Points of contact

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My interest in the Christian faith is based on a couple of premises: first, I characterize myself as a monotheist; and, second, I have a tentative and complicated attraction to the myths, symbols, and traditions of the Christian faith. The first without the second would make me a monotheist, but without any particular connection to or interest in Christianity. Those myths and symbols are, as I see it, further expressed in two important ways: through the person of Jesus, and through the canon of scriptural texts that constitute the Christian Bible. Taken together, then all of this leaves me with three basic points of contact with Christianity: God, Jesus, and the Bible.

For me, this isn't about affirming certain propositions of faith. Saying that a point of contact with Christianity is that I believe in God leaves a lot of wiggle room as to what I might think about God's nature. Saying that Jesus is another point of contact says nothing about what my beliefs are concerning Jesus's nature or his relationship with God (it isn't, in other words, dependent on the Trinity, the resurrection, the virgin birth, salvation, or judgment day). And saying that the Bible is a point of contact doesn't say that I think the Bible is inerrant, that it doesn't contradict itself, or that it isn't just plain wrong about some things. Faith for me may not be about affirming what I think about Jesus's nature or God's nature, but, on the other hand, it may have a lot to do with community, spirit, faithfulness, and love.

Which brings me to this quote from Marcus Borg:

That Christian faith is about "belief" is a rather odd notion, when you think about it. It suggests that what God really cares about is the beliefs in our heads--as if "believing the right things" is what God is most looking for, as if having "correct beliefs" is what will save us. And if you have "incorrect beliefs", you may be in trouble. It's remarkable to think that God cares so much about "beliefs."

Moreover, when you think about it, faith as belief is relatively impotent, relatively powerless. You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. Believing a set of claims to be true has little transforming power. (The Heart of Christianity, pp 30-31).
This quote comes form a section in The Heart of Christianity in which Borg explores several different meanings of "faith", which he labels assensus, fiducia, fidelitas, and visio. Assensus, Borg argues, has been mis-characterized as being about affirming a set of "right" beliefs. After discussing the other ways of characterizing faith he finally does come around to assensus, but in particular he associates the word with the idea that there are three affirmations that are integral to Christianity: the reality of God, the utter centrality of Jesus, and the centrality of the Bible.

Hmmm. Back to those three points of contact again. How about that?

Peter Rollins writes his book The Fidelity of Betrayal, "While certain beliefs are affirmed as a means of reflecting upon the faith of Jesus, these beliefs can never take the place of, or fully describe, that faith." (p. 136). He also writes:
Instead of forming churches that emphasize belief before behavior and behavior before belonging, there is a vast space within the tradition to form communities that celebrate belonging to one another in the undergoing and aftermath of the miracle, a belonging that manifests itself in communally agreed rituals, creeds, and activities. In the midst of all this these communities can also encourage lively, heated, and respectful discussions concerning the nature and form of belief. (p. 161).
Imagine that--forming churches that don't emphasize belief before behavior and behavior before belonging. Sometimes I do get glimpses of that from various Christian churches; for example, I recently visited a church and was pleasantly surprised to hear one of the deacons tell me something along the lines of, "this is a good church if you are a doubter." If only I heard a message like that more often.

33 comments:

Harry said...

Borg is completely wrong about dogma having no transformative power. Millions have experience to the contrary.

Here is Vladimir Lossky on the centrality of dogma to the Christian faith:

To put it in another way, we must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth, which appears to us as an unfathomable mystery, in such a fashion that instead of assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding, we should, on the contrary, look for a profound change, an inner transformation of spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically.


Far from being mutually opposed, theology and mysticism support and complete each other. One is impossible without the other. If the mystical experience is a personal working out of the content of the common faith, theology is an expression, for the profit of all, of that which can be experienced by everyone.

Outside the truth kept by the whole Church personal experience would be deprived of all certainty, of all objectivity. It would be a mingling of truth and of falsehood, of reality and of illusion: 'mysticism' in the bad sense of the word. On the other hand, the teaching of the Church would have no hold on souls if it did not in some degree express an inner experience of truth, granted in different measure to each one of the faithful.

(Emphasis mine)

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Mystical Seeker said...

And yet, people of a variety of faiths managed to be transformed by their respective theologies. Funny how that works.

Harry said...

Mystical:

I don't know what you say is true. But I have very high expectations of transformation.

I have never met a non-Christian who came close to being a Saint. I have met a very few Christians who came close.

The theologies and practices of non-Christian religions don't lead to Sainthood, but then again they don't claim to do so.

In any case, your observation in no way shows that Borg is not completely wrong about dogma not being transformative.

Mystical Seeker said...

I don't know what you say is true.

I give your claim that only Christianity can produce morally superior people all the respect it deserves.

Harry said...

Oh, no!

Christianity does not produce morally superior people! Other religions do, and Progressive Christianity is especially good at producing morally superior people.

You are proof of that!

Saints are very humble people. If you met one, you would probably pity her. But she is doing more to bring the Light of Christ into this world than I ever will!

Mystical Seeker said...

Christianity does not produce morally superior people! Other religions do, and Progressive Christianity is especially good at producing morally superior people.

I am not the one here who claimed that one and only one particular religion or religious dogma produces morally superior people. I'm the pluralist here, remember?

OneSmallStep said...

The point I'm seeing in Borg's comment is that it does sound a little ridiculous that the most pivotal aspect of any human is their belief set -- it doesn't matter what their motivations are, what their behaviors are, how free they are. What only matters is that they believe the right thing about God.

Hence, the idea that a set of beliefs can have little transformative power. I've seen plenty of people who believe the right things according to their religion, and yet I wouldn't call them free by any stretch of the imagination.

Faith should be more than belief, as Borg points out. It should be a matter of trust, of loyalty. It should compel you to live in a certain way that makes the world a better place.

However, when speaking of faith as belief, I'm reading this as the faith in the certain Christian creeds, and I don't see those as something that transforms, I see those as a statement of fact.

For example, how does faith in "God is a Trinity" compel one to live a better life, compared to the idea of "you must love your neighbor as yourself." Which one would lead to someone being transformed? Which one gives you an insight into how a person will behave, or treat the world?

Mystical Seeker said...

Hence, the idea that a set of beliefs can have little transformative power. I've seen plenty of people who believe the right things according to their religion, and yet I wouldn't call them free by any stretch of the imagination.

Exactly. I hate to quote the Bible here, but the author of the epistle of James said exactly the same thing: "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder."

For example, how does faith in "God is a Trinity" compel one to live a better life, compared to the idea of "you must love your neighbor as yourself." Which one would lead to someone being transformed? Which one gives you an insight into how a person will behave, or treat the world?

Once again, I agree with you completely. Dogma about esoteric claims concerning the nature of Jesus, or whether he was literally resurrected, or whether the son proceeds through the father and the holy spirit, or how many angels can dance on a pin--that is pure esoterica, and has none of the transforming power that love has. I'll take love over dogma every time.

Greg said...

Mystical,

Enjoy your blog. Nice new look too.

Greg

Mystical Seeker said...

Thanks, Greg!

Harry said...

Onesmallstep:

Of course the most pivotal thing about a person is what they believe! What motivates anyone's behavior except what he believes?

And it is not just people, it is entire civilizations! Hindus believe in reincarnation, karma, and the caste system. Therefore their civilization is hideously ugly. Poor people are getting what they deserve due to their sins in a former life.

Christians believe a God who loves everyone. Therefore we build schools and hospitals.

And the dogma of the Trinity is a perfect example. The Christian God is three persons, a community: God is relationship: God is Love. The Second person of that Trinity became Man and through the Incarnation we too can be part of the Divine Relationship. God loves us so much He became us!

The Islamic God is a solitary monad: distant: alone. Allah is completely different from humans. Humans must submit to Allah. (Islam literally means submission.)

It is not the Dogma of Trinity which transforms us. It is God's love which transforms us. The Dogma just tells us that this love is available, so we may seek it out.

Philip said...

There are some positive things about dogma, but it is also error-prone.

Harry said...

philip:

OK, I'll bite. Which are the errors, and how do you know?

Philip said...

harry, I am glad that you find putting dogma in a central position useful in experiencing the truth of God's love in your life. I don't want to fight with you. May God bless you.

Harry said...

Phil, no problem.

I read your blog. Very interesting. Not believing in penal substitutionary atonement is not at all new age. It is very traditional to not believe it.

The Catholics screwed that one up because of a poor translation choice of St. Jerome (who is in other ways a very fine fellow).

OneSmallStep said...

Harry,

Please read my statement again: the most important aspect of any person's life is what they believe about God becomes a little ridiculous in terms of the statements of fact. It doesn't matter how that person behaves, how good that person is -- if the person lacks the right beliefs, that person is damned.

As it is, Mystical's post was dealing with the four aspects of faith: trust, loyalty, a way of seeing, and a belief set. The critique that Borg is making is when the belief set type of faith trumps all other sorts of faith, because it's really the trust in something higher than yourself, or the loyalty to something or even the way of seeing that would lead to the transformation.

Telling me that someone believes in a Triune God does nothing to tell me about how that person behaves. Whereas if we take your karma example: if someone believes that what they do in this life influences what happens to them when they're re-incarnated, then I have a better idea of how that person behaves.

I also go back to my either example -- if you tell me that you believe you should love your neighbor as yourself, I know what to expect from you. If you tell me God is Triune, I have no idea what to except from you, because behavior from Christians believing that goes all over the spectrum.

**God loves us so much He became us!**
Nitpicking here, but what you really mean is the Second person loves you so much, not the entire Christian God you earlier defined.

And the Trinity doesn't tell me anything about the type of God's love, because of how God is defined. The normal types of love/relationship no longer apply when speaking of an entity who is all-knowing and not bound by the structures of time (such as, from God's POV, this conversation and the creation of the universe could be occuring at the same "instant" because He doesn't "travel" in time like we do). Does God's relationship with us hinge on our existence in this time/space dimension? Or, since God has always known us, is God always in a relationship with us?

** Humans must submit to Allah. (Islam literally means submission.)**
Many of the Muslims I've talked to would not say that Allah is a distant God, and as it is, you have to submit in Christianity, as well. Your will must surrender to God's will.

**The Dogma just tells us that this love is available, so we may seek it out.**
Except you earlier stated that Borg was wrong about dogma having no transformative power? Did you mean that they do have transforming power in the information it provides?

As it is, the two main dogmas -- the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed -- do not explain the behavior I should see in a Christian, it tells me statement of facts about their beliefs. Rather, the idea of God is love is an inference. The creeds don't state "God is love." What they're stating, per you, is that "Since God is a Triune God and became Man, we know that this means God loves us."

Many religions believe that God is a God of love. Yet if you ask conservative Christians, believing that is not enough. They must believe that God is a three person God, that Jesus died and was resurrected. You must have specific beliefs in order to be acceptable. It doesn't matter how I behave, it doesn't matter how much transformation power I've encountered with God -- if my dogma doesn't match up to their dogma, then everything else is worthless.

PrickliestPear said...

I wouldn't say beliefs are unimportant, as the way we see reality is very important. But it is overemphasised in Christianity, and furthermore, the wrong things are emphasised. Believing that creation - including humans - is "good" is important. Believing that Jesus was literally conceived by a virgin is not important. Many Christians insist on the latter while actually rejecting the former. This is messed up.

In the Buddhist scheme of things, "Right View" is considered only one of the eightfold path, which I think is about right. It's not unimportant, but it's certainly not as all-important as many Christians seem to think.

Mystical Seeker said...

Believing that creation - including humans - is "good" is important. Believing that Jesus was literally conceived by a virgin is not important.

I agree. I think that obsessing over the need to believe in esoterica about Jesus's nature or such doctrines as the Trinity, or about whether certain miraculous events actually took place in the past, is really missing the point.

Matthew said...

Isn't the point of religious transformation, or what may seem mysterious to many- 'repentance', more a life changing 'AHA!' than belief- rational assent to statements about things?!

One comment Borg makes about 'belief' is that we, in the 21st century, understand it very differently from the way it was understood in past times. Borg uses the term, 'beLOVE' to closer approximate what people in Jesus' time would have meant by the word 'belief'.

Matthew

Frank said...

Isn't the point of religious transformation, or what may seem mysterious to many- 'repentance', more a life changing 'AHA!' than belief- rational assent to statements about things?!

I agree. I think that is why the Letter of James talks about faith and works... if someone has faith, then the works will naturally follow. The "works" in this case signifying the transformation brought about. You don't buy your way into the kingdom through works, of course, but the transformative experience will manifest itself as "works" in your life.

PrickliestPear said...

Isn't the point of religious transformation, or what may seem mysterious to many- 'repentance', more a life changing 'AHA!' than belief- rational assent to statements about things?!

When you think about it, though, how many people actually have these kinds of transformative experiences?

"Religious" experiences, in general terms, are common enough. But how many actually bring about a radical transformation of a person's consciousness? Authentic spirituality is rare. Some people reject any such claims as "elitist," but authentic spirituality is an elite achievement. Most people are stuck with a merely second-hand religion, which inevitably means listening to those who have the first-hand kind. But those in the latter category are difficult to recognise, and their legacy is often co-opted, their message distorted, by people less enlightened than themselves.

The idea that salvation is attained by assenting to some checklist of theological formulations comes not from any of the englightened founders or reformers of religion. It comes from those who have failed to see the point, whose understanding of religious leadership was not bringing others to enlightenment -- something they could scarcely do themselves anyway, the blind leading the blind -- but instead they wanted to increase the numbers of adherents in the group, so the demands of the tradition were lowered, the cost of discipleship reduced to something cheap and easy for any half-witted individual to accept. Jesus's teachings, though simple on the surface, are difficult to carry out, let's be honest. Christianity prospered only because Jesus's teachings were essentially ignored, while easier (but entirely irrelevant) teachings were substituted in their place.

Jesus allegedly said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven" (Matt 7.21). Christianity (in its mainstream forms) got that exactly backward.

Matthew said...

prickliestpear-

>>The idea that salvation is attained by assenting to some checklist of theological formulations comes not from any of the englightened founders or reformers of religion. It comes from those who have failed to see the point,...but instead they wanted to increase the numbers of adherents in the group,<<

Will Christianity continue to shift away from the original 'life giving' message, to something more popularly dogmatic? Something that the common man (and woman) can fit more easily into their accepted secular beliefs?

If so, life will be reduced to survival, at least until those select few are able to rekindle the flame...and the cycle begins again.

Matthew

PrickliestPear said...

Matthew:

Will Christianity continue to shift away from the original 'life giving' message, to something more popularly dogmatic? Something that the common man (and woman) can fit more easily into their accepted secular beliefs?

The "original 'life giving' message" was lost early in the history of the faith. Far from moving away from it, Christianity is actually - gradually - recovering it. Traditionalists will scoff at this assertion, but we are in a much better position to understand Jesus's message than people were in, for example, the 3rd or 4th centuries.

There is a much greater interest in spirituality and spiritual experience today than ever before. Many people are not looking for beliefs they can just sprinkle over their existing worldview, they are looking for transformation. Popular dogmatic forms of Christianity aren't going anywhere, but many people raised in such traditions outgrow them as they get older, and now there are viable, authentically Christian alternatives, whereas in the past there were not.

Matthew said...

prickliestpear-

>>The "original 'life giving' message" was lost early in the history of the faith. Far from moving away from it...we are in a much better position to understand Jesus's message than people were in, for example, the 3rd or 4th centuries.

There is a much greater interest in spirituality and spiritual experience today than ever before. <<

Our 'information' absorbed culture trains people to be fragmented and alienated from direct experience of the holy. Having 'eyes filled with light', as Jesus says, requires 'de-programming'.

I know there are traditional Christian groups (mostly monastic and retreat based) that practice silent prayer and meditation. Also, I suspect there are quite a few Christians who learn methods taught by non-Christian teachers, such as Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie.

Borg speaks about Jesus as a Jewish mystic, but does he go beyond exegesis of his teachings to recommend training that would help a person learn how to 'see'? Reading a person's teachings (no matter how accurate) isn't nearly as effective as being an apprentice of such a teacher.

Matthew

Harry said...

Prickliest wrote:

"Popular dogmatic forms of Christianity aren't going anywhere, but many people raised in such traditions outgrow them as they get older, and now there are viable, authentically Christian alternatives, whereas in the past there were not."

What are these authentically Christian alternatives? Why do you think that in the past there were not?

Harry said...

Oh, and if you want further training in learning how to "see", check out The Way of the Pilgrim.

The Way of the Pilgrim

PrickliestPear said...

Matthew:

Borg speaks about Jesus as a Jewish mystic, but does he go beyond exegesis of his teachings to recommend training that would help a person learn how to 'see'?

Good question. I haven't read too many of his non-exegetical books, but he discusses it briefly in The God We Never Knew. For me, Borg is a Historical Jesus scholar, not exactly the kind of person I would go to for advice on spiritual practices.

Finding a Christian meditation teacher can be difficult (although this is changing, gradually) which is why so many Christians end up in Zen centres and other non-Christian things like that. And there's nothing wrong with that. I've been practising Zen meditation for years, and it's become a central part of my spirituality.

Harry:

What are these authentically Christian alternatives? Why do you think that in the past there were not?

The problem of authenticity is something I've gone into at length in my own blog (see "What I'm Doing Here," accessible on the right hand side of the main page). Suffice it to say, it is my position that Christianity left Jesus's message behind and emphasised things -- dogmatic beliefs, for example -- that are quite foreign to Jesus's teaching. As research into Jesus and his cultural milieu expands, we can better grasp what it is he was talking about. To give but one example, it is only in the last few decades that Christians have really begun to appreciate the fact that Jesus was Jewish, and to begin to understand the implications of this.

Christianity "forgot" some pretty important facts about Jesus and the context in which he lived and taught that made it impossible to fully understand him. In recent years, however, we have begun to "remember" those facts, and so we are beginning to understand him better.

Progressive Christians are, by and large, much more interested in dealing with the implications of contemporary scholarship. Many traditional Christians are not so interested, or even able, to do this. If they did, they would cease to be traditional Christians.

Thank you both for your questions.

Mystical Seeker said...

Prickliest Pear,

For me, Borg is a Historical Jesus scholar, not exactly the kind of person I would go to for advice on spiritual practices.

He doesn't focus a lot on spiritual practices, to be sure,and he definitely does, as you point out, bring his scholarly perspective into the discussion. But I think of him as a much more spiritual writer than a lot of other biblical researchers (more so than, for example, his friend Dominic Crossan.) He writes a lot about his own phases of theological growth in The God We Never Knew, for example, and in The Heart of Christianity I saw him offering a progressive spirituality to a popular audience. In one of his books (I forget which, maybe Reading the Bible Again for the First Time he talks about spiritual practices such as meditating on biblical passages. To site another example, in the DVD series "Living the Questions" he demonstrates a spiritual practice that involves bodily positions and a certain kind of breathing. Admittedly, though, this sort of thing is not the main thrust of his work, and he doesn't focus a lot of effort on discussing spiritual practices in general.

Harry said...

Prickliest:

Well, I am a Traditional Christian. I have read Borg, Spong, Crossan, and Pagels. It was easy for me.

And I did not cease being a Traditional Christian. Go figure. But do not assume that all Traditional Christians are ignorant or stupid.

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But here I am more interested in what you consider authentic Christian spiritual practices. You implied that only recently have authentic spiritual practices become available. You admit to practicing Zen, not any authentic Christian spiritual practices.

Well, good for you. But Zen meditation has nothing to do with authentic Christian spiritual practice, and I say this as someone who practiced Zen meditation for a number of years. The results are quite different.

PrickliestPear said...

Harry:

I am a Traditional Christian. I have read Borg, Spong, Crossan, and Pagels. It was easy for me.
And I did not cease being a Traditional Christian.


Please remind me, at what point did I say that reading the work of such authors would make one "cease" to be a traditional Christian?

I believe I said that progressives, unlike "traditional" Christians, are interested in dealing with the implications of contemporary scholarship. If you can't see the difference between what I wrote and your paraphrase of same, I would urge you to give it a little more thought. I think you'll find that you've misunderstood me.

You implied that only recently have authentic spiritual practices become available.

Again, remind me: when did I ever make such a claim? Authentic spiritual practice was never the issue. The issue was dogmas, the emphasis of which has long obscured and even distorted the original teachings of Jesus. When the teachings of the founder of a tradition are distorted, inauthenticity is the result. That's not an argument, it's a definition: "inauthenticity," as I use the term, is the result of distortion of the original message. My point is that we today are in a better position to understand (and respond to) the teachings of Jesus now than the vast majority of Christians have ever been. Some of us will pursue that more authentic understanding, while others will stick with the traditional dogmatic version. Take your pick.

You admit to practicing Zen, not any authentic Christian spiritual practices.

An "authentic Christian spiritual practice" is one that leads to a better understanding of the authentic message of Jesus. Like many others, I have found Zen to be such a practice. I'm sorry if your experience was different. Please note that I never said it was for everybody.

(For the record, I never said that I do not participate in traditional Christian practice. In fact, I am a weekly churchgoer and I happen to be heavily involved in my parish.)

In the future, I would really appreciate it if you would read my comments with greater care before responding to them.

Thanks so much!

Harry said...

Please remind me, at what point did I say that reading the work of such authors would make one "cease" to be a traditional Christian?

OK, I dealt with the implications, too. I find the assumptions of contemporary scholarship flawed and hence the implications bogus.

There, I have dealt (summarily) with the implications of contemporary scholarship, and I am still a Traditional Christian.

I think you mean to say if you have faith in the contemporary scholars, you can't be a Christian. In this I concur.

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So what are the authentic teachings of Jesus, as understood by sitting staring at the wall and counting your breaths?

PrickliestPear said...

Harry:

There are people with whom one can have a profitable (or at least interesting) dialogue, and others with whom one cannot. For me, you are clearly in the latter category.

If your experience with Zen was limited to "sitting staring at the wall and counting your breaths," I'm not surprised you found it unsatisfying.

I'm out.

Harry said...

Prickliest:

Well, sitting staring at the wall while counting breaths is what Baker Roshi of the SF Zen Center told me to do, so blame him if I failed to appreciate the authentic teachings of Jesus.

I figured you for some sort of response.

Everyone here refuses to tell me what Christianity is supposed to be:

Nobody will tell me what the "deeper meaning" of the resurrection is supposed to be.

You refuse to enlighten me as to what the "authentic teachings" of Jesus are supposed to be.

I'm sure there are others who would like to now these things.

Surely there is some substance behind all these attitudes?

All Progressive Christians seem to do is scoff at Traditional Christians and get indignant if they talk back.

What a religion.

Bye, Prickliest.