A spiritual struggle

Published by Dave Holmes on 17 September, 2021

Hey! It’s been quite a while since I have posted anything, and so if you’re reading this, welcome back and thanks for sticking with me! Things have changed for me; I now live in Lacombe Alberta, just north of Red Deer (loving it) and I’m still feeling like the New Guy at St. Andrew’s United Church here in Lacombe (also loving it).

I’m thinking this morning about how the world seems to have gone bonkers. We’re in the middle of the fourth wave of COVID, here in Alberta; our hospitals are pretty much full, our ICU’s are pretty much full, mostly with unvaccinated COVID patients. Yes, there are a few who have been vaccinated — but even though unvaccinated people are mercifully the minority here in Alberta, they are vastly in the majority in the ICU. And yet… people are demonstrating outside hospitals against vaccinations, against the use of masks, berating the very exhausted health care workers who will, of necessity, serve them if and when they need care.

I was told of one person, whose job requires them to enforce a mask mandate in connection with our school system, who has received death threats simply because they are doing their job.

I have heard of others who argue that there is no real evidence that wearing masks is effective. Really? I mean, I genuinely can’t cite the specific studies, and I won’t waste my time looking for them. Every one of these COVID waves has been knocked back by the use of masks and social distancing. We have used masks for over a hundred years to prevent infection. Would you prefer that a surgeon operating on a loved one didn’t scrub up and put on a mask? Of course there’s evidence masks work! Good grief!

Here’s what I see: people believing ludicrous things, and asserting their right to these beliefs and their right to follow these beliefs with action — asserting these “rights” with passion, with anger, with violence, with hate.

It certainly goes beyond the pandemic, though that is top of mind right now. Some of my Muslim friends have been at pains to say that violent, hateful groups (Taliban, ISIS) that do their atrocities in the name if Islam are not, in fact, faithful to Islam. I see that! And I look at a good portion of evangelical Christianity, especially in (but not limited to) the US, and know that the Trump-style racism, xenophobia, patriarchy, and violence have little or nothing in common with Jesus Christ. (Yes I know, it’s not just evangelical Christianity that is in difficulty; almost this whole blog is about how mainline Christianity must change.) It’s like a huge number of people have, like those who flew off to fight for ISIS, been radicalized. They are passionately, violently committed to something that seems right to them, and false and hateful to everyone else.

This is a spiritual issue. I don’t think it’s about policy, or law, or even public health, though of course all these things matter right now. This stuff goes all the way down to identity, ethics, the fundamentals of human community. It’s about love and fear, insecurity and community. It’s about authority and truth. It’s about arrogance and humility. It’s about connection — to people, to the earth, and it’s about reverence. Or the lack thereof.

Because it’s a spiritual matter, churches matter. Some seem to be driving the hate, the misinformation, and the tribalism. Especially because of that, the rest of us need to be in this struggle, this struggle for the soul of society. Will we be a people fragmented, drawing lines of division and hating those on the other side? Or will we seek connection, respect, unity? Will we be violently protective of whatever privilege we think we have? Or will we seek the common good? Will we listen for wisdom? Or will we doggedly defend our own viewpoint?

It is tempting, but not good enough, to rail against the irrationalities and the violence and the hatred of those who would tear this society apart. That puts us on the other side of the debate, but adopts the same spirituality as those we oppose. I believe we need to embody an entirely different spirituality — to reject the worse by living out the better.

I’m proud of the way my United Church colleagues, the people of our churches, and our denomination has worked through this pandemic. But I think we do well to remember that these big issues we face — pandemic, climate change, racism, colonialism — these are spiritual issues. It’s not just political or economic. It’s a soul thing, individual and collective, and requires conversion, repentance, the announcement of good news. It’s covenant, commitment, a matter of love and whom we choose to serve.

I’d say, “this is our fight,” but it’s not a fight. That’s exactly the wrong spirituality here. It’s a life-and-death struggle waged with love. Does that make sense? But it’s definitely our struggle. It’s about soul, and spirituality. This is our strength, and the world needs us.


I will be who I will be

In one of the amazing “call narratives” in the Bible, Moses is out tending sheep when he comes upon a bush that burns, but is not burnt up.  Working as I do in a profession that is perhaps more prone to burnout and breakdown than any other, there’s a sermon in that image all by itself!  When Moses turns aside to look, he finds himself in an encounter with God – an encounter in which Moses is given his life’s work. 

As he struggles with all of this, Moses asks God for God’s name:  “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘the God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘what is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”  (Exodus 3:13 NRSV)   God responds with something of a riddle.  “I am who I am” is how most English translations put it.  It could be “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be.”  It is as much an evasion of Moses’ question as it is an answer.  I rather think it is both:  I AM, says God, but I am not such as can be contained within a name.  I am not static.  I am not describable.  I am not nameable. 

Fast forward to the mountain in the desert, Sinai, and the ceremonial giving of the Law, the 10 commandments.  What for me is the second commandment is this:  “you shall not make for yourself an idol…” (Exodus 20:4).   As I understand it, this is a prohibition against containing God within a particular image – especially an image that comes from the thought and imagination of human beings.  So, in the Temple days, the holy of holies contained the ark of the covenant, which was essentially the throne of God – but upon the throne, nothing.  When the Ark was lost, the holy of holies was, in my understanding, an empty room.  God’s presence, God’s essence, was not to be confined to any image.  Surely that also would include any mental image, any theological description of the nature of God.  We might bear witness to what we know or understand, but we will never be able to box God in.  “I will be who I will be.”

Fast forward to another favorite story of mine.  In Exodus 33, Moses in the midst of a crisis asks to see God’s “glory.”  God does grant Moses’ request in a sense, but says this: “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live….  See, there is  a place near me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”  (Exodus 33:21-23)  The story does fit my experience in this sense:  I tend only to be able to see God in hindsight; in the heat of the moment God is somehow always, at best, a bit in the shadows.  I can sometimes sense where God has been, but never do I see God working in real time with clarity. 

God remained shrouded in mystery, even for the prophet who, it was said, knew God “face to face.”  It is our privilege and perhaps even the duty of some to seek for God, to bear witness to our experience of God, to discuss our beliefs about God and our understanding of God.  But through it all, I think we must remember that God will be who God will be.  We can never take an image or a description or a name of God and say, “this is correct, this is sufficient, this encapsulates all that is important.” 

So when I enter into the multi-faith world, it seems to me that there is a certain humility that is required of me.  Whatever I may believe to be true about God, whatever my own religion teaches about God, whatever is encompassed in my own experience, is not the last word, is not the complete story.  “I will be who I will be.”  I will never have the whole picture, the definitive word.  If God is God, how could I?  So absolutely I can bear witness to what I believe and have experienced.  But I am also called to listen and learn, and to never confuse my understanding of God with the reality of God.  Whatever reality means, when applied to God. 

I will be who I will be.

Where are we saved?

It is UN World Interfaith Harmony Week this week, the first in February, as I write this.  Here in Calgary, three times a day, we are hosting short presentations by various religious groups.  The purpose is to learn from each other and to come to understand each other a bit better.  It’s going well!  Some of the presentations have been really great – informative, artistic, reverent. 

One of the presentations stirred up some controversy.  It was led by an evangelical Christian – a kindly fellow who in no way was trying to be anything but respectful and gracious.  But… evangelical Christianity these days seems to push some significant buttons in non-evangelicals! 

As I have reflected on this, I think I noticed something.  The experiences this fellow talked about were experiences of life-transformation.  Repentance and new life, to use evangelical language.  They were stories about how people had, in response to hearing about Jesus from a genuinely caring individual, “confessed their sins, gave their lives to Jesus, and were transformed.”  Addicts who found recovery, broken marriages that were healed… 

But unless I am reading things into what this fellow said, the theology and belief structures were all about eternal salvation, not earthly change.  The theology was about how all of us are tainted, rotten, unacceptable to God until we invite Jesus into our lives.  What’s really at stake here is not the quality of life on earth, but whether we are bound for heaven or hell after we die. 

So when this evangelical pastor talks about lives changed by Christ, I’m right with him.  And for me, this is the strength of evangelical Christianity: this guy is in there talking about real stuff with people who aren’t doing so well – about marriages falling apart, about violence and abuse, about addiction and all the various ways our lives can go to pieces.  And yes, about the ways we sin, the ways we do stuff that causes harm, the ways we choose an evil path.  He’s talking about this, and he’s encouraging people to bring that stuff into their relationship with a loving God and allow God to work real healing.  It’s what they do in 12-step groups.  It’s what I wish we did more in the churches I’ve served.

But I part ways when it comes to the eternal salvation stuff.  For me, the existence of a literal “hell,” a place of eternal punishment for those who don’t in this life accept Jesus (whatever that actually means) is incompatible with the notion that God loves us without exception and without condition.  It is by definition vengeful and violent and represents the opposite of what Jesus taught and modeled on this earth.  And while this may not be all that persuasive, it also contradicts my own experience.  I have given up on God, walked down the wrong path, turned God away many more times than once, and God has remained faithful to me through it all.  I don’t seem to be able to fall anywhere that God’s love doesn’t catch me. 

When and where are we saved?  Is it after death, in some place called heaven?  I guess I hope for some blessed afterlife, but I really don’t think that’s what Christianity is all about.  I don’t see Jesus being primarily about getting us out of this world, thereby rendering this world as of (at best) secondary importance.  In fact, the whole movement of God is into this world.  That’s what the Incarnation is all about – Jesus Christ, God the Son taking human flesh is a movement into this world, marking it and making it sacred, all of it.  In the gospel of John, the Word infuses all of creation, the Light infuses all of creation, God is a part of all of it from the beginning.  When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done on earth. 

When Jesus called disciples, he didn’t call people to believe certain things about him.  That came later.  What he asked was for those he called to follow him.  What we are about is not to get the right beliefs into our heads, to wear the right brand of religion so we can get into heaven after we die.  It’s about making a real connection with God so we can get heaven into us – into us as individuals, into our families, into society – right here and now. 

So those stories of changed lives are right on target.  The fact that these lives are changed in and through an experience of evangelical Christianity is significant — but I hear these stories of changed lives, connection with the divine, the building of loving community, from many different religious perspectives (and some from NON religious perspectives, ironically).   Salvation is happening here and now.  I think God’s got eternity taken care of.  What we’re called to pay attention to is right here, right now. 

Dave’s Blog “Turning a Corner”

The Alberta government recently decided to lay off something on the order of 11,000 health care workers.  Yes:  lay off health care workers in the midst of a pandemic.  The idea is that these workers – support staff in hospitals, I think, most of them – are unionized and therefore overpaid.  The province can save some money by contracting out these services: hospital laundry, cleaning rooms, food services, and such. 

When you contract out to a private company, instead of providing the service as part of government, you must also pay for the private company’s profit.  If the shareholders are not taken care of, the company goes out of business.  So to save money, we take what is currently spent on worker wages, and we subtract the savings, and subtract the profit margin, and what is left is what is available to pay private workers to do the same job as before. 

Who loses is quite clear:  the savings that the government realizes come ENTIRELY from the earnings of these already relatively low paid workers.  Funny:  we are learning in this pandemic that low-wage workers are often also essential workers.  We are learning that workers for private health care companies are often not paid enough, and do not have sufficient benefits, to be able to (for instance) stay home when they are sick.  The dynamics of private health care have ravaged seniors’ residences and care homes across Canada.  Our government wants to save money by driving these essential workers into greater poverty, and it wants to bring all the difficult dynamics that have caused so many pandemic problems into our hospitals, in addition to our seniors’ care homes. 

I was talking recently to a very well-meaning, ethical businesswoman.  She was telling me that unions tend to contribute to inflationary salaries, and she used these hospital workers as an example.  Because the hospital workers are backed by a union, they are paid more than others without unions – people who do housekeeping in hotels, for instance, who are paid minimum wage or thereabouts.  It’s fine to pay more, she said, but if your cleaners are paid $22/hour, then the next tier “up” must be paid more, and the next tier more, and so on.  It makes the costs unbearable.  Okay – I think I get that. 

Except that all of this is built on the notion of hierarchy.  It is based on the notion that the work of those who clean hospital rooms is worth less than the work of those who process admissions, which in turn is worth less than those who take blood for lab tests, which in turn is worth less than those who provide nursing care, and so on.  There may be good reasons for such a hierarchy in some respects – but we have exaggerated this hierarchical thinking such that full-time workers cleaning hospital rooms are considered overpaid if they earn a living wage, and CEOs are not overpaid even when they earn the equivalent of an ordinary workers annual salary in less than a week. 

If grocery clerks, delivery people, and room cleaners are considered essential, why does a full time job in those sectors still leave the worker in poverty?  Why do we pay those who take care of our money so vastly much more than those who take care of our children?  In the end, I think it comes down to a much more disturbing question:  why do we value some people, their lives and their work, so much more than others?  Why is it acceptable to us, even important to us, to have a servant class in our society that works hard but struggles to thrive? 

So often Jesus challenges our notions of value and hierarchy – rebuking disciples when they seek positions of privilege and power, numerous cases where he talks about the last being first and the first last, the notion of leadership as service, and one profoundly disturbing parable in which people hired for only an hour are paid equally to those who have laboured throughout the day. 

I want to live in a society in which everyone who works a full time job is paid enough to thrive.  I do think that will mean that those on the bottom of the scale need to move up significantly, and those at the top (and even in the middle) will need to move down.  More egalitarian societies tend to be happier healthier places to live.  And there needs to be something driving us, calling us forward, that is more worthy than the greed for more. 

I believe that Jesus is calling us in this day to take the notion of human hierarchy to the dump.  Instead, I think we are called to value each person, and their humanity, their work, their lives equitably.  Can we find an economic system that values the common good more than each individual’s ability to climb the ladder? What if there is really no ladder to climb?

No “them.” Just us.

Colonial/imperial religion is a matter of identity.  Constantine used a Christian symbol as an insignia for his army – it was like a flag under which he fought and conquered.  Religion becomes a marker, a way to identify “us” (those of the same religion) from “them” (those of differing religion).  It can even be seen as a matter of God’s approval:  those of the correct religion are the saved, and those outside the boundary are those who are damned. 


There is terrible irony here:  religions that teach love as the core of ethics are, instead, used to divide people into us and them.  Religion becomes a reason to demonize others, or at least their differing religion, and becomes a justification for whatever action might be required to make “them” more like “us” – including, for instance, a residential school designed to kill the Indian to save the child (cultural genocide practiced on children).  Love is twisted to become whatever we feel we need to do to another to save them from hell (a hell that is entirely a product of our own imagination). 


This attitude also makes religion rather static:  the sole purpose of one’s religion can be simply to get “saved,” to get inside the boundary line, to become one of the insiders, to get the divine stamp of approval.  Once in, there is nothing further to do. 

The idea of religion as a boundary-line or identity marker is profoundly challenged by at least two stories in the New Testament (and several in the Old, but I’ll save those for another time).  One story, less well known, is told about Jesus, and the other, perhaps the most famous of all, is told by him. 


The less famous can be found in Mark 7 and Matthew 15.  In it, Jesus encounters a Gentile or Canaanite woman who pesters him with a request to heal her daughter.  Jesus responds in a shocking way, first by simply ignoring her, and then with a racist epithet – telling her that his efforts would be spent on the “children” (his people, the Jews) rather than the “dogs” (Gentiles, people like her).  A gracious, wise, witty response on her part leads Jesus to grant her request, and in both gospels Jesus becomes much more inclusive of Gentiles from this point on.  But for the gospel writers to put this kind of racist epithet on the lips of Jesus, of all people, makes it clear just how inappropriate it is.  The woman’s wise and gracious and much more faithful response drives home the point.  In this story, unlike any other I know of, the (non-Jewish, non-Christian) woman is the teacher and Jesus is the taught.  There are no “dogs” here.  No outsiders. 


The most famous story is the one we often call “the good Samaritan” (Luke 10).   A teacher of the law discusses the greatest commandment with Jesus and both agree that to love God and love neighbour is the heart of the law.  But the teacher then asks, “who is my neighbour?”  A wise teacher of mine noted that this question is really asking, “who is not my neighbour?”  Who can I get away with not loving?   The story that Jesus tells in response is of insiders (the priest and Levite) ignoring the plight of the traveller in need, while the outsider, the Samaritan, the one of another religion, the despised one – the Samaritan does provide care and attention.  Like the Canaanite woman, the Samaritan becomes the exemplar – the outsider is the model of faithfulness.  It is not simply that we are called to love even our enemies – the story hits even harder than that, by showing an outsider who is more faithful than the insiders. 

It’s like asking Jesus:  who is your most faithful follower?  And he answers, “Gandhi, the Hindu.  Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist.”   I think Christianity may be unique in the sense that the one we follow, Jesus, was a lifelong practitioner of a different religion.  We need to take that seriously.  Insider/outsider or saved/lost boundaries based on identity religion do not seem to exist for Jesus. 


What if religion did not separate us into tribes at all?  What if we saw it not as identity, but as path?   “Christian” not as who I am, but as how I walk, the particular path I take towards transformation, growth, maturity, towards what Jesus named “the Kingdom of God?” 

This is the first big thing to be taken to the trash:  religion as a marker of identity, as a boundary between “us” and “them.”  That’s what Empire needs and wants from religion – to use it as a tool of statecraft, to identify enemies and whip up emotion against them, to solidify loyalty and a sense of privilege among the insiders.  Those aims are inimical to all religions, not just Christianity.    Instead, let’s look at religion as a path, a teaching, a discipline of study, that calls us to transformation in a particular way.   It may differ from other religious paths, as biology differs from physics which differs from psychology.  But there’s no need for physicists to take up arms against psychologists.  There is just more to learn.


One last note:  there is certainly (we see it regularly in the news) both healthy and toxic religion in this world.  I do not mean in this to suggest that any and all religion is acceptable and equally good – “whatever you believe is fine as long as you’re sincere.”  No!  Weeding out some of the toxicity from Christianity is what a lot of this blog is all about!   There is bad religion – and that probably exists in every tradition.  But there are no bad religions.  Religion should not be a flag to divide us into “us” and “them.”  Let’s take that to the dump, and see if it makes the air a bit clearer. 

Divorcing Constantine: taking out the trash

Phyllis Tickle, I believe in her book The Great Emergence, makes popular the notion that the Western Church goes through a major re-set every 500 years or so.  Roughly, it would look like this:  1000 BC, the monarchy.  500 BC, the Exile.  Jesus, at the turn of the dates.  500 would be the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of monasticism in the Dark Ages.  1000 was the split between East and West.  1500 was the Protestant Reformation, and today is… today. 


At these times the (western) church has what Phyllis Tickle calls a great garage sale, in which significant things that had been precious (but are now liabilities) go out the door.  I’m not sure garage sale is quite the right metaphor:  maybe spring cleaning.  Thanks to some wise teachers and friends, I think I am able to identify some of the things that need to go, but I don’t want to sell them to someone else.  These things need to go to the dump. 


  • The notion that religion is a badge of identity, that identifies “us” over against “them.”  This makes religion a camp to sit in, rather than a path to walk.  It creates, upholds, and emphasizes divisions – over against the clear call of our gospel to grow in love and therefore create, uphold, and emphasize unity.  The religious quest is not about privilege or exclusion — it is about connection.
  • The notion that religions are competitive truth-claims, and that there is only one “chosen people of God.”  If I think that the beliefs of my religion are endorsed by God, and none else are, then I can’t help but look down on all others who differ, and my missional task becomes to make others like me in order that they may be saved.  This reverses the gospel call, which puts love (which is eternal) ahead of knowledge (which is always partial and “in a mirror dimly.”)
  • In general, Jesus challenges the notion of hierarchy, which is so important to colonial society.  There is a hierarchy of religions, a hierarchy of races, a hierarchy in wealth and social status, hierarchies in power, hierarchy in the sexes…  Jesus explicitly and directly challenged all of these, and I believe it is time to purge our thinking and our practice of hierarchy. 
  • The notion of upward mobility needs to go to the dump, in the church.  The “American Dream” is so ingrained in us that we fail to see the challenge presented to this notion both by Jesus and by Levitical law (such as the Jubilee).  We expect an increase in our own material prosperity, we expect churches to grow into bigger and bigger buildings and congregations, we expect our salaries to grow as we progress in our ecclesiastical careers.  Jesus did not climb the social ladder; he emptied himself.  The constant demand for more is killing our biosphere. 
  • Speaking of the biosphere and the Creation, the colonial notion that humanity is separate from and placed over creation (there’s that hierarchy again) has to go.  Colonial society sees the earth as something to be subdued and ruled over, simply a collection of resources for us to use for our own benefit, and a place to dump our refuse.  It is but a temporary home on our way to eternity.  Theologically and scientifically, though, we are “earthlings.”  We are formed of the earth, never separate, sharing the fate of the earth of which we are a part.  And creation is sacred; God creates it, loves it, and is incarnate in it. 
  • Perhaps one more will do for now.  We need to lose the idea that religion is about the next life – that it is about heaven or hell, about doing what it takes to get our pie in the sky bye and bye when we die.  In what we call “the Lord’s Prayer” we are taught to pray that God’s Kin-dom come, that God’s will be done on earth.  Christianity is not properly a lifeboat out of this world, to some future and other-worldly heaven, but a path to find heaven (beloved community?) right here and now.  Shifting the focus to this life from the next one changes almost everything. 

In an earlier post, I suggested that the church essentially sold its soul when, in order to escape persecution, we threw in with Constantine and became another imperial religion.  Instead of being a radically challenging, transformational movement, we became part of the institutional apparatus that maintains and upholds the imperial status quo.  Instead of refusing military service, now we host Remembrance Day ceremonies.  Instead of St. Francis we raise up Kreflo Dollar.  It’s no accident that a national flag is a prominent part of so many churches.  It will be a tremendous challenge to find our soul again – an exciting challenge, I think, though not without cost – and part of that challenge will be in changing our thinking, changing our assumptions, changing our mental allegiance from Caesar to Jesus. 


In future posts, I’ll try to expand on the relinquishment that is ahead of the church, and what it might mean for us. 

Peter and Paul: wherever we go, God is already there.

1 Corinthians 13 is presented to us as an interpretive lens, a way to discern what is most important in our faith and life.  As such, it is a very important passage of Scripture.  Similarly, one of my professors taught us that if a story in Scripture is repeated, that is a way of signalling that it is important. 

There is one story that is repeated three times in a single book of the New Testament: I don’t know of any other story of which that is true.  It is told once by the narrator (Acts 10) and then Peter recounts the story twice more (Acts 11 and 15) in the context of crucial gatherings/councils of the early church.  We should pay attention to this story; in some ways it is the centrepiece of the book of Acts and is the primary influence in some very key decisions of the early church. 

It’s a story of Peter being called by God to break God’s laws: the purity laws that said Peter shouldn’t share a meal with Gentiles.  It’s a story of the church deciding, at God’s leading, to break laws around religious identity and purity, by allowing Gentiles to be part of the church without keeping the whole of Biblical law.  But maybe for our purposes here it is most importantly a story about Peter taking God and the gospel to a group of Gentiles and discovering that God was already there.  The Law as Peter understood it indicated that God should only be present where the Law was acknowledged and followed – but here in Cornelius’ household God was very much present, the Spirit was very much active, even though the Law was being broken, and long before Peter arrived to preach any gospel.  Sure, Peter preached his sermon (that was what he went to do) but he also paid attention, he listened to the experience of the people to whom he went, he respected the experience and spirituality of those to whom he went. 

Peter went to evangelize Cornelius’ household, but it was mainly Peter and the early church that were changed.  In many respects, Cornelius and his household continued as before; it was the church that changed direction – repented. 

Once again, it would be a legitimate objection to say that both Peter and Cornelius acknowledged Jesus as Lord, so this is not necessarily applicable to an inter-faith situation.  But at this time, Peter very likely thought of himself as a Jew who followed Jesus, so at the very least, his whole conception of what faithful religion looked like was expanded.  That may not be so different from the interfaith experience after all. 

Paul’s encounter at the Areopagus in Athens, though, was very definitely an interfaith experience.  You can find this story in Acts 17.  On the one hand, the competition of religions is clearly here:  “[Paul] was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”  His sermon definitely calls his hearers to a particularly Christian perspective, in asking people to acknowledge the primary importance of the resurrection of Jesus.  But the sermon as a whole also places all religions and all religion on a very even footing:  we all have a common ancestor, we all search and grope and perhaps find God, in God we all “live and move and have our being,” and we are all God’s offspring.  And at no time can God be confined to “an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.”  And some of our best teachers (John of the Cross, for instance) have been pretty clear that any mental image of God, including ours, is one formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 

We Christians may think we are right – that we have been privileged to receive and understand the definitive revelation of God and God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  But here are two key Biblical stories that remind us that God’s love, God’s revelation, God’s presence, and God’s Spirit are not confined to our religion.  Anywhere we go, and anyone with whom we speak, God has always arrived first.  And not simply in some proto-Christian, rudimentary way that enables a hearer to receive and accept our word.  God is present at a depth that will – if we have ears to hear – teach us, change us, perhaps even cause us to repent and change direction. 

How does the old proverb go?  Remember that God gave you two ears, but only one mouth.  Evangelism that does not use our ears and is not prepared to learn is not Christian. 

So what’s a church good for, anyway?

A common refrain when I’m talking to churches these days is a desire for new people – especially younger people, younger adults – to come to church.  A question that brings up for me (and as usual, I can’t remember the person who first taught me to ask it) is “what do you hope these people will find?”  What do you think they might want from your church?

I’m afraid the answer, often enough, is actually “nothing.”  Church is so far off the radar for most people under 50 that it just never comes to mind.  Almost nobody is lying awake thinking, “where can I find a church in which I can __________?”  “Church” simply doesn’t come to mind at all.

But the question still retains its importance.  What important things do our churches do?  What important gift do we offer the world, and what is it we do that is worth the giving of precious moments of precious lives?   I remember Tom Bandy’s question from a couple decades ago:  what is it, in our experience of Jesus Christ, that this community cannot live without?

Well… what is it about church that can’t live without?  Perhaps that’s overdramatic… what is it about church that I think is essential to my life, well lived?

In my experience there’s a fundamental malaise at the heart of North American life right now.  In a sentence, I would describe that malaise like this:  the current of our society is moving in a way that is contrary to our best values and best interests.  The inertia of our culture is carrying us someplace very few people actually want to go.  For instance, the consumerism of our system leads us to commodify everything.  All of life acquires the shape of shopping:  we want, we shop, we buy, have, and eventually throw away.  Our lives and desires are all about the things we have.  Even relationships, spirituality, vocation can become “things we have.”  Not too many of us would consciously choose that – but that’s the stream in which we swim.

Similarly, not too many of us would choose to create a mass extinction, or warm the planet to crisis levels.  But the inertia of our extractive, exploitive economy is indeed leading us there.  Especially in affluent North America, we definitely live that way.  I don’t think we’d consciously, intentionally choose racist structures, violent, divisive politics, increasing economic disparity, social safety nets that traumatize the poor.   But in spite of our not consciously choosing them, those are the trends and the realities of our society.  I’m not sure any of these things are getting better.  Most, if not all, are actually getting worse.

What I long for from church is a spiritual community that allows me to live more congruently.  I am looking for a community that enables me to resist the pull of society, that encourages me to live life more attuned to my values, a community that teaches and lives something more whole.  I do think that is a more authentic religious life.  But – and this seems to be my refrain here – it is a pretty scary proposition, in addition to being attractive in theory.  It involves relinquishing the false goods, and I, at least, have grown quite attached.

Wedding words as a guide to life (better loving than right)

First Corinthians 13 is a fairly famous Bible passage, likely for one reason:  it’s often read at weddings.  At least, a small section of it is.  It is read as a reasonably eloquent description of the kind of love that enables a marriage to thrive.  But… that’s not quite what it’s about. 

The passage comes in the midst of a letter to a conflicted church.  In the chapter that immediately precedes number 13, Paul is trying to describe unity in diversity by using the analogy of the body.  A body has many parts, all different, and yet they work together for the good of the whole.  What benefits one, benefits all, and what harms one, harms all.  We each have different gifts and abilities, and we are called to use them for the common good.  After describing this picture, he goes on to say he will show the Corinthians “a still more excellent way.” (NRSV)   I quote the 13th chapter in full:

NRS 1 Corinthians 13:1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

I’ve divided the passage into three.  The first part says, in short, that without love, we are nothing.  Love is the absolutely necessary marker of anything Christian; if it lacks love, it is not of Christ.  That means right belief and right worship are not sufficient to define Christianity; love must factor in.  The second part describes this necessary marker, love (because as we mostly know, that word can mean several things!).  The descriptions are evocative, but the Greek word used here – agape – is used throughout the New Testament to refer to the love of God we sometimes call grace.  It is unconditional action towards another’s best interest. 

Finally, in the third section, Paul (as in the first part) relativizes other aspects of the faith in comparison with love.  In particular, Paul relativizes knowledge:  “I know only in part.” 

To be sure, Paul is speaking here not to an interfaith audience but to a religiously 

diverse Christian congregation.  Still, in his day that would have included both Jewish and Gentile Christians, so the diversity was significant in terms of culture, practice, and belief.  And I think it is very clear in the rest of Scripture that the calls to love and to humility are not, not, not to be restricted to the church or any other “in” group. 

Here, then, is the basic ground of my argument around interfaith neighbourliness. 

Many, probably most, Christians are taught that the essence of Christianity is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.  To believe in Jesus Christ means, likely, believing certain things about Jesus, and God, and what we might call the story of salvation.  Because we are taught that these things are the essence of our faith, and because they are particular to our religion, we then usually assume that we are in competition with all other, differing, religions.  In other words, we assume that only if one believes in Jesus the way we are taught, is one to be saved.  Religions are incompatible because of the difference of our belief. 

However, in the context of 1 Corinthians 13, I would say that all such belief falls into the category 

of what Paul calls “knowledge.”  And while I don’t think that Paul says that belief 

is unimportant, he is clear that our knowledge/belief is partial.  We don’t have the whole story.  We don’t possess the definitive truth.  Humility is required, here and now. 

In the traditional colonial pattern of Christianity, I see us compromising love of neighbour so that we can hold tight to our knowledge.  We are willing to look down on neighbours of other religions, we may even think we have to look down on them, in order not to compromise our beliefs.  But in 1 Corinthians 13, I see Paul asking us to be a bit more humble about our (partial and in-a-mirror-dimly) knowledge/beliefs in order to hold tight to what is really important – love. 

As I think of our history here in Canada, what happened in the Residential Schools is a great 

example of the settler/colonial churches thinking we had all the knowledge, arrogantly insisting on our own way, and forgetting such things as kindness and truth-seeking (listening).

So what I am asking – what I think Scripture is asking – is for us to turn our priorities around, 

when it comes to interfaith relations.  “True” and “false” become matters of discussion and inquiry, together with our neighbours of other faiths, because the very best we can do on this earth is to find some partial, dim understanding.   Love, on the other hand – getting to know each other, working together to mend the world, eating together and caring for one another – that is the thing that must never be compromised.  Because without that, we are undoing the work of God.  Without love, we cannot be truly Christian. 

To be sure, when I am in a multi-faith group, I am very much a Christian.  Christianity is my spiritual home and a deep part of my identity, and after all these years I can share the gospel and teachings of my faith with some confidence.  It’s just that I expect light and truth to come from others as well, in different languages, cultures, and from different perspectives.  I expect my own partial grasp on the truth to be complemented, illuminated, and challenged by the partial understandings of others.

In my experience, something amazing happens when we love first, and let the truth about God be bigger than our own theology.  But more on that later. 

A Biblical Case for Interfaith Neighbourliness

As I have said before, I believe that Western Christianity is going through a time of foundational change and reform (see Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence).  This change, or these changes, reach all the way down to our sense of identity as Christians, and some of our very basic assumptions about the world and our relationship to it and to others. 

Some of those assumptions are about the essential nature of religion, and about how our religion relates to others in our very pluralistic society.  As I grew up, I realize that I understood religion to be a “zero-sum game.”  That is, I assumed that the various religions were primarily competing truth-claims.  Each was different, and each claimed to be true.  Thinking of these truth claims as factual claims, I further assumed that only one could be true.  The game was to find the “true” religion over against “false” religions.  I never considered other options – for instance, that religions might be true like poems are true. 

Another way to express the zero-sum religious game is to assume that each religion, since it names God differently, therefore worships a different God.  Again, the assumption (made explicit in monotheistic religions) is that there is only one true God.  So if my God is the “true” God, and yours is different, yours must be false. 

And so is the groundwork laid for “tribal,” competitive religions, evangelism as an attempt to convert, and even violence against those who differ religiously.  In spite of the central Christian command to love our neighbours, zero sum religion encourages us to look down on any neighbour who differs in religion, even to demonize those of other religions, since they oppose the one true God. 

In my own life, these zero sum attitudes towards religion have slowly broken down – because 

they do not conform to my actual experience, and because they do not reflect what I actually read in the foundational text of Christianity, the Bible. 

First, experience.  In high school and university, I shared classes and a small university program with two very good friends.  One of these friends was an agnostic, and the other a Muslim.  So we differed religiously, but I found great kinship with both of these friends in terms of how we saw the world, our sense of morality, our values.  In our conversations, my Muslim friend and I might have differed in our practice and theology, but it felt very much like our experience of God was very similar.  As I have grown and spent more time in interfaith relationships, this impression has only grown.  With practitioners of other religions, it seems that the deeper we go in terms of practice and experience, the more kinship we feel – even though the superficialities of our faiths may be quite different.  So, for instance, the most obviously Christlike character (and the best interpreter of his teaching) of the twentieth century could well be Mohandas Gandhi, the Hindu, or Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist. 

I also have come into relationship with the 12 Steps of AA.  These steps are profoundly Christian in origin, and are quite dependent on what AA calls “the higher power.”  This relationship with the Higher Power is integral to the process of recovery and is very, very practical.  And yet AA assigns no particular theology to the notion of higher power, no set of beliefs other than that your higher power is a source of unconditional love and help.  In fact, as I understand it, AA asserts that theological and religious distinctions do not matter.  This is borne out in the experience of countless addicts in recovery.  If the distinctions that make my religion supposedly true, and yours false, do not matter in recovery, what does that say about the diversity of faiths?

The second way my zero-sum attitudes have broken down is in response to my lifelong encounter with the Bible as a preacher.  This is what I’d like to explore over the next few blog posts.  The deeper I go in exploring the Bible, and being challenged by it, the more I read it in light of my own experience and in conversation with others, the less I see in it the notion of religion as a factual truth claim, and the more I see in it something less arrogant, more profound, and more transformative. 

To be sure, in the Old Testament there is plenty of competition between religions, and the proclamation that God is “jealous.”  At the same time, it contains a wisdom tradition that is broadly shared among religions, and a prophetic tradition that challenges the very tribalism that the competition between religions encourages.  And as I have come to understand it now, the very commandment against idolatry is not really a commandment to turn against other religions, it is a commandment against confusing any human construct – even our own religion – with the truth about God. 

In the New Testament, the character and teaching of Jesus is explicitly against the demonization of any others, and, as I will argue, particular (core) teachings make the zero-sum approach to religious diversity  untenable. 

Here’s a brief overview of what I intend at this point:

  • Overview:  essentially, my theological position here is taken from 1 Corinthians 13:  the primacy of love and the awareness of uncertainty. 
  • Peter and Cornelius, and Paul at the Areopagus:  evangelism that takes into account God’s pre-existing activity within religiously different peoples.
  • Moses, the burning bush, God’s backside, and the commandment against images:  God is really not ours to define.
  • Genesis 1-11: “civilization” is not necessarily an unqualified good.  How much of our religious imperialism is Western capitalistic white Eurocentrism? 
  • Matthew 23: the call to service, not dominance.
  • Idols and false gods – what about the gods of our own creation and toxic religion? 
  • Ruth and the ever-widening reach of God’s love.
  • Jonah:  of what, exactly, did the Ninevites repent?  And of what was Jonah called to repent?
  • And finally, back to 1 Corinthians 13:  the practice of love and humility in an interfaith context. 

As always, I welcome your comments, arguments, elaborations…