to close oneself off to other parts of reality. To believe in any "it" is to exclude other "its," and saving belief is in the presence of all that can be grammatically represented by the pronoun "it." For example, to believe in the person Jesus is to exclude belief in Buddha. To believe in the idea that Jesus will take care of you is to exclude the possibility of failure. To trust in a person is to exclude his possibility of being dishonest.
To believe in reality--God as the ultimate in reality--is not to exclude any possibility. In reality anything can happen; to trust in reality is to be open to whatever happens. In contrast, magical-belief selects certain ideas ("Everything will turn out swell," "Virtue will be rewarded," "Souls last forever," etc.) and in so doing excludes any other possibilities ("If anything can go wrong it will," "Good guys may finish last," "This is all there is,"etc.).
Saving-belief makes no such closures. It trusts in reality, which includes all these possibilities. To believe in Christ is to believe in life--where sometimes things go well, but often not so, where virtue may or may not be rewarded, and where the grave may end it all. To believe in Christ is to believe in truth but not in the honesty of a person. To be in Christ is to believe in loving but not in a particular lover. Believing in truth and love is quite different from trusting a friend to be honest or a lover to be true. When one believes in truth and love, the success or failure of a friend or lover may be disappointing, but is not disastrous. One's trust was in Christ, not people.
To trust Christ is to be trusting in the presence of people, but not to trust people
themselves. To trust Christ is to trust life, but not a particular idea about life, such as, that souls live forever. To trust Christ is to be in all that Jesus embodied--way, truth, life, love--but not to place belief in Jesus himself. To trust Christ, in summary, is to trust the ultimate in reality (God), as distinguished from trusting any object (person, place, thing, idea)--that is, any of the forms of reality. The error to which I point is reversing the order, trusting objects rather than God, Jesus rather than Christ, the forms of reality rather than reality itself.
Beliefs are particular ideas, intangible objects, but still "its." Saving-belief is not in any objects, including ideas (doctrines, beliefs). Rigid beliefs represent a closure of the mind and as such are antithetical to the openness of saving-belief. To believe in Christ is to be distinguished from being closed-minded about any idea or belief, including particular notions about Jesus.
One who is believing in Christ will, in the openness of his mind, have ideas which express the current state of his thinking, but all such thoughts will be loosely held temporary opinions, not dogmatic conclusions resistant to change. Believers in Christ think but do not cling to thoughts made sacred, as do believers in Jesus. Thinking, as one of the human capacities, is a significant part of believing in Christ, yet only one of many. In magical-belief, rigid thought about the object of belief is crucial. In fact it only works when the mind is firmly set, convinced without doubt, on the inherent powers of the object, be it a rabbit's foot, placebo, witch doctor, or Jesus.
Believers in Christ have thoughts which formulate their present awareness of reality, but no inflexible "beliefs" in the popular sense of the word. Any rigidly held belief is an escape from believing in Christ. The more one "believes in," the less he believes; a full set of beliefs about everything eliminates all believing.
Conversely, a fully believing person is fluid in all his thinking, continually open-minded to new insight and experience, constantly subject to a new revelation of God which might supersede all previous knowledge. It is unfortunate that the term "true believer" is applied only to the most prejudicial of magical-thinkers, leaving a real believer in Christ with the label "non-believer."
To summarize: the single word "believing" is applicable to two distinctively different human activities: 1) a commitment to being; and 2) a mind-set on a particular object. Though they share the same title and the results appear temporarily similar, the events are contradictory: to believe in the first sense is to disbelieve in the second, and vice versa.
To distinguish the two, I have called the first, saving-belief, and the second, magical-belief. Saving-belief is in being (religious language: God or Christ; secular language: reality or being-itself). Magical-belief is in an object--person, place, thing, or idea. In this chapter I have focused on the particular form of magical-belief in Jesus.
The phenomenon is not essentially different, however, from believing in a friend, lover, magic potion, or four-leafed clover. In each instance one elevates the object of the magical belief to a position of power, sets his mind in a frame of positive thinking, eliminates negative thoughts (called doubt or disbelief), and remains fixed on the superhuman efficacy of the selected object, in this case, Jesus.
Magical-belief works in correcting human ills and woes resulting from human confusion. Since a large portion of bodily illness and emotional discomfort, as well as reduced productivity, is caused by such confusion, there is a fertile field for magical-belief.
However, there are other more serious human problems resulting from real causes, such as germs and sin, which are not subject to powers of magical belief. Since these problems--infectious diseases and hell--are not "all in our heads" they cannot be cured by placebos and positive thinking. The former require medicine; the latter require believing in Christ.
The error I am confronting here is the popular attempt to substitute magical-belief for saving-belief in correcting the problems resulting from sin.
As a temporary expedient, like aspirin for fever, magical-belief is effective in the speedy correction of mental mistakes. However, as a cure for the cancer of our souls it is a tragic misapplication of an emotional poultice where radical surgery is called for. Nothing short of coming to be Christ, of learning to trust God rather than man--the ultimate in reality rather than any of its forms--can open the door to the kingdom of heaven which we seek on this earth.
What To Do?
Confront your magical-belief in objects as openly as your faith will allow. Begin making a list of persons, places, things, and ideas in which you have placed your trust. Recognize your belief in these objects as the mental placebo which it is. To give credit where it is due, respect temporal changes you have made with these crutches of the mind.
Then start weaning yourself from these mother's kisses. As you are able, withdraw trust you have placed in friends, relatives, lovers, and Jesus. Your magical-belief, with all its temporary advantages, prevents deeper spiritual growth as well as any real relationship with the objects of your trust. We can lean on magical objects, but we cannot stand closely with them.
Stop making any beliefs magic. Let go of your sacred doctrines. You cannot believe in God as long as you trust in ideas. For example, if you have closed your mind on any doctrine about Jesus--say his virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, or even his historical existence--refusing to face contrary possibilities, then you are participating in magical-belief in beliefs. Start giving up any such prejudicial thinking.
Instead, start believing in Christ--that is, coming to be in the way things are, to be truthful, to be alive, and to be loving. Place your trust only in God, not some imagined sky-father or objectified cosmic image, but in reality, indeed the ultimate in reality.
Then, trusting God, you will be trusting in the presence of all objects--people, places, and things. Persons in whose presence you trust God may mistakenly conclude you trust them. So be it; yet carefully evade the temptation to slip from your saving-belief in Christ into a magical-belief in some loving friend or historical Jesus. To do so will cost you, I think, the eternal life which is only possible when you are trusting God.
If you have fallen into the opposite error of a pessimistic disbelief in people, religion, etc., your salvation will lie in abandoning the stark isolation of this reverse side of the coin of magical-belief and then learning to trust God.
In relating to others who cling to their magical-beliefs in Jesus or any contemporary objects, you may respect the advantages of religious and secular placebos, as well as the faith required for believing in Christ. Remember too that magical-belief is, by definition, not subject to reason. Rational argument is pointless with a "true believer."
For your own protection you may also respect the inherent threat which saving-belief always poses for magical-belief. One who believes in Christ may, for example, love one who believes in Jesus; yet his very love is apt to challenge the foundations and quasi-security of a magical believer. Expect, at times, the rejection of those who believe in Jesus.
With your belief only in Christ, you will confront events of life, the coming and going of all persons, things, and beliefs, with the same silent love of the prophet who wrote: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord," or as we might say in secular language, "Well, that's life; ain't it grand!"
Error: Identifying the word of God with the words in a book.
Fact: Truth may be revealed through the Bible but is not synonymous with the words.
Error: Assuming that the final revelations of truth ended with the writing of the Bible.
Fact: The living word of God remains a potential experience for every person.
"Holy Bible": Thus reads the name on the cover of the black volume which I bear to the pulpit each Sunday morning. And thus it has been revered as a sacred book for hundreds of years by millions of people. As such it has served as a focal point in the development and progress of a major world religion of which I am a part. Diverse people unique in all manner of beliefs and practices rally around this flag of Christianity. It has helped us organize and structure perhaps the most humane cultures in the history of the world. On the individual level the Bible has proven to be an invaluable source of security, instruction, and guidance in the quest for personal salvation and productive living.
It would be difficult to overestimate the affirmative values of the Bible in the history of our present world and in the private histories of countless people. But along with these positive values some negative and dangerous errors have been institutionalized and made holy. These are my focus here. With full affirmation of the positive, it behooves us to be diligent in avoiding these errors. They can, I think, cost us eternal life.
The primary error which I note is identifying the word of God (truth) with the words of a book (its expression), so that in holding the book we think we have (possess) the word of God. We make the error when we take the Bible or any other book to be literally the truth. Five secondary errors commonly result from this primary one: death of truth, loss of the holy, suppression of reason, end of revelation, and extensive personal abuse. I shall examine each separately.
Truth is living. The Bible itself reminds us that "the word of God is alive and active. It cuts more keenly than any two-edged sword, piercing as far as the place where life and spirit, joints and marrow, divide. It sifts the purposes and thoughts of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12 N.E.). That which is "alive and active" may be expressed in symbols, revealed in words, but it can never be contained in them.
A sign may point to a city, but no sign is the city itself. A name may label a person, but no name is the person himself. You may know the name my parents gave me, but that is not to knew me. In like manner the Bible may name, point at, and reveal the living word of God, yet we can never make it synonymous with truth without committing this crucial error.
In regard to people, truth is a potential human experience, not a "thing" which exists subject to possession. We can be truthful, know experientially the word of God, but we cannot have the truth as an objective entity. We may give voice to our truthfulness in the words of letters or poems which we send to our friends. They then have an expression of our truthfulness but not the truth itself. Likewise with the Bible. We may hold these letters and poems which expressed truthful experiences of their writers, yet we cannot hold their truthfulness.
This is a fact about words and experience, not limited to the Bible or any other scriptures. The error is not one of Christianity alone. Nor is this distinction a mere play on words. We may say the Bible is the word of God just as we may say that I am Bruce, using our language as it is intended. However, when we take either statement literally we have made the dangerous error. Both Bible and Bruce name something which is alive. Within the accepted limitations of language each may be used in reference to truth, yet neither can hold what they name. When we step beyond language, assuming an actual identification, we have made this mistake.
On the surface this may appear inconsequential, as though it were a theoretical matter only. In practice its results can be dire. Consider these predictable consequences: first, the death of truth. Once the word of God is reduced to a book, or truth to a thing, the living reality itself is removed from the realm of potential human experience.
As a book we may have it, read it, or use it, but we cannot be it. We may know about it, in the sense of understanding the dictionary meaning of the words, but we cannot know it or experience it directly. For all practical purposes of spirit we kill truth when we reduce it to a thing. That which we have--be it spouse or truth--may be used but not spiritually encountered. To reduce the living to an object is to lose it insofar as heart is concerned.
Of course our error does not actually kill truth itself. The word of God is not subject to such human destruction. Yet for ourselves we place it outside the realm of our personal encounter, effectively killing it in our own experience. Literally, we kill ourselves. In order to objectify truth, other than for language purposes, we must first objectify ourselves. This is spiritual death. In presuming to reduce the word of God to words in a book, we actually negate our own capacity to be spirited--a dire consequence indeed. Fortunately, rebirth is possible in the spiritual dimension.
A second result is loss of the holy in personal experience. We humans have a choice: we can have the holy or we can encounter the holy--one or the other, but not both. As soon as we presume to possess the holy we have assumed an omnipotent stance (theologically known as sin) which effectively removes us from the human dimension where holiness can be experienced. The nature of the holy object is incidental; our sin is in assuming the stance of one who can have it.
In this case, the Holy Bible reflects our sin. We make a "graven image," a holy object, of the living word of God. Theoretically we honor it in pronouncing it holy; practically speaking, we remove it as an expression of holiness and blunt its two-edged sharpness for piercing us "where life and spirit...divide."
In reality, holiness exists only in man's relationship with God. We presume to objectify this potential experience, place it "out there" in the Bible, making the book a container of holiness where we can go as to a bucket and dip out a cupful when we desire. This tempting illusion comes at the expense of firsthand experience of the holy. To have it--in the Bible or anywhere else--is to lose it, spiritually speaking. The price of the Holy Bible is personal knowledge of holiness. We can have sacred books or encounter the sacred; but not both.
When holy words are substituted for holiness in experience the human capacity for reasoning is an early victim. The "sword of the Lord" cuts off man's brain rather than piercing the hardness of his heart. If words and their collection into ideas (doctrines) are viewed as inherently sacred then it follows that no further human reasoning on the subject is allowed. After the last word what else can be thought or said? Man's only option with a holy notion is to swallow it without applying the salt of reason. Indeed the more fully he swallows an irrational notion the more virtuous he appears.
This severing of cerebral capacity, the third error, is even identified by some with the spiritual experience of faith. The profound event of faithfulness is reduced to the simple act of not thinking. "I take it on faith" means for these, "I accept it without thinking. Even if it does not make sense, I believe it." On this premise the more irrational the idea accepted, the greater the faith required. To have complete faith is to embrace the totally irrational. In this perspective, the so-called "leap of faith" is actually a death of the reasonable mind. In effect, to be "faithful"in this manner is to be rationally stupid.
Simple-mindedness is made virtuous; the high human capacity to reason is arrested like a spiritual traitor. Doubt, the only way to reason, is made a sin, and the capacity itself is imprisoned except when it can be usefully employed in rationalizing an illogical belief. For example, to doubt and reasonably explore the possibilities of Jesus' virgin birth or resurrection from the dead is viewed as faithless heresy. The so-called "faithful" accept these unreasonable notions without question. Reasoning, in their religious perspective based on Holy Bible, is limited to some sort of quasi-logical thought process which would support basically unreasonable ideas without allowing doubt to creep it.
In other words, reason is suppressed as a guiding human light when the Bible is made sacred. Only as a slave in the service of irrational doctrines does reason receive affirmation. Blindness under the name of faith becomes its replacement in the hierarchy of human virtues. Only on those subjects not mentioned in the Bible--and in regard to human spirit these are few--is reason granted a free rein. Even here, unfortunately, reason is not perceived as a spiritual function, a primary act of human faith.
Fourth, in making the Bible a holy book, the "infallible word of God," we effectively end revelation as a significant human experience. We tie God's hands, so to speak, back in the fourth century A.D. when the bishops finally agreed on which writings to include in the Holy Bible.
In so doing we assume that the final word has been given. Peter, Paul, James, and John, etc. are the last of God's chosen vessels. Present day revealers of the word need not apply. God stopped speaking when biblical authors got too old to write. This is of course ludicrous when we think of it logically, but it is precisely what we conclude when we pronounce the Bible holy.
Theoretically God might still choose a modern man to reveal truth on some subject not covered in the Bible, or perhaps to interpret a previously unclear final word. Since, however, the Bible does speak to most relevant human issues, revelation on matters that count is largely closed. We are left only with nit-picking at questionable loose ends.
What a profound human presumption: to limit God in history, to curtail the revelatory capacities of the source of truth: Fortunately we have in practice been somewhat more open to expanding truth of evolving times. Unfortunately our reasoning ability has not kept pace. And worse still, we have placed severe restrictions on our own possibilities of continuing to reveal the lively word of God.
Earlier I noted the positive values of a sacred book both for society and for individuals. Now I note the potential abuses. When the living word which may cut into our hardened hearts is objectified into a written word it becomes an effective sword for all sorts of human destruction. The tyranny of the self-righteous using the Holy Bible as the "sword of the Lord" to strike down their enemies is replete in human history.
Using the Bible for justification, churchmen have opposed astronomy (Galileo was threatened with excommunication), and all manner of scientific study. Evolution is still attacked on biblical grounds. The freeing of slaves, racial equality, women's liberation, and sex education--to name but a few--have all been attacked and delayed on biblical grounds. So-called holy wars, religious crusades by Bible-wavers, have cost the physical lives of many. Evangelical missionaries using the Bible as their sword have emotionally terrorized whole societies.
On the individual level biblical tyrannies are even more widespread. Religious parents commonly commit emotional abuse on children, cutting them down with the "word of God." ("You better be good or God will get you. Remember you're supposed to honor your parents.") Bible-quoting spouses often lord it over one another. Proof-text-spouting churchmen hypocritically judge and reject their secular neighbors. And Bible-waving preachers exercise immeasurable manipulation of their fearful followers.
The diversity of Bible injunctions coupled with human cleverness in selective reading and lifting phrases out of context makes the venerable book an easy prey for unscrupulous users. Almost any abusive human intent can be biblically supported by proof-texting. In the long run the positive results of treating the Bible as inherently holy are, I suspect, far outweighed by the spiritual destruction wreaked by those often sincere persons who have consciously or unconsciously used it as a sword in their own selfish endeavors.
Recognizing these dangerous errors, how can we use the frozen symbols called the Bible in an encounter with the living word of God? First, we need to understand the relationship between words--not just biblical words but any words--and truth, or how symbols are related to meanings. Truth and meaning reside in the realm of experience. They have to do with living--activity, process, something going-on. Words are by definition symbols, things--mental constructs, verbal sounds, or written signs--used to represent, express, or communicate that which is living and not literally subject to such reductions.
Meaning which exists only in the realm of experience, is represented by a word which exists in the realm of things. "Hoping," for example, is a particular human experience which may go on with or without a word to stand for it. If, however, I wish to communicate verbally with you about this experience I must find a symbol. "Hope" is an acceptable one. With it I may refer to my experience. This word becomes a form (thing) for my meaning (living truth), which literally remains formless. It points to or stands for my truthful experience, but is not the experience itself. Ideally you will be able to draw a comparable meaning from the wells of your own experience and understand what I mean when I say "hope." But not necessarily so.
There is no inherent connection between any word and any meaning. Essentially they are unrelated. Correlation between the two exists only by human agreement. We may agree to call a certain animal a "cat" or an experience "hope," but the connection between our meaning and the word is by common consent only. We might have reversed the two and called the cat "hope" or even "dog."
The point is to note the essential distinction between words and meaning so that we can avoid the crucial error of presuming that to have another's words is also to have his meaning. Words, being things, can be transmitted; meanings, being experiential, cannot be transmitted. You can have my words but you must bring your own meanings to
them. Hopefully the ones you bring will correlate with those I intended, but even the best of dictionaries cannot guarantee that.
In relation to the Bible this means that having even divinely inspired words does not guarantee any transmission of meaning. We may have Jesus' words, for instance, but we must supply our own meanings. They may correlate, but we can never know for sure.
Since words mean only what the user means and we have no access to his heart, we dig into our own experience trying to understand. That is the best we can do, by nature of the limitations of words as related to meaning. Thus to presume to know what another means when we have only his words is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of language and reality. We may approach the words of the Bible openhearted, subject to hearing and understanding, but we have made a crucial error when we presume to thus have the writers' meanings and hence "the truth."
Next, if we are to approach the Bible realistically we should be aware of special problems related to its particular words. The discussion above relates to all words; the words of the Bible bring unique challenges of their own. First is the question: what is the Bible? We may easily conclude some sixteen hundred years later that the familiar black volume with sixty-six books has always been the Bible.
Not so. For three hundred years after Jesus' life, church leaders disagreed and argued about which of many writings to include in the New Testament. Not until the fourth century was consensus reached by a council of the Catholic Church at Carthage. Even then respected scholars had sharp differences of opinions.
If we accept the majority opinion of these uncertain humans as the will of God, still significant problems confront us. Once agreed on the sixty-six books, we must decide which texts to accept. No original writings are available. All we have today are copies of copies of copies, etc., all hand written and with significant variations in each.
The Dead Sea Scrolls found in 1947 contained a copy of Isaiah dated in the second century B.C. This is the oldest known copy of any Old Testament book, many of which were probably written as early as 1500 B.C. The oldest New Testament fragment available is a tiny piece of papyrus from the early second century A.D., containing a few words of John 18:31-33. All other early copies available are dated from the third to the fifth centuries A.D. and thereafter. Of approximately 4,500 Greek manuscripts extant, some 200 are from this time period. Though similar, none are exactly alike.
The problem is, once we accept a certain book as belonging in the Bible, which of the differing manuscripts do we decide is the "right" one? Certainly no book can be more accurate than the texts from which it is taken. Each translator must make these decisions. For example, the widely accepted King James Version was translated in 1611. At that time none of the earlier texts had been discovered. Its translators had only eight Greek manuscripts, all dated after the 10th century.
One minor example of the problems encountered involves the account of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. In the King James Version this passage is placed in John (7:53-8:11). Many of the earlier manuscripts do not contain it at all. Others shift it from place to place; some place it in Luke instead of John. Not only must a modern translator decide where to put it depending on which manuscripts he prefers, he must also make the significant decision of inclusion or exclusion. And so with many other parts of the accepted Bible.
Passing the textual problems of what to keep and what to leave out, we then face copying and printing problems. Since all the early manuscripts were copied by hand, they were of course subject to human errors and various interpretations by the scribes themselves. For example, one copyist made a slight error in Mark 6:20. He wrote "epoiei" instead of "eporei." This simple mistake in the manuscript available to the King James translators caused them to say that Herod "did many things" when he heard John the Baptist. The proper word, as discovered in earlier manuscripts, meant "was much perplexed." Sometimes copyists or readers wrote comments in the margins and later copyists would incorporate them in the main text. At other times words or even whole lines were left out.
Older texts, for example, quote Jesus as saying "whoever is angry with his brother is in danger of judgment" (Matthew 5:22). Later ones added "without cause." Perhaps some copyist, thinking an explanation was needed, obscured the real meaning of Jesus' teaching.
Many such variations are only matters of grammar. Others are far more significant, involving issues of interpretation. For instance, the King James Version says in Romans 8:28, "all things work together for good...," implying that circumstances will be favorable. However, in older texts the subject is God, not things. Later translations
more properly say, "he cooperates for good" (N.E.B.). The issue is only grammar in the manuscript, but it is crucial in interpretation.
Later, the advent of the printing press brought printing errors as well. One example: the printed edition of the King James Version had Jesus say in Matthew 23:24, "ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel." The Greek had said "strain out a gnat." Yet the mistake continues.
In addition, those serious about the Bible must face the problems of translation and language. Since the originals were all written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, they must be translated into English for our reading. This presents serious challenges in understanding. First the availability of comparable words is a problem. For example, the Greek language uses several words to connote various meanings of love: eros, phileo, stergo, philanthropia, and agape. In English these words are all translated as love and charity. Thus, subtle but significant distinctions are lost in translation.
Next there is the problem of any translator's knowledge and understanding of grammar as well as his grasp of the meaning of the writers. For instance, regarding grammar, consider "Drink ye all of it," an apparent reference to quantity of contents. But in Greek the word for "all" is in the nominative case and amplifies the subject of the verb rather than its object.
The literal meaning is "All of you drink it." How contrary to the restrictive interpretations of the Lord's Supper today! No matter how committed to being literal, every translator must deal with the word-meaning problem (considered earlier) and inevitably make his own translations of meanings as well as words.
For instance, the Greek word hemera is translated variously as "day," "time," and "years" in the King James Version of the Bible. When the translators settled on "judgment day" (hemera) instead of "judgment time" or "judgment years" they were obviously interpreting as well as translating.
The word "soul"occurs 488 times in the King James Version. What does it mean? The theological consequences of the answer are crucial. The Hebrew word nephesh, translated as "soul" 428 times, is also translated in the same version as "life" 119 times, "person" 30 times, "mind" 15 times, "self" 19 times, "creature" 9 times, "body" 7 times, and also as "appetite," "beast," "breath," "desire," "ghost," "lust," "man," "one," "pleasure," "thing," "will," and "any." The Greek word psuche is translated as "soul" 58 times, but also as "life" 40 times, as "mind" 3 times, and as "heart" once. So how can we later readers know the "right" meaning of this critically relevant term soul?
With this variety of choices the necessity of translator interpretation becomes abundantly evident. Since the translator had no way of knowing the writer's intention as reflected in the word, he had to interpret and give his own meaning. The odds of his assigned meaning and hence word selection for translating nephesh and psuche, being the same as that of the writer are astounding.
Then there is the English problem. Dictionaries give seven or eight possible meanings for "soul," one of which we too must select when we interpret. The chances of correlation between the thought in our minds and in that of the author, as filtered through the interpretations of the countless copyists and translators, is indeed astronomical.
A further problem emerges when we realize that languages evolve, and word meanings, like those who use them, change with time. Just since 1611 when the King James Version appeared, significant changes have occurred. At that time the word "charity," a translation of agape in Greek, meant something more profound than the current idea of benevolence.
"Take no thought" in 1611 meant "do not be anxious about." When Jesus instructed his disciples, "Take no thought of what ye shall speak," his message was probably more about anxiety rather than sermon preparation, as some today apparently interpret.
"Conversation" then meant conduct or behavior rather than mere verbal exchange, as it does today ("having conversation honest" 1 Peter 2:12). "Communication" ("Evil communication" 1 Corinthians 15:33) meant sharing, not just talking. "Let" meant forbid, disallow--a complete turnaround today. When David "prevented the dawning of the morning (King James translation)," he "anticipated" it (our language today).
"By and by" in 1611 meant "immediately" not "sometimes." Salome asked for John's head "by and by," that is, right then. "Simplicity" ("He that giveth, let him do it with simplicity." Romans 12:8) meant liberality.
Scholars inform us that over 800 English words have either lost their meaning or undergone significant change since 1611. Imagine how many more have changed since 1500 B.C. The point is, even when we get a translator's accurate word in his own time, we have no way of knowing that the word retains its meaning today.
The word problem is compounded greatly when we also consider the many uses of speech beyond literal definition. That problem alone would be enough, but even the familiar word "run" has 90 differing meanings. Among these are coded or local meanings, figures of speech, allegories, satire, irony, poetry, literal, or figurative usage, plus the infinite colorations made possible by facial expression or tone of voice.
Since all of Jesus' words available to us were spoken to particular people in unique circumstances rather than written to the general public, the latter problem alone is tremendous. Not seeing his face or hearing his tone of voice we can only guess when he joked (assuming he did) or was serious, used irony or allegory. When he said "I go to prepare a place for you," was it a literal or figurative expression--a geographical location or to make room for their leadership?
Even though some claim to take the entire Bible literally, this is of course impossible. Jesus said he was "the door" and "bread." Surely no one interprets these words literally. The Bible speaks of God as a "consuming fire" and of the "four corners of the earth," terms certainly not to be taken literally. Scripture advises: "Pray without ceasing." (When would we work?) and, "Let us not sleep as others do" (Then how?).
In Revelation John described Jesus as a slain lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. He also said heaven is 1500 miles long with a wall 216 feet high, and that a saved person will become "a pillar in the Temple."
Pharaoh's "hardened heart" is probably metaphorical. Jesus spoke of people who "swallowed camels." He built his church on "this rock" and said his followers would "never hunger and thirst" again. He instructed them to "pluck out" offensive right eyes and said they could not be saved unless they "eat his flesh and drink his blood."
The point is, none of us can avoid deciding which words to take literally and which figuratively--to face but one of the speech usage problems. The issue becomes theologically eminent when we decide on such passages as the creation of the world in six days, Jesus' second coming, and even the phrase 'Son of God.'
Finally, and most difficult of all, is the problem of selecting which biblical passage to view as timeless and which to relate to specific times only--or which to accept as relevant to us today. Again, some claim to view the entire Bible--"cover to cover"--to be as pertinent for our lives today as it was for those to whom it was written. This, however, involves irresponsible selectivity. No one can believe the whole Bible to be relevant today without ignoring significant contradictions and many obsolete directives.
For example, the Bible teaches "thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," but it also directs that anyone who "curseth his father or his mother shall be put to death." In addition, adulterers, homosexuals, persons having sex with an animal, and stubborn sons "shall be put to death." Even ignoring the apparent theological contradictions, most of us accept some directives as "the truth" while omitting or selectively applying other advice.
On other matters, the Bible teaches that we should not eat rabbits, pigs, or catfish. It is also against trimming beards, men wearing hats, and women in men's clothes. Long hair on a man is a shame. Women are not supposed to speak in church, to teach or wear gold, pearls, or expensive clothes. Men be advised: It "is good not to touch a woman." But on the other hand let "they that have wives be as though they had none." Every seventh year no farming is allowed, all prisoners are to be freed, and all debts canceled.
Illegitimate children are not allowed in church. If a wife tries to help her husband in a fight and accidently "seizes him by his private parts" her hand is to be cut off, and that without pity. When a man gets married he is exempted from the army and any other business for a period of one year so he can "be free at home" to "cheer up his wife which he hath taken."
The women's liberation movement does not receive much biblical support. The Bible teaches that woman was made from man (a rib) and essentially for man also. "For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man." "Wives submit yourselves unto your husbands." "Thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee." "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. Suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence." Biblical religion is obviously patriarchal and male-dominated.
The same Jesus who instructed "This do in remembrance of me" (Lord's Supper or Communion) also said, "Ye ought to wash one another's feet." Large segments of organized Christianity obey the first directive, relatively few the second.
The Bible also includes many contradictions in facts as well as teachings. Regarding Judas' death, Matthew records that he returned the bribe and "went and hanged himself." Luke says he "bought a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out." Obviously someone is wrong.
John said Jesus' trial began in the sixth hour; Mark said he was crucified in the third hour. Concerning the angel at Jesus' tomb, Mark said he was inside sitting on the right. Matthew places him on the stone outside. Luke says there were two, both standing, while John says one was sitting at the head, and the other at the foot, leading us to conclude that positioning angels must be a challenge.
John said Mary came to the tomb while "it was yet dark." Mark said the "sun was risen." Mark, Luke and John place the resurrection early in the "first day" (Sunday), while Matthew says "late on the Sabbath" Mary came and he was gone.
Creation accounts in Genesis are contradictory, as are the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. Even if these apparent contradictions in facts are explained away, significant differences in principles remain. Old Testament legalism (the Ten Commandments) stands in sharp contrast to the freedom which Jesus personified.
The Bible teaches both war and pacifism (an "eye for an eye" and "turn the other cheek"). Which shall we follow? Moses said honor father and mother. Jesus said that unless one hate his father and mother he cannot be a disciple. Certainly the Bible teaches both good works and grace, two very contradictory paths to salvation.
The point is, even if one wishes to follow the Bible he must select which portions he will accept and reject. These choices are awesome. I have pointed out certain obviously questionable texts. Though even these would be dramatic if followed (imagine today's church with no female teachers), the contrasting doctrinal positions have far more consequential results.
One example: the historical church has almost exclusively sided with the legalism of Moses and Paul, thus supporting the repressive structures of succeeding societies. Imagine what our world would be like if it had sided with the radical freedom exemplified in Jesus! Each biblical follower still faces this same choice.
Once aware of these problems we may approach the Bible more realistically and productively. Here are a few guidelines which I have found helpful. First, go to the Bible in your quest for truthfulness, but never fall for the error of identifying words with truth, even biblical words. Remember that truth lies in the realm of experience, not things, even intangible things such as words. In reality we may become truthful but we can never have the truth.
Once you presume to have truth--the final word on anything--you have abandoned the quest for truthfulness in that area. You have stopped living and settled for mental death. Remember that "the word of God is alive," not dead. Try to experience the living word, not grasp some dead words which you call the truth. Truthfulness is answering honestly, not having the answers.
Thus go to the Bible with your questions, seeking to learn to answer, but go not to get an answer, as though truth were locked in biblical words. Go to the Bible while deciding what to do, but not to be told what to do.
Never presume to know what the Bible means. Remember that meaning resides in experience alone. One who is experiencing meaning may express himself in words, but the words can only point, not hold his meaning. They may be useful to you in clarifying your own meanings, yet they cannot tell you what you do not already know.
In the final analysis all words are empty vehicles, meaning only what writer and reader bring to them. Realizing these facts about words, avoid the trap of concluding that you know--once and for all time--what any passage means. You may truthfully say, "This is what it means to me just now," but never conclude that you possess its ultimate truth. As your own experience expands you may discover many other meanings, perhaps even contradictory to your first understanding, in any particular verse.
Avoid the dangerous trap of taking anyone else's word for what the Bible means. Though one may omnisciently proclaim, "This is what the Bible means," remember that he, like you and everyone else, is limited to knowing only the particular meaning which he brings to a passage. He has no more access to the mind or heart of the writer than you do.
Perhaps the speaker's meaning does correlate with that of the writer; perhaps not. In either case, omniscience aside, he can only tell you what it means to him. He can no more possess and dispense the word of God than can you or I. That which is living cannot be contained by any of us. Even the wisest of the biblical scholars can only stand naked before the living word revealed in the words of the book and bring forth meaning from their own experience. As can and must you and I.
Thus do not be cheated in your own quest for meaning by accepting uncritically the stated meanings of any other human, no matter how educated, forceful, or omniscient he may seem. Avoid the tyranny of those who usurp the power of the living word, pretending they possess the truth. Listen to every man's meaning, even as you do to the words of the book, but use them only to call forth more clearly your own meanings.
Be especially careful of those who would curtail your freedom and relieve you of your responsibility for being truthful through quoting various "proof texts." Remember that almost anything can be "proven" from the Bible. Slavery, segregation, and war have all been supported by use of the Bible. Prohibitionists quote "Be not drunk with wine;" imbibers quote "Drink a little...for the stomach's sake."
The vengeful quote "An eye for an eye;" pacifists quote "Turn the other cheek." Chauvinists quote "Wives, submit to your husbands;" liberationists say "Ye have been called unto liberty." And so on. Even suicide can be supported. "Judas went and hanged himself...go thou and do likewise." All it takes is a bit of selectivity.
The point is, anyone who supports what he is saying with a Bible verse is in fact borrowing authority to back up his own selective intention. All of us read into the Bible what we bring to it. We project, consciously or unconsciously, our own meanings on to selectively chosen words in the book. Wanting revenge we read vengeance, or seeking rest we find peace. Fearing freedom we find legalism, or vice versa.
Afraid of sex we find condemnation; pro-pleasure, we find liberty. Monogamists find monogamy; polygamists find polygamy; the unmarried find their own support. We read what we will. Bring your own brand of prejudice to the Bible and with diligence you will find it affirmed. Be careful then of trying to make your own opinions holy by biblical support, or of falling under the domination of others who do the same thing.
Instead, go to the Bible to find yourself. As you go to a mirror to see your body, go to the Bible to see your soul. Find your own experience reflected in this vast repository of human history. Truth like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Go to the
Bible to clarify your vision but not to cure blindness.
Read not for answers, but with an open mind for clearer questions. Instead of telling it what to say, listen for what will be said to you. Let your own heart be stirred by the experiences and insights of your ancestors recorded here. Let them teach you more clearly what you are now learning. Delight in the shared events in our common human pilgrimage.
Hear what was revealed to them without concluding that revelation ceased when they died. Remember, the living word lives on. As truth was revealed to our spiritual ancestors, so it is opened to their descendants. Hopefully, because of their shared truth, our own may be expanded. Perhaps our Bibles may be even clearer because of the gift of theirs. In either case, let us read not only to glimpse the ancient revelation, but also to open ourselves to new versions of timeless truth as the living word comes alive for us today.
Error: Identifying righteousness with legalism; trying to be good by doing "good."
Fact: Only a goodness which is beyond all rule-keeping can result in fullness of life.
Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
When a distraught teacher voicing obscenities in the lounge was informed that Mrs. Evans' husband was a minister she placed hand over mouth and declared, "I guess I'd better clean up my act." If we do that for preachers' wives, imagine how we shape-up for their husbands, or how clean we must get for God! Unfortunately, as Jesus taught, it will not work with God (even if we preachers are impressed).
Yet the error--identifying righteousness with legalism--continues. We still persist in believing that cleanliness is next to godliness. Probably fewer mothers wash out children's mouths with soap than in earlier days, but the myth of dirty words is still around, and with it the error of being good by keeping laws. A "good" child keeps mother's rules; a "good" pupil behaves in school; a "good" citizen obeys the laws; and a "good" Christian keeps the commandments.
Small wonder that we still believe a woman can be virtuous by not doing it, that disobeying mother makes a child bad, that living by the rules will make us happy, or that cleaning up our act pleases God.
Appropriate legalism may keep one in good standing in home, school, community, or church. Regrettably, legalism fails in business, war, love, or the kingdom of God. Honest businessmen often go broke; good guys don't always win; promiscuous girls may get the men; and legalistic church folk are often miserable. One with no ethics is more likely to succeed in business, war, or love; heaven, however, requires an ethic beyond legalism.
Before attempting to articulate righteousness not based on rules, I pause to give due credit to legalism. Laws are necessary in maintaining social structures--home, school, country, and church--and in oiling the machinery of human encounters. I affirm the utility of family, civil, religious, and social codes of behavior, both written and unwritten. To attempt any community without codes would be predictably disastrous. The error I note is not in the existence and keeping of laws, but in the attempt to be good or find God thereby.
Legalism is immensely practical; yet it has no inherent connection with virtue or goodness. A virtuous woman, for example, may or may not be chaste. In either case, virtue and chastity are not inherently related. The good which ultimately counts is not tied to any legalism. One who is good may indeed be legal on most occasions, but there are often appropriate times for disobeying parents, breaking civil laws (as in stealing before starving), not keeping religious commandments (lying to a thief), and even being rude (to high-pressure salesmen).
Nor does distinguishing righteousness from legalism mean that anything goes. No ethics may be easier than compulsive legalism, but the good required by God is beyond the law, not short of it. We must be more righteous, not less, than the Scribes and Pharisees (the very legal).
Furthermore, extending legalism from external to internal--attempting to legislate feelings and motives as well as deeds--also misses the point. Some interpret Jesus to mean that feeling angry is just as bad as murder or that thinking about sex with the wrong person is just as bad as engaging in the act.
Nipping an act in the bud of feeling may be temporarily effective. Emotional disturbance is more likely to be the longer range result of such temporary denial or repression. In either case, legalistic righteousness, both outer and inner, falls short of the goodness necessary for happiness or heaven.
An easy escape at this point in awareness would be to conclude that there is no right. "If keeping the law does not result in virtue, then there is no virtue." This too would be a serious error. In each situation there is, I believe, a good or virtuous choice. At every turn of the road there is a way which leads to righteousness and one which leads from it. The issue to this point has been only to note that rules can never make that determination.
Living by the rules may help us fit in with the particular group whose rules we follow. Belonging is obviously an important matter in many regards. Cleaning up one's act (beliefs, words, and behavior) also impresses many people. Groups often reward those who abide by their rules, who "do good." But here is where the error enters: when we go the next step and identify being good with doing good by a set of standards, when we try to be good via our "good" act or deeds.
"Doing good" is effective for fitting in. It works. Unfortunately, it has no inherent connection with being good. One may keep the rules without being good or be good and break the rules. Generally, one being good is also likely to be obeying the laws; the correlation, however, is coincidental. In either case, living well--happiness or the kingdom of God--cannot be predicted on the basis of legal behavior. It requires a goodness which is beyond any legalism.
This is not meant to imply any inherent virtue in anti-legalism--rebelling or breaking rules. Neither law keeping nor lawbreaking are inherently related to virtue. Each has its primary place in fitting in or getting rejected, but neither is related to righteousness. Keeping rules or breaking them may get us in or out of the club--but not the kingdom. Coloring in the lines may impress the teacher, but one never gets to be a good artist painting by the numbers or a good Christian living by the commandments. The predictable result of strict rule-keeping is self-righteousness, one the signs of sin.
Once realizing that righteousness does not result from legalism, we can face the issue of thinking positively about good. If we cannot define virtue by laws, or if, as the saying goes, "You can't legislate goodness," then what can be said affirmatively about righteousness?
First, it can be stated that righteousness is circumstantial. Good is always related to a particular situation and thus can never be defined in the abstract. Literally speaking, there is no such thing as a good deed. Whether or not any deed is good depends on the circumstances--the time and place and the people involved. It all depends. That which is good at one time may be bad at another; a virtuous act at one place may be evil somewhere else; and what is righteous with one person may be wrong with another.
Just as the right clothes depend on the weather and what you are doing while wearing them, so a righteous deed is also dependent on all the circumstances surrounding its doing. This means that there can be no impersonal rules for righteousness. Laws are impersonal; they hold regardless. Righteousness is very personal; it always regards. Rules are lasting, taking no account of time; good is always related to time. Codes apply wherever you are; the place does not matter. Virtue, in contrast, is always considerate of where one is. Laws are not to be bent; goodness is flexible.
So our wish to replace an older intolerant legalism with a newer set of less stringent and more comfortable rules for goodness must remain frustrated. The righteousness which counts is situational. There are no rules.
And yet certain guidelines may be observed if we are careful not to transform them into rules. I note three such flexible guidelines, each of which often will not apply in actual goodness.
Considering all available information, the good thing to do is usually reasonable. Right is most commonly logical and sensible. It adds up, when taking into account the facts at hand. Even if a move is contrary to the law, still it makes sense at the time.
For example, running a red light is illegal. In an ethics of legalism such an act is inherently wrong. However, if one is rushing an expectant mother to the hospital, running a red light might be reasonable after slowing to see that going through does not create further damage. In religious legalism, adultery is a sin regardless. If, however, one spouse has been abandoned the other, sexual intercourse outside the legal marriage might be reasonable behavior.
With all decisions in the goodness which is beyond legalism, the guideline of reasonableness applies most of the time. But not always. Sometimes that which is good defies the logic of limited human information. Being finite we often must decide before all the facts are in. Even though a good act may make sense later when the data is complete, at the time it may appear unreasonable.
On the other hand the human ability to rationalize, to make even the most bizarre acts seem reasonable, places limits on this guideline. Reasonableness is useful, but elevated to a law--"reasonable is right"--it becomes a potential tyranny. Furthermore, the reality of the unconscious mind and various degrees of conscious confusion often make being reasonable exceedingly difficult. In such times, good may indeed seem unreasonable to one who in fact is acting righteously.
Being good will most often feel good. If one is alert to his feelings a righteous act will usually be accompanied by a deep sense of feeling right. Even if the move does not seem reasonable at the time, on a deeper level it will feel appropriate. "I know this doesn't make sense," one may say, "but somehow I know it is the right thing for me to do."
As Pascal noted, the heart has reasons, which the mind knows nothing of. When we are less than unified between head and heart our unconscious reasoning, though contradictory in awareness, may make more sense than all our logic. Perceptually this is discerned as "feeling." To say "it feels right" in such a time is more than a report on emotions. The word "feeling"is used here in a deeper sense than mere affect.
For example, when an artist corrects a part of a painting he may be led by his "feelings." Logically, according to his plan and the laws of color and design, the painting may have been "right." However, it did not "feel" right. As he reworks this part of the canvas he is guided by "feelings" rather than reason. When he gets it right, he will feel right about it.
In a human encounter one may have said the logical "right thing" and yet "know" (feel) that it was wrong at the time. Then, guided by feelings, he may speak his heart and give voice to what is actually right for the moment. He will then "feel good" about what he has said, even if it seems illogical just then.
The conflict between reason and feeling is, of course, not inevitable. Most often the good thing to do will both be reasonable and feel right. The point here is only to note that feelings are another guideline for righteousness which may be used as a check against reason alone.
The guideline of feeling good is not infallible. A popular song has this line: "It can't be wrong when it feels so right." Not so. Feelings can be distorted just as reason can. One dictated by feelings alone may be grossly wrong. Another song has the line, "If it feels nice, don't think twice."
I affirm attention to feeling nice, but disclaim the remaining advice. Both feeling and thinking are appropriate guidelines. The currently popular ethic--if it feels good, do it--may be a reasonable swing of the pendulum from the old legalism which completely disregarded feeling, but taken as the sole guide to right, feelings become but another form of legalism. Dictation by emotion, though spiritually less dangerous than rationalism alone, may be socially disastrous and is certainly an inadequate guideline for good.
Sometimes feelings will be right in contrast with reason; sometimes reason will prevail in good decisions. In the larger quest for good there are appropriate times for taking medicine, exercising, biting one's tongue and containing an emotion, even when feelings would indicate otherwise. Which leads us to a third guideline for righteousness.
A good move enhances integrity. One is fulfilled--filled-fuller--by a virtuous act. Holy activity, whether legal or illegal, increases one's wholeness. Holiness is also wholly-ness. After good, one is more integrated--at-one-with himself. Unrighteous deeds, even when legal or considered to be socially virtuous, often fragment a person; good, in contrast, always unites one, leaving him more together than he was before.
Usually, good is fulfilling immediately--that is, pleasurable, fun, or exciting. A good painting pleases the eye; a fine meal satisfies tastes; a good party is fun; a virtuous act is exciting.
Even when the move is immediately distasteful, painful, or scary, fulfillment is the final result. Good is literally "good for you." For instance, bad-tasting medicine may be healing; a needed operation may be painful but healthy; confession may be scary but saving.
Whether immediately or in the long run, good is fulfilling. This third guideline may be more difficult to apply due to the time factor but can be useful in seeking a proper balance between reason and feeling. For example, in weighing reason against the potential good feeling in telling-off a boss, one might also consider the guideline of fulfillment. If reason says "no" and feeling says "yes," one may look to the longer range possibility of enhanced integrity in making the choice.
In facing the error of identifying righteousness with legalism and then attempting to be good rather than merely act right, one should not expect the latter path to be easier. Legalism, though only productive of self-righteousness or false guilt, is certainly the less demanding way to go. It requires obedience but not faith. Following directions can be done by rote--without heart; being good requires spirit, all that one is. Consequently one looking for the easy way out will fare better by remaining with legalism.
If, however, one has tried the legalistic way, discovered its limitations, and chooses to pursue the good beyond rules, he can expect to confront the challenges of false guilt. Once any code has become ingrained and made a part of conscience or super-ego, violation is likely to cause a feeling of guilt. I call it false guilt since it is based on learned rules rather than reality itself. Likely, however, it will be experienced as bad. Breaking old rules, though temporarily exhilarating, usually leads to "feeling bad" or feeling guilty later.
For example, if one has grown up with a rule requiring making up the bed every morning or eating all the food on his plate, he may recognize that compulsive rule keeping sometimes results in being late for work or getting fat rather than being good. If he then applies the guideline of reason (who will see the unmade bed? How can eating all one's food help starving children elsewhere?), he may decide to occasionally break the rules in pursuit of larger good. The spirit of rebellion which temporarily "feels good" will often result in a nagging sense of false guilt later on.
And so with other breaks from patterns of compulsive legalism. Confrontation with false guilt can be expected. One concerned with greater righteousness will learn to prevail in these battles.
Finally we should note that separating righteousness from legalism is not to be confused with negating the values of laws--religious, civil, and social. The error is in the identification, not in legality itself. Legalism generally represents the best wisdom of the ages and is most often a reasonable guide for the pursuit of righteousness. While one is learning to reason, feel, and discern that which is most fulfilling, laws can be immensely helpful.
For example, honesty, though certainly not infallible, is generally the best policy when one would be good. The ten commandments are still quite practical on most occasions. Most state laws and rules of etiquette are functional while one struggles with the larger issue of becoming good.
A truly good person, I speculate, would probably appear to be completely law-abiding on most occasions. His goodness, however, would not result from his legalism but from his living by the spirit of wholeness which is available to us all.
Error: Viewing the institution of monogamous marriage as inherently holy.
Fact: Marriage is a functional institution within which either holiness or hell may be experienced.
We humans have a bad habit of falling in love with our gadgets. Things originally intended to serve us, we end up serving. I know a man who worships his car and a woman who adores her house. They are both slaves to what they theoretically own.
If it is true with our things, it is much more true with our institutions. For example, the Sabbath was first intended as a day of rest, a service to man so he would not have to work seven days a week. In time, however, the situation got reversed. Man ended up serving the Sabbath as though it were a sacred day. Jesus broke this destructive tradition and reminded his followers that "the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath."
Following his direction we have in the 2,000 years since largely freed ourselves from serving a holy day. But with another old institution we have failed miserably. Matrimony for many of us today still remains holy. We serve it. I think that if Jesus preached to us he might say: "Marriage was made for man and woman and not man and woman for marriage."
At any rate, I preach this because I think that in spite of the social advantages of holy matrimony the spiritual consequences are often disastrous. Even in the midst of rising divorce rates and increased social acceptability of divorce the phrase in the traditional marriage ceremony--"If you desire to be joined in holy matrimony..."--still remains deeply imbedded in the minds of many, keeping destructive marriages intact and producing continual guilt after divorce. But other spiritual consequences are even worse.
The most damning of these is a misplaced sense of the sacred. In reality holiness only exists in the realm of one's encounter with God--that is, within the dimension of human experience. We may experience the sacred when we meet God in the presence of things, but things are never inherently sacred. Holiness is a quality of living, not an objective quantity of anything. The effort to capture the holy in an object such as a graven image, or in an institution such as marriage, is always a mistake.
In viewing marriage as inherently holy we reap certain advantages, such as protecting property rights, stabilizing society, providing structure for child-rearing, and protecting ourselves from our own fickleness. But we also pay. Once we agree that any institution is holy we have made the sacred an external entity and abandoned awareness of where holiness actually resides. Holy matrimony sets us up to lose our experience of the holy. We can't have it both ways; if it is "out there" it can't be "in here."
In setting up ourselves to lose the sacred we also set up marriage to be magical. If it is inherently holy, then logically it will bless us. The ancient myth of marital bliss persists till today. As in the fairy tales, we still get married expecting to "live happily ever after." The bitter disillusionment of those who have hoped to be rescued from misery, made happy and even holy by this magical institution is immeasurable.
In the path of logic it follows that if marriage is sacred, divorce is evil. Holy things must of course always be holy. Breaking such an idol can only be a sin. And so we have traditionally viewed divorce as inherently bad. Marriage, being holy, must be perpetuated at all costs. No matter the heartbreak, disillusionment, emotional trauma, physical abuse and psychological damage, still the sacred institution must be maintained.
The family is made for marriage, not marriage for the family. No matter how bad the marriage or miserable the family, divorce remains an evil alternative to holy matrimony. And who can weigh the suffering which has resulted from this belief?
Furthermore it follows that if marriage is holy, everybody should do it. Remaining single in the face of this divine imperative is always suspect. "What's the matter with her?," the distraught and miserable parents of an unmarried twenty-six year old daughter asked me. Actually she was a contented and productive grade-school teacher, but in the old "marriage is holy" book of her parents something must be wrong if she did not rush into the sacred institution. The deeply experienced false guilt and personal suspicions about many unmarried people are a heavy burden to bear, yet a predictable consequence of making marriage holy.
The primary results of erroneous thinking about the institution itself are followed by a number of secondary errors sanctioned by the first. In treating marriage as holy we have also made sacred our particular version of the institution, as though the American way of marriage were the God-intended way. In the following section, a few of these fundamental errors are outlined.
Men are better than women. Following the creation account of Genesis Chapter Two rather than Chapter One, we have made holy the made-from-his-rib myth which implies that man came first and woman was made for man. From this notion-made-holy have sprung thousands of years of female suppression and second-class citizenship for all women. The husband is "lord and master" with principal legal rights as well as domestic authority. If a man's "home is his castle" it follows that he is king and his (note the possessive pronoun) wife is his property and in effect, slave. The dominant male/submissive female stance has also been accepted, promoting masculine fakery, feminine trickery, and other concomitant problems.
Woman's reduced status has largely relegated her living to the domestic sphere. Our brand of holy matrimony has commonly kept women under-educated and out of the business and political worlds beyond the house. Both business and politics have been deprived of needed feminine influence. Who can estimate the effects of wars resulting from competitive, fight-oriented males making political decisions without counsel of nurturing females?
The other side of this situation is that men have been largely excluded from practical living in the castles over which they theoretically preside. If woman's place is in the house, man's place has been outside the house. She gets the kitchen, he gets the yard. He decides about the roof, the grass, the insurance, but she decides about the carpets, the furnishings, and the arrangements. Many a "lord and master" is a virtual stranger inside the house where he is supposed to feel at home. In making woman's place holy we have unwittingly placed man as well.
A third example is depersonalization of both spouses. Once they are in holy matrimony, being a good husband or a good wife takes precedence over being a good person. Traditionally the man has become the provider while the woman has become the maid and mother. Identity then gets wrapped-up in being a good provider or a good housekeeper and mother.
For example, the shallow notion that "woman was made to bear children" has also been made holy. A female person is in effect reduced to a baby maker. Fortunately men have resisted the parallel idea that "man was made to fertilize eggs," which would be equally logical and shallow. Fertilizing and childbearing are certainly significant male and female capacities, but to reduce personhood to such minor functions is a very shortsighted view of humanity. Yet this commonly occurs in the depersonalization resulting from the errors of holy matrimony.
I note one other unfortunate result: children deprived of two parents. In institutionalizing woman as mother and man as provider we have essentially placed child rearing in the hands of women alone. Mothers not only give birth, but they are stuck with raising the kids also. Fathers may pass in and out, giving allowances and occasionally meting out discipline, but rearing is largely left to the women. Like it or not, effective or not, women get the job. Even when they are good at it, unfortunate children are denied the balance of male/female guidance in growing up. The nuclear family itself deprives many children of adequate peer contact in early years.
These and other primary and secondary results follow from treating the American version of matrimony as inherently holy. A tragedy! Let us note carefully, however, that the errors result from the "holy" and not from matrimony itself. None of the dangers listed are inherent in the institution, but only in treating it as sacred. Monogamous marriage represents the most generally functional arrangement for living together--especially for rearing children--that mankind has yet been able to devise. It has, with certain limitations, proven itself historically enduring and personally fulfilling. My challenge here is not to the institution of marriage but to our error of making it holy.
Like democracy, marriage can be immensely functional; but like all institutions there is no magic, and it must be constantly worked at. We cannot reasonably expect democracy, marriage, or any other institution to save us. Nor can marriage reasonably be viewed as perpetual...regardless. People and circumstances continually change, requiring revision of the institutions which serve them.
In spite of the popular myth, marriages are made on earth, not in heaven, and as with every other earthly arrangement there needs to be a provision for amendments or even constitutional change--a way out. Both marriage and divorce should be viewed as the pragmatic servants they are.
Marriage should not be imposed on everyone. Many persons are not emotionally equipped for the demands of living closely with someone else. Certain talents and careers are not compatible with structures of marriage. The institution is simply not some persons' proverbial cup of tea. Our society might well face these facts.
Though marriage has proven functional in our past and present history, we need not conclude that it is the final word in living arrangements, even child-rearing. Evolving societies may yet devise even more practical ways of living in harmony with one another. The institution itself might conceivably be superseded.
Certainly the current, made-holy version is in serious need of a major tune-up, if not a revision in model. Productive living within the institution of monogamous marriage would seem to call for these changes:
First, we need to correct the error of making marriage holy. The resulting problems cannot be faced realistically as long as our vision is distorted. Marriage is a pragmatic institution, potentially productive or destructive. We must take into account both possibilities if we are to see it as it is and make the most of its potential. Marriage is not inherently good nor divorce necessarily bad. Each may be practical in its own time. Whether single or married, one should first confront his perspective of the institution, seek to work through notions of holiness, then learn to view the morally neutral institution as potentially functional.
Then we need to face and correct secondary errors we may have fallen into, such as, treating as holy the ideas that men are better than women; that men should be dominant and women submissive; that woman's place is in the home while man's place is outside; that being a spouse takes precedence over being a person (trying to find identity as a provider or a mother, for instance); and that child rearing is woman's work.
If one is single, either unmarried or divorced, I think that person should face the possibility of marriage with a great deal of skepticism, carefully resisting any social pressures or personal compulsions to rush into the institution. The pragmatic arrangement should be weighed practically. To parents who continually ask their grown children, "When are you going to get married?," I suggest silence until children bring it up and then this question: "Why would you want to get married?"
The biblical view of the unmarried apostle Paul still seems most reasonable to me: "I say to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn" (I Corinthians 7:8-9).
If one is married I suggest working at the relationship in which he finds himself. Since institutions de-magicalized cannot work for us, it behooves us who are married to work within their structures. Like democracy, marriage requires continual vigilance and constant compromise. Wedlock promises much but also makes concomitant demands. If we expect the first we should be diligent about the second.
In viewing an existing marriage realistically one should never eliminate the possibility of divorce. For significant spiritual reasons one must not be penned-into any institution. Though divorce is a gravely serious move, remaining dead in a legal marriage is far more spiritually consequential. Alert to the common temptation to project personal problems onto a spouse or marriage, one may realistically face the option of ending a marriage which is already dead and seemingly not subject to resurrection.
Finally, whether single, married, or divorced, seek to experience the holy wherever you are. If you succeed in withdrawing your projected possibility for holiness from this or other institutions and objects you open the door to encountering the sacred everywhere. After no things are treated as holy, all things may become the medium for holiness.
God, we are told, is omnipresent. Freed from the prison of holy-things, we may encounter Him and know the sacred wherever we are.
Error: Identifying church with a building, program, or religious organization.
Fact: Church is the communion of those who are becoming truthful, coming alive, and learning to love.
Any similarity between the Christian church and the social institution bearing the same name is coincidental. Ideally the two are synonymous; in practice the correlation is often inversely proportional--that is, the manifestations of Christian church are likely to be called something else, while the so-called church is often very unchristian. The error I point to is the identification of the social institutions with the reality whose name they bear.
Three specific forms of this error include: 1) identifying the Christian church with a building, typically one with a spire or cross on top, stained glass windows, and a large room with pews and a pulpit; 2) identifying it with a public worship service and/or religious educational program; and 3) identifying it with the religious organizations of denominations and associated local groups.
Conceptualizing the church as a place to go is the most common error. In fact, according to Webster, it is correct. The first definition of church given in my dictionary is: a building, especially for public worship. Etymologically Webster is correct. The English word, church, from a Scottish word, kirk, is rooted in the Greek word, kurios--from Lord and doma, literally: Lord's house.
In a survey I once gave to a large group of children the consensus answer to "What is the church?" was: "a place you go to on Sunday." On target. They had already learned well the most popular social error regarding the Christian church.
Unfortunately the Greek word translated as church is not the New Testament word for that group of people we call the Christian church. They were an ecclesia or assembly of people, not a kurios or Lord's house. In fact for at least one hundred years after Jesus there probably was no public building called a church. The ecclesia, the group of folk who were the Christian church, met at various places. Paul, for example, spoke of the "church that is at their house" (Romans 16:5), obviously not a reference to a building.
In the course of history, however, the error has crept in and been so commonly accepted as to achieve dictionary status. Unfortunately it is not limited to children alone. Many adults also "go to church," the building with the pews, on Sunday.
The second form of the error moves "church" from the building to the religious program conducted within the "Lord's house." "After church we went out to dinner together," one accepting this error may say. The format of the service called "church" varies among groups but commonly includes singing hymns, praying, and preaching, plus occasional rituals of baptism and communion. Typically it is called a "worship service." In the thinking of many, "church" may also include Sunday school classes plus a satellite of other educational, social, and recreational programs. This noted error is in perceiving church as something out there which one can "go to"or "stay away from."
There is the Catholic Church, the Baptist Church, the Methodist Church, plus hundreds more and thousands of local groups representing the parent organizations. In addition there are countless independent variations on the major themes. "Belonging to the church" is an American tradition.
This form of the error identifies the Christian church with an organization one can join, drop out of, or be excommunicated from. As with the Boy Scouts, Kiwanis Club, or Daughters of the American Revolution, one may apply for membership. If he meets the requirements he is initiated--commonly baptised--and then becomes an official member; or he may simply have his name on the rolls and still "belong to the church."
To summarize, this popular error views church as an objective entity, something out there--a building, service, or organization one can go to, attend, or belong to. Most commonly the error is an undifferentiated combination of these three: a religious club of generally pious people, adhering to set doctrines and patterns of behavior, meeting on Sunday for various programs at their place of worship. The beliefs, accepted behavior, format of activities, and design of buildings varies from group to group, but all share the common name "church."
While the Christian church may appear under any of these labels--at the building, during the service, or in the organization--none of the popular definitions comes to grips with the reality itself. The established "church" is often the least likely place to discover real church today. Tragically, there is often more church on bar stools than on church pews.
The Christian church is the body of Christ, the communion of those who are coming to be in Christ. As previously discussed, Christ is a symbol for what Jesus was--the way, truth, life, love. Those coming to be in Christ are on the path to entering the way, becoming truthful, coming alive, and learning to love. The Christian church is their fellowship with one another.
As Jesus incarnated the Christ within himself twenty centuries ago, the Christian church is the body of people who are giving flesh and blood to Christ today. They seek reality together, are honest with one another, share their own resurrections, and care for each other.
The secular Greek work, ecclesia--the assembled or called-out people--is given religious meaning with the adjective, Christian. A group with any purpose, such as government or war, could be a "church," but the Christian "called-out people" bore the marks of Christ. They came together to be in Christ.
Another group of words rooted in the Greek koinon is used more than any other to describe the New Testament ecclesia. The basic meaning is "common." Our word communion or fellowship share the same root meaning. The members were companions, partners, sharers with one another. They were "fellow-prisoners," "fellow-servants," "fellow-workers," "fellow-citizens," even "fellow-soldiers." In summary: fellow-shippers; they shared life together in their communion or community which is also referred to as the body of Christ.
The Christian church is then the communion of those who are coming-to-be and being Christian together. Specifically this means those on the way to being honest, lively, and loving people. When any one of these aspects of Christ is experienced between two or more people, the Christian church is to that same extent made manifest.
For example, when two persons walking their separate paths choose to join one another in the way, that is the beginning of the Christian church. When two people get honest with one another, dropping the robes of dishonesty behind which we commonly hide, the body of Christ begins again. When two people become spiritually alive with each other, are resurrected from merely existing to being spirited together, the church is reborn. When two people begin to care for one another, to exist lovingly together, that is Christ revealed.
Combining these elements of Christ--way, truth, life, and love--the Christian church is called into being when any one of them is experienced. It is fully present when all are manifested in any communion of two or more persons. The reality of the Christian church is in their shared presence in the way, in their mutual honesty, in their life together, and in their love rather than in any labels for the experiences, the places they occur, or the organizations which promote them.
The events are what count and constitute the church, not what they are called. When love exists, labeled or unlabeled, Christ is present because Christ is love; the Christian church is existent. When persons are truthful with each other, Christ and hence the Christian church is manifested, no matter what they call the event. Proclamation of the virtue of honesty does not manifest the church; being truthful together does. Talk of love does not constitute the church; loving does. Mutual agreement on a doctrine of the resurrection does not make a church; people coming alive with each other do.
Any place--building or countryside--houses the Christian church when humans share these events with one another. Whether called a home, theatre, meadow, seashore, or church, the site is incidental to the communion. Obviously, labeling a location a "church" has no inherent connection with what occurs there. Judgmental persons sitting together on church pews do not constitute the church; loving persons sitting together on a beach do. Church is in these events, not where they occur.
Nor can any organization properly be called a church. Social structures are incapable of truthfulness, resurrection, and love. To call any club a church, except as a grammatical convenience for speaking of the way the members are relating to one another, is inaccurate.
On the other hand, when persons are being in Christ together, any club becomes the social structure for the Christian church. Such a communion may, for example, be named a softball team. A wealthy financial executive who worked hard six days a week played softball "religiously" with a group of his friends each Sunday morning. When invited by a lady to "go to church," his spontaneous reply was, "You mean on Sunday!"
In his financial world he suppressed himself and conformed to requirements. In shined shoes and pin-stripped suits he connived and warred unmercifully in the pursuit of the dollar from Monday through Saturday. But in sneakers and shorts on Sunday, under cover of "playing softball," he dropped his roles, became his honest self, and came alive with the motley group of friends he cared for. He called it his team. I suspect it was much nearer to being the Christian church for him than any Sunday service he might attend. If he had accepted the lady's invitation, I think he would have missed church that week.
In reality the Christian church may be experienced under any label--softball team, bridge club, friendship, affair, marriage, or even church. The name is incidental; experiencing Christ is all that counts. In secular language the Christian church is the company of those with whom you can be yourself, honestly--the way you truthfully are--without pretense, roles, or defenses.
It is the fellowship of those who meet your real needs and with whom you can be honest about your wants. In your church, whatever you may call it, you can say in effect, "This is who I am," and your fellow church members will not reject you, be faked off, or try to save you. They will accept, understand, and confront you honestly. In a word both religious and secular, church people "love" one another.
In contrast, when people gathered are out of touch with reality--not in tune with the way things are, phony with each other, dishonestly hiding their selves, being primly proper and lifeless--spiritually dead, and not really caring for each other, the Christian church is nonexistent there, even if the building bears the name church. The number of people involved is also incidental to the reality of the experience. Whether there be two, two hundred, or two thousand people present, the church is limited to those sharing the communion of the body of Christ.
Nor is mental agreement on language and ideas relevant. Even while rejecting the name church, the person Jesus, or the doctrines of Christ, those engaged in being honest and loving together are activating the reality itself. Immediate activities are also incidental. While sharing these spiritual experiences--being the body of Christ--people being church may be doing anything. They may, for example, be eating or playing golf, praying or singing, conversing or silent, swimming or fishing, confessing sins or telling jokes, making love or "going to church." The reality of the Christ-events cannot be contained in any specific deeds of the hands or body.
A worship service in a building called church may or may not be the occasion for being the body of Christ. The crucial issue is experiencing the pervading sense of worth which is inherent in being truthful and loving. Certain circumstances, such as a seashore or a Gothic cathedral, and particular activities such as meditating or singing are more conducive to experiencing Christ for some persons. For others, not so. Each person must find his own best place and activity for being the Christian church. Again, it is the spiritual event which counts, not the place, time, or physical engagement.
The Christian church is more like a group of sinners-being-saved than a society of self-righteous-saints. It is a people in process rather than a gathering of the arrived. Acceptance is the earmark of Christians, not judgment. One senses a spirit of "It's ok to be myself here" rather than "I'd better be on my toes and keep my act together."
Feelings, faults, and failures are openly welcomed. In the Christian church hurting is as acceptable as happiness. Both anger and tenderness are allowed. It is all right to have problems in the presence of these people. As James noted in the New Testament, they "confess their faults to one another."
Whereas a facade of perfection and attainment, an appearance of I've-got-it-made, is the standard fare in many organizations, this is not required in the Christian church. The agonies of defeat are as at home as the sweet smell of victory. The dejected are as welcome as the joyous. Honesty is the hallmark; not pretense. Facades are allowed, but not required.
Because coming to be in Christ--in truth, life, and love--is an awesome process involving going forward, falling back, trying new ways, making mistakes, beginning again, those in church are tolerant and understanding of the struggles of their fellow Christians. Deeply they know, when not experiencing similar challenges themselves, that "there but for the grace of God go I."
In humility they stand-under-with each other. Learning to walk spiritually is not unlike learning to walk physically. As the child first crawls, then stands and falls, often hurting but getting up and falling again and again, so those in church are struggling to stand and move on their own spiritual feet. Church is their home for learning. Their brothers and sisters in Christ, still learning themselves, are sympathetic and responsive to the struggle, including the bruised knees and fears of falling. To see such a family of God is certainly unlike viewing a dressed-up family attending a traditional service. Instead it is to see honest people in the process of becoming themselves--blood, sweat, and tears primarily, with an occasional V for victory.
Since being truthful involves becoming human, the Christian church includes those learning to walk in all aspects of humanity--becoming sensitive, emotional, reasonable, and sexual. Its people are learning to respond openly and sensitively to the natural world. They are beginning to experience their real emotions, not just "what they are supposed to feel"; to think their own thoughts, not just what they've been taught; to know what they do want, rather than "should want"; to be responsibly sexual rather than frigid and proper.
In these challenging processes within the community which is a laboratory for life one predictably discovers all manner of human sin as well as virtue. When people become honest with one another, as being in Christ requires, nothing foreign to human potential is apt to be absent at one time or another. The community of real people in quest of good is unlikely to be characterized as a bunch of goody-goodies.
Because sexuality is commonly suppressed in our society, particularly in organized religion, the struggle to embrace responsibly this significant human capacity is likely to be a major agenda in the Christian church for a long time. The social denial of certain emotions such as anger, generally possible only by an overall suppression of the emotional capacity itself, is so common that becoming emotional again is a second predictable church activity.
Thought suppression, especially in the area of accepted doctrines, has left so many people rationally impoverished that learning to think for themselves is a third probable challenge for those in today's Christian church.
Always, of course, the particular focus of challenge and struggle in a local group will be directed by the background and need of the persons involved. The point is that struggle--no matter what its subject--is a characteristic of sinners-being saved, and hence of the Christian church.
John Donne reminded us over 350 years ago that "no man is an island." Though not a completely accurate metaphor since we are all cut off at birth and must soon learn to survive on our own, still our fullness of life does require each other. Technically this truth is a paradox: though finally alone--an island of human existence, we can best find ourselves with each other--in the sea of humanity.
This primary fact about life gives rise to the reality of church. It is first essential that we cut emotional cords which prevent our freedom, but then equally necessary that we establish bonds in which selfhood is nourished to its larger potential. This is the place for church. We have to be one alone in order to be together realistically; yet we need to be together in the Christian way in order to fully be the ones we are. We really do need one another.
Why? For what purpose? A young man jilted by his girlfriend once told me in an outburst of solipsistic anguish, "I can make it on my own. I don't need her or anybody else." His declaration was perhaps functional in easing the pain of breaking up, but dangerously omnipotent if meant literally.
Adults who have cut the cords and learned to stand alone do, in fact, still need one another for spiritual if not physical reasons. I chanced to see the young man several years later sitting alone and looking dejected in the corner of the waiting room at a doctor's office. Aged beyond his years, I surmised that he might have kept his word.
Here are four reasons why emotionally independent persons need the Christian church, the communion of caring others: First, for forgiveness. The salvation process begins with confession and forgiveness. The biblical message that God forgives our sins becomes an existential reality only in the accepting presence of other human beings who know us as we are. The academic fact is personally known only when some one mediates God's forgiveness firsthand. This occurs in church where persons get honest with each other, exposing their deeper selves, their hidden strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. In the accepting love of finite others in the body of Christ one experiences the forgiveness of the infinite other.
Confirmation is a second reason. "Mirror, mirror on the wall" we may ask about physical fairness, but we need human mirrors to reflect who we are. I can pinch my body to see if I am awake, but I need you to touch my heart to help me discover I am alive. My knowledge that "I am" is fulfilled in your confirmation, "You are."
Our common temptation to narcissism and false godhead does not negate our legitimate need for mirroring and confirmation from one another. The Christian church supplies these needs.
Correction is a third reason for Christian community. The size of the human brain with its immense capacity to rationalize, distort, and even deny reality makes all of us candidates for constant correction. We easily learn to see, hear, and think selectively--to play Pollyanna, presuming the world to be as we wish it were. Like moon-bound rockets thrown easily off course, we need regular feedback from objective others so we can re-compute, shape-up, correct our errors and get back on target.
Fourthly, we need company, the pleasurable stimulation of other human beings who sometimes touch us along the path of our private journeys. Pets are good; plants and familiar places may be companionable; they are even inflatable adult, life-sized dolls available now. Yet nothing can take the place or be as pleasing as good human companionship. Pets, plants, places, and dolls may be present and accepting, but they cannot think, talk, and meet, like another warm human somebody close at hand.
Janice Nunn, an 18 year-old freshman at Emory University, recently shot Abby Novich in the stomach with a 22-caliber revolver because Miss Novich rebuffed her attempts at friendship. Miss Nunn, who had earlier referred to herself as a "non-person," told the wounded girl's roommate, "No one will give me hugs and kisses. I needed someone to hug me."
Because Janice Nunn's actions were destructive and thus socially unacceptable, she was charged with aggravated assault and placed under psychiatric care. Her needs, however, were immensely common, probably universal. In some measure we are all non-persons--less than who we can be--without the responses of other human beings. We all, I suspect, need some hugs and kisses to become and remain human.
I suggest two don't's and two do's. Don't confuse the Christian church with the social institutions which bear or don't bear its name. Just because something is or is not called church does not mean that it is or is not. To confuse labels and language with reality and experience is risky in any realm. Even when the participants are sincere, the experience may be deadly.
If you belong to an organization bearing the name, don't automatically assume that you are in the Christian church. Many who have "gone to church all their lives" have never really been in church. They have never shared the company of caring people who listen, accept, understand, forgive, and give hugs and kisses. The institutional church, while proclaiming forgiveness and love, is often the most judgmental club in town where only the language of love may be found. Voicing the virtue of honesty, church folk are often as phony as three-dollar bills. Don't be deceived by the language.
If you have never belonged and are invited to "go to church," go with your eyes open. Look for real community. See if they love you. Don't take verbalizations at face value.
If you are a "church" dropout or "backslider" who feels guilty about not going, examine your guilt to see if it is false or real. Did you drop out of a caring community or a critical club? Was your church a sustaining body of sinners-being-saved or a judging group of self-righteous-saints? Perhaps your guilt is only learned and you may still be seeking real church. If so, don't seek relief from false guilt by going back to "church."
On the other hand, don't be deceived by labels on groups which call themselves something besides church, while in practice they manifest certain aspects of Christ. Remember, it is the Christ-experience between the people involved which counts, not what they are called. Don't be deceived, for instance, by a "softball team" or a "friendship" which is actually church.
A second don't: don't try to use church to escape primary aloneness. Community is for enhancement of individuality, not its erasure. First, last, and always we are separate persons. No sharing can change this primary fact of life. If you meet to escape being alone you may temporarily cloak your loneliness, but evasion only exaggerates its threat. John Donne also noted that every man is a "piece of the continent," but that does not erase the paradox of also remaining an island at the same time. We need each other for the fuller becoming of ourselves, not self-negation.
The attempt to escape in church is always self-defeating because the very effort eliminates the church's reality. You may go to a building or service dishonestly, but you can only be in Christ truthfully. Your hidden motive of escape makes you dishonest, while your attempt to use other Christians for removing the burden of your aloneness makes you unloving. Without truth and love, no Christ is present, and hence no church. Don't try to go to church to run from yourself. It won't work.
Now two do's: do respect the integrity of the social institutions which bear the name church as well as those called by other names such as club, team, friendship, or marriage. Institutions have their place. The popular "church," for example, even when no Christian community is evident within its structures, serves a needed function in our society. The social gatherings, moral teachings, benevolent services, recreational opportunities, and musical training are all valid functions. And always a "church" faces the possibility of becoming Christian.
The error I have pointed toward is confusing the institution bearing the name with the reality of church. As another social structure--like home, school, and government--the organized "church" is due immense credit for its significant place in our society. Without it we would all be impoverished. Give credit where credit is due, in this case to the venerable old institution called "church." Never, however, assume that it is the Christian church.
In like manner, respect other social structures where the Christian church more commonly appears, but which would be confused or appalled if you called them "church." Honor the integrity of your softball team or friendships if they are threatened by religious language. Your knowledge that they are actually the Christian church for you is what counts. Avoid confusion of accurate labeling when it interferes with experiencing the reality of Christ. Remember, the events matter, not the name.
Finally, do seek out Christian church wherever it may be found. Being in community matters much. Individual salvation can never, I think, be isolated from being in Christ together. Sharing cannot substitute for personal struggle, but neither can greater private fulfillment be found apart from fellow humans. We do need each other.
Ideally you will find your church within the institution bearing the name. The history, language, and stated intent of an organization can theoretically enhance the process and experience. But not always. Sometimes historical accretions, familiarity of language, and focus on purpose interfere with the actual practice. You must decide where Christ-events are most reasonably possible for you.
If you are hindered within the institution then seek the church elsewhere. Ultimately significant matters should be pursued diligently. Look for possibilities of sharing yourself with others, being openly honest, spiritually alive and loving, wherever they may be found. If they exist in athletic teams or social clubs, counseling or therapy groups, friendships or marriage, then pursue them there.
It matters to be in church. Get there anyway you can.
Error: Unselfishness is good and leads to heaven. Selfishness is bad and leads to hell.
Fact: Unselfishness culminates in despair. Selfishness is full-filled in love.
Error: Real self is bad and must be denied. Contrived self is good and should be improved.
Fact: Real self is dead and must be resurrected. Contrived self is illusion and must die.
The Bible presents an apparent paradox. On the one hand it says, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39); but on the other hand, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself" (Matthew 16:24). "Love yourself," it says, but also, "deny yourself."
This dilemma in logic has been the source of a crucial battle in Christian history. The latter half of the paradox has prevailed: Self-love, identified with selfishness, has lost out to self-denial--putting oneself last and others first. Selfishness is bad; unselfishness is good. The way to hell is through being selfish; the path to heaven is through unselfishness. Unwittingly we have made a virtue of martyrdom and become the great no-sayers to human life. By this one crucial error we prevent our own salvation and the coming of the kingdom of love.
Nor is the error confined to organized religion. Atheists pose for pictures as often as Christians. Somehow we all seem to learn the lesson: it is bad to be "caught" as ourselves; it is good to present a front. Cowards climb in the lifeboat first; heroes go down with the ship. Good mothers take the last piece of meat (or do without). The "Christian" formula for JOY--Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last--is also ingrained in secular society. "Good" atheists, like "good" believers sacrifice themselves on the altar of service. Whether it be a secular Kennedy or a religious King, it is martyrdom which catches our common fancy. The cross motif is ingrained; resurrection receives lip service only. We honor dying, not living.
Fortunately, I think, the unconscious will to live and urge to be human often circumvent our conscious theologies--both religious and secular--which idolize martyrdom. In spite of ourselves we want to have fun. Our error lies in misunderstanding the biblical directives.
The paradox--love yourself/deny yourself--is only contradictory on the surface. Both are correct. To achieve the good life we must both love and deny ourselves. Our error is not in the love/deny parts of the injunctions, but in our understanding of which self is to be loved and which denied. Properly understood we love our real selves and deny our contrived selves. The popular error is in reversing the order; denying our real selves and loving our illusionary images of ourselves. We try to kill the real and resurrect the false, rather than denying the false and loving the real.
The result is predictably disastrous. Allowing full credit to social services effected through various degrees of martyrdom--from getting on last to going down with the ship--longer range negative consequences, both personal and public, far outweigh immediate positive results.
In reality, loving others is an outgrowth, an overflow, of loving oneself. Love which begins at home soon spills over to neighbors. The nature of positive love is similar to negative cancer; it proliferates. Love leads to more love. When I love myself I soon love that which is beyond myself. Conversely, hate also overflows. When I hate myself I naturally hate those around me. The biblical message is more like a statement of fact than an order. "Love yourself; love your neighbor likewise." This is the nature of reality.
When this natural order is broken by an effort to deny oneself and love others instead, frustration naturally ensues. Personal love shared is warm and affirming; personal denial cloaked with acts of love is cold and negating--even when the charity is needed.
Sharing what one has enhances both giver and receiver; trying to give away what one does not have frustrates the giver and deceives the receiver. His head is inclined to thank you, while his heart, knowing more, wants to hate you. Those loved from overflow tend to love in return; charity recipients tend to bite the hand that feeds them. Revolution is written into the script of paternal colonialism; affection is predictable when self-love spills over.
Unfortunately the historical religious error has led to the previous script. Chruch-men denying themselves have tried to love others instead, to build the superstructure of the kingdom of loving neighbors without the essential foundation of loving themselves first. Thus we often find the most dedicated Christians "working their fingers to the bone" for others, yet personally tormented and finally unable to love. Preachers' kids, victimized by self-sacrificing parents, are often the worst. The familiar hypocrisy of church people is public information. Tragically those most "Christian" are often unloving while the most loving are considered unchristian.
To understand the error let us go back to childhood and trace the development of a false self. In the beginning we are ourselves--a literal statement. We all apparently come into the world as ourselves--that is, we are who we are. A child does not "have" a self; he is himself. There is no pretense, no front, no false self. "Child" and "self" are identical. We may call this the true self or authentic item. The early child is genuine self--genuinely himself. "What you see is what you get."
Soon, however, he learns that genuine self is sometimes unacceptable. For instance, when crying, he may get punished. When angry, he may get rejected. Conversely, he may learn that acting calmly while actually disturbed brings more reward, or that falsely smiling while truly angry works better than a real temper tantrum.
Presenting a false self--measuring up--often brings better rewards (food and affection) than being one's real self. Being a boy (himself) is sometimes not enough. He must be a "good" boy, that is, develop an image or self which pleases parents if he wishes to maximize his comforts.
The content of a "good" self (don't cry, don't be angry, don't be afraid, go on the potty, etc.) varies from family to family; the fact of trying to acquire a "good" self seems to be universal. A child learns early in life that it is expedient at times to present a self that is false. When being himself--his true self--fails to work, he learns to act to present an image which is more acceptable and effective in achieving his goals. Thus there is the self-he-is (true self) and the self-he-presents(false self).
So far, so good. Images and acts are effective. There is nothing wrong with a front (shield) for protection against the onslaughts of angry parents, or a pleasant mask if it brings the favors of parental gods. In this dangerous world a second self is often necessary for survival and certainly useful in the improvement of circumstances.
The problem only emerges later when confusion develops between a person's real self (the self-I-am) and his false self (one-I-present). Depending on family circumstances, in particular, parents' use of their power, the "good" self may be used so often and the real self hidden so consistently that a child begins to forget which is real and which is false.
Is he, for example, the one who sometimes wants to kill? Or is he the one who always loves his mother? Is he the one who is jealous of a younger sibling or the one who helps take care of little sister? Which is me and which is not me? Will the real Johnny Carson please stand up?
To this universal question historical Christianity has come with an erroneous and unsatisfying answer. Picking up on the popular parental message, "Be a good boy" (deny your real self in favor of an acceptable image), it has added "Be a good Christian"(deny your real humanity in favor of unreal godliness).
Lifting verses out of context it has often taught: "Love your neighbors" and "Deny yourself." The difference between the religious injunction, "Be a good person," and the secular family message, "Be a good boy," is only a matter of degree and content. The bottom line of each is: Don't be your real self (except when it is socially desirable); be your false self (which is more useful in society). The secular command to "be good" is often escalated to a religious commandment to "be perfect."
Specifically, this subversive message may be noted in the following ways: The deepest human urge or instinct is for survival, to take care of oneself. Thus the true self is inclined to self-preservation. In contrast the idealized perfect self negates this biological bent with an attempt to take care of others first. Self-preservation is replaced with other-preservation. The true self's natural inclination to look out for Number One is replaced by the false self's imposed imperative of looking out for everyone else instead.
The real Number One is sent to the end of the line. If it comes down to me or you, you are supposed to be first. Self-service--nature's design--is "bad"; serving others is "good." Self-sacrifice--the complete reversal of the true self's nature--is made virtuous, while self-expression is viewed as indulgence (vanity, pride, narcissism) and hence evil.
Even at the point of life or death, where true self would make its strongest stand, a perfect self is supposed to opt for another's life instead. It is as though, in absolute negation of the most basic human impulse, every other person in the world is more valued in God's sight than oneself. Martyrdom for others thus becomes the ultimate perfection.
Predictably the emotion most identified with the survival urge would be the most condemned by the perfect self. Anger, a name for the body's preparation system for defending itself (secreting adrenalin, stopping digestion, energizing muscles), is thus classified as "bad." It is "good" to be nice, "bad" to get mad. Perfect people are always nice, never angry at anyone.
Other primitive urges, wants, and desires--the basis for uniqueness and creativity--are likewise suppressed in elevation of a perfect self. Any inclination to kill, the most primal self-creative act, is of course ruled out. For instance no "good" mother would ever want to kill her child, even when it seems he is draining her own life away.
Wanting, often identified with coveting which has long been a religious no-no, is generally repressed by "good" selves. "You're not supposed to want things," especially beyond necessities. The most perfect selves are theoretically beyond wanting.
Pleasure, the next most basic human desire after survival, is understandably negated in the creation and maintenance of a false self. A long face is more symbolic of Christianity than is laughter. "Be serious, this is religious." Fun is inherently suspicious to a "good" self, especially great fun. "This is so much fun it must be sinful."
Sexual desire, the third of our most common human inclinations, receives its expected share of repression by "good" selves. In only the most limited and carefully controlled circumstances does human sexuality gain religious approval, and then primarily for reproduction. Sex and dirty are generally synonymous. The most common four-letter word for the act is, not surprisingly, one of our strongest curse words.
Moving up the scale of natural human capacities, thought-freedom is another activity of the true self likely to be curtailed by a "good" self. "Good" people don't think "bad" thoughts. If religiously oriented, they are mentally blocked on a particular list of doctrines as well.
Doubt, an essential mental activity in freedom of thought, is predictably condemned. Incorrectly identified with faith, ("I don't doubt, I just accept it on faith"), this state of mental rigidity is even presumed to be virtuous. Literal prejudice--pre-judgment--is sanctified, while open-mindedness, a natural human condition, is labeled as heretical. Heretics are no longer burned at the stake, but the rejection of doubt remains an integral element in popular Christianity.
Behavioral rigidity, in opposition to the natural human inclination to exploration and flexibility, is also descriptive of a "good" self. "Be good," in spite of the literal meaning of the words, popularly means "act right" or behave, which as everyone knows, means to rigidly adhere to approved ways of performing. The "better" (further from real self) one becomes, the more consistent, inflexible, and legal are his actions. "Perfect" selves are compulsively legalistic, obeying the letter of all laws--family, religious, civil and social, both written and unwritten. Spontaneity is completely replaced by predictability.
Finally the essential elements of humanity--limited strength, knowledge and tenure--are replaced by a "good" self with the godly attributes--omnipotence (we can do whatever we wish if we try hard enough); omniscience (knowing good and evil, and presuming the right to judge) and immortality (having forever).
To summarize: the real self with its built-in urges for survival, self-enhancement, pleasure, and creativity, is replaced with a false self which in spite of verbal statements to the contrary tends toward martyrdom, self-sacrifice, non-pleasure, and rigidity of mind as well as action. Naturalness is replaced by the unnatural; being human is negated in preference of appearing godly. The real self is banished; a false self reigns in this kingdom of illusions. "Be yourself" becomes "be perfect" (completely not yourself).
The seriousness of this common misunderstanding is often cloaked in confusing theologies which speak of the real as though it were unreal and of illusion as though it were reality. Beyond the mental contradictions, however, this fundamental mistake is reflected in the familiar practice of trying to be fake instead of real, appearing to be what we are not rather than who we are.
We want to pose for our pictures, not be seen naturally. We are proud of "looking good" (well dressed, made-up, hair combed, having our act together)--godly--but ashamed of being "caught with our pants down" (natural, naked, and with problems), which is to say--human.
The error, as previously noted, is not merely the use of images--false selves--for protection or improvement of responses, but the identification of an image as reality and hence "good," and then the attempted negation of one's real self, labeled "bad." The problem is that we move beyond the originally pragmatic procedure of presenting masks at appropriate times, and strive to actually become the facade.
Earlier play-acting becomes later real-acting; that is, we forget that we were temporarily on a stage and mistakenly identify our real selves with the contrived actors. We do not merely try to act good for practical reasons, we actually strive to be good (understood as "perfectly behaved" rather than "fully ourselves"). Being good as the actor means, of course, ruling out the real person behind the mask or role. The script becomes king; spontaneity is banished.
A contrived self (the actual actor) may be called by many names. Once the disastrous move from real to false is made, the illusionary entity is often called "I" (as in "I said to myself"). The unruly real self, not willing to abandon its natural rights, for instance, to get angry, is thought of as "myself" and treated like a bad guest in the household of being ("I told myself, 'now hold your tongue' ").
This "I" (or "ego" or "self") may conceive and present itself in an almost infinite variety of ways--smart or dumb, proud or ashamed, good or bad--depending on how it is developed. Typically, parental admiration leads to a proud or egotistical self ("He thinks he is something special"), while parental abuse leads to a shameful or inferior self ("He doesn't think much of himself").
Whatever the shape of a contrived image, one who identifies with an imaginary self is then left to promote, defend, hide, enhance--live with--his illusion. He has a reputation (the shape of his image) to uphold. This false self must be "proven." For instance, if he has shaped his image as a winner, then he must prove himself by succeeding in his endeavors. If he thinks he is a loser, then he must engineer failures to support his case.
The "fragile male ego," which wily females learn to promote, is a typical example of the contrived "I." Furthermore, one person may develop many such imaginary selves which he tries to combine or become on particular occasions. Like the Gadarene in the Bible, such an one might say, "My name is Legion, for we are many." Whatever their forms, the common denominator of these diverse selves is their contrived nature. These illusions exist only in the minds of those who hold them.
With these observations we can return now to a realistic interpretation of the texts. The biblical message is, I think, that we are to love our real selves, the human creatures we actually are, and our neighbors likewise. But in order to do so, we must deny the false selves (the "I" or "ego") we have tried to become. Since the two are antithetical--one real, the other contrived--affirmation can only go in one direction or the other.
If we love our images of ourselves, our reputations, then we cannot love our actual selves which constantly conflict with them. On the other hand, to love who we truly are necessitates shifting energies from reputation-building, for instance, constant pleasing of others, to being ourselves. It involves moving from pretending to getting honest.
Indeed, as Jesus went on to say, denial is only the beginning. Entering the kingdom of heaven requires more. We must literally die to these false selves in order to fully become who we truly are. In the verse following the previous quote he adds, "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it." I understand this to mean that when we succeed in totally identifying with our images (saving our lives) we do so at the cost of ourselves (our real selves), and only when we completely lose our contrived "lives" (our false selves) can we find who we are.
The popular error is a reversal of this message. According to it we must completely become the perfect image and totally deny our real selves. We must negate all essentially human elements and become godly instead. Thus we find churchmen working diligently to suppress ingrained survival urges (self-assertion, anger, wanting, pleasure, and sexuality) and to produce assumed virtues of goodness (others first, niceness, curtailed desires, and of course no lusting). We observe them striving to deny human limitations (weakness, ignorance and death) in favor of godly attributes (omnipotence, having the answers, and perpetual tenure). In summary, we see them and ourselves denying what we are in favor of becoming what we are not.
The path to heaven is through becoming our real selves, not our images. We must learn to love who we are and deny what we are not, to choose honesty over hypocrisy. We must come to affirm humanity instead of trying to become godly--that is, to accept and enjoy our significant but highly limited powers, the exciting state of having no ultimate answers (knowledge of good and evil), and to affirm death as a part of life, the ending as the beginning. This also means embracing and affirming all survival urges. It encompasses taking care of number one, being fully emotional, thinking freely--without dogma, enjoying pleasure, and certainly becoming fully sexual.
Although the word selfish is commonly judged as bad, we are to take it literally and become fully selfing, totally ourselves, in contrast with completely unselfish or self-negating. The path to love and heaven is through selfishness, not away from oneself. Putting ourselves first, taking care of survival business--physical and spiritual--leads to love, not away from it. In loving ourselves first, we then learn to love others. Self-love overflows in other-love. The more we become and care for who we are, the more we become able to care for our neighbors. Caring for others is then from abundance, not personal poverty.
Conversely, unselfishness (denying one's real self) leads to despair. Self-sacrifice, even when socially approved, culminates in the death of who we are--a state of hell, not heaven. Unselfish love is a myth, a grand mistake, which is socially and politically--externally--useful, but eternally damning. True love is the height of selfishness. Nothing is so selfish, so personally fulfilling as loving. Only the selfish can truly love. Real love is the grandest expression of selfishness; it is selfishness culminated, not escaped.
The necessary denial is of our false self or selves, the images we have created and tried to become. For example, a good self, evidenced in posing (with or without a photographer), our efforts to impress others, to maintain a reputation, and otherwise appear virtuous, must be denied in favor of our natural selves. The virtuous sacrifice is not of our real selves but of our egos or imaged selves.
Begin by confronting your understanding and correct your notion of selfishness. Examine your own experience to see if you are more loving outwardly when you are loving yourself, or if self-suppression results in anything more than an act. Do you most prefer the love of those who deeply care for themselves or for the charity of the self-negating?
If you agree with my observations about the popular errors in regard to selfishness then start denying your own images of yourself. Even though you have worked long and hard to build a reputation at the expense of yourself, start giving it up. Stop posing. Stop trying to impress everyone by appearing to be what you are not. Stop suppressing your actual emotions and own ideas. Stop pretending to be so nice when it is a lie. Stop negating your desires. Stop trying to be non-sexual.
Instead start becoming your real self. Confront and accept your true limitations. It is okay to be weak and afraid, to have problems, to have made mistakes, to not have any final answers, to be confused, in a word--imperfect. Start by admitting to yourself and others what you are actually like. Get honest.
Being honest, however, doesn't mean acting out every urge in its most primitive form. You also have real ability to be reasonable. It does, however, involve embracing all capacities--feeling your true emotions, wanting what you do want, and thinking your own thoughts.
Learn to put yourself first instead of last, to take very good care of who you are. Quit expecting self-sacrifice to be rewarded; remember, it finally leads only to despair. Certainly in caring for yourself you will often choose, for practical reasons, to go second, third, or even last. Others may think you are being unselfish, not realizing that you are selfishly expanding your concern for them as well as yourself. Never mind; that is their problem. Go right ahead learning to love all your worldly neighbors just as you do yourself.
Even if at some crucial point in time you choose to lay down your life for your friends it will not be out of unselfishness, but, as Jesus said, because of your "greater love." Along this path to heaven, deny your false selves, become and love all that you are created capable of being. Come to be a loving child of God, who like Jesus "being in the form of God," thinks "it not robbery to be equal with God."
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