Recently I posted as a Facebook comment a quote from the American philosopher John Dewey. I read this quote in Alvin Boyd Kuhn’s fantastic book, “The Shadow of the Third Century: A Reevaluation of Christianity.” (1949) The quote went:
“With the expansion of Christianity ethico-religious traits came to dominate the purely rational ones.” John Dewey, in “The Quest for Certainty.”
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this evaluation of Christianity, an affiliation I have had all my life. It seems so true; Christianity, after the expulsion of “heresies” in the 4th Century with the creation of exclusive creeds, came to be an organization resting on confessions excluding questioning minds and urging its followers to “bring the Kingdom to earth.” As a priest friend once told me, with the Creeds of the 4th Century, “creative questioning and thinking was shut down.”
In the past century, the theme was called “The Social Gospel.” I have no trouble with the idea of our faith having some positive connection with the world around us, but I believe it lost its deeper meaning. Our Christianity tradition has become primarily focused on “making the world better, one life, one community at a time.” We make a confession of our faith in Jesus Christ, and then get to work cleaning up the world, focusing our minds and energies on the outside rather than the inside.
In earlier times, the Crusades were done in efforts to make our world a better and cleaner place for Jesus to be accepted and followed. In following centuries, “missionary movements” were created to go into pagan countries colonized by “Christian armies” and explorers for lucrative resources. Whole cultures were nearly destroyed by “ethico-religious” ideas of saving the world. It’s been a sad, barbaric way to spread love in the name of Jesus.
When I attended seminaries during the 1960’s, I went to one focused on understanding Jesus as our “personal savior.” Our goal was then to convince listeners to go deeper into this idea of witnessing to others on how to be forgiven their sins and then support people going around the world with the same message. “Missionaries” would often return speaking of how poor and deplorable conditions were in these other “lost countries” and so besides bringing “Christ to the lost,” they were building medical clinics, digging wells, and showing people how to dress properly and work make the world more organized and better for all. Few seemed to ask, “Is this really working?” or “Is changing clothes and cultures really what it’s all about?”
Later I attended a more traditional Reformed seminary in which the emphasis was strongly on living out an ethically conscious life, ridding the world of discrimination against people of color, women, and those with excessive greed. I learned to be an “ethical teacher.”
So most of my sermons and actions were geared to making the world better and more just, joining in peace movements, racial and sexual equality causes, and urging the people to do more for justice and be less greedy with our blessings. Some times I got very angry and passionate about these causes. I made other less eager ones angry too. What was missing?
What was missing I came to feel was the attendance to my own soul, or what some call “spirituality.” Busy trying to create peace and justice for those outside in the world, I didn’t realize how stressful, judgmental, and angry I was within my own mind and heart. Later I was fortunate enough to be led to teachers who helped me open to the deeper and very liberating idea of my being primarily Spirit rather than a material body. (Another “seminary experience!) I came to see a glimpse of the idea that if I could see and experience my Divinity Oneness with all, I make a more positive impact on the world.
Authors such as Alvin Kuhn have helped me see the emptiness of just primarily being an active, doing person rather than a peace-centered person. I have grown to see how the church excluded philosophers and teachers of spirituality in those early centuries in favor of making a forced, unquestioned confession of faith leading one to then focus on being good, obedient and “saving others.” Making a confession is fine if one doesn’t stop there, but ought to continue each day growing to come back to the Center, letting ideas and plans just go in favor of “being still and knowing God” as the ancient Psalm goes.
Over the bulk of my years as a pastor, I emphasized the importance of our being more “ethically pure,” taking our faith out into the world to help liberate and save others. Our denominational magazines and publications seem primarily devoted to “making the world better” by changing the outside conditions. We push people to respond to devastations caused by hurricane, earthquake, “acts of God” in order to prove our faith counts.
While visiting the Interdenominational Theological Seminary in Bangalore, India in 1987, I talked with students recruited from India communities. One day I asked some what they mainly had learned as seminarians. Some laughed as they told me, “Before we saw our primary call to be spiritual teachers but now we are ‘ethicists!’” Later when I returned and met one of my “ethical teacher/professors” from Seminary, he told he how backward they were from really asserting ethical actions in their poor and corrupt country.
I now see our first and center focus to be upon relieving the guilt and pain of feeling our personal separation from God. I teach this can be let go by becoming aware of who we are, Spirit, Children of God on an earth walk in which we think so often we are separate. It goes back I believe to the early church formation years, when the dominate thinking was built upon the ancient mystery religions and philosophers from the ancient world. Later this Gnostic approach was banned by the church, turning people away from nurturing their own souls unless the thinking and methods were “church sanctioned”.
In this “post-Christian era,” when we are being allowed to think and question more freely, without being banished from homes, country, with more freedom from physical attack, we are able to discover with millions of others a more deeply spirit centered faith that affects the world from “inside out” rather than the reverse. We have the opportunity to become again “spirit based thinkers” rather than “ethical-religious” ones. To me, it’s a more natural and peaceful way to effect the positive change we would like to see in the world about us, being the change yourself.
In the Eastern Hindu/Buddhist philosophies, one comes toward the truth of liberation according to one’s temperament. Some are action folks and so they “lose their egos” by doing acts of kindness toward others, always with respect and honor and never in a patronizing way. They are called “Karma Yoga” temperaments. They lose their ego-centric thinking by giving without expectation of reward or praise. Others are more devotional minded and find their Oneness in deep meditation and stillness. They can sit for hours, days, years, taking long retreats from the world and becoming almost light with spiritual energy from their time of contemplation on Oneness. They are called “Bhati Yoga” temperaments. Others have temperaments that constant question; “Who am I? Why am I here? How did I get here? Why do I do this and what is its purpose?” They are thinkers and questioners and called those with a “Raja Temperaments.” One can find ashrams with leaders of all these temperaments. I find myself drawn to all of them in some ways, but perhaps the later is my dominant brain pattern.
I find people I meet and share talks with hungry for a sense of Oneness with God, hungry for a deeper peace and sense of forgiveness which allows them to be better companions in marriage, partnership and intercourse with the world around them. I share as best I can that we are to “seek and thirst first for Divine Oneness” with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and then to love others as this Higher Self too. People realize that just by doing, keeping as busy as possible, filling calendars with endless activities is tiring and self-defeating, creating more guilt. People then are drawn toward drugs of release, parties that block out awareness, leaving us with headaches. I teach primarily that we can reach peace by taking the time to listen, ask questions, and coming to the realization I am One with God, and with everyone in this world. My role then is not to change one’s form, color, or actions but to nurture change in how we see and accept one another.
May the church of which I have been part of for so many decades to be less of an “ethico-religious body” and much more of a reflective, Spirit, inward, and loving one, for our own personal sakes, and likewise for those we have tried to “save.”