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The Titanic

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In the last decade of our communal experiment, as problems mounted and things became increasingly complex, we often employed the analogy of the Titanic. Wishing to keep our lifestyle afloat, but unsure of our ability to do so, we frantically adopted one emergency measure after another. In spite of all efforts, our social model was eventually abandoned, or rebooted into something else, as some prefer to call it. In short, the Titanic sank. A defeat? Not at all! It was actually a Godsend, a blessing in disguise that allowed many to progress and continue in their journey. It wasn’t painless, however, and as we now reflect on the past we usually do both, we reminisce on the good old days as well as come to some painful conclusions. Growing up isn’t easy but maturity is priceless.

Here is someone reflecting on something which I have also discovered since.

After decades of counseling, pastoring, and clumsy attempts at helping other people, I am coming to a not so obvious but compelling conclusion. Much of our helping is like hoping for a first-class accommodation on the Titanic. It feels good at the moment but it is going nowhere. The big tear in the hull is not addressed, and we are surprised when people drown, complain, or resort to lifeboats. Most of the people I have tried to fix still need fixing. The situation changed, but the core was never touched.

But what is the core? And how do we touch it? What does it mean essentially to help another person? … Call it grace, enlightenment, peak experience, baptism in the Spirit, revelation, consciousness, growth or surrender, but until such a threshold is passed, people are never helped in any true, lasting sense. After the early stages of identity and belonging are worked through, real transformation does not seem to take place apart from some kind of contact with the Transcendent or Absolute. We now live in a secular culture that is largely afraid to talk about such contact except in either fundamentalist or vague New Age language. Neither is sufficient to name the depth or the personal demand of the true God encounter. What characterizes the trustworthy conversion experience is a profound sense of meeting Another, who names me personally and yet calls me to a task beyond myself. Therapeutic healing will always be an effect, but it is never the goal itself or even a concern. One’s own wholeness pales into insignificance in relationship to the Wholeness one is now delighting in.” (Richard Rohr)

I can’t help but wonder about the cycle of birth, death and resurrection that we all know about, aware also that what does resurrect is never the same as what dies. To the inattentive eye, the new life is never as tangible or recognizable as the former. It is pointless then to hope for an institution that will represent the resurrected life. If we do, we are still looking for the old and not the new. We haven’t crossed our threshold yet, or our Jordan, as we used to call it. Eventually we will but it is a rare occurrence that our paths will cross again. When and if that happens, our congregational healing will only be an effect, not the goal and not even a concern. All that will pale in comparison to the personal resurrection that we will experience in the Wholeness.

The Mystic Revolution

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Two thousand years ago, in a remote province, began a revolution that shook the Roman Empire from its roots. Today’s Christianity, however, is more often associated with conservatism than with revolution. It is right wing, conservative, xenophobic, nationalistic and militaristic people who often tout their “Christianity” the most. We are left wondering how Christianity could support such things when it started as a statement against them. Indeed it’s hard to find any revolutionary elements within present Christendom, but that’s because they are  buried under millenniums of history and interpretations. To find them we must travel in time and first discover the matrix in which Christianity was born. Just as we couldn’t understand Mahatma Gandhi unless we first understood British colonialism, or Martin Luther King unless we first understood America’s racial problems, neither can we understand Jesus unless we first understand the Roman imperial paradigm.

As everywhere else, also in Palestine, Rome had entrusted the care of its imperial interests into the hands of local authorities. The priestly class, being the representatives and interpreters of Jewish law (Torah), extremely central to Jewish society, played the greater role in maintaining the peace with Rome. When Jesus came, even though not violent, he was immediately perceived as a threat to the status quo for the simple fact that he operated independently and often at odds with these religious authorities. An itinerant preacher, a mystic and a pacifist, working outside the main centers of power, yet he was still on a collision course with the established order. Eventually he clashed head on with both, the temple representatives and the new world order in which they had been enrolled.

We mustn’t forget that the Pax Romana rested on the principle of military might. In imperial theology it was god who gave the emperor power to conquer, defeat his enemies and establish order. It was god who gave the military victory through which came peace; so it was the mighty and the conquerors who deserved glory and honor, because through them god gave peace and prosperity. The word gospel (euangelion) was in fact first used by Rome to proclaim the good news of peace and prosperity under Ceasar.

To be noted, peace by military might wasn’t an exclusively Roman concept, but could be found also in Jewish theology. In the Old Testament the term “Lord of Hosts (armies)” appears 261 times. Apart from its monotheism, Jewish theology was not that different from that of Rome or other ancient nations. Israel too claimed the right to conquer militarily, to steal the land and houses of other people, to take possession of other nations, and all this with the excuse that god had first promised it to them through Abraham. Their holy scripture even encouraged the ethnic cleansing of indigenous populations, so that they would never reclaim their lands, even sanctioning genocide for national security.

In the ancient world these were common beliefs and practices. Every nation and tribe had its own particular deity who sanctified their struggle for survival, who favored, supplied, protected and gave them victory in war. Much could be said of those cultures that preserved this “holy” justification for their colonial and imperial wars, for their aggression towards other nations, which they considered unloved by God because of their barbarous, indigenous and pagan ways, who therefore did not deserve their land and freedom, but could be enslaved or eliminate altogether.

The seeds for legitimating military conquest are preserved in the glorified accounts of past holy wars. They are now embedded into the cultural DNA of a supposedly Christian civilization that confuses Roman and Jewish theology with the gospels, and continues to behave as if entitled to rule the world by divine right. What’s most amazing is that in today’s secular and scientific world, where religion has become nearly insignificant, this hubris still survives. Modern man might have shed some of his religious myths but not his tribal and nationalistic arrogance. It seems as if religion was just an excuse for it, as is often the case. It is not the present, however, that I wish to get into, but the period in which Jesus appeared.

It is only by understanding first century Hebrew and Roman theology that one can appreciate the magnitude of what Jesus introduced. His ideas contrasted both. His representation of God, whom he called dad (abba), left no room for the previous images of the god of a single nation (or empire), who ensured its peace through war. He demonstrated his new image of God by submitting to persecution and final execution, without the usual self-preserving retaliation that we would all be prone to. It was a radical form of pacifism that went against expectations and defied all previous racial and religious prejudices. No more the god of war and retributive justice, but the one of love and restorative justice. No more eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, but “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you and if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other also.” It was a heretical new representation of god, one that undermined both Jewish and Roman presuppositions.

Particularly, the empire disliked ideas that undermined the cult of its emperor, which was the fulcrum of its imperial unity. Yes, Rome was tolerant of other religions and integrated them into its religious pantheon, but to challenge the divine role of its government, as embodied in the emperor, was considered high treason. The archaeological and documentary sources tell us of the exclusive titles given to its emperor, such as divine, son of god, god, god from god and that he was addressed as lord, redeemer, liberator and savior of the world. It was believed that he had overcome his enemies and brought peace to the world by divine favor, because he was divine and even had a miraculous birth. The proclamation of his new world order was the good news, the euangelion. The Christian preaching of another gospel and another peace, as that of an alternative empire of God based on love and humility, instead of military might, and to call their leader by the same titles as Caesar, was an outrageous act of defiance.

Of course some say that it wasn’t Rome who wished to crucify Jesus, but the Jewish authorities. The Gospels seem to confirm such a view but it wasn’t exactly so. Although it fell on the Jewish authorities to decide on the Nazarene, they didn’t do so only with regard to their personal bias but also, and perhaps mostly, for their national interests. Being fully aware of their obligations towards Rome, they were naturally intent on avoiding anything that could tip the scales against them. When Jesus, in a most delicate moment, brought his revolution to Jerusalem, it naturally alerted and alarmed the high priest. As the authority responsible for a fragile peace, in a time of great religious and national fervor, such as the celebration of Passover, he couldn’t help but fear the inevitable and decide that it was better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish (pl. 11, 50). It was a pragmatic assessment; what he saw as the least of evils in order to maintain the order that Rome required. It was their responsibility, so the priestly class decided that even if not violent, Jesus’ message was too provocative to be tolerated. Sooner or later his proclamation of the empire of God would collide with that of Caesar, as it happened shortly thereafter.

Even in the gospels, where Pilate appears to want to spare Jesus, the Jewish leaders warned him that it would be treason against Caesar, because of his kingdom and kingly proclamation. Though Jesus explains to Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world, therefore not a threat to Rome, Pilate still put a notice on his cross calling him the king of the Jews, as if saying, not ours but yours. Since it wasn’t long before Christianity spread all through the Roman Empire, you get the impression that the Jewish leaders actually understood its challenge better than Pilate could, and history proved them right. Most scholars, however, believe that the accusing role of the priests, as opposed to the neutral one of Pilate, is a later elaboration, in that period when Christianity had broken relations with Judaism and was warming up to Rome. Historically speaking, death by crucifixion was a Roman policy towards rebels and dissidents. When it came to non-violent dissidents, we also know that it was customary to execute only the leader, which would usually discourage other from following in his footsteps. It is only with armed groups that Rome would demand that all participants meet the same fate. This seems to have been the pattern with Jesus and, before him, with John the Baptist.

We have seen how in spite of Rome’s tolerance towards other religions, there wasn’t any towards anything undermining the cult of the emperor. Refusing to honor it, was interpreted as treason and subversion, as an act of enmity towards the state, its peace and order. The Jewish refusal to recognize the divinity of the emperor was in fact very problematic, and it was only because they were an ancient people and religion that a compromise had been reached. The conditions for this, for maintaining their temple and traditions, depended on the ability of local authorities to prevent insurrections. This was the priests’ responsibility, who knew what the consequence would be for failing to restrain the nation. If the conditions for compromise failed, then the Roman troops would descend on them and it would all be over, as it happened shortly thereafter. True, it was an armed revolt that eventually caused the end of the Jewish nation and its temple, not Jesus’ followers, but it shows the precariousness of the times in which Christianity appeared. Compared to more militant groups, such as the zealots, Jesus had been a peaceful roving preacher who even tolerated Romans, yet we must also consider how Roman Christianity eventually domesticated our image of Jesus. Unless we understand the historical and cultural matrix of that period, it is very difficult to understand how subversive Jesus really was, how politically rational were his persecutors and how his crucifixion was practically unavoidable.

It is only when we consider Roman values, as compared to those of the Sermon on the Mount, that we realize how radical Jesus’ message was. It is only when we understand what it meant for Christians to give Jesus titles used only for the emperor, that we realize what an act of defiance it was. Rome had only one divine ruler, born miraculously, who was lord, redeemer and savior and it was Caesar. It was written all over, in coins, images, monuments, arches, public works, etc. To call Jesus by these names was equal to saying that these inscriptions were lies, that Caesar was none of these things but was an impostor. To then proclaim an alternative empire, the kingdom of God instead of Caesar’s, left no doubts about the dangers of this movement.

It is only when we learn that a Roman parade, with dignitaries on horseback, entered Jerusalem at every Passover, and learn that at the same time, on the opposite side of the city, entered also the Nazarene on a donkey and with a crowd proclaiming him king; only then do we understand why the Pharisees begged him to silence the crowds (Luke 19:39), because the provocation was enormous. At every Passover Jerusalem filled with Jews from every part of the empire and the Roman troops would come to make sure that none stirred them into a riot. A small provocation, in a time of such religious fervor, would be enough to cause a revolt, as had happened before.

It is only when we realize that the good news of the kingdom, Jesus’ gospel, was the rebuttal to the empire propaganda, its euangelion (gospel) of peace and prosperity under Caesar; it is only then that we realize how provocative it was, and how subversive was the idea of preaching it to the whole world. So maybe you are beginning to contextualize things, to better understand the revolutionary challenge of early Christianity. Maybe it is becoming clearer, even in practical terms, why Jesus’ ministry came to such an abrupt end. You may even be wondering why you didn’t connect the dots before, why Christianity appeared so religious and doctrinal, but made so little political sense. You may even be wondering how the Christ figure could be so domesticated as to become the patron of future emperors and empires. Perhaps you’ve started to understand why primitive Christianity was so hated by Rome, and why later Roman Christianity explained the earlier persecution in such spiritual terms, instead of giving more realistic, political and plausible reasons for it. Perhaps it leaves you wondering how the masses were first propagandized against the Christian minority, and later made to adopt a revised version of that minority view?

The answers are not far from us, as reality today isn’t as different as we’d like to think. Today’s political, economic, military and social systems aren’t resting on Christian principles any more than ancient Rome did. Today’s world is still run by military might, economic blackmail and mass control strategies (propaganda). Of all applied theories on global politics none resemble, even minimally, the Sermon on the Mount. The Christianity that some western powers claim to represent has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the movement initiated by Jesus. Traditional Christianity is a syncretism, a multi-layered compilation of elements drawn from various traditions, in which the gospel is totally marginalized. It’s an adaptation created to meet the necessities of past and present political systems, who found great support for their national and military ambitions in the Old Testament, but none in the gospels. Think, for example, how the Sermon on the Mount made it completely unacceptable for a Christian to be a soldier. Documentary and archaeological evidence show that early Christians, following Jesus example, preferred martyrdom to taking up arms. Consider then what happened when the empire became “Christian” and Christianity was adapted to the necessities of the empire; it not only became acceptable, but it was even compulsory for all soldiers to be “Christians.” That’s when the first bibles were compiled and copied, and the gospels were buried somewhere between all those nice war stories.

Yes, when the empire realized that Christianity couldn’t be stopped, and Constantine understood how it could be domesticated in his favor, he embraced it and began to transform it into state religion. Nothing unusual, as history is full of such examples, of revolutions that morphed into the next system. So Jesus was domesticated and Plato became the lens through which he was interpreted. Christianity was changed from a way of life to a system of doctrines and ideas to believe in. The final aim was to make it an institution at the service of the new world order, so what started as revolutionary became a reactionary force.

At this point you’re probably wondering what mysticism has to do with it. Well, we all know how every political program, no matter how practical, economical and pragmatic, needs a religious/philosophical basis. Every political endeavor acts out of a particular understanding of human society, its nature, needs and aspirations. The religious or philosophical ideas behind a political manifesto or program are all too obvious, even in atheistic ones. It is that philosophical understanding that appeals to the deeper aspirations of people and motivates them to support the political process, whether it is explained in philosophical or populist terms.

When looking at antiquity we must take into account the religions and philosophies of the time, as political forces used those to rally the masses. Obviously the masses and their aspiration also impacted the type of ideas that were most useful. For example, in a patriarchal and superstitious society, if the emperor was declared to be god, people would seek to incur his favor and avoid his wrath. If a central cult was good for national unity, a temple would be declared god’s house so people would honor it with their gifts, hoping for some divine returns. If society needed management at the personal level, a priestly class was needed to represent and mediate between god and the individual, and people would seek their favor as well.

Apart from this interdependence with the socio-political order, religion had no other forms of validation. There were sacred formulas, laws, doctrines, concepts and definitions of God, rituals, holy places and ancient scriptures, but that was all. Other than that, there was no other reality that religion could offer, no real or present experience of the divine, no transcendental manifestation except those written in their ancient traditions. What mystical tradition existed, was a fringe phenomenon, sometimes bizarre and rarely part of mainstream religion, furthermore even these were used to further validate the claims of the official cult.

So here is the peculiarity of primitive Christianity. Jesus had stepped out of the religious and political order to introduce an alternative one, another view of life and the world. He called it the empire of God, as opposed to that of Rome, but when asked about it by Pilate, before his crucifixion, he said: “My empire is not of this world.” He was speaking of a reality beyond the one ruled by Rome. His revolution was not the usual rejection of one system for another; it was not the dualistic preference of one political order over another. He did not hate the Romans or the Jewish priests. Jesus’ revolution was not motivated by hatred against anyone, even if it did cause the hatred of some. It was as if he was saying: “Rome is here, the temple is here, the world is as it is, but here is an alternative that doesn’t depend on any of them and is available right now.” His alternative went far beyond what a purely political revolution could produce, above what any new social order could deliver, because it was the introduction of a reality already existing, that anyone could access anywhere, even if not all could see it, or were ready for it.

So how was the reality of the empire of God manifested? Rome and its emperor god had so much to show; it controlled the world, with armies, trade, safety and prosperity. The Jerusalem priest had the most holy place, the scriptures and the rites prescribed by it. These were all tangible, visible and recognized, but Jesus and his alternate world? What evidence to demonstrate it? He was an insignificant preacher from an insignificant town, without credentials or powerful institutional backing. How could such a person create such an explosive and rapidly expanding movement? It is widely recognized that the strength and driving force of early Christianity was something out of the ordinary, a mystical experience of sorts. The resurrection, a conversion, being born again and the baptism of the Holy Spirit are some of the narratives employed to explain it. Regardless of which, it appears quite certain that the experience of the divine was the evidence and central feature of this alternative empire idea. Even its outward social manifestation, the love they had for one another, appears to have been more of a consequence than a cause, although some could argue that living in love is a catalyst for mystical experiences. In fact, what comes first? Does living in love attract God or does God cause living in love? Some believe, and it is even in scripture, that they are one and the same (John 13: 35, 1 john 4:8).

In any case, Jesus’ message was revolutionary in the true sense of the word. It was a true challenge to the religious and political systems even if, strictly speaking, it was neither religious nor political. The world it spoke of was a different one and yet it was already there “The Empire of God will not come with observable signs. Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is.’ For you see, the empire of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17: 20, 21). It required being born again to see it, just as God had to be sought in spirit and in truth instead of in religion, religious buildings and holy places (John 3:04). It was an inner reality that Jesus taught to seek in private prayer rather than outward, showy religion (Matt 6,5 and 6), seeking the intimate, personal experience of God, that rebirth which makes one catch the wind of His spirit, and become the manifestations of Her invisible but perceptible flow.

He taught that you couldn’t figure it out mentally, rationally or theologically, but could only experience it by trying it. Only by doing could one discover its origin and nature (John 7:17). He taught that God would send the experience of His presence, which would touch, comfort, teach and guide. Early Christianity was a charismatic movement, led and based on the direct experience of God’s presence and on the mystical manifestation of His gifts. This is what provided the evidence of things not seen and not yet defined theologically, even before its scriptures were developed and organized. It was a revolution vindicated and validated by God himself, by His presence, defined as the Holy Spirit. The mystical experience was the seal of God, His light in their midst, the propulsion of this revolutionary movement and the main difference between mere religion and reality.

True, traditional religions also had oracles, trance-like states and mystical experiences, but they were presented as the reward of scrupulous adherence to the prescribed religious discipline. Whatever mystical experience could be had or observed in the official cults, served to enforce the idea that they were the only legitimate ones, that closeness to god was the reward for obedience to their dictum and traditions. The fact that Christianity offered the experience of God’s presence to anyone and independently of previous religious requirements, was extremely liberating. It basically put a pin on the balloon of religious exclusivity sustained by those who considered themselves the guardians of religious orthodoxy. In Christianity, God was freely giving of himself to anyone open to it, even those whom religion deemed unworthy. That was the appeal, and how the Christian revolution worked, by offering and demonstrating a better lifestyle, blessed by God’s presence, but independent of both political and religious institutions. That’s why they hated it, because up to then, they had claimed a monopoly on both god and the quality of life. A careful study of the genuine epistles of Paul (minus later interpolations), written decades before the gospels, reveal that this was exactly the challenge of early Christianity.

From this comes the obvious conclusion, that when a Christian movement is no longer revolutionary nor mystical, it has died out, even if it continues to exist as an institution. The birth in revolutionary fervor, the life and eventual death in institutionalized religion, is a recurring cycle as certain as that of the seasons. It is not for human failure that a movement dies, not because people lose their way and forget, but because God is something that happens to people, and not something they generate. It has nothing to do with us, as God is something we can only receive and get caught by, but never manipulate, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them” (John 6.44). The experiencing of God’s presence is what leads to renewal, enlargement, the expansion of human horizons and the birth of new movements. Once the wind of it is past, however, all that remains is what people do to immortalize its memory, the writings, theology, traditions, songs and the nostalgic emotions that resemble movement but cannot move anymore.

Nonetheless, whoever has known the revolutionary action of the spirit, even if past, immediately recognizes an imitation, that which pretends to be but is not. Whoever has known God’s presence, recognizes the difference between Christianity and Christendom, the mass marketing, domesticated version that imperial Christianity became. Inevitably, when the Christian movement and its mystical dimension are made more attractive and appealing for mass consumption, it loses its power to move at a deeper level. Whenever Jesus is reduced to a mere evacuation plan out of this life, to a mere theoretical and theological formula, or to a manageable moral figure that supports the established order, then the same system that sent him to the cross has been recreated. When all that is preserved of his movement are the harmless aspects, the inoffensive doctrines, the theoretical definitions of God, traditions and places, the end result is exactly the opposite of a mystical revolution; it is instead the same reactionary system against which Christianity had rebelled.

God does not seem to sanction with his presence that which does not represent him, that calls itself by his name, but which is only a synthetic counterfeit. Two thousand years of history show us that Christendom has been anything but a faithful representation of Christ. The so-called Christian west has been guilty of some of the worst crimes and caused the most devastating conflicts. Even so, in this long and sometimes sad history, there were many bright spots caused by those who managed to extricate the true seeds of the Gospel; those in whom they blossomed, bringing forth the fruits of a real Christian alternative and true experience of the divine. Always out of step with others, seen with suspicion and even persecuted and yet, these revolutionary mystics whose names would fill books have left their mark in history.

As always, even today there are those who have known, who have experienced God, who have made a U-turn and gone against the tide; who have dropped out of the accepted pattern, as if seeing what no one else could see. Indeed, it was because they saw it, even if they couldn’t quite explain it, because human language was inadequate and could only approximate things, through parables and similitudes. These are they who, when meeting the religious-commercial imitation of what they’ve actually seen and known, can’t help but walk away from it. Equally, those who seek for genuine experience recognize the hollow pretense and do not come near it.

Let me clarify, however, that it is not for any ill-intention or sinister conspiracy that these religious counterfeits are produced; they are simply a natural outcropping of our human condition. Dared we to be truly honest, we would recognize this same tendency within each of us. It is in fact an early stage of life to seek to build the container of our ego with unshakable truths, while failing to recognize our many contradictions and paradoxes. Always coming sort of our own goals we nonetheless fill the void with assumptions, with what appears as the most logical deduction and proclaim it emphatically, as if self-evident and irrefutable. This isn’t really wrong, but is part of a process that by elimination and through various obstacles leads us to eventually discard our assumptions and acquire tools for greater understanding, to know less dogmatically and yet more fully. It is that knowing which isn’t merely mental and dualistic, and neither rejects the mind but transcends it while still including it. As a child becomes an adult he does not discard what it knows, it only understands it differently for what more he’s come to know. This natural progression of life isn’t always linear nor does it necessarily proceed in order of age, it does however always come through the death of the mental ego, the imaginary self which we developed in relation and by comparison to others. It’s a knowing that passes through inevitable suffering, falls that swing us upwards, tragedies that awaken us from our slumber, contraptions that cause us to be born again, to open our eyes, to discover latent senses that lead us into ever more learning.

For those who are born to such a life, who have tasted and breathed God’s revolutionary reality, both within and without, for them there are no more substitutes or institutions representing it. It either is or it isn’t. For them compromise is impossible because they can’t untaste what they’ve tasted and can’t unsee what they’ve seen. Having known the original, imitations will not do, not even those emotional phenomena that often pass for mystical experiences. Yet the mystical is only a doorstep away. The cosmic Jesus is the door, the true door and not a doctrine to believe in with our minds. Actually, the more that we believe in what constitutes traditional Christianity, the more we have to unlearn, and the less likely we are to walk through that door. Why? Because we are more likely to think that the old Jewish, Greek and Roman wine, in German, English or American bottles, is good enough.

So I’ll close returning to the beginning, even to the very first Christian writer, the apostle Paul. He began with a mystical experience that allegedly caused him to fall from his horse (whether real or figurative), after which the scales fell from his eyes (real or figurative) and he could see. Then he spoke of a person, most probably himself, who was caught up to the third heaven and heard things so astounding that they could not be expressed in words. Such were the credentials of the main contributor to the New Testament. Written some decades later, the Gospels teach us that we must be born again (get off the horse of false identity) to see the kingdom of heaven (losing the scales from our eyes) and realize that it is neither in Rome nor in Jerusalem but within us (the third heaven) that we meet God in spirit and truth.

What does it all mean? That the reward of a socio-political religion is merely social and political, Rome or Jerusalem, while the real Christian alternative is for the whole person, an inner transformation that has outward social ramifications, but without external imposition. That was and still is the inner and outer liberty promised by the Christian revolution. It can only start from the individual, through his personal experience of God’s presence. Without that, it is better not to even try, as Christianity would only be an outer belief system, and bound to disappoint. Exactly as such, Christendom is in decline, but if Christianity is to survive, its only hope is in the mystical golden seeds that lay buried in its history. Those who find them, plant and water them, will reap their fruits.

“The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all”. Karl Rahner

Faith as Resistance to Orthodoxy

What If? & So What?!

Birth and Death of a Revolution

We were a movement and a revolution, so we believed in change and we practiced it too. We had left the beaten paths of tradition to sail on uncharted seas and were driven by a wild wind. We knew not whence it came from nor where it would lead but it took us on a wondrous journey, to a world where anything was possible, where miracles were a way of life.

With us there was nothing carved in stone, no doctrines, practices or methods that couldn’t change, if God showed us a better way. The only thing which we deemed unchangeable was the author of change Himself but even then we didn’t see God as a static monolith, frozen into some orthodox definition but saw Him as moving, dynamic and beyond definition. If there was a definition which we did favour, it was that of Love but even so our understanding of Him was expanding continually. In fact, there was as much to learn about God as there was to unlearn and each new learning required some unlearning.

The old had to die in order to make room for the new, as the bottle could not contain both, old and new wine at the same time. The distant, austere, white-bearded God up-in-the-sky of church orthodoxy could not coexist with the passionate, loving and caring One who lived within us each step of the way. Our God was near, alive, moving and speaking every day, and not just through the pages of an ancient book, but through each moment of our lives. We experienced His reality on a daily basis, and that far surpassed the theological conjectures of institutional Christianity. We were far too absorbed with the wonders of that reality to be concerned with the dry and speculative theories of ancient doctrines, interpretations and orthodox traditions. As our founder said:

We are too involved in this modern time and too interested in the future to be worrying about the past! (ML-1598). We don’t want to ever get so dogmatic or so set in our interpretations that we can’t change our minds when the Lord shows us something different! …If you start tying yourself down too much to some of your old traditional interpretations … you may find yourself so boxed in & limited in your theology & interpretation of the Bible, that you have no room left for anything else, anything new the Lord has for you! (ML-2210)

To that I may add what became a sort of motto:

To hell with the proper way! – The proper way is of Man! The unexpected and the improper, the unconventional and untraditional, the unorthodox and unceremonious, contrary to Man’s natural expectation, this is the way God usually works! (ML-35)

So, traditional Churches judged us heretical and said that we had a different God and a different Christ. They were right, theirs wasn’t at all like ours and we really could not see eye to eye, especially with fundamentalist evangelicals. The Bible, for example, was important to us but it wasn’t as binding as it was for them; it wasn’t our god and we disagreed plenty with it. For us the present was much more important than the past, its dogmas, traditions, rituals and “orthodox” doctrines.

We knew God in the present, heard Him speak daily and followed His voice right there and then. We saw Him, touched Him and lived by His power and presence each moment of the day. It was as if walking on water, as if flying in spite of social, economic and religious rules that said it couldn’t be done. We were doing it and it worked, because He was working in us. We had tapped into a power source which created a different but tangible reality – the kingdom of God within us.

By comparison, when looking at institutional Christianity, even at its most charismatic branches, it was like seeing children playing with toys, pretending to be and to have something which wasn’t there. At the heart of their activity we didn’t see the God of love but that of religion, of religious doctrines and pretended spirituality. Their institutions looked empty, devoid of the very life they proclaimed and the sight of it made us turn away, dreading the thought of ever becoming like them. We even had a word for it, churchianity, to differentiate it from Christianity.

I Know, we were extreme, young, zealous and not very wise. Eventually we did grow up, became less intolerant and even learned to appreciate the fellowship of other Christians. That, however, came as we were also loosing steam and becoming increasingly institutionalized; in essence becoming more like them. Perhaps that’s the way it always goes. As some scholars say, ours was but the natural cycle of all religious movements, who are born in revolutionary fervour but end in institutional conformity. I tend to agree with it but I still like our old motto, “to hell with the proper way. Had we not felt that way we would have never ventured out of the box of religious conformity to discover what God could do without it.

Sure, all revolutions are messy; it is young people who fight in them and the outcome is never what they expect; usually it’s just another system with all the same problems as the first. This was our case too but what made it worth it all is what we discovered in the process, something far greater than what human thought or labour could achieve. In fact, though we may acknowledge the role of some individuals, like our founder, it wasn’t a person or any number of them who brought us into being, but something much greater, otherworldly and yet tangible. That is what made us, what we partook of, what sustained us and got us places. That was the magic that those of the early hours partook of, and it left an indelible mark in our lives, for which I am very grateful.

Without rituals or traditions, we lived as full-time missionaries in communal homes; without orthodox beliefs we saw God working trough us and we felt His spirit moving and leading us daily. With no past to look to, we preferred the present, because that’s where we met God. The bible did have a role, but we preferred what God spoke right there and then. Of course that made us a sect, because we had declared independence from orthodoxy and were developing our own scriptures. In spite of such negative labels we experienced a life of faith incomparable to that offered by any traditional institution. Nowhere else could we find the same love, unity, providence, miracles, spirituality and a living demonstration of a working Christianity.

For decades our miracle ship sailed from shore to shore, as supported and propelled by some invisible force. We had been all across the globe when it began to show the signs of time and could no longer keep its course. We had hoped that this would have never happened to us but we knew that it was inevitable, that all Christian revolutions have their heyday but then either disappear or morph into ecclesiastical institutions. We thought there wasn’t enough time for it to happen to us, but we were wrong; our eschatological expectations were disappointed, just as they were for others before us.

As we approached the inevitable, attempts to keep our ship afloat and on course increased at a frantic rate. Repairs were done, sometimes in haste and causing more damage than good. There were even attempts at restructuring and re-purposing the vessel, but to no avail. The times were different and so were the captain, the crew and the ocean. The past had gone, the magic too, and nobody knew what to do about the future.

Realizing the inevitable, the captain made the final decision to dock the ship in shallow waters and let the crew disembark safely. Most, moved away and found employment elsewhere but some stayed on, hoping that one day the ship would sail again. The ship, however, could no longer handle the freedoms and dangers of the high seas; it could only be used at dock, as a houseboat, a gathering spot for its former crew, for those wishing to remember the excitements of the past. Indeed, the memory of those years at sea was worth preserving and for those who were there, nothing else could compare to it. For them, all religious alternatives were but a vanity fair of cheap and childish rides. Though the defunct vessel could no longer offer anything better, for its former crew it was the link to a precious memory. This, after all, is the cycle of all religious revolutions. All that remains of them, if indeed something remains, are the institutions that preserve their memory, and perhaps even some of their original ideas, but only the milder (milkier) ones.

The Big Question

Naturally, when anything significant comes to an end, there are those who will ask who or what caused it to die, wondering if there were human responsibilities and if it could have been preserved by better choices. Such what if” questions are unavoidable but, if we acknowledge God’s hand in our birth, so must we in our death. For sure we can learn from our mistakes, but I don’t believe that we could have forestalled our demise any longer. If something greater than human effort brought us into being, no amount of human effort could either end it or preserve it. It thus behoves us to seek to understand the plan that goes beyond our particular experience, and which may continue on in spite of changing circumstances.

Such a quest will naturally lead us to wonder about the past, especially about all that we used to believe in and considered God’s words. Here, I would say, it’s important to meditate and come to some conclusion, which might be different for different people. I will continue on the basis of my own conclusions, how I came to answer the various what if questions; so let me list a couple of them:

What if, what we regarded as God’s word at the time actually contained human mistakes, misunderstandings and misinterpretations?

What if, the man we regarded as our founder and prophet was actually wrong on many things and even had serious personal problems?

In view of these possibilities, what would we then make of our past but tangible experience of the divine? How would we interpret it now, how would we sort things out and make sense of it all? Was it all good, all bad or a bit of both and, if so, what was what?

My conclusion is that throughout history all notable leaders and movements got some things right and some things wrong; they were human and understood as humans do, and nobody, even bible authors, were ever exempt from this human condition. The greatness that we admire in some of them is never their perfection, but the spark of genius and inspiration that they caught and acted upon, in spite of their frailties and the opposition of others.

In our case, I believe that the spark of inspiration was in the love that we shared in our communal lifestyle; was in seeing God as Love, as knowable first and foremost in a life of love. That’s how we experienced Him, through a lifestyle based on love, sharing and reaching out to others. That was Christianity at its best, what it actually is, and our societal model had tapped into its living dynamics, power and life. That was the reality of it, and it had come about by a will and design that escaped our understanding. True, God did use a man to get it going and keep it going, but the man was like any other; apart from what God worked through him, he was as weak and fallible as others, and perhaps even more, so that we would learn to tell the difference.

What if I will that thou be as wicked as David of old, that the excellency of the power may be of God–that I may be glorified! (ML-77)

In view of his human weaknesses, considering his role and the likely pitfalls of his career, he was even given a warning (Temple Prophecy, ML-9). The warning came true, in David as well as in those who eventually replaced him, who then fulfilled yet another warning, about the “restructuring” of our movement (Builders Beware, ML-309b). Looking back it all seems very predictable, as if David and successors followed the same script that others did before them, and the same can be said for us all.

Knowing this, what should we think then of that which we used to regard as New Wine Scriptures? Where do we place them now that we are “wiser”? While we did learn to recognize their human dimension, subjectivity and time related value, we also know that they inspired us to live the type of Christianity which we experienced. Today we do not regard them with the same unquestionable trust as we did then, and we might even wish that some were never written. At the time, however, they contained the inspiration and interpretation that resonated most clearly with us and, in that sense, God did speak to us through them. Were they infallible? No way! Were they inspired? Sure, but that inspiration ran through imperfect people and was therefore packaged with their imperfect ideas.

Somewhat related is the next question: If David was wrong on so many things and his writings caused undue suffering to some, could his biggest mistake have been that of straying too far from the Bible and its orthodox interpretation? Had he stuck closer to it would we have avoided lots of problems and maybe even our eventual demise? Personally, I don’t think so. My conclusion is that we wouldn’t have been at all unless he had stepped out of the box of orthodoxy, unless he had realized the limits of the Bible and church interpretations.

If I had not been open to change & revelation directly from God, you wouldn’t even be here! So you’d better thank God that He was able to change my mind, & thank the Lord that He was able to turn me around in some cases & start me in exactly the opposite direction! (ML-1934)

This brings me then to another conclusion, about the Bible, which even David hinted about but did not fully develop. Surely you all remember the illustration that grandmother brought up about the Bible covers, the fundamentalist parable denouncing the supposed undoing of the Bible by progressive teachers. Certainly you now realize that David eventually did the same thing by introducing his new wine interpretations. As a matter of fact the Bible was never our main source of inspiration and, as far as spiritual feeding, we compared it to old dry hay versus the green grass of God’s new words. (ML-113) As David said:

You don’t have to know the churches and churchianity and church doctrine or even the Bible as long as you know the truth and the word of God, His word for today. (ML-1592)

Well, I now look at David very differently than I did 30 years ago, but I still agree with his take on the Bible, and I would take it even a step further. I do not think at all, for example, that uncovering flaws in David and his writings will automatically vindicate the Bible as infallible. Instead, I believe that David’s human frailties help us to better understand how God works through people, the dangers and blessings of it, and even how the Bible came about. That which we have matured and come to understand about David’s writings, applies just as well to Bible authors. Thinking that ancient writings were produced any other way, as in a vacuum and free from human interference, by the pure inspiration of God, violates common sense and is an insult to intelligence. If God is calling us to grow up, we cannot do it selectively but must embrace it on all aspects. If we learned to glorify God instead of individuals, as in “Temple Prophecy”; if we learned to recognize God voice coming through earthen vessels, and not confuse these with God, then we must learn to do so consistently, even about the Bible. This, in fact, is what scholarly work on the Bible has made patently clear, that there needs to be a more mature way of reading it, just as with David. Such a way, however, is not necessarily the scholastic way, which is insufficient in its approach to faith, but it is the experiential one, but more on this later.

Just as there were a number of “what if” about David, so there are about the Bible. No matter how progressive some of us felt, all of us held to some superstition about the book. We knew the book fairly well but never studied it in such a way as to come to understand its nature, history, development, authors, redaction and so forth. In part, we looked at it from a fundamentalist perspective, one developed during the Reformation, still anchored on the suppositions of that period and largely dismissive of later developments. But what if, for a moment, we laid aside such a view and looked at what scholarly work has uncovered since? Clearly, I am not speaking of claims made by some fringe scholars, such as those casting doubt on the very existence of Jesus. Extremes aside, if we were to just look at what the majority of believing Bible scholars agree on, it would be enough to undo our former understanding of the book.

The what if  would be many. What if, for example, we were to discover that our end-time views were based on false assumptions about the book of Daniel, of Revelations and of other end-time chapters? What if, we were to discover that historically speaking things do not really add up, especially when it comes to the Old Testament? What if, we were to discover that a good number of Bible books were not written by the people we thought? What if, we discovered that only seven of the epistles were written by Paul, none of the Psalms by David, no epistles by Peter and no gospels by any of the apostles? What if, we discovered that some books, like Jonah, Daniel and a few others, were never meant to be historical, but were fictional works, written at a later date and for a different purpose? What if, we discovered that Revelation has nothing to do with John the apostle and that most second century Christians did not even trust it? What if, we were to learn that some archeological findings, supposedly confirming the Old Testament, aren’t really what we thought? What if, we discovered that they were created by Zionist archeologists seeking to validate their claim to Palestine, and highly touted by Christian Zionists who sought to validate their fundamentalist stance?

So What?!

Well, even if only one of these questions had any truth to it, some would conclude that the fundamentalist parable had come true, that there is nothing left of the Bible but the covers. That is because the fundamentalist has put himself in a corner by claiming that the Bible is inerrant, infallible and exactly right on everything, history, science, politics, ethics and all. If any part of it isn’t so, then the whole falls apart, as there cannot be something that is only “partly” infallible; it either is or it isn’t. The problem is that the fundamentalist’s faith is mostly on his definitions of God, rather than on God Himself, whom he does not really know. If he were to doubt the absolutism of such definitions he wouldn’t know what to think about God anymore. That is his greatest fear, that without the myth of infallibility he wouldn’t know what’s left to believe in. Sounds familiar? Reminds you of something? “If the Pope isn’t infallible then my church might not be the right one after all?” That’s how the idea of Biblical infallibility came about, from the need to substitute that concept of Papal authority, but it’s rooted in the same mentality. It’s a form of idolatry, and idea that cannot stand, for it rests on fear and superstition. Eventually the curtain will fall and the machinery of religious wizardry will be seen for what it is, a human construction. The idea of infallibility is unsustainable and will pass away, which means we can move on to a better approach to scripture, a more mature one that will allow us to seek God in truth and in spirit, and not merely in script and in doctrines. The letter kills but the spirit makes alive (2 Cor 3:6).

Now, that which dispels the myth of Bible infallibility, isn’t very different from what dispelled our own myths. We too had some things which we regarded as nearly infallible and we learned to view them more maturely, allowing for imperfections and mistakes. We had our fundamentalists as well but, for the most part, we have grown past that stage. The question remains, however, on how to interpret our history and the “scriptures” which we produced. Have they also become like the proverbial Bible covers? Is there anything left of them and can we recover a new way of reading them, as with the Bible?

For me the answer is positive and simple, and it is encapsulated in another question, “so what?!”. So what, if the Bible isn’t infallible? So what, if the letters aren’t all we thought they were? So what, if we see things differently today than we did then? Thank God we do! That shows that we are still growing and changing, and in ways we couldn’t foresee, in ways that the old format could no longer sustain.

If we take an honest look we’ll see that the faith that we lived by did not depend on such things. Ours was an experiential faith, based on a living experience and not on intricate religious dogmas, doctrines or other assumption of infallibility. We believed on that which worked and which we experienced directly, regardless of what traditions and orthodoxy said about it. That type of faith may need redefining, now that we have matured, but it cannot be dismissed or shaken by new and uncomfortable truths. When a true and working faith discovers something untrue about its beliefs, it simply sheds the untrue ideas and gets on with a better notion of what it has known. A true working faith can never be hurt by the truth, no matter how shockingly uncomfortable it may be.

New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has long asserted that Christianity, in its early stages, did not rest on complicated theological propositions, but on the direct experience of the divine. Lately, in response to intellectual debates about the historicity of Jesus, he more or less affirmed that the “real Jesus” is the one experienced in the present, through faith, rather than the one found in speculative historical reconstructions. In essence, whether at its origins or in the present, Christianity rests on a direct and personal experience of the divine; the rest is interpretations.

The experience of the resurrected Christ, and I am not speaking of His visible and touchable body, but of His Spirit within man, is what drove the early Christian expansion. Theology is what came about as a consequence, as an attempt to make rational sense of that experience. The definitions of God, as contained in traditional theology, derived from the necessity of a single interpretation and explanation of what, up to that point, had many interpretations. What we must never confuse, however, is the interpretations with the experience itself, as the divine can never be properly conveyed by human means.

Explanations and interpretations are not God, nor His pure word. So it does not matter what new discoveries we make about David and our history, or about the Bible and its history. Just as the Moletters were not God, nor His inerrant words, neither was the Bible. At best, all these were the record of the experience of the divine, the explanation of how God manifested Himself then, or rather, how the people affected understood Him and His action.

What we usually refer to as God’s words, are in realty human renditions, definitions and interpretations of God’s interaction with humanity. Such words usually match the understanding that people had of it at a specific time. Some words do transcend time; impacting and inspiring us long after they were spoken, but they still remain human. Nonetheless, such human words do carry God’s imprint, the record of His work and of the ideas that He inspired in man. This is why we say the Bible is inspired, because through it we partake, howbeit indirectly, of God’s work and do see His reflection.

If my what if questions undermined faith in the Bible, they only undermined a childish understanding of it and not that which concerns a mature faith. We must also consider that the above questions represent but a fraction of what emerges from Biblical scholasticism, textual analysis, historical and archeological discoveries and a considerable volume of recently discovered documents. True as it may be that some of it is questionable and fanciful speculation, there is enough solid data to demand a new approach to our reading of the book. As a matter of fact, there is no credible theologian or Bible scholar today, who regards the Bible as an accurate historical document.

The problem is that most religious institution still stand on the superstitious beliefs of vastly uneducated congregations. Most pastors and clergymen are perfectly aware of the dissonance existing between popular belief and what they actually know. They studied theology and the various disciplines that go along with it and are perfectly aware of the facts behind my what if questions. In spite of this they prefer to keep things to themselves and not educate their congregations, with the usual excuse that it would hurt their simple faith. Instead of helping them to assimilate these facts and come to a better and more knowledgeable faith, they prefer to let things be, to let people live in their superstitious dream-world. They fear that if their followers were to loose that type of faith, there might not be any faith left at all. Since churches also depend on the faithful giving of their people, it’s best not to upset their simple minds; best to keep true knowledge for the clergy and the educated few who can handle it. The downside, of course, is that eventually people find out anyway and feel cheated by their churches for not telling them. They will then leave and face a process that would have been better handled within the community of faith. This is now the crisis affecting most churches.

In our case we had already learned to recognize inconsistencies within the Bible, to disagree with the OT or with Paul’s epistles. Our diverging on matters concerning women, marriage, sexuality, ethics, etc. is all well documented. Somewhat erroneously, however, we placed on our founder the same type of misguided faith that protestant had placed on the Bible, and Catholics on the Pope. We simply transposed that old concept of divine infallibility over to a new element, David, instead of realizing the very inadequacy of the concept.

It seems to be a natural tendency to assign divine properties to what we see as representing God. Doctrines, traditions, a book or a leader, be it the Bible or the Pope, can easily become objects of veneration, especially if they are all that we know about God. It shouldn’t have been our case, as ours was first and foremost a direct experience of the divine, and of a life fully dependent on it. Even so we retained some traditional views, such as the concept of infallibility and near divinity of individuals and their writings. Eventually we did mature, began to see cracks in it and some of our cherished beliefs no longer appeared so certain. That’s when some folks, disenchanted with the presumed infallibility of people and doctrines, began to seek for something more “deserving”. Instead of questioning the concept itself, some defaulted to traditional orthodoxy, hoping that it would be more “infallible”.

It was a case of drawing the wrong conclusions, because if our failures taught us anything, it’s exactly the opposite. If we learned not to exalt individuals to divinity, that people will always make mistakes and disappoint at some time, that we must recognize the working of God in man without mixing the two, that even the most inspired teaching will always be laced by human understanding and can thus never be final and “infallible”; if we learned this, how could we then look for something worthier of a misguided faith in infallibility? It’s like believing in Jesus and Santa at the same time and not being able to tell them apart. Quite simply, what we learned to discern, to recognize and to differentiate within our experience of faith, applies just as much to the Bible, Bible characters, Church Father, Catholic Saints or modern miracle workers.

Practice and the Primacy of Love

Our faith, after all, stood on something much stronger and more reliable than mere text or personality; it was based on practical application. True, ideas and principles may have come from a book or a person, but it was by trying them that we either validated or invalidated them, making it manifest what came from above or from mere human conjecture. As a social test-tube, free to try multiple ideas and methods, with time we discovered the nature of things simply by their fruits. After all, the litmus test of theory, or theology for that matter, is its practical application.

In John’s gospels, when challenged about the source of his teachings, Jesus answered: “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17). In Matthew’s gospel we find that a similar criterion was given also for judging the teachings of others: “by their fruits you shall know them” (Matt 7:20). So it’s the doing and the results of that doing that tells it all. The question isn’t at all if it is scriptural, as even capital punishment for blasphemy is scriptural, and got Jesus on the cross. If being scriptural was the criterion, then we would have to agree with all the religious wars, inquisitions, crusades and genocides that were carried out with a Bible on hand. One may say that such things were mainly justified by the Old Testament and that it was wrongly interpreted. I would agree, except that it makes it even more obvious that Scripture itself isn’t as final as some would like it to be. Since it needs “proper” interpretation and it cannot be taken literally, the focus shifts to the interpreter and we have come full circle back to the subjectivity of scripture.

According to the Gospels, the clincher lies instead in the results of our actions, which should be guided by love and give the fruits of love. For a Christian, scripture isn’t the final authority but love is, and that is made patently clear in the golden rule, the law of love, the love chapter, John’s epistles and, most of all, in Jesus’ sample. As much as fundamentalists will cry against this relativistic view of scripture, in effect this is what they also practice, but in the most inconsistent way. While claiming that the Bible is the infallible word of God, they never really act as if it is, and thank God for that or we would see Christian terrorism all over.

What we discovered earlier on about the primacy of love and the subjectivity of the Bible, eventually we discovered it also about our new wine. We learned that not everything that is inspired or proclaimed as “Scripture” is of the same quality. Practically speaking, we shunned some scriptural injunctions and aimed instead for that which we recognized as God’s unfolding self-revelation, which is Love. We thus refused dated interpretations, like some violent, tribal and sexist representations of God, and focused instead on that which revealed a Universal God of Love, as embodied by Christ. We made that the focus of our daily lives (tried to) and it activated a chain reaction that moved us into an entirely different plane from doctrinal or theoretical religion. It’s not that we also didn’t have doctrines and some theology, for we did, but love was what took us into God’s being, to enter His reality in a dimension beyond this one. It was the most mystical and otherworldly experience, one which we all shared in and which often made us exclaim “this must be heaven!”

In the absence of that Love, all that remains are always and only the exterior trappings of religion, such as tradition, rituals and writings. Protestants have been quick to point out the idolatrous nature of Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions, but have usually failed to see it in themselves. For example, claiming that the Bible is entirety and all across its pages the absolute word of God is also a form of idolatry and animism. Just as with statues and icons, it amounts to conferring divine attributes to an inanimate object, whether it be sculpted, painted or written. Such superstitious beliefs deserve to be taken apart, and that’s what scholarly work has done. Paradoxically, while scholarly work on the Bible started with the reformation, it is evangelical fundamentalist who oppose it the most.

I am not minimizing the importance of the written word, especially of that which is inspired, like much of the Bible is, but I am speaking of misplaced faith, that which exalts the written record above the experience of the living God, that which values a dead orthodoxy more than a living heresy, that which exalts the book and crucifies the man. The problem with fundamentalists is that they usually know a lot of Bible but almost nothing about it. They even memorize it, but don’t know anything about who wrote it, when, why and how. The reason they don’t promote a more knowledgeable approach is that it would interfere with the interpretations they have chosen to give it. Scholarly work would dispel their superstitious beliefs, but that’s exactly what they fear, that their faith would not survive in a different environment. Superstitious faith, in fact, cannot survive the truth, but for those who known God their faith could only grow; it would be free to follow where evidence (the Spirit) leads, free to read the Bible with new eyes and open to discover new things, which were impossible to see with the old mindset.

To a degree, we did undergo this process within ourselves, discovering that what applied to the Bible and Bible characters, applied also to our founder and his writings, and the other way around. If we are looking for the secret of our experience of the divine, we will not find it in the infallibility of either the Bible or the Moletters, but in the LOVE that we shared. That was the presence of God amongst us, His Spirit and anointing in us, His moving in us, His provision, His miracles and guidance. That was the inspiration behind Love never Fails, Our declaration of Love, The Law of Love and much more.

Love was at the heart of it all and if we let it guide our present quest and questions, we’ll find that the answers are right there in plain sight. It’s love that counts, that’s all the religion you need, that’s what pushed us on to reach out to others, what made us live and share all we had, including our mates, what lead even to FFing, to put the law of love at the heart of our faith, without orthodox beliefs, dogmas or inflexible doctrines. It was the door through which we escaped the religious cage and entered a world of incredible expanse, a world where there was much to learn, where we made many mistakes, but where God was so close we could actually touch Him.

Love was the magic which we experienced when we went beyond natural tendencies to care, to give and to share. This was Christianity at its best, because it expressed the character of the Jesus we called upon, of the Christ who went beyond human survival modes to love beyond his own comfort, even to death for love and lovingly forgiving his persecutors. That was the breaking of our human chains, the door into partaking of the divine nature. That was the Jesus we called upon, the force we tapped into and partook of. That is the God that we worshipped and which we experienced in our life of love.

Take love away and all that’s left is rules, doctrines, writings, traditions and things that we aren’t even so sure about anymore. Take love away and for sure we’ll run to find shelter in orthodoxy and the church system, because if Christianity is an empty box, then we might as well get the best that the world can offer. Take love away and all that is left of Jesus is the dude invoked by crusaders, fundamentalists, inquisitors and today’s exporters of democracy by war. That’s the difference between the Jesus we have known and the one of mere religion.

The Family wasn’t built on prophetic interpretations & theological hairsplitting!–It’s first of all built on love & consideration & sympathy & compassion! As we’ve often said, love is the most important thing! People who are won to the Family by vague or highly theological prophetic interpretations might get discouraged & drop out if your predictions don’t come to pass! (And they didn’t) –But if “the Love of Christ constraineth them” (2Cor. 5:14), & that’s why they’re here, whether there be prophecies that fail, whether there be tongues that cease & whether there be knowledge that vanishes away, they won’t fail, cease or vanish away!–Because “love never fails!”–1Cor.13:8. You may have the gift of prophecy & understand all mysteries & all knowledge, but without love it’s nothing!–1Cor.13:2. Love is the life’s blood of this work!–The Spirit of God’s Love! (ML-2210)

It is not simply that God “loves,” but that He is Love itself. Love is not merely one of His attributes, but His very nature. – A.W. Pink

Law of Love – About Sex – The Lure of Orthodoxy

Previously written in 3 or 4 parts, these articles have been compiled into pdf files for easier reading.

Law of Love

About Sex

Lure of Orthodoxy

What we know and what we think

The intricate relationship between facts and doctrines

Doctrines determine our religious thinking, but what are they? We know they are beliefs taught by a religious institution or group, but how do they form and what are they made off? While some doctrines originated with the actual founder of a religion, others developed over time. In either case, doctrines tend to become increasingly complex, either due to developing misunderstandings, unforeseen consequences, or having to vie for legitimacy amongst competing doctrines. The clearest example might be the doctrine of the Trinity, a very complicated formula which emerged from a long struggle between alternative views. Another is baptism. For early Christianity it might have been the simple continuation of a previous tradition but, as time passed, there came disputes about the correct way to do it, who could preside it, which baptismal formula and so forth. Today the doctrine is more complex than ever, with as many disagreements as there are Christian denominations.

Just a few samples, but the list is endless, especially if we looked at the development of Christology, soteriology and eschatology (Nature of Christ, salvation and end-time). Even behind the simplest doctrines, there are volumes of theology, of hairsplitting arguments about the correct or incorrect way of looking at it, and why it must be so. At the end of the day, doctrines become a mixture of elements, proceeding from multiple sources. There is the influence of the original founder, of notable figures in the history of the church, of theologians, of tradition, rituals, etc. All this is woven into a coherent and cohesive interpretation, the best rational conclusion that can be drawn from all available sources.

Needless to say, the process has been impacted also by political concerns. It was the case when Christianity became Greek, then Roman and when Roman Catholicism broke with Greek Orthodoxy. Their schism was mainly for political reason, but required theological justifications, so each developed their own brand of doctrines. It happened again when the Reformation parted ways with the Catholic Church. Many protestant doctrines still have at their heart the need to withstand Catholic authority. The same for Catholic doctrines that were devised as a response to the Protestant challenge. When the Reformation further fragmented into multiple denominations, each needed its particular set of doctrines.

Being that so many doctrines came into being from disputes and schisms, doctrines became a badge of distinction and the defining feature of competing denominations. As a consequence, today there is an incredible array of doctrines, touching on a myriad of subjects, but which don’t agree with one another. Somewhat ironic, however, is the way in which each denomination presents its own set of doctrines, as evident truths: “The Bible says so, look, it’s right here, as clear as can be”. Clear it may be, to them, but why so many disagreements? “Because we are right and they are wrong!” is the usual answer, but you’d think that if something is so clear, there would be a general consensus on it, after all we read the same Bible; or do we? Instead, Christianity has been plagued by doctrinal disagreements from the very start, and it even went to war for them. This alone should demonstrate the amount of unchrist-like, speculative elements, which have come to be part of our “Christian” doctrines.

The issue is so complex that none can even be a priest or a pastor, not an effective one, unless he first undergoes years of theological studies. It’s imperative for them to know the nature and background of their doctrines, and know how to uphold them without straying into competing ones. Church members, in turn, are given just the bare essentials, a digest version of it. The Apostles ’ Creed makes a good illustration; while appearing as a simple creed to recite at liturgies, it would take an extensive course on Trinitarian theology to understand what’s behind it and what it really means.

Most churches realize that “understanding” doctrines is not for everyone, that most people are satisfied with the condensed version, and do not care to see what it’s made off. After all, there are other reasons for belonging to a church and one of them may be the actual experience of the divine. The fact, however, that the experience happens in an environment heavily imbued by doctrines, leads people to interpret it from the perspective of those doctrines. That’s why, in one church, the same experience can be attributed to a certain practice, cult or spiritual agent, while in another church it will be credited to something different. It could be said that God comes to those who seek him in whatever state they are, regardless of which doctrines they believe in. Doctrines, in any case, are what shapes our interpretation of such encounters; they impact our imagination and thinking of God.

So, how solid is that thinking? Depends on how much of it is based on facts, on actual experience, and how much of it is based on doctrine. Then it depends also on how solid those doctrines are, how much in them is based on experience, revelation and a living interaction with God, or how much of it is conjectures, arguments, speculations and politics. It’s a big question and the answer isn’t easy. It takes loads of time just to trail back to the origins of a doctrine, to understand how it came about and why; then, even more time to understand what effected its development to the present state, what counterarguments there were, etc. The most common fallacy is to think that present doctrines reflect the thoughts and beliefs of early Christians. Nothing further from the truth! Christianity has changed so much that to even begin to understand it would require extensive studies of its history.

In any case, no matter how much one studies, it is still unavoidable to confuse facts with doctrines, that which we know, with that which we merely think. How does it happen? Because even that which we actually know, is automatically interpreted, and interpretations change when more knowledge is added. Speaking for myself, I usually find it embarrassing when, after proclaiming something for a fact, and for an extended period of time, I then find out that it wasn’t exactly so. It has happened many times and I have seen it happen with others as well. It is odd how we can be so convinced of something we merely think, just because it is related to something we do know, and yet be so incapable of telling the two apart.

How is it that we struggle so much to tell the difference? When is it that we can actually say that we know something, as opposed to when we merely think so? Of course there are things that we do know, which we have seen and touched, and there are also things which we can’t sense but we have equally found them to be true; things like laws, principles, energies and entities that require other means of verification. In any case, whether of things visible or invisible, whatever we have come to know, we never have a complete knowledge of them. Learning never ends and there is always something more to discover, even about that which we know best. Nonetheless, it is correct to say that we know it, to whatever degree, if we have personally tried it, verified it and somehow interacted with it. Even a partial knowledge is knowledge nonetheless. It’s like the old adage about the iceberg, we may not know what the whole looks like but, by the small part that we see, we know what the whole is made of. The problem is that our thinking often exceeds actual observation, creating a mental image that surpasses available facts; so it’s natural for us to imagine the full shape of the iceberg and, perhaps, even sea creatures hiding beneath it.

What we observe, about anything, leads us to develop images of what we still don’t know about it. Our thinking, on many issues, is thus comprised of both, facts and theories. As one dictionary put it “facts are observations whereas theories are the explanations to those observations”. Naturally, as we move along and learn more about something, what we used to only theorize about it does change. Our thinking changes in direct proportion to the amount of data that we acquire on a given subject. It’s unavoidable, but when new data alters our perception of something, it’s not because what we knew before was wrong, but because it was partial and the rest we were only imagining it. Because our thinking was made of facts, as well as suppositions, when new facts emerge, our thinking changes. It’s not our initial observation that was incorrect, but what we theorized about it.

Let me make an example, for most of our history we used to think that the earth was flat and the sun moon and stars turned around it. Ancient literature is full of such references, including the Bible. With time we gained a different perspective and learned that things worked differently. The initial facts haven’t changed. From our human perspective the earth still appears flat and the sun, from our point of view, does turn around it. That is an observable fact, but our interpretation of it has changed, because of new data which the ancients didn’t have. It’s what they used to theorize, in the basis of their observations, but about what they couldn’t see, that has changed. Today we have more information but, because we still don’t know everything, we continue to develop theories about the universe, matter, space, time, etc. It’s a question of perspectives, of points of observation, and these will change in relation to the available data.

It isn’t something unique to astronomy; it applies to all of us. As children we had limited knowledge and our perspective was proportionate to it. As we grew older and gained better notions, our perspective expanded with it. As it happens individually, so it does with humanity at large, and we see it in history, where knowledge accumulates and perspectives improve. We may not always move forward but, with less that is speculative, we get better results in many areas, like medicine, technology, education, living conditions and so forth.

To a degree it’s the same with religion. To make an example, Jesus was born in a time when the nation of Israel had a particularly narrow understanding of itself, its history and the world. This limited perspective led them to think a certain way about God and their long awaited Messiah. They imagined God as a tribal divinity and the future Messiah as a conquering king, a military leader who would do them justice, restore them to their former glory, and cause them to rule over the world. Of course, there were variants to this interpretation, but nobody could really think out of the box of that cultural milieu.

Jesus’ first followers were no different; they also understood him that way and we see it all through the gospels. Some, thinking that he would soon become king, asked him for positions of power (Mark 10:37), others, thinking he would save the nation, were disappointed by his sudden death (Luke 24:21). It was only after Jesus’ apparent failure, when instead of becoming king he was executed as a criminal, that his followers underwent a major readjustment of their thinking. Disappointed in their former hopes, yet conscious of what they had experienced with Him, and did continued to experience, they began to elaborate a new perspective. What they had imagined was shattered, but they now had lots of new facts, so they just needed to re-figure things out. The New Testament is the record of this process, which didn’t stop there but continued on through the centuries, until today.

As the Jesus experience moved past the brief moment of His earthly life, there arose various speculations about the meaning of it all. Interpretations flourished until the fourth century, when the imperial church decided to standardize its doctrines. It was then that discrepancies between competing ideas were worked over into a single orthodoxy. It took an enormous amount of effort, time and deliberation, as well as political pressure, to finally come up with a reasonable interpretation of all available data. It was the most rational answer to the many questions arising out of the Jesus experience. There were historical facts, a mystical dimension and varying traditions. Making rational sense of that was a monumental job and that’s where our doctrine of the two natures of Christ, and the Trinity, came about.

It was like the illustration of the iceberg, where you see only a tiny part compared to the whole. Jesus, as human, had been visible, so they knew about his human nature. The spiritual experience was also real, so there was some evidence of another nature, but it was invisible. From this came the various suppositions about the rest of the iceberg, the part that couldn’t be seen. There were enough facts to somehow demonstrate God’s nature, but they still didn’t know what that looked like, if he was one, two or three. The Trinity was the best theory they could devise then. Out of all supposition, it was the one that made the most sense, but it’s still only a theory. That’s what most of our theology and doctrines are, theories, speculations, maybe even brilliant ones, but theories nonetheless.

At the personal level, this is also how our faith works. Some of it is based on facts, stems from a personal experience and interaction with the divine, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, etc.; then there is the influence of our religious environment, which isn’t much different from what the first disciples faced. Religion, for the most part, still rests on the accumulation of old ideas and speculations. What we think about the invisible God, is highly influenced by doctrines that made sense in antiquity, but hardly speak to us today.

Doctrines develop as a way of interpreting the experience of the divine. Indeed, they can be the best explanation for the time in which they are formulated, but doctrines, like the wine and wineskins that Jesus spoke of, don’t keep forever. Facts remain facts, but following generation may have more facts to go by and thus develop better interpretations. Everyone also experiences God in their own way, time and place, so facts and doctrines don’t always keep the same relation to one another. Relying on other’s interpretations, especially if from antiquity, may in fact prevent us from experiencing God, as a fact, in the present. Too strict a model of how such an experience should be, is like an old wineskin that cannot accommodate new wine. True, God does not change, but we do and our understanding of Him does too. Considering how little we know, it’s obvious that we must keep growing and learning, that there is a constant need of renewal, both of the wine and the wineskins, of the doctrines and the recipients.

It isn’t just a generational issue; it is so even during a person’s lifetime. An example: as a child, one may treasure the picture of Jesus by his bedside, imagining Him to be just like that, like the blond blue-eyed dude who posed for the painting, or played in the film. The story of David and Goliaths, or Jonah and the whale, may also define God’s character in the child’s mind. These may be his first steps into Christianity, his first ideas about God, and he may even experience the divine within the context of these images.

Invariably, as the child grows, his thinking will change, he will question almost everything, in order to get a better understanding. As childish things are left behind, so will his childish ideas about God. That’s why many people, as teenagers, will drift away from religion, even if only for a period, which is actually positive. If this didn’t happen, the person would remain spiritually undeveloped and stuck in a childish world.

In any case, whether the young person remains religious or not, the childish understanding must be put away, if one wishes to gain a better one. Doubts about childish narratives are healthy, and must be dealt with in order to find better answers, which translates into an adult’s faith. There has to be first a crisis of one’s beliefs, a quest for more, which then leads to personal discovery, some type of contact, of personal experience that propels the adult into a new level of faith.

Things, however, will not stop there. Any narrative about God, with time will always become insufficient and appear childish. Growing spiritually means constantly shedding the past, facing new challenges and finding new answers. Facts will not change; old knowledge neither, but speculative, doctrinal points, that which we thought the facts meant, will change and will be in constant flux. If it wasn’t so there would be no growth.

Returning to the analogy of the new wine and the old wineskins, Jesus said:

no man putteth new wine into old wineskins; else the new wine will burst the wineskins, and be spilled, and the wineskins shall perish. But new wine must be put into new wineskins; and both are preserved. No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better” (Matthew 9:14-17, Mark 2:21-22)

The usual interpretation is that Jesus’ new message was so radically different, that it required lots of stretching to accommodate it. It was thus more suitable for a younger crowd, than for those too set in their old ways. Jesus’ new wine required new followers, but the illustration leads also to a second preposition, which if often overlooked. Doesn’t all wine eventually get old, and doesn’t every new generations (wineskins) also need newer wine? New wine only remains new only for a short while. New ideas, concepts and discoveries, also age with time and are superseded by newer ones.

That which our forefather devised, to interpret the world as they saw it, is largely dated and no longer applicable. That which the Church Fathers, also devised to interpret the Jesus experience, is laced by dated knowledge, by how they saw the world then. The Jesus experience remains a fact, for whoever has come to know it, but its past interpretations are no longer viable today. Many Christians are painfully aware of this and long for a new reformation, a new Luther, or anything that would, once again, shift the paradigm of Christianity. There will be, it’s inevitable, but I scarcely imagine that most Christians would welcome it. Why? Because it won’t be as they imagine it.

Changes are never easy and not everyone has sufficient facts to hold them steady through them. That’s why most people fear them, because their “faith” is mainly in their heads, in their thinking, which is made of doctrines, and not actual experience. For most, loosing doctrines means losing faith, for there would be nothing else to rest it on.

Life, however, unfolds in such a way as to bring us all to change. Eventually we all grow past what we used to think and, willing or not, we adjust accordingly. Even so, not everyone desires learning as intensely, grows at the same rate, or even likes moving forward. We all go through similar stages but never at the same time ad sometimes we fight against it. Each of us has to first run out of resources, before we will look for new ones. Unless we realize the insufficiency of former ideas, we will not look for better answers.

That’s why it’s so hard to talk to fundamentalists, of any type… they are so full of their ideas that they can hardly listen to anything else. They have no doubts, no questions and, therefore, seek no answers. Their time will come but, to a degree, all of us are a bit like that. At different times or on different subjects, each of us can be both, an old and a new bottle. It all depends on how facts, in our life, relate to our thinking. If our experiences are satisfactorily interpreted by a set of doctrines, then we should probably live by them until new questions arise. Only then will we have the vacuum and desire for more. If the old wine still fills us, there is no room for the new, as Jesus said. Until one begins to recognize that the old has lost it’s effect, he will not seek for the new. Until one faces his own doubts, not treating them as weakness, but as opportunities for growth, he will not find answers to his questions. Real faith is vacuum, hunger, being empty and seeking to be filled.

To keep that vacuum alive, which is real faith, we must constantly remind ourselves of how little we really know, and how disproportionately bigger is what we merely think and suppose. We should certainly hold on to what we do know, and yet be willing to let go of what we think about it, if it no longer satisfies. It is by seeking to separate facts from thinking, hard as it may be, that we remain in that humbler posture in which one may continue to learn. We might thus progress a little faster and move through life a little smoother; at least we won’t fall into so many doctrinal arguments.

Doubts, after all, are steps to progress; they are like the vacuum that can be filled, like a new winesking that begs for new wine. Being full of oneself and one’s opinions, leaves no room for more. One must doubt the old to seek for the new. Like the man who said “Lord I believe… help me in my unbelief”, we must also face our doubts and yet ask God for help. That’s true faith, not one that hangs to an old thinking pattern, but one which dares to question it, which embraces uncertainty, for it needs it to reach up to better things.

PS: Some may ask: How can doubt and faith coexist if believing is seeing, if by faith we know, see the invisible, obtain miracles and receive salvation? The apparent contradiction stems from confusing faith with belief. Here is a fitting explanation, by Jaques Ellul: http://www.christinyou.net/pages/faithbelief.html

Another possible question could stem from the fear of falling into relativism in our thinking of God, faith, the Bible, etc. For that I would like to add some excerpts by John S. Spong:

…two things are obvious. First, if we had not defined Jesus theologically and built institutional religion around him, his memory would probably not have survived. Second, because we defined Jesus theologically and built institutional religion around him, his memory might not survive.

What then can we do? We can separate the Christ experience from the Christ explanation and allow Christianity to become an ever-evolving religion that replaces its dated explanations in each generation.

That means that we recognize that the New Testament is a 1st century explanation of the Christ experience. It is not an objective record of truth and can never be called “inerrant” or be understood literally.

It means that we recognize that the creeds and all the doctrine and the dogma that flowed from the creeds are 4th century explanations of the Christ experience and can never define truth nor can they make or sustain the claim to possess “the one true faith.” We must thus dismiss any claims that these words or any interpretation of these words are or can ever be infallible.

It also means that we must become aware that almost all of our liturgical forms are 13th century explanations of the Christ experience, and must never be frozen in content or form. They can thus never be imposed as the norm for worship in another age.

The Christian faith is always a journey into the truth of God. None of us will ever arrive at our destination and those who think that they have arrived or who pretend to have arrived immediately become idolaters. The truth is that all of us will be forever pilgrims.

Can the Christian Church in any of its institutions ever deal with that? Most of the available evidence says no. Lone voices cry out yes. Will these lone voices be heard or will they remain voices crying out in the wilderness? Time will tell. In the meantime, keep your voice strong and vibrant.

Rob Bell on the Bible

http://robbell.podbean.com/e/episode-8-the-enduring-relevance-astonishing-power-and-unexpected-brilliance-of-the-bible/