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The Lure of Orthodoxy – 4

January 24, 2015

Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?

What I have expounded thus far (parts 1 to 3), generally fits within the broader definition of Progressive Christianity. For those who are of a traditional or even fundamentalist extraction, the concept of a Christianity without some of its traditional dogmas is hard to grasp. Since I have cast doubts on a number of such dogmas, those who relied on their “certainty” to prop up their faith may wonder what’s left to believe. In the following pages I will answer this, but I couldn’t even begin without first removing the halo of “infallibility” that surrounds orthodoxy. Now that we see it for what it is, or at least we are willing to question it, let me proceed.

The Paradox of Our Movement

I dedicate the following chapters to my traveling companions and will start from our common experience. Ours was a movement in which fundamentalism coexisted along with progressive and liberal ideas, as if they had always belonged together. We were born out of a progressive leap but then froze into an awkward limbo; we were like a revolution that got stuck somewhere in between, never becoming fully progressive and never returning to fundamentalism either.

Reliance on the sole leadership of a charismatic founder, might account for our initial successes but also for later failures. The whole thing might have slowed down once our founder had gone as far as he could. He was after all a fundamentalist, a Texan red neck who had taken huge leaps when meeting the most liberal and radical youth there were.

For him we were a first step into progressive and liberal ideas, for us he was our introduction to fundamentalism. We, a bunch of inexperienced youth were learning Christian-Zionist apocalypticism, biblical literalism, etc. He, from our inhibited, unchurched ways, was learning to think out of the box.

That said, however, we must not fail to recognize the God factor. Nobody, no matter how clever, could give rise to the type of phenomenon we partook of. We were all caught into something much bigger than any of us. We mustn’t forget what lay at the heart of our conversion, which surpassed whatever cultural conditioning each of us had. As I see it there were two crucial elements: 1) A deep mystical experience, an interactive exchange with a divine entity which we called Jesus. It was the ultimate trip and it was life-changing. 2) The love, the support, camaraderie, the all for one and one for all, tight relationship of a communal lifestyle. These two things, God and Love, were what brought us together and kept us together.

A tangible spirituality which translated into practical everyday living was the fuel of our social and religious experiment. We had tapped into it, found the pearl of great price and yet, as happy as we were for our new-found Christianity, we felt no attraction whatsoever for its traditional forms. We had already seen that as we were growing up and had laid it aside, with no intention of returning to it. In any case most churches found our dress code, long hair and radical anti-establishment ideas rather unappealing, which we didn’t mind. After all we preferred our Christianity not to be confused with theirs.

Our founder also came under fire from the religious establishment, who faulted him for being unable to reform us into “civilized” Christians. This only prompted an even stronger reaction from him, spelling a complete severing of all ties with traditional Christianity. It was a definitive farewell to any chances of ever being part of it. As time passed we became increasingly alienated from it, adopting revolutionary rhetoric and even calling ourselves the revolution for Jesus.

Our Unusual Experiment

Unfettered by pre-packaged Christianity, we were thus free to conduct our social and spiritual experimentation in a completely new environment. Like scientists do at the international space station because of the lack of gravity, we too, without he gravitational pull of traditional orthodoxy, could try and explore a range of option inaccessible to the average churchgoer.

To a degree, the same conditions existing at the dawn of Christianity had reappeared among us. There was an intense mystical experience, great love and solidarity, and all without a properly defined theology. Tangible spirituality and love, minus those preconceived ideas about God and what He could or could not do.

The sky was the limit, and not even that. We had caught a sort of mystical wind and were determined not to let go but follow it wherever it led. We called it many things, Jesus, the Wild Wind, the Holy Spirit, Elixir of Heaven and it simply worked, in spite of our contrasting and oft changing definitions. It was palpable, it provided guidance, gave us euphoric, ecstatic manifestations, permeated our daily activities but made little theological sense. For mainstream churches it was simply heretical.

As a side note, let me add that though rarely acknowledged, music was as much of a catalyst of inspiration and guidance as other more obvious sources. Perhaps, when thinking of our early theology or lack of it, we mustn’t forget what our songs were communicating. I believe they played a crucial role in making us what we were.

In any case, what followed were decades of experimentation, and we are still analyzing the data. There were failed experiments, inconclusive ones and, most definitely, successful ones. On the mystical, experiential side, the data is clear, God was out there with us and doing things which defied the limits of orthodoxy. In that respect we can confidently conclude that God isn’t orthodox, nor does He fit standard definitions.

On the social side of things, well, we tried. We definitely had lots going for us but fell into the usual traps, swinging from excessive freedom to excessive control. We were a bit naive and learned through lots of mistakes. The dynamics of communal living, however, taught a lot about applied Christianity.

A Theological Paradox

Theologically speaking, that’s where the paradox was most noticeable. Our movement was the embodiment of a transition, from a traditional, fundamentalist type of Christianity, to a progressively more liberal, advancing one. This had happened in a variety of aspects, such as recognizing the limits of the Bible, and the need for fresh guidance (new wine) in regards to morality, ethics, sexuality, etc. Traditional interpretations were gradually challenged and replaced by more current ones. This happened about our previous Christian-Zionist eschatology, the Trinity, salvation, eternal damnation and much more.

The list of fundamentalist ideas left behind in favor of progressive ones, is endless, but the former and the latter remained embedded in the same printed record, a mountain of largely unsorted and self-contradicting writings. It’s not that along the way there wasn’t any concern for their harmony and coherence, for there was, but not all theological implications could be fully realized back then. This reminds me of the period in which early Christianity had also accumulated many writings and interpretations, but lacked a harmonious expression of its beliefs and a single definition of God.

With time, our ranks came to reflect the lack of theological harmony. While some of us were avowed Bible buffs, others were more forward leaning; while some were fundamentalists of our early years and writings, others preferred the newer stuff, and even viewed the past with suspicion. Others didn’t quite care what we believed, as long as the lifestyle was preserved, but some resented exactly that, wishing rather to be integrated into the broader spectrum of traditional Christianity.

Restructuring and Seeking Continuity

This multiplicity of interests, motivations and contrasting aspirations, made it clear that our movement was no longer sustainable, at least not in its communal form. There was then a restructuring, which required lower-commitment participation and resulted in the abandoning of the communal lifestyle. With that gone, we needed something to keep us united and help us survive as a credible entity. Some felt that the answer laid in a single theology, that our forty years of writings and experiences needed to be re-evaluated and our orthodoxy needed to be formulated. This is where the real dilemma arose, the same that early Christianity had faced in the patristic era.

How do you evaluate and define God, or a mystical experience? How do you harmonize contrasting interpretations and, what practical, strategic and economic consequences will that have on the future? These were the consideration of the church fathers in the fourth century and, howbeit in a smaller scale, we were also facing the same. If we were to define our own orthodoxy, what process would we choose? Would we default to habitual authority or use a representative system, surveys and the like. In the end which interpretation would prevail? Would the fundamentalist roots, still visible in our literature, lead us back to traditional orthodoxy? Or would the progressive steps taken throughout our history lead us into further development? Would majority opinion, convenience or personal bias prevail?

These same questions affected us also individually. With the group gone, its lifestyle no longer viable and past doctrines now irrelevant or forgotten, many began to wonder what was left to believe. A personal sorting out of ideas ensued, leading to various classifications of negotiable and non negotiable beliefs. Some even began to look to others groups and churches, thus facing even more contrast of beliefs and further intensifying the re-evaluation process.

This is where personal diversity came into play. The person who was there and actually lived through our heyday of spiritual awakening had a certain perspective. Those who favored our social model but never experienced the mystical spark that brought it about had another. Those who were born into it, therefore inherited it culturally but never choose it, either socially or religiously, had yet another perspective.

The Role of Orthodoxy

This reminds me, once again, of that great shift that Christianity went through in the fourth century. It is believed, by a number of scholars, that orthodoxy came into being and became necessary when Christianity was no longer freely chosen, when people no longer experience it but would inherit it by birth, when it became the state’s religion and converting” to it became a matter of conformity, with social and economic benefits.

Disconnected from its original experience and practical application, Christianity became Christendom. Orthodoxy was then necessary to sustain this latter creation, a visible, rational form of Christianity for a populace who didn’t know the real thing but could still pretend. It was an artificial substitute, something that could be mass marketed across the empire as the latest in global trends. This is also when clericalism arose and spiritual gifts were replaced by the offices of its hierarchy. As Max Weber said, it was the period of “the routinization of charisma”.

Now, in favor of orthodoxy we may say this, that even a cheap imitation is a good indication of the original. At least it preserved a record of it, the seeds of a life which was and, therefore, could be again. That’s why I believe orthodoxy still plays a role, like that of an ancient sarcophagus which contains precious seeds from the past. Life, however, is not in the coffin but in the seeds, not in the past but in the present, if the seed come out of the coffin, find fresh soil, light, air, water and come to life again.

Such was our case. The seeds of Christianity had sprung in us and brought forth the fruit of true spirituality and a life of love. The God of love and the life of love fell into perfect sync, as a key unlocking a door, but that harmony had only been possible in the absence of orthodoxy and its life-inhibiting conditions; the sarcophagus fit only to preserve seeds from parasites and the ravages of time.

The Indefinable Miracle of Life

In the fertile soil of of a generation willing to try anything, in our freedom and heresy, the seeds of Christianity sprung forth into an explosion of life. Practically, as well as spiritually, it was Christianity at its best, or so we thought. I say this merely to acknowledge the position of those who would object, who recognize Christianity only in that which is strictly regulated by orthodox doctrines, which wasn’t us. What we called it might not be as important as what it was, but to understand each other we must agree on our terms.

From our perspective, we defined Christian that experience of a life of love coupled with the mystical, charismatic manifestation of a loving God. We understood the Bible, and particularly the gospels, as pointing to this reality and we understood Jesus as the mediator, the interface, the connector to that spiritual reality which we were partaking of.

From a traditional perspective, ours was no Christianity, because it came short of meeting the fundamental criterion of orthodoxy. Our theology wasn’t right, our definition of God incorrect, our acceptance of heretical idea widespread, our moral code compromised, our definition of sin vague and on and on the list went. Whoever it was who misappropriated the “Christian” term, is open for debate, but that’s where we differed.

At the end of the day it really does not matter so much what we call it, even Jesus had many names. What matters is where each of us is at. Whatever fits us, at whichever time, is probably where we belong at that specific moment of our lives. No use pretending and, if orthodoxy gives us a sense of comfort and security, in a time when personal convictions are shaky, then orthodoxy might be the better option. The same goes for whoever needs absolutes to sustain a faith based on notions. In that case also orthodoxy has the best (though some might argue that), and with loads of apologetics to sustain it.

For those, however, who’ve been there, who caught that wind and heard that music, who felt the moving of a God beyond description, there is no use trying to forget it all in order to fit within the box of orthodoxy. You won’t fit in, not in your right mind and, if you try to, you stand to lose it. You must continue to burn free, for it is either you or the box.

To each his own and, clearly, if the life of the spirit is no longer there, it cannot be recreated by simply looking to the past. No, the same wave does not return. It is not possible to recreate the same conditions by singing the same old songs and repeating the same old slogans hoping that the magic will reappear. That’s exactly what orthodoxy tried to do, with its rituals and creeds, but it does not work that way. No amount of nostalgia, of searching the past for hidden treasures, will recreate the chemistry.

It’s God that does it and how He does it is still a mystery. The Church Father tried to figure it out, for the sake of continuity and future generations. They tried to capture the components of the Christian experience and package them into writings, an orthodoxy that would perpetrate the cycle. The same did the reformers with their motto of Sola Scriptura. They too, tried to gel in human forms (language), that which is far greater and will always transcend it.

It is common for those who have been touched by the divine to lament the inadequacy of human language to describe it. Yes, that’s how we humans communicate, but about human things and when we talk of the divine, even our best theology breaks down. The Bible too becomes insufficient, especially when taken literally. Perhaps we would learn more from it if we dared to question more, to seek also what’s not written there. For example, what is it that drove the writers to write, what kind of experience were they trying to communicate through the stories they told, whether true, parables or literary creations? Instead, by rendering the actual text so absolute, orthodoxy has prevented deeper questioning and promoted a religion which the writers never knew, bibliolatry, a poor representation of what they tried to communicate.

In conclusion, the life of the spirit cannot be contained in mere writings. Only the shadows, testimonies and seeds of it can be there, seeds that can only come to fruition once they are taken out of the written box, to grow as they please. The feeble, narrow interpretation of scribes, philosophers and theologians, though employing the finest of intellectual rationality, still belong to the domain of human endeavor and fabrication.

His kingdom is something else, not of this world and yet here. No human key works at its door, and yet it’s open all the time. All we can do is knock, but we can’t even do that until we grow the will to, and even that won’t come until we hunger for it. It will come, it always does, and for those who have already found it I’d say, don’t worry how long it’s been since you’ve last seen it, neither fret if when you’ll see it again it will look different. No, it is not it changing, but you, and as you grow old ideas wear out, childish things are left behind and everything becomes new, all except one thing, that you’ll always recognize its fragrance, its comforting touch and sounds, and it will always feel like coming home.

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