The Answers

Catechesis. It’s one of many spiritual terms that aren’t exactly in my vocabulary and with which I lack experience. When I was growing up, any Evangelical worth their salt would have said something like: “Oh, that’s what Catholics do.” And went about their merry way thinking themselves superior to have moved beyond such traditions. But like all fashions, things that go out eventually come back again. (And as it is with all fashions, once they’re in, eventually they go back out again.)

The Gospel Coalition partnered with a church in order to create The New City Catechism. Admittedly, I’ll have to mention that I’m slightly biased against anything and everything associated with the Gospel Coalition; I suspect that in some way, shape, or form, their material reflects their pre-existing beliefs even though others might have completely valid differing opinions.

At any rate, it asks questions like:

What is our only hope in life and death?

And it tells you the answers for you:

That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.

Fifty-two questions. Fifty-two answers. A basic overview of the faith designed to be easily memorable call-and-response type teaching as an instruction for little children just learning the gospel and adults discovering it for the first time.

But what really bothers me is that I can’t come up with my own answers; that any answer other than the one they’ve chosen for me is – for lack of a better word – heresy.
For me, faith has been just as much about the journey as it is the destination; I like to continually learn things and to keep on searching. I don’t want my answers given to me on a silver platter and be told that’s that. It’s probably why I’m not keen on membership covenants – just being told to accept these things, sign here and you’re golden? I don’t think it’s supposed to be that easy.

That’s why I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom in the Fourth Principle of Unitarian Universalism: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;” or more accurately,

“As responsible religious seekers, we recognize that we are privileged to be free, to have resources to pursue life beyond mere survival, to continually search for truth and meaning, to exist beyond bonds of dogma and oppression, and to wrestle freely with truth and meaning as they evolve.

“This privilege calls us not to be isolated and self-centered, believing that our single perspective trumps all others, but rather to be humble, to be open to the great mysteries of truth and meaning that life offers. And those mysteries may speak to us through our own intuition and experience—but also through tradition, community, conflict, nature, and relationships.

“As a faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism makes sacred the right and responsibility to engage in this free and responsible quest as an act of religious devotion. Institutionally, we have left open the questions of what truth and meaning are, acknowledging that mindful people will, in every age, discover new insights.”
Rev. Paige Getty, UU Congregation of Columbia, Maryland (read more from Paige in The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, ed. Ellen Brandenburg)”

I think God would be more pleased if when we’re asked to talk about our faith, our answers are organic and unique rather than formulaic and memorized. Besides – what about questions that the book doesn’t even think to ask? Fifty-two can’t possibly cover everything that somebody might want to know and it most certainly isn’t all there is to know about the faith; or rather, a faith as defined by a particular denomination in a specific branch of Christianity. It doesn’t give all the answers for all of Christianity’s other denominations whose teachings differ.

Seek and you shall find … I think I’ll just keep on looking to see what else is worth finding.

Dim Light

“As a scientist,” My friend the German wrote me, “I’m very worried about how far behind America has fallen. What do you think?”

I love questions like this because it really lets me connect the dots. So let’s start with “the beginning”.

As a Christian, I know very few kids who grew up in the church and got involved in the sciences; particularly the branches that do the heavy-lifting in the theoretical realms. I know that the German grew up as a Lutheran and that the Chemistry teacher at my old school was a Southern Baptist as he attended my church. We got to watch Kent Hovind’s Creation Science Evangelism Seminar (popular in the 1990s-2000s) where he explains that there are lies in school textbooks and sometimes the science that they teach is just plain wrong. So while students should do their best; when it comes to science they shouldn’t believe everything they’re taught particularly about the Theory of Evolution. But even though I had a weakness at the math involved, I loved the sciences and took just about every class I could. Always in the back of my mind was the idea that I should learn everything I could, but I didn’t have to believe anything that I didn’t want to believe.

Meanwhile, our politicians were lost in debate. The question was whether or not climate change was a hoax. They used science to support both positions, the facts and figures indicate that yes the climate is change, but no it’s not changing any more or any worse than it always has. This debate dragged on for years – each trying to use their own science to discredit the other sides’ science or call it out as flawed in some way.

Ken Ham  of Answers in Genesis (1990s-now) became the next big Christian name to take up the banner of creationism. He built the Creation Museum and had Bill Nye come and debate him there. After that, Ham built the Ark Encounter. If Christians used to be hostile to science, then this was nothing more than a declaration of war. Museums, after all, are buildings of science – like the Kirpatrick Center I visited as a kid – where you could play and learn about science hands-on. Now that Creationism had it’s own museums, it became harder to know the line where faith and science were drawn; ultimately though, in the way that they were built, science was a after-thought and faith and evangelism was the primary goal of the building.

So Christianity taught me that science is dumb and wrong and faith is smart and right because God, who knows all true science from the false science, tells us everything we need to know in the pages of the Bible. Faith opted me out from any responsibility to science. But how can be otherwise when the institution that speaks on behalf of God has you watch videos telling you from a young age that science is wrong?

In the most recent election, Christians came out in full force behind the Republican candidate who spouted Christian ideals but also had the same animosity to science. Now that Christians are becoming increasingly powerful again, their anti-science stance is also gaining influence. Our politicians are still keen to use science to support their side and attack their opponent’s science. That’s why Christian kids don’t grow up to be scientists.

History tells us of a dark age when faith held back scientific progress with the full authority of God. We’re not that bad, but I’d say we’re in a dim age because we like the science that is the kind that agrees with God: “water will always boil at the boiling point and will always freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.” But we don’t like the science that tells us that the water came from Hydrogen and Oxygen combining and falling on the molten rocks of our extremely young earth and starting the water cycle.

So think about this, Christian kids in the 90s, 00s, 10s were taught that science and faith are incompatible. The eldest batch of them – if they’ve obeyed their Bible right, are parents who should have begun teaching their kids that science and faith are incompatible. We have yet to see what sort of damage this teaching will do generationally – at least, in this modern age. One thing is for sure, eventually religion will go too far and we will seek brighter lights; but things might have to get much darker.

When You’re Not Saved

So I laid out the whole story – where I was, what happened, and why I believe what I do now. I had hoped for some acknowledgement that I was even in some small degree right. I wanted some encouragement that things will get better. I would have even settled for some thoughtful push back on the main point of my arguments. But I was disappointed with this thought-stopper of a sentence: “You’re not really saved.”

I get that a lot. All the time. For some odd reason, when I reveal that I’m a theological opposite of the popular school of thought, everyone just outright declares that I’m not saved. It invalidates everything I’ve said because if I’m not saved, then my arguments are worldly and coming from a person / place of sin. If only I were a Christian, their kind of Christian, then my arguments could be trusted on face value alone. But I’m not, so they can’t because I’m not saved. Were I saved, we’d be in total agreement and there’d be no argument on the matter because I’d be wrong, repent, and come around to their way of thinking.

I’m just finding it harder and harder to believe in the popular schools of thought in Christianity; all the more -isms they teach take the focus off of Jesus Christ (the guy the religion is named after.) I have watched as Christians really took to Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design in order to combat Evolution rather than talk about the gospel message of how Jesus came to seek and save the lost. I saw them stand up for Biblical Marriage in an attempt to combat Marriage Equality rather than preach on how Jesus loved prostitutes, tax collectors and lepers and all the other outcasts of society meant that we should do the same. My whole life, their pro-life stance against abortion has been the rallying call for the cause of Christ rather than just following Christ himself and it seemed as if the not-yet-living had more importance than the homeless and orphans that were already living in their midst. It often went unsaid that you could only vote Republican because it was the more Christian of the two parties.

Apparently, I’d have to be a Young Earth Creationist, 5-point Calvinist, Anti-Homosexuality Complementarian, Pro-life Republican to be truly saved. Surely, you could probably get the Bible to say that somehow, somewhere; but it doesn’t matter that the Bible doesn’t say as much because far too many believers believe that anything less is proof that someone isn’t truly saved and doesn’t take the bible literally. It’s almost as if the ground the cross is on has many levels and you can only ascend to the foot of the cross if you pass the guardians of theology on each level. If you don’t believe enough of the right things in the right way, you can never reach the foot of the cross and you will never be truly saved. You can only look at the cross from a distance while you live and know that when you die, you’ll be in the chasm looking up at heaven where there is no fire wishing you were over there.

I’d rather be unsaved than that kind of Christian; one whose theology is perfect but practice is lacking. One who is so busy debating Intelligent Design and Day-age believers trying to convert them to the true salvation of Young Earth Creationism, one who is so busy trying to convince Arminians and non-Calvinists of all stripes that they are all heretics without believing in the truth of Calvinism, one who is against just about everything and everyone who isn’t a theological clone of the one, true, right way of thinking – the only way of thinking that assures salvation. You see – I tried to be one of those, but I realized that I was missing a key component of Jesus’ teachings. I hadn’t learned how to love like Jesus loved. I did have a kind of Christian love, I loved those who were like me. I just couldn’t bring myself to see another believer who believed things differently as a true believer who could be saved. Or perhaps, they were saved – just not as fully. When it would come to the banquet table in heaven – having all the right beliefs meant that my chair would be closer to the head of the table – closer to Jesus himself. Having all the wrong beliefs meant that I’d be sitting further and further from him.

So it took me by surprise to actually get to know this Christian – a Catholic, no less – who was more kind, more patient, more loving and better at being these things than my whole group of Evangelical Christians who were just like me. I realized that for all the things that we believed correctly, we hadn’t learned to act on those beliefs with true love in our hearts. It changed everything. If there was any truth to the teaching that you will know them by the fruit they bear – then surely we were bearing rotten fruit even though we had the correct ideology and somehow someone with incorrect ideology was bearing pretty good fruit. Someone was wrong – and it was us. We were saved, and yet we were not really, truly saved.

So I guess when people tell me “you’re not really saved” it shouldn’t irk me so, after all, lots of “not really saved” people are the truest Christians of all. But the problem is that it shifts the burden to the person to prove that they are saved and should be taken seriously and leads to a cycle of self-doubt. It doesn’t help that there’s a verse that says that we shouldn’t doubt because we won’t receive anything from the Lord if we do doubt.

“That Christian says that I’m not saved, what if I’m not really saved?” How can you prove to yourself that you are if nobody else seems to think that you are? It’s not as if there’s some test where you pass a Bible knowledge quiz or perform some heroic feat that proves your salvation. In certain circles of Christianity, you can’t even know if you’re truly saved – you can only hope you are. In that case, you can pray, study, do good works to your heart’s content and if you aren’t saved there’s nothing you can do to assure yourself of salvation. If you’re not supposed to be saved, there’s no way that door will open up to you no matter how much you might want it to.

Fortunately, that’s not the only school of thought on salvation; some believe “once saved always saved” in which case you can’t lose your salvation, assuming that is, you were truly saved in the first place. Then, of course, there was the time where the elder said that God doesn’t let anyone steal his sheep from his hand, but he doesn’t prevent his sheep from jumping out of his hand of their own free will. Whole books have been written on the subject and there still isn’t a definitive answer; just lots of different ideas.

I just don’t know what to make of it all anymore – I just know what I do and what I don’t believe. For the moment, I don’t believe that “You’re not really, truly saved” should be in such common use to shut down conversations and dismiss the thoughts of others. Saved or not – sometimes a person has a great point that deserves consideration. But when Christians say that you’re not saved, they say that your thoughts don’t matter in the least; you sinning sinner you, just can’t grasp the finer points of theology as illuminated by the Holy Spirit into the hearts and minds of believers. What you believe to be true is wrong because you’ve been warped by the world and sin has altered your senses. You can’t be believed because you are a child of the world whose father is the author of lies and that’s you’re native tongue – there’s no truth in you. To me, that’s the most dangerous thing of all. A sinner can call attention to an injustice a Christian commits and be called a liar because his word carries less weight than that of a believer. When a Christians calls a sinner a liar, they are telling the truth – and when an honest sinner reveals a lie a Christian has told – they are being dishonest because all sinners are liars. Let’s put such thinking away and look deeper at the heart of what’s being said, treating one another with the respect we would wish others would treat us with – not dismissing one another because we’re opposites, but valuing who we are and what each of us has to say.

 

Filtration

I know, I just said that Christianity has a lot of spiritual pollution doing more harm than good. But the truth is, completely pure ideology can be just as harmful and sometimes worse. I grew up in a denomination that anchored itself to Biblical Inerrancy. I watched it used the Inerrancy card to police it’s own and kick out anyone who didn’t measure up. Once the liberals and moderates were out, all that was left was for the conservatives to size up one another and call out those among them who were too liberal or not conservative enough to be one of them. It’s not enough to be a believer, it’s about being one who believes exactly the right things in exactly the right way to be an insider who belongs in the group. It is a lot like passing through a series of increasingly narrowing gates, ones that are humanly impossible to enter in – you become stuck, unable to go further in, but also isolated from all the others who couldn’t quite measure up to your level that you spent so much time seeing yourself as ideologically superior to them.

When applied to Christianity, it means judging those who don’t believe exactly as you do are outside of the fellowship and outside of the faith, they are impurities who mar your perfection, they are the dross meant to be put to a trial by fire and removed as the cast-off and inferiors that they are. It tends to create an excess of pride. And since we know that pride goes before a fall – any group dedicated to pure ideology is destined to fail before it even begins; but odds are they’ll still give it a good old fashioned try anyway.

What we need is to find a way to accept one another even though our ideology isn’t identical. A way to teach each other without tearing down those who reach different conclusions and without invalidating their beliefs. We need to find a way to achieve unity and still honor all kinds of diversity. That will take no small amount of humility. Perhaps there’s this church down the road that has the right idea; it’s both a baptist and a Methodist church. The two congregations couldn’t afford to maintain separate spaces, so they agreed to share one building and pool their resources together. We still haven’t quite figured out how they make it work, if the Baptists get to have the early morning service and the Methodists get the late morning service, for if both churches are one congregation and they alternate on Sundays which type the service will be, Methodist this Sunday and Baptist the next. Somehow, they found a way to make it work, instead of being either Baptist or Methodist, they are both Baptist and Methodist; more than that, they’re both Christians. Instead of falling victim to the temptation to separate into many smaller and smaller groups, they view themselves as a part of just one larger, all-encompassing group that has room for everyone, everywhere.

I know, the Bible says not to add to it, but also says not to take away from either – perhaps these elements were built into it and simply ignored. Looking at what Paul had to say, he didn’t seem to think that everyone had to agree with each other about everything, he allowed people to come to different conclusions about smaller matters and didn’t see it as a threat to their faith. The question becomes who gets to decide what a smaller matter is? That’s the other problem with the Inerrancy group, every dotted I and crossed T becomes a central matter and every disagreement becomes heresy. That’s not the kind of Christianity that we were meant to have.

Thinking back to Corinth, how Jesus, Peter, Apollos, and Paul were four teachers that the church divided itself according to it’s preferences, perhaps we miss that all of them were supposed to be teaches and all of them were supposed to bring different perspectives into the church. That of the founder, the founder’s closest follower, the founder’s chosen instrument to reach certain people, and one who picked up the mantle after others had laid down the foundation. Paul talked about that – one starts a work, the next builds on it. One plants a seed, the next waters it. We’re not all foundation builders, we’re not all seed-planters. Instead of sticking to a foundation (and never building), keeping on planting seeds (but never watering), we were meant to have divergent teachers that helped us continue to build and to grow and to mature – to challenge us to adapt to new ways of thinking.

Just as the air we breathe isn’t pure oxygen and the water we drink isn’t completely pure either – as it travels in the water cycle, it picks up certain impurities. In this region, water often filters itself through the natural limestone, which adds calcium while removing iron. Christianity’s filtration system has been off kilter for quite some time, often letting in more harmful elements and blocking helpful ones, leaving a bad taste in it’s wake. We don’t know how to answer the questions about what makes for a good teaching or a bad teaching anymore. We find ourselves listening to the people we shouldn’t and ignoring the people we should listen to. It’s no wonder our environment has become so toxic.

Do We Wish to Continue?

I’m not sure that I really want to go back to church. What is there for me there? I know – you read those words and think: “That’s a millennial for you, all worried about me, me, me, I, I, I … why when I was their age, it wasn’t all about me!”

Perhaps you fit with your church so much like a hand in a glove that you no longer think of yourself and how much you belong and what it’s like to feel united as one, like-minded, and as having a common purpose; but were your situation like that of a mismatched glove, too small and tight or too large and loose – you just might feel differently. Were you to find yourself in a church whose ministries are geared to people whose life stations are the opposite of your own and you were the odd man (or one) out you might wonder if you belong there at all.

I really wanted to be optimistic about finding the right church this year, but knowing that religious institutions are among the most slowly moving organizations of all and least likely to accept any degree of change, the reality is this year will be almost exactly like the last one – the biggest difference is that every bulletin will no longer be dated 2016, but 2017.

That degree of consistency might be comforting to anyone opposed to change. Change is always scary, after all. You can’t control it and you never know what might result. The same cannot be said if you don’t change – you have thorough control and always know what results before you do something because it’s the same the last time you did it and will be the same the next time you do it.

The fact that so many things haven’t changed is what bothers me. Too many churches still don’t see me for who I am, but for what I’m not – not yet married, not yet a parent, not yet mature, not yet selfless, not yet etc. I know, you’re thinking that not all churches are like that – it’s just not possible. If you hold to the idea that anything’s possible, then it most certainly is possible to find yourself in a region where pretty much all the churches that are within driving distance are like that to some degree – some worse than others.

I most certainly do not want to go back to that church – the ones that haven’t changed, that still play favorites, the ones that slam doors shut and lock the wrong people out. Knowing the glacially slow pace that churches tend to adopt and finally accept change, it makes me wonder if there will be a day in my lifetime when I can once again go to church and find somewhere I belong.

Perhaps we just don’t see that changes need to be made. As it turns out, one reason why some people are prone to skipping out on chores is because they don’t see that they are are a problem that needs to be done – they have to get noticeably worse before action is taken. What did it take for our society to take pollution seriously? The Cuyahoga River catching fire! Actually, the river caught fire several times, the first one wasn’t enough to spark lasting change, neither was the second, third, fourth … and so on – it was the last fire that enough damage had been done that people decided to take action and make lasting change for the better. Think about it – there wasn’t a problem with the pollution five minutes before that last fire even with all the previous fires on record.

Thing is – there is a lot of spiritual pollution in Christianity, our pure spring water has become mixed with a lot of toxic teachings, derogatory language, disastrous theology, and no shortage of scandals that for some reason or another should have been the last nail in the coffin – but for some unknown reason wasn’t. It seems that we’re not on that brink of disaster where we ask ourselves: “What have we been doing? We have got to stop!” The one where we repent, make a one hundred eighty degree turn and make lasting changes. We haven’t had that last fire yet. That’s what scares me – because it would have to be pretty bad in order to get us to change our ways and I don’t want people to get hurt.

The thing is – it would hurt even more to not change, but the church can’t see it either. Not changing doesn’t solve existing problems. Not changing got us to where we are now, looking around wondering where everyone went. Not changing is not what we’re here for or meant to do. Some degree of change is necessary – vital to continue living. Change then, is a tricky balance, unavoidable and indispensable if we are to continue, then we must change. So I can only conclude that the question is: “Do we wish to continue?”

Childhood View

“I got a drop-dead simple childhood view of salvation, perhaps that’s how it was always meant to be. The more I add up all this information, it seems it all comes down in the end to you and me.”

So I’ve just discovered jazz and with it a bit of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. When I heard this lyric – it really stuck out to me. Christianity ruined itself when it decided to put childish ways behind it. It decided to explain the works. The story went from one of Jesus saving us (somehow) (and for some reason) (from something) to one of Jesus saving us by substitutionary atonement for God’s glory from God’s sovereign will that anyone who doesn’t believe won’t be saved from God sending them where the unrighteous go when they die. Then they said that in eternity past God created everyone, predestined some of them to be saved and predestined the rest to not be saved. A simple view of salvation grew increasingly complex as we tried to answer questions – turning a savior into the monster that he saves us from in the process.

It reminded me of the Masked Magician doing a trick and then revealing how it’s done – as fascinating as it was, it was also a gauntlet being thrown down to challenge a community famous for never revealing it’s secrets to make new secrets to astound us all and to rise to the occasion of doing something new. Some days I wish I hadn’t watched those episodes and learned how all the tricks were done. Magic without mystery was meaningless.

And so it seems is a God whose ways are higher than our ways, and yet we can fully explain from infinity past to infinity future what he has done, is doing, and will do as if we understand him and how his tricks are done. Like Pharaoh’s magicians, we can replicate some of his power – to cure plagues and to cause them, to make fields grow and to make fields die, to war with the best of them with devastating weapons of mass destruction and mass casualties.

There is something to be said for a simpler view of Christianity, where there is mystery and suspense and unpredictability. Kids aren’t told that salvation can be denied to them because they aren’t elect. It’s only as kids grow up are the simple sketches of faith filled in with more detail, things that were deemed too difficult, too inappropriate were hidden from them are now revealed. They put away childish things behind them, and for some, that includes a simple faith, a trusting spirit, a knowledge of salvation.

Encourage One Another

To edify is to teach someone in a way that improve their mind or character.

To encourage is to make someone more determined, more hopeful more confident, more likely to do something, to tell or advise someone to do something, and to make something more appealing or more likely to happen.

To console is to try to make someone feel less sadness or disappointment and to alleviate the grief, sense of loss, or trouble of another. It means to comfort in a time of grief or distress.

To edify, encourage, and console is to prophesy. Prophecy is a task that both men and women are expected to fulfil in the church. Paul said that it was the most important gift; that it was even better than the gift of speaking in tongues.

I know I’ve been discouraged lately. A lot of it is because of Christianity, how it’s taught, how limits are placed, how little it speaks into my day-to-day life. Nobody prophecies; too many are out-right forbidden because it involves teaching and instruction and some people don’t want to encourage the wrong sort of people to teach others. We’re also a faith that’s pretty terrible about tolerating grief and distress in others and knowing what to do or say about it. Every morning, we shake each other’s hand, ask: “How are you doing?” If your response isn’t “fine” you have given the wrong answer. I also know that there’s a limited amount of edification going on; the prodigies who show some skill or talent are encouraged; everyone else is left to their own devices.

Now speaking in tongues is all the rage; has been for the longest time – but prophecy-based churches are few and far between. I guess it depends on what your focus is – showing the power of the spirit through amazing displays. Or living out Christ-like love by edifying, encouraging, and consoling one another. One lets you keep all the rules you want, the other asks you to choose which ones are worth the fuss.