Thursday, February 24, 2005

So that's the Gospel!

"So Dr. Clark, I think I'm getting it. James Cone (black theologian) is not just writing a theology for blacks. He is actually writing a substantial, sustained critique of white Christian theology (the kind that stretches all the way back to Constantine), with particular emphasis on what's wrong with the white "Christian" church of America in the last 350 years. Is that right?"


His decisive "yes" cleared the air in the room.

I saw.

I saw it all. The white church in America has not been Christian. Keeping your soul cleansed from sin in a vertical, and, oh let's just admit it, virtual piety while holding slaves, endorsing racism, exploiting the poor is not Christianity. It is worse than "misguided." It is evil. Some might go so far as to say that is is demonic. And they'd be right. What else could the verse "Satan comes as an angel of light" mean?

Depravity, a theological term Dr. Cone uses to describe the evil committed by human beings, is not some existential pride-based attitude that can be forgiven through a commitment to the reformed doctrines (sometimes called a commitment to Christ). For Dr. Cone, we are depraved because we have committed atrocities so heinous there is no other way to understand those actions.

We've been lied to. Christianity is not about my personal condition/state before God. It is about the totality of my life and actions, my expressed beliefs (not my private thoughts and attitudes).

When I look back at my disillusionment with Christian faith, I can see now the fissures that led me to a loss of everything I believed. While science and logic pounded on the doors of my shallow fundamentalism, virtual spirituality evaporated into nothingness. Learned behaviors, seeking answers for tiny needs that matter to no one but me, a selfish and self-absorbed piety that focuses on my mental health and personal well-being, reliance on God to protect my immediate family and friends, an outward focus on those outside the faith that ignored their real time needs and instead promised a later date salvation in a heaven where all the injustices experienced here would be forgotten and redeemed with very little inconvenience to me... I couldn't keep it up. My world had grown and my faith had shrunk to a size too small to contain life.

I saw last night that my frustrations with God have come about because of teaching that offered me a very little God. Middle class life had become the scope of God's interest in the world. How pathetic. This kind of God portrait was bound to be knocked flat when I got out of my own world and into the larger one where real people suffer and die and are abandoned during their times of genuine crisis and suffering. How can we continue to think about God as the personal need-meeter of the suburbs when we are faced with the magnitude of life?

There has to be more at work here.

Yet I can see how the dominant culture, so out of touch with need, with being oppressed, with suffering injustice, had to radically adjust the Gospel to redeeming a virtual need. We support our position of power by crediting what is actually our condition of privilege with God's direct involvement in our lives. We endorse our new homes and safe travels with God's seal of approval because we believe God cares for us that personally.

We are out of touch with the reality that leaves others without those "blessings" even though they cry to the Lord and pray, even though they wait on God and believe in God's faithfulness.

We have been led to believe that the personal God of the dominant culture secures our position of privilege and therefore we look no further than our beliefs about God to suggest whether or not we have understood the meaning of the Gospel.

Cone says "That is not Christianity."

Today, I agree.

I don't know what the future holds in the faith for me. But I do know that I am open to another way of seeing and knowing God than the one I inherited from evangelicalism.


Anonymous said...

AMEN, sister.

Dave said...

Thanks for posting this powerful summary of what is happening with you, Julie. I don't want to just glibly say "I hear you and agree with what you're saying" even though I feel like I do share a basic point of view with you. What you wrote is personal and reflects your unique experience and I don't know that it's my place to just jump up with a hearty endorsement. What you said isn't necessarily a pleasant or happy realization to have to admit. Feeling like one was lied to, misled, perhaps even has wasted some significant stretches of time pursuing fruitless endeavors... That can be a heavy task to work through.

So we are left wondering just what is Christianity, what is it that the gospel can be in our lives after seeing that so much of what it's been said to stand for, prioritize and endorse now strikes us as hollow, shallow, trivial, etc. I think in this regard you and I share something of a common dilemma. Even though I am pleased to have a natural outlet for practicing my Christian faith through my social work vocation, I find myself not very much at ease with the more popular, broad-scale cultural affiliations that the church has become so closely identified with. Most if not all of the "metaphysical speculation" aspect of Christian theology has come to function, at best, as simply a human attempt to conceptualize big ideas and speculations of what might really be happening in the universe beyond what we ordinarily perceive. At worst, all that is just an indulgence in wishful thinking that doesn't really signify much of lasting value or importance and really isn't worth pushing all that hard for when confronted by resistance from "non-believers."

But I still see an important place for a Christian model for compassion, service, grace and forgiveness, as well as other relational values that I do think are exemplified in various scriptures and traditions of the church. So for me, Christianity really is about how we treat others and how we carry ourselves in the world, not really so much about what we believe in terms of theological particulars, creedal stuff, the ways in which we express our praise and gratitude to God, etc. All that stuff is a matter of taste, tradition, comfort, psychological need, etc. Basically negotiable, live and let live stuff. What I have a hard time with is a style of Christianity that feels justified and complacent about the part it plays in exploitative and especially violence-based, coercive and/or authoritarian systems. And perhaps my biggest problem is that I see the church being actively and consciously transformed into such an exceedingly authoritarian system as to become potentially, and sometimes actually, abusive toward the people who are brought into its sphere of control. The measures used to keep people in line, to modify behavior and program our thinking and belief patterns, just seems wrong to me and contrary to the spirit of liberation, grace, mercy and freedom and all those other great virtues mentioned so often in the Bible as well as the teaching tradition of the church.

So I am confused and continue to have a hard time figuring out just where God wants me to fit in as far as local church and Christian community are concerned. I like the people but I do not like how they are being led and I have still not been able to find the right model to plug myself into - I don't want to have to subject myself to a lot of naive or presumptuous "make believe" about God just to function somewhat successfully within a Christian community. I just can't go back to playing that kind of game - it's just too real for me to force myself into that mold.

Well, thanks for spurring these thoughts and giving me this outlet to say what's on my mind!

Bilbo said...

Thanks Julie and Dave for posting these thoughts.Julie, I can relate to your paradigm shift regarding the "nature" and "essence" of the Christian faith as it relates to the evangelical emphasis on personal peity and "keeping one's soul cleansed from sin". I went through a similar paradigm shift in this regard about ten years ago.Reminds me of something Os Guiness once said, "Christianity in the West has become personally engaging but culturally irrelevant"....I do however feel that alot of folks do need a strong personal sense of God because they may be experiencing alot of emotional pain and suffering which requires a deep work of the spirit in one's soul. During the course of my own journey I have found myself vacillating back and forth between a God who cares deeply for my personal needs and one who also cares deeply for the people of this world. Right now I am really in a personal funk and feel I need a deep touch of the Spirit on an emotional level which has made it very difficult for me to become as active on the social level as I would like. Fortunately, I do get alot of gratification from my job which I do consider a service to my community....As people's deep hurts and pains become healed I do believe they will naturally become more productive to the community at large but as long as people are hurting or live with great fears and insecurities that are often a by product of many churches and the culture at large than it makes it very difficult for many folks to see beyond their own needs and problems. Of course one does not have to become emotionally stable to participate and contribute to the one's community but I also believe that it is very difficult to reach out to others when one is paralyzed by fears, insecurities, and emotional pain....I am starting to ramble and not sure where I am going with this. Suspect my subconcious is acting up again. Time to head over to my own blog and decompress....Anyway...Appreciate you sharing your heart and soul Julie......

julieunplugged said...

Thanks for all three of your replies. Dave and Bill, I especially appreciate your thoughtful engagement with my ideas. I use writing to help me see what I think. I reread my thoughts this morning and know that one tendency I have (left over from that fundamentalist spirit) is to leap from one category to another—debunking one, embracing the other.

Bill, your thoughts about the power of God related to personal pain is well-spoken. I know that initially my attraction to Christianity was rooted in personal pain (parents divorce when I was 18). I wanted to find a place that created a new family, a social network that shared the same moral precepts (so that when I married, I wouldn't set myself up for the emotional pain my mom went through with a husband who cheated on her) and I wanted a way to make a difference in the world that was as far away from upper class American life as I could get.

Christianity provided that identity to me, that social safety net, that commitment to ideals that I longed for. I don't want to forget those things.

And as far as emotional pain is concerned, I don't know if God comforts or not. I've taken comfort in my faith at times. I've been prayed for and have spent long hours in prayer for those emotional breakthroughs. But my biggest breakthroughs have come through therapy, reading and growing in how I conduct myself in relationships.

Dave said: "Most if not all of the "metaphysical speculation" aspect of Christian theology has come to function, at best, as simply a human attempt to conceptualize big ideas and speculations of what might really be happening in the universe beyond what we ordinarily perceive. "

I agree with this and I'd add that we do the same with our internal universes. Insofar as this "speculation" or "attributing to God" heals and makes us whole, I don't have a problem with it. But when it flies in the face of science or it becomes a way not to take responsibility for living (which I have also seen in the "healing churches" I've been in), they I see that emphasis as dangerous.

Dave also said: "So for me, Christianity really is about how we treat others and how we carry ourselves in the world, not really so much about what we believe in terms of theological particulars, creedal stuff, the ways in which we express our praise and gratitude to God, etc. All that stuff is a matter of taste, tradition, comfort, psychological need, etc. Basically negotiable, live and let live stuff."

Dave do you see Christianity as distinctive, then? Does it matter if it is or not?

I'm also wrestling with the communication of Jesus. Cone puts forward the idea that white Americans who owned slaves were not Christians. Period. Yet in Jesus' time, clearly slavery existed, Jesus does not speak directly against it (except for references like "the captives shall be set free") and in Paul, we find an accommodating of slavery as part of ths status quo.

I see slavery and any human degradation (genocide in Rwanda, civil war in Bosnia, the Holocaust, prostitution and slave trade in Thailand) as categorically evil and I don't see how someone could say he is a Christian and be a part of those systems.

But I wonder if he is overreaching in terms of what the Bible actually states or reports. What do you think?

Thanks guys for thought-provoking responses.


Rick said...

good stuff :) - and your interview questions are up here

Dave said...

Julie, you asked
"Dave do you see Christianity as distinctive, then? Does it matter if it is or not?"

I think Christianity is distinctive and important, but I don't see any value in prioritizing our understanding of those distinctives so much that it causes us to become belligerent or defensive when others come to different conclusions. The detailed particulars convey meaning to people and tell us things about life, ourselves and God that we wouldn't get from other religions or philosophies. But we just can't know for a certainty about so many of those details, as far as their "accurate" truthfulness or not. The organizations that exist to prove by insistence that church doctrines are objectively correct, factual, obligatory, etc. to me seem to be missing the whole point by turning religion into a kind of demented debating game in which people really can and do get hurt. That whole side of religion is over-emphasized and it turns a lot of people off who I think would benefit from a less dogmatic presentation, without all the pressure, guilt, emotions, etc. that cloud our perceptions.

I think it's overstating the case to say that slave owners weren't Christians. I mean, they were! They may have been seriously mistaken, compromised, corrupted, etc. but they were Christians and I don't think that Christianity can just shed this part of its legacy by saying "they were not of us." I'm not sure that's what Cone is trying to do but that's essentially what would happen.

Christianity is a really big phenomenon in the human story and should rightfully be seen as embracing more, not less, of what is said and done in the name of Jesus, even to the point of including racist/supremacist ideologies that find support in the Bible and other aspects of historic Christian belief or practice. At least that's my opinion. Which means that none of us ought to be expected to embrace or condone *anything* just because it claims Jesus as an inspiration.

As for how we define ourselves, well, we can start with Christian but then we have to get more detailed in order to meaningfully communicate what we really mean, intend or believe.

julieunplugged said...

Dave, I like how you express what it means to be a Christian. I am so used to it being about beliefs that sometimes I almost feel hypocritical to hold on to my affection for the faith when I don't accept so many of its tenets in an orthodox formulation.

Your comment about slave holders being Chrsitian or not... let me explain the point I believe Cone is making.

He is not willing to accept the version of Christianity that endorses racism and systemic oppression. He is harkening back to the first century Christianity (pre-constantine) that was about liberating the oppressed. To his way of thinking, to allow for the description of oppressors to be identified with Christianity means that the very definition of Christianity is changed.

What struck me as I began to think through his thesis is that I could see how even though I am not from a racist culture (my time period and social location), the faith I inherited is a descendant of privileged/power based caegories. My faith was not forged out of the experience of the marginalized and suffering.

What Cone wants to do is to cut the crap. Enough "nicey-nice" we're all blind in our own ways kind of Christianity. He is hacking away at the tree of knowledge called faith and saying what you call faith can't be because it is rotten to the core. Everything about it is infused with hegemony and privilege regardless of your confession of certain creedal doctrines. Until you repent, are baptized into a new view of life and turn around, you are not Christians.

Perhaps I will modify what I feel about that assertion after living with it for a bit, but I have to admit that it's prophetic impact is working on me now. I like the idea that we are forced to ask what faith is, if not action and respect for the least of these.

Dave, I'm going to post another blog entry where we can continue the conversation. So if you want to respond here or there, it's fine with me. :)


Dave said...

Good comments, Julie. I will pick up the convo whenever you get around to that next post on your blog!

Anonymous said...

Because you seek god, you will find it. But realize you may be very hurt, and then you will have a great stand. God is to be found in the minds that created religions. It's an experience that you come to understand, because you keep asking yourself about god, and then you realize that you just made god up in your head, our of logical constructs which you constantly refer to again and again and again. A kind of self-obsession. This does not invalidify god. It just makes you realize it's a concept that you're joking yourself into believing. Once this concept is gone you get to see god without boundaries. Peace.