Archive for category Heterodoxy

No Hell = No Jesus

As long as I can remember  my mother has said, “As a Christian you have to believe in Hell but you don’t have to believe anyone is  there.”  This is her gracious understanding of an essential Christian doctrine.  Though she didn’t know it,  this understanding is a Christian “heresy” called Universalism, a heresy  that says all of us,  even non-Christians, will go to Heaven. And it was expressly against Catholic, and most Christian doctrine. But wasn’t she right about one thing:  Don’t you have to believe in Hell to be a Christian? This must be the case, if Universalism is a heresy.

Not long ago Rob Bell was  in the hot seat with many Evangelicals (and some Catholics)  because his recent book, “Love Wins”,  suggested that no one goes to Hell.  He set the conservative Christian bogs on fire and most of them essentially condemned Bell to hell for not believing in Hell.

The ensuing progressive  Christian defense of Bell was great.  Many Emerging Church and progressive Christian bloggers  busted the chops of people like the Three Johns ( Piper, MacArthur and Hagee) for accusing Bell of  Universalism . They rightly criticized the conservative Christian tendency to make Hell such a big part of their theology, to the point where this doctrine  obscures a lot of the Gospel message.  But, unfortunately, few of them go far enough.

Because in their defense of Bell they made it quite clear that they also believed in the doctrine of Hell, they just adapted it to make it more palatable.  Most seemed to accept the conventional orthodoxy  of a Final Judgment and the potential prospect of Hell (even with little or no scriptural support for it) coupled with the salvic solution of Jesus dying for our sins on the cross, as God’s blood sacrifice, to free us from eternal damnation.  Which, to me, flies in the face of what Jesus spends a lot of time telling us about God.  As I heard a pastor once say, God is either merciful or God is just, but God cannot be both.

I think one reason why so many Christians are unyielding about Hell, and why the progressives still can’t shake the doctrine off, is that, in reality,  Hell is the cornerstone of the Church, not Jesus.  Because without Hell, what is there for Jesus to do? What does he save us from?

No Hell = no Jesus. Or at least the Jesus that many Christians claim to believe in, have faith in.  Without Hell he loses his job description. He loses his purpose along with the primary meaning he may have for millions of Christians. So the idea that there is no Hell is just too damn frightening to consider.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18


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But if you’re a Christian, then what am I?

Over on the Wall Street Journal blog, one of the members has (hopefully) started a thread by asking this question:

How do Christians define Christians? What makes you or not a Christian?

I often come across the argument that “said person is not a real Christian”, many tend to use this argument to exclude particulars who happen to shame the religion calling themselves part of it, or act in the name of it.

I think it would be interesting to see, how does every one define it, is it simply believing in a higher authority?. Is it taking every literal word of the bible?. Is it following the “reasonable” aspects of the bible?

Now, so far, only one person has given an answer, and it is one that I suspect the majority of American Christians would agree with:

A Christian is somebody who believes that Christ died on the Cross and shed his blood as the ultimate atonement(replacement for the blood sacrifice of the Old Testament law) for the sins of mankind. They believe that Christ is who He said He is. ie, The Son of God, and therefore God Himself. The concept of the Trinity applies here. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Christ was the product of the immaculate conception. Christ was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. Isaiah 53:3-7 is an example, among others of the prophesy.

The first chapter of John in the New testament, gives a good representation of what Christians believe about Christ.

To be saved (ie a Christian), is nothing more then the realization that man is born into sin, and the acceptance and acknowledgment of the free gift of eternal life(made possible because of Christ sacrifice on the Cross), that is offered to mankind, should they(exhibit their “free will”) except it. It is nothing more then Gods grace being demonstrated through mans faith.

If all of the above needs to be believed in order to be a Christian, then I guess I am not one.  Of course, for many reasons I think the above definition, although perhaps “orthodox”,  is incorrect.

Over on Ric Booth’s blog there is an interesting conversation taking place about a new organization that John Shore is spear-heading called ThruWAy Christians, particularly their controversial acceptance of gays and lesbians.   The stated goal of ThruWAy Christians is to provide moderate Christians with a new forum.  As it says on their website:  “If you find conservative Christianity too oppressive and exclusionary, and progressive Christianity too theologically tenuous, you’re probably a ThruWay Christian.”   Which means that, though I agree with much of the content of their founding document, my theology is much too “tenuous”  (something which I am sure the Conservative Christians could accuse the ThruWay people).

Surprisingly,  I don’t believe my theology is any weaker than theirs or any one else.  It’s different to be sure.  Maybe not as orthodox as they would like.  And like Christianity, it is evolving. But that doesn’t mean that it is “flimsy, insubstantial or lacking in strength”.  This is a charge that the orthodox have always levied at those who had the audacity to question theological authority.

The good folks over at ThruWAy Christian are not really challenging conservative Christian theological authority, though. They are only challenging the  conservative interpretations of certain scriptures that they believe lead to intolerant and mean spirited attitudes and behavior.  But I would suggest that the overarching theology that both the moderates and the conservatives still hold in common ( much of which has been condensed by the commenter from the WSJ blog and jives with the  first line of ThruWay’s creed )  is actually what drives this intolerance.  And has for centuries.

I ‘ve found that it is nearly impossible for Christian moderates to  engage Fundamentalists in any meaningful dialog that might result in a change of perception on the part of either, so  I’ve given up on it myself.  If this is the goal of the folks at ThruWAy, well then, have at it.  But  if they would be open-minded enough to engage some Christians whose convictions are not quite as solid, substantial or strong as theirs then perhaps they might find that ‘progressive’ is not such a bad word after all.

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The heresy of the dogma that bit the Church

I remember once asking my new Christian friends why – if Jesus is The Way and his Good News is all we need to hear – then why bother with the Old Testament at all?  Who needs to know all that old stuff if the Gospels and Epistles have all the information we really need?  It seemed to my novice ears that this was precisely what the apostle Paul was saying.  Besides, there are so many glaring inconsistencies between the Old and the New Testament’s messages.

The typical response was that the Old Testament clearly predicted Jesus’ coming as Messiah. This made the Hebrew Scriptures an important source of evidence for Christian apologetics. As far as any inconsistencies go, well they weren’t really inconsistent.  There was just a change in the way God related to us, now that Jesus had made everything right with his death and resurrection.  And after all, the Old Testament was still the Word of God.  Just incomplete.

Anyway, I don’t struggle with that stuff anymore.  I think the Hebrew Scriptures (the term “Old” Testament is so…condescending ) are very important for Christians to study.  All of the Hebrew scriptures, not just those found in our Bibles. We totally screw up when we forget that Jesus was a Jew, living in Palestine with other Jews, and most of these scriptures (no Bible yet, remember) were the source of his theology and his cultural traditions. And it doesn’t help when we exclude Jewish interpretations of their own scriptures, either.

I no longer struggle with trying to square the apparent inconsistencies between the  angry, violent and vengeful Yahweh with the forgiving and merciful Father of Jesus (even though the Hebrew Prophets presented us with much the same portrait of God as Jesus did ).  I simply no longer believe that any of the scriptures, old or new, are the Word of God.  They are not inerrant nor are they infallible.    They were written by men (and maybe women) who were certainly ‘inspired’ to come to some sort of understanding of God, but they were not God’s secretaries taking divine dictation. And they do not always paint God in a favorable, or accurate light. It’s when we try to take literally all the words found in the Christian canon, on face value and without any historical context, that our problems begin, whether we are orthodox, heretic or atheist.

I didn’t realize it then, but in some ways I was a Marcionite.  Marcion of Sinope (ca. 85-160) was an early Christian thinker who also had problems squaring the Hebrew Scriptures with the Gospels and especially with Paul’s Epistles. He could not accept the idea that the loving “Father” that Jesus prayed to was also the angry Yahweh of Hebrew scriptures.  So he came up with an alternative theology, one steeped in Greek philosophy and mythology, in which Yahweh is the flawed creator god, subordinate to the ultimate (and good) deity: God, the Father of Jesus.

According to Marcion, Jesus comes from the Father to redeem the walking dead from the clutches of Yahweh and the misery of this corrupt world. In this way Marcionism is similar to Gnosticism.  (For a nice movie parable watch “ The Matrix” trilogy.)  Marcion composed what is probably the first Christian canon, the first compilation of Holy Scriptures, but they contained only a syncretized form of the Gospels and the letters of Paul.  Paul’s epistles were the primary source of his theology and it is Marcion who first placed them in an anthology.

Now, with all due respect to Rey (who got me to thinking about Marcionism) I do believe that, in this case, those church fathers who ended up as history’s Christian victors were right to label Marcion a heretic.  Of course,  they were begging the question because there was no such thing as orthodoxy at the time– there was no Christian consensus on doctrine or dogmas – there were none of the creeds Christians recite today. In fact, the first creeds were likely written and imposed in response to Marcionism, which had a great following.  Now, I don’t think that the Church’s surviving theology is altogether that faithful to the teachings of Jesus either.  But there is little, I think, in Marcionism to commend it to someone who wants to follow Jesus. Because Jesus without Judaism is not Jesus at all. It is something completely different.

What so many orthodox-loving Christians, then as well as today, fail to recognize is that much of this heretical doctrine infused itself into the surviving Christian theology. So many of these destroyed and forgotten heresies had very large followings – their influence would not disappear by mere decree (or by book burnings and hangings). Just a few examples:

-To this day Paul has an inordinate amount of influence on the Church’s doctrine.
-Throughout the Church’s history there has been a tendency to place our focus on another, better realm that await us beyond this fallen and depraved world.
-Our fixation on a battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, is reminiscent of the dualism found in Marcion and Gnostic theologies.
-And, of course, the Church has tried it’s best take the Jewishness out of Jesus (and make villains out of the Jews – some believe that it was the Church’s repressed Marcionism that helped fuel the dogma of Hitler’s  ‘Final Solution”).

As outlandish as Marcion’s theology may sound to us today, who have known nothing other than modern Christian ‘orthodoxy’  (the theology of the victors), does it really sound any more outlandish than the concept of a triune God? (Try asking your Jewish or Muslim friends that question.) Again, the problem seems to lie within the combined ideas of Biblical literalism and inerrancy.  A more relaxed, though possibly just as devout, reading of scriptures can solve this problem and, in my experience, help immensely with one’s understanding of God.

It was the cognitive dissonance caused by trying to believe contradictory ideas, ideas not just found in a literal reading of the Bible but ideas thought up by theologians in their attempts to square their own contradictory readings of scriptures, that had me doing the same thing that the ‘orthodox’ had already done and continue to do: embracing heresy to prove orthodoxy.

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Can you really be a smart theologian and have people who disagree with you killed, too?

In his defense of John Calvin’s allowing Michael Servetus to be burned at the stake, J. Steven Wilkens says:

If one contends that Calvin was in error in agreeing with the execution of heretics then why is there not equal indignation against all the other leaders who supported and carried out and supported these measures elsewhere. None less than the honored Thomas Aquinas explicitly supported the burning of heretics saying, “If the heretic still remains pertinacious the church, despairing of his conversion, provides for the salvation of others by separating him from the church by the sentence of excommunication and then leaves him to the secular judge to be exterminated from the world by death.” (Summa Theologiae, IIaIIae q. 11 a. 3)

Which, to me, points out something rather chilling: Aquinas and Calvin are considered two of Christianity’s greatest theologians. What was wrong with their theology that it would promote this type of mindset?

If there is no radical change in Church orthodoxy from that time until today – if it is true that Christian doctrine is timeless (as many insist) – then isn’t that kind of frightening?

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One God and Three Masks (or more)

From Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary:

  • Main Entry: per·son
  • Pronunciation: \ˈpər-sən\
  • Function: noun
  • Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French persone, from Latin persona actor’s mask, character in a play, person, probably from Etruscan phersu mask, from Greek prosōpa, plural of prosōpon face, mask

So, according to Merriam-Webster, the word person is derived from the Latin and Greek words for the masks that dramatic actors would hold before their faces in ancient theatrical plays. In a Greek play one actor might play many roles, each one signified by his persona, or mask, that he presented to the audience.

For me, this sheds some interesting light on the doctrine of the Trinity; the doctrine that says that there is only one God yet three persons. Rather than trying (yet again) to make sense of the various explanations for this doctrine, with all of its necessarily inadequate analogies (the three leafed clover, the three states of water, the three dimensions of material space etc) perhaps it would help to read the word ‘person’ in a way that  is closer to its linguistic roots.

Instead of three divine “persons”, who are separate individuals yet in some way one deity, all sitting around in heaven (or a shack in the mountains) maybe each element of the trinity is more like a different mask God wears at different times in history or at different times in our lives.

Seen this way, perhaps the first mask God wears is the one that makes the  most sense to our limited minds; the awesome and remote God of power, creation and destruction. The God we see throughout nature, in thunderstorms, earthquakes, mountains, sunsets and floods. A God who is mostly and deliberately remote, hiding behind the mask of Yahweh, knowing that a full revelation of his being would be too much for us.

Then Jesus comes and reveals a different face of God, a new persona. Through this revelation we are able to engage the previously unapproachable and remote God. When we consider this new persona, one that is a frail human like us, we find that he has become easier to relate to and understand; “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”.  Engaging this new persona, in a way that is intimate, personal and honest, enables us to better comprehend God’s love for us. Through the exemplary sacrificial actions of this persona we  begin to understand the Way of life God has always intended for us.

Once we encounter God through the persona of Jesus, and begin to follow the example he set for us,  we are able to encounter the third divine persona. This is a spiritual one that is not a true persona at all, in that it is not one that God ‘wears’ for us, it is one that we wear for him, and for each other.

With his first persona God was wholly (holy?) other, necessarily apart from us, only revealed in small doses. In his second persona, that of Jesus, we find a way to interact with God personally, to accept his love for us and in response, love him back.  Through this loving interaction we are able to realize the Spirit of God who dwells within us. At this point God hands us the mask and we should, in some limited and human way, take on the persona of God;  one who loves all others.

If looked at in this way; that each “person” of the Trinity  is more like a humanly finite understandable mask that God shows us at the appropriate time of his choosing, then why limit him to only three?  Perhaps this is how God reveals himself to people throughout the world, through personas that are specifically designed to accomodate the differences between our diverse human cultures and traditions.  I believe that many people of the world,  even though they may not be Christian,  are wearing personas created by the spirit of God living within them.


Postmodernism for Dummies (by a Postmodern Dummy)

"Vooki", a sculpture by Raimo Utriainen (1927 - 1994)

What’s it all about, anyway? Is postmodernism a good thing or a bad thing? Some people accuse others of being ‘post modern’, using it as an epithet.  Others wear the mantra proudly. But what does it mean?

There are plenty of opinions on this, from the pedestrian to the scholarly.  But I often find that they confuse the issue more than anything else.  As for me, analogies and anecdotes help me to understand things better, so with that in mind, here is my take:

A modern mind set claims to be logical and scientific.  It is based upon the idea that there are irrefutable propositional truths that are to be known. Not only are they to be known, they already are known and anything that is not in complete agreement with these truths must ‘logically’  be in opposition to these truths.  Something is either off or on, hot or cold,  Left or Right, right or wrong or true or false.  This way of thinking in terms of absolutes  boils down to a matter of  ‘either this or that ‘  but rarely both. Gray areas, ambiguity and compromise are things to be avoided.

In this way, modern thought is not necessarily conservative or liberal, it is just very definite. It is built upon time-proven conventions passed down by respected authorities (often teachers and other experts). Certain absolute truths have already been established so there is no need to waste time and effort questioning them. Those that do so are not really interested in finding the truth (since it is already known and accepted) but have other motives in mind. Anyone who questions accepted doctrine, be it religious, scientific or political, is discouraged and even ridiculed. (Those who are slavishly devoted to the prevailing theory of global warming as well as those who refuse to contemplate the prospect are both examples of this typically modern mindset.)

Postmodern (or what I prefer to think of as ‘anti-modern’)  thinkers are inclined to be dissatisfied with conventional wisdom. They are skeptics who choose not to believe everything that the experts say is true, especially if the observable evidence suggest otherwise. (In other words, those truths expounded by the experts are not as propositional as the experts might think.) Therefore, they will try not to speak in absolute terms because when they do so they often fall back into a ‘modern’ way of thinking, effectively closing the door on dissent and constructive dialog. The authentic postmodern response is to suggest that we consider both/and possibilities rather than either/or’.

One case in point: Not too long ago the preferred way to teach students how to read was with the use of phonics. At some point the teaching authorities determined that not all children could learn to read this way and they introduced whole language instruction techniques, and in many places ceased to teach phonics. This proved to be (according to parents and many reading teachers) generally unsuccessful.  It was often said by parents (who themselves learned to read using phonics); “Why change things? If it worked for everyone before, it should work for the students of today”.

But it didn’t work for everyone before. Many students, though in the minority, were labeled as below average in intelligence or just plain ‘dumb’ when really their only problem was a lack of reading comprehension.  The trouble with those experts who resorted exclusively to whole language instruction  was  that they fell back into a  modern mindset – either whole language or phonics, but not both. Today both techniques are being used successfully in the class room. (All of us learned to read using both techniques.  How else would we know how to pronounce words like ‘epitome’ or ‘antique’ ?)

Another case (and one currently close to my heart) involves the science of nutrition.  Around 40 years ago, the nutritional ‘powers that be’ came to the logical assumption that fat is bad for humans, in spite of over 100 years of well researched and documented evidence to the contrary (not to mention the anecdotal histories of millions who have unsuccessfully tried to remain healthy the ‘conventional’ way).  Today these experts (who are typically academics and politicians that rarely have any field experience) will admit that the evidence suggests an entirely different conclusion: that it is a diet high in carbohydrates (and correspondingly low in fats) that is causing the current epidemic(s) of heart disease, obesity and diabetes – but irrationally they  refuse to accept this very same conclusion. For them, the ‘truth’ is already known: Fat is Bad.

Not surprisingly, this same type of thing occurs with religion. Certain people interested in things of a spiritual nature come to definite and non-negotiable conclusions based upon an accumulation of what they believe to be incontrovertible evidence, even when that evidence seems to contradict itself. During this process extensive debates may occur among those who come to far different conclusions but eventually one school of thought wins out and this school is is now considered to be the  exclusive holder of the sole  ‘truth’.  This truth is passed on from generation to generation and (just as happens in science) it is increasingly saddled with subordinate ‘truths’ that help protect it from confrontations with contradictory ideas and evidence. This is what we call orthodoxy. (This custom of creating ad hoc theology can result in dogmas that have a decidedly post modern aura about them, such as the idea that God is both infinitely merciful as well as rigidly judgmental – but we’ll save that for another discussion.)

When other people with spiritual interests (such as those ’emerging’ from the ‘modern’ Christian traditions) come to see inconsistencies in this orthodoxy and are driven to question it, they are called heretics and not only their arguments, but their motives as well, are called into question.

When I look at things this way it makes sense (for me at least) to toss out the confusing terms ‘modern’ and ‘post modern’. There have been modern and post (anti) modern thinkers throughout history, no matter the era.  The ‘moderns’ are more interested in maintaining their (often the majority or controlling) status quo while the authentic  ‘post (anti) moderns’ have no interest in status quo.  It seems to me that the great discoverers, artists and thinkers though out history are  postmodern. Whatever at the time is considered to be the accepted and indisputable truth – the conventional wisdom – is  ‘modern’ for that time.  Anyone willing to call the conventional wisdom into question, while conceding that (no matter what they find) the search for truth is never over, is ‘post modern’ in spirit.

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Jesus with a Gun (Dissonance Within the Cognitive Christian)


Gary Taubes talks about Cognitive Dissonance, which is, as he puts it:

…the tension that results from trying to hold two incompatible beliefs simultaneously……When the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn discussed cognitive dissonance in scientific research- “the awareness of an anomaly in the fit between theory and nature” – he suggested that scientists will typically do what they have invariably done in the past with such cases:  “They will devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict. (Taubes, “Good Calories, Bad Calories”)

Interested, I looked up Kuhn’s paper,   “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” .  In it, Kuhn suggests that this dissonance results in what often amounts to a crisis among those holding to the majority scientific opinion.

In responding to these crises, scientists generally do not renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis.

1. They may lose faith and consider alternatives, but

2. they generally do not treat anomalies as counter instances of expected outcomes.

3. They devise numerous articulations and ad hoc modifications of their theory in order to eliminate any apparent conflict.

4. Some, unable to tolerate the crisis (and thus unable to live in a world out of joint), leave the profession.

5. As a rule, persistent and recognized anomaly does not induce crisis .

6. Failure to achieve the expected solution to a puzzle discredits only the scientist and not the theory (“it is a poor carpenter who blames his tools”).

7. Science is taught to ensure confirmation-theory.

8. Science students accept theories on the authority of teacher and text—what alternative do they have, or what competence?

Kuhn’s theory of scientific cognitive dissonance has a very familiar ring to it. It is almost precisely what I have observed with many Christians. In order to hold on to conflicting ideas of God ( such as possessing infinite grace, mercy and love yet as also wrathful, vengeful and capable of inflicting infinite torment upon his created beings) the Christian religion has come up with a myriad of  ad hoc doctrines and theories that end up confusing, not clarifying, their theology. ( In this instance, ad hoc means adding extraneous hypotheses to a theory to protect it from  falsifiability.)

Afterward, the religious authorities insist that all devotees accept these doctrines -even questioning the authorities can amount to heresy.  Dissenting dialogue is discouraged, slavish devotion to the established wisdom (often referred to as ‘the Truth’) is demanded and  the worrisome doubts of the struggling faithful are chalked up as evidence of  ‘weakness’, or a lack of faith.  This weakness is underscored when many of  these thinking (questioning) Christians, confronted with the evidence that challenges certain tenets of their religion, end up leaving the faith, often becoming ardent atheists.

Orthodoxy is the means by which the religious authorities attempt to quell this dissonance, thereby avoiding a mass crisis of faith. It is this unyielding platform upon which their theological house of cards has been built.

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