Archive for June, 2007
I had a conversation recently with someone who is a leader in a local mainline denomination. She asked what “emerging church concepts” could be used to help envigorate her congregation.
I replied that I didn’t believe that there are any ‘concepts’ that the emerging church could claim to have innovated. In fact, I think the suggestion might be contradictory to the whole idea of ‘emergence’. It’s not that there is a single source of new information about doing church or envisioning theology or investigating doctrine….it’s more along the lines of sharing struggles, concerns and success stories with other members of the greater Church. And in this process letting Jesus take the lead.
So, if a paradigm is not working, rather than continue to work harder at it because it always worked in the past, we might instead take a look at what some other churches are doing well. Or even what some traditions may have done in the more distant past (before the Enlightenment)
For example; in my faith community (even though we consider ourselves to be progressively minded) we have begun to realize that we do children’s Sunday school pretty much the same way every one else is doing it. Not that there is anything really wrong with that model, but if we are willing to explore new ways of helping people relate to God (things that may work better in 21st century suburbia than they did in small town America circa 1950) then why aren’t we just as interested in investing that same effort with our children? Is it because we expect children to be bored with Bible lessons anyway but if we throw enough scripture at them something just might stick? Are we really helping children and young people to become atttracted to Jesus Christ? Or do we resign ourselves to adding another dry course to their already overburdened school load, turning the Bible into just another text book. Children are so different from one another and very rarely do they relate to things in the same way. It’s not much different for adults.
Further along in ‘The World’s Religions’ by Huston Smith I came across something that helped me to articulate to my friend what the idea of emergence is like. Smith gives a Buddhist analogy for describing how the different streams of that religion help different people find their ways to God;
It is like we are all on one side of a river, the wrong side, the side that is apart from God (enlightenment). On this side we are consumed by the conventional wisdom of the culture, obsessed with ourselves and insensitive to the other. On the other side lies enlightenment, the Way. Each faith tradition is much like a raft designed to help people journey across that river to the side where he or she will find God and comfortably live with Him. But once we get to the other side we should no longer hold onto an undue attraction for the raft that helped get us there.
I am not suggesting that the raft (or the tradition) should be abandoned but at some point, if it has done it’s job well, it need not be the focus of our communion with God. We now are able to walk freely among other settlers of this land, exploring it as we continue to grow on our journey with God, sharing our joys with our brothers and sisters. It is not productive to worry ourselves over how each of our ‘rafts’ were built, other than in exploring new ways to build better (or improve existing) rafts for crossing the river, in hope that those left on the other side may be enticed into following.
Jesus enticed us into following, and he did so not through the offices of church or religion. It’s almost as if he left the raft itself, swimming freely, almost effortlessly, not against the current but somehow reversing the river’s flow. Janice in Great Expectations puts it this way:
“Yes, He upset the status quo, yes He ‘subverted the empire’, yes, He challenged just about everything the culture AND the community of faith thought and did, and yet ~ He did it with integrity. He didn’t sink to the level of those around Him, He rose above. He took the higher ground. The higher ground of REAL love. And I wonder at my fellow travelers (and myself) and if we are searching for that higher ground, if we are really acting in love, or if there is something else driving us. Jesus sets the bar really high and some days I am appalled by how far I am from reflecting His image. But that is my calling ~ To follow in His way. The way of loving the unlovely, caring for the less than desirable, speaking up against injustices and doing it all in REAL love. Perfect love and with integrity.”
In many ways I think the ‘emergent movement’ is just a new label for the older ‘ecumenical movement’. Yet it seems that some people held a view of spiritual tolerance long before the Christian church split into so many different ways of relating towards God.
Lately, the more I come in contact with people of other faiths the more I become aware of how ignorant I am of their traditions and beliefs. I never had good opportunity to take a course in comparative religions and with my own children now in college it is unlikely that the chance will arise. So I picked up two books that have come highly recommended; William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience” and Huston Smith’s “The World’s Religions”. I decided to start with Huston Smith since it looks to be a bit of an easier read.
Smith was born 1919 in China to Methodist missionaries and lived there until he was 17. He taught at the Universities of Colorado and Denver, Washington University in St.Louis, Syracuse University, MIT and is now the Visiting Professor of Religious Studies at Berkeley.
The book’s first section, about the Hindu religion, is quite fascinating. I’d like to share some of what I have read so far;
“The Upanishads (part of the Hindu scriptures) speak of a ‘knowing’ of That the knowledge of which brings knowledge of ‘everything’. It is not likely that ‘everything’ here implies literal omniscience. More probably, it refers to an insight that lays bare the point of everything. Given that summarizing insight, to ask for details would be as irrelevant as asking the number of atoms in a great painting. When the point is grasped, who cares about details?”
This would suggest some Hindu parallels with many who struggle over parts of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. What should we take literally and what parts are best seen as metaphors? But in essence, if we share the ‘truth’ of scriptures, then why worry over points of interpretation?
In speaking of the discipline of meditation (similar to what some Christians may call ‘contemplative prayer) he writes;
“The word yoga derives from the same root as does the English word yoke and carries a double connotation: to unite (yoke together), and to place under disciplined training (to bring under the yoke, or ‘take my yoke upon you”). Both connotations are present in the Sanskrit word. Defined generally, yoga is a method of training designed to lead to integration or union. But integration of what?”
The successful practice of this discipline leads to an answer to his last question;
“There remains the final climactic state for which the Sanskrit word Samadhi should be retained. Etymologically ‘sam‘ parallels the Greek prefix syn, as in synthesis, synopsis, and syndrome. It means ‘together with’. Adhi in Sanskrit is usually translated Lord, paralleling the Hebrew word for Lord in the Old Testament, Adon or Adonai. Samadhi, then, names the state in which the human mind is completely absorbed in God.”
God? I was always under the impression that the Hindus were polytheistic. But according to Smith, they believe only in one “God” yet realize that he is too great to be identified with any single or even multiple characteristics. So they have perhaps a hundred forms in which God reveals himself to them, each form identifying with a certain characteristic of the Supreme Being. Hinduism stresses (much more so than most Western religions) that all people are different and different people, with different personalities, life stories and stages in their journey will best identify with one or more of these different forms. But it is only Westerners that are concerned over whether or not Hindus are polytheistic, pantheistic or monotheistic. A Hindu saying goes “The Truth is One, but different sages call it by different names.”
The following common prayer addresses the inability of finite man to perceive the infinite God and the inadequate ways he attempts to do so. It is often said at the beginning of common religious services;
“O Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations:
Thou art everywhere, but I worship you here;
Thou art without form, but I worship you in these forms;
Thou needest no praise, yet I offer you these prayers and salutations.
Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.“
Even with all of their many metaphorical expressions for God, they believe that at times God will physically come to earth as specific individuals;
“The ideal form (for seeing God) for most people will be one of God’s incarnations, for God can be loved most readily in human form because our hearts are already attuned to loving people. Many Hindus acknowledge Christ as a God-man, while believing that there have been others, such as Rama, Krishna, and the Buddha. Whenever the stability of the world is seriously threatened, God descends to redress the imbalance.”
“When goodness grows weak,
When evil increases,
I make myself a body.
In every age I come back
To deliver the holy,
To destroy the sin of the sinner,
To establish the righteous.”
(Bhagavad-Gita, IV: 7-8)
It would seem to me that the intentional Hindu may be open to a discussion of the Christian Gospel if we did not insist upon first affirming our belief that we were ‘right’ and that they were somehow ‘wrong’. An open discussion, with both sides respecting the beliefs and traditions of the other would probably lead towards an appreciation of the common points of each religion. When this happens it may cause the door to swing invitingly open for further exploration of the Christian tradition.