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Prayer.Bliss.Light

Like many who early in life started asking hard questions about the religion of their upbringing, I spent years and years receiving less than adequate answers. Asking questions was often viewed as an act of alienation, a sign of faithlessness, backsliding or apostasy.

At some point, I realized that the discomfort caused by my questions was related to the fact that no one really knew the answers – other than to (basically) say, “The Bible tells me so.” I would then ask, “How do you know that the Bible is true?” The answer would always, of course, circle back around to, “Because the Bible tells me so.”

Period.

Beyond questions about the existence and nature of God, the veracity of the Bible, the mystery of the Trinity and so forth… what I really wanted to know was, “Where is the direct experience of God in all this?”

Crickets.

So, I determined to leave the religion of my upbringing. I stopped going to church and watched football on Sundays instead. I got jobs, made friends, went to concerts and Dodger games, parties, bars, softball leagues, bowling leagues, bookstores, coffee shops, etc., etc., etc. – all the things that offer an illusion of individuality. I honestly thought I’d left all that church stuff behind – except when I paused to notice that a vestige of “all that” remained intact.

This vestige was, I now know, the presence of God – the common LIFE-NESS that animates and breathes into all existence, perfectly, mysteriously, miraculously.

I may have sought a direct experience of God through spiritual traditions outside that of my upbringing, but my own sense of the Absolute never changed. I may have been reading the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras  and Upanishads, but when I looked inside of myself, I found that these writings pointed to the same direct apprehension of “God” that I’d always known. Same thing with Buddhism, which purports to be a system without God. When the Buddha talked about jhana/samadhi, which is self-arising bliss, joy and ecstasy, it was the same bliss, joy and ecstasy I’d always felt when the presence of God was most undeniably upon me.

Fact is, no matter how far afield I strayed from the religion of my upbringing, the more stark the realization that God is omnipresent.

Many years after leaving the fold, while putting the pieces together through a renewed pursuit of answers, it occurred to me that, if God – the presence of self-arising bliss, joy and ecstasy that is a constant reminder of the Infinite – is omnipresent and has never abandoned my field of awareness – shouldn’t I stop running and open a line of communion with the LIFE-NESS of all existence? Wouldn’t this be the direct experience I’d always desired?

They call this line of communion “prayer.”

I’m not talking about the rote recitation of thanksgiving over dinner – although that’s a wonderful and healing thing to do. I’m not talking about the conditioned imperative to ask for forgiveness so that one’s transgressions may be wiped clean – although, of course, this provides a profound sense of relief, as we humans are always transgressing in this way or that, followed by a burden of guilt whether acknowledged or not.

For me, prayer is a conscious availing to That which is always nudging from within, the Great Soul that lives inside all of us and is just waiting for our attention. Prayer is a form of surrender that says, “I’ve been acting like a separate entity all this time, pretending that I can – in and of myself – find ultimate contentment and satisfaction… but now I realize that my consciousness is just a minuscule fraction of the One Consciousness, and the wisest choice is to align with That.”

When we clear away the theological inquiries, the metaphysical riddles and the myriad practices that flood the spiritual marketplace, we are – in my opinion – stranded in a loneliness that feels like checkmate. We possess all this knowledge and witnessing of sages, saints and scholars who have either found their way Home, or who seem to know the path – but what does this knowledge get us? Does it bring us any closer to God? Or does it provide yet another diversion from a direct experience of God?

At a certain point, our prayer, meditation and/or contemplation must put us into immanent union with the Ultimate – with God – and it must provide a constant remembrance of our true relationship with That. Further, it must lead us to utter surrender – even when it means years and years of struggle (Dark Night of the Soul), as our false sense of separateness is whittled to the bone.

In the end, a life of prayer leads to genuine relinquishment, where all false beliefs go to die.  Constancy in prayer, meditation and contemplation provides the intelligence, power, guidance and communion that alleviate the utter loneliness that meets me at every turn. I cannot ultimately rely on myself, nor can I rely on other flailing humans – but I can rely on the LIFE-NESS that was, is and always will be in and around me, making Itself available as the Answer to the deepest questions I could possibly ask.

All that is required is to continually die to myself, either through conscious letting-go or through kicking and screaming every step of the way.

This is my notion of prayer.

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Jesus and the Tax Collectors

A retelling from a master… about The Master:

Levi, a disciple

On those who would confound Jesus

Upon an eventide He passed by my house, and my soul was quickened within me.

He spoke to me and said, “Come, Levi, and follow me.”

And I followed Him that day.

And at eventide of the next day I begged Him to enter my house and be my guest. And He and His friends crossed my threshold and blessed me and my wife and my children.

And I had other guests. They were publicans and men of learning, but they were against Him in their hearts.

And when we were sitting about the board, one of the publicans questioned Jesus, saying, “Is it true that you and your disciples break the law, and make fire on the sabbath day?”

And Jesus answered him saying, “We do indeed make fire on the sabbath day. We would inflame the sabbath day, and we would burn with our touch the dry stubble of all days.”

And another publican said, “It was brought to us that you drink wine with the unclean at the inn.”

And Jesus answered, “Aye, these also we would comfort. Came we here except to share the loaf and the cup with the uncrowned and the unshod amongst you?

“Few, aye too few are the featherless who dare the wind, and many are the winged and fullfledged yet in the nest.

“And we would feed them all with our beak, both the sluggish and the swift.”

And another publican said, “Have I not been told that you would protect the harlots of Jerusalem?”

Then in the face of Jesus I saw, as it were, the rocky heights of Lebanon, and He said, “It is true.

“On the day of reckoning these women shall rise before the throne of my Father, and they shall be made pure by their own tears. But you shall be held down by the chains of your own judgment.

“Babylon was not put to waste by her prostitutes; Babylon fell to ashes that the eyes of her hypocrites might no longer see the light of day.”

And other publicans would have questioned Him, but I made a sign and bade them be silent, for I knew He would confound them; and they too were my guests, and I would not have them put to shame.

When it was midnight the publicans left my house, and their souls were limping.

Then I closed my eyes and I saw, as if in a vision, seven women in white raiment standing about Jesus. Their arms were crossed upon their bosoms, and their heads were bent down, and I looked deep into the mist of my dream and beheld the face of one of the seven women, and it shone in my darkness.

It was the face of a harlot who lived in Jerusalem.

Then I opened my eyes and looked at Him, and He was smiling at me and at the others who had not left the board.

And I closed my eyes again, and I saw in a light seven men in white garments standing around Him. And I beheld the face of one of them.

It was the face of the thief who was crucified afterward at His right hand.

And later Jesus and His comrades left my house for the road.

Gary keeps after it, engaging the “war within Christianity” as to whether God sends sinners to eternal torment… or do we find salvation at some point along the soul’s journey?

Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

Albert Barnes says about this verse:

It is to show that we cannot escape the notice of God; that all insincerity, unbelief, hypocrisy, will be detected by him; and that since our hearts are perfectly open before him, we should be sincere and should not attempt to deceive him.

Why do we act like God won’t see into our hearts? Why do we live as though God can’t see us?

After all:

James 1:18: Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

None of us is truly separate from our Creator.

We may as well acknowledge this truth, and live each moment accordingly — as best we can, giving to the effort all that we have.

Matt 23:8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. (NRSV)

Many English translations say “brothers” or “brethren” instead of “students.”

While I appreciate the NRSV’s editorial policy of inclusiveness, I think “you are all brethren” better highlights the brotherly and sisterly responsibility we have toward the 7 billion siblings around us.

Matt 22:36-40 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’

This is the greatest and first commandment.

And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Spirit — the loving, divine, transformative, impossible-to-adequately-describe energy that continually beckons from the moment of birth, sometimes coming through in torrents — …Spirit directly and unmistakably delivers the fruits of the Teacher’s guidance to those who surrender completely.

Unwinding the hopelessly-tangled string of our existence is usually a long-term project.  Our highest calling, then, is to become surrendered as often as possible — recognizing that some days will be better than others, and that “failure” sometimes kicks us hard.

Healing and transformation happen in an environment of surrender.

Pain and suffering happen in an atmosphere of resistance.

The way to love our neighbor is through practicing surrender.

1Thess 5:17 Pray without ceasing.

Meditate, contemplate… commune… pray… surrender, as often as possible.


Mat 21:22 And if you have faith, everything you ask for in prayer, you will receive.’ (New Jerusalem Bible, here and throughout)

A dear and respected friend has recently engaged me in a conversation about prayer, positive thinking and what he sees as the misguided notion of a personal God who gives us what we ask for. My friend is, in fact, waiting for my response to a recent email, in which he goes into minute detail around his conclusions, ending with, “What do you think?”

I’ll at least begin my answer here, since the question of prayer and its relationship to contemplation are important for many on the Path.

Mar 11:25 And when you stand in prayer, forgive whatever you have against anybody, so your Father in heaven may forgive your failings too.’

Prayer in a Christian context is a vast subject, with hundreds (or even thousands) of books devoted to its practice. When one searches for the words “pray” and “prayer” in the Bible, one can’t but be reminded that Christianity (as well as its Abrahamic relatives, Judaism and Islam) involves a relationship between some form of Deity and the individual human. This relationship is supported and sustained through study of revealed Scripture, through following certain moral, ethical and religious instructions… and, especially, through a spiritual form of communication known as prayer.

Luk 6:12 Now it happened in those days that he went onto the mountain to pray; and he spent the whole night in prayer to God.

A thorough reading of the four canonical Gospels shows that Jesus seemed to be constantly in prayerful communication with the Father — the “Father” being a personalization of the One God, a concept worthy of a million blog posts, knowing that one can never adequately define “God.” These many examples of Jesus in prayer — sometimes with tears flowing down his face — give many hints as to what prayer is really all about. Absolute supplication and surrender to God — yes, a creator God, a sustainer God and a destroyer God, all wrapped into one — is a primary lesson from these examples, which obviously requires that a person accept the existence of such a God.

This is one of the Mysteries of the human predicament: while an adequate, rational “proof” of the existence of God may be impossible (thereby rendering the concept of God invalid for many), those who “know” God — who have genuine faith, belief and assurance by virtue of strong devotional practice — are able to boldly affirm the power and efficacy of prayer. It can be a maddening paradox, this insistence that one must experience a thing in order to know its truth, while those who invalidate the thing without having experienced it — no matter how rational and ordered the “outside” analysis — will always have to make due with intellectual speculation around something that is spiritual in its essence. When it comes to God, faith comes before knowing.

Mat 6:5-6 ‘And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.

There is something about the act of true, earnest, fervent prayer that demands supplication. Approaching the “Father,” one feels intimidation and even foreboding, and is reminded of the vast insufficiency inherent in human experience. The Christian, in fact, insists that the only way to truly approach the Father in prayer is through a spirit of repentance. One must admit one’s sins, failings and ultimate helplessness, all of which is expressed in vast detail (often from an archetypal or collective perspective, as in the Old Testament stories of the Israelites constantly violating their covenants with Yahweh) in the revealed Scripture, the accumulation of which stands as an indictment of “fallen” human nature. It is understood that, having “confessed” this state of affairs, one has every intention of drawing a line in the sand and doing things differently from hereon out — and it’s not just a pile of words, but a genuine expression of willingness to walk a Path of righteousness, if not holiness. Having adopted such a suppliant attitude, one’s prayers cannot help but be offered in alignment with Divine Will.

The psychological insight at work in this arrangement revolves around an insistence that humans carry a great deal of guilt, regret and self-judgment in their hearts, accumulated over a lifetime filled with dubious (at best) thoughts, choices and actions. This insight says that we require forgiveness, even though we absolutely do not deserve it. Prayer is the vehicle for approaching the infinite Intelligence — the Father — who has authority to forgive, to regenerate and to open up a better way of life — here and in the hereafter.

Again, those who avail themselves of this experience know how profound a healing is available through it. Those who see nothing but fairy tales and delusion in this process are, from the Christian (Abrahamic) perspective, on their own, challenged to deal (or not deal) with life’s slings and arrows in some other way… if such a way exists.

Mar 11:24 I tell you, therefore, everything you ask and pray for, believe that you have it already, and it will be yours.

From the perspective of the Buddha’s instructions on achieving Nibbana/Nirvana in this very lifetime (i.e., “salvation” from the Wheel of Suffering), one may overcome a lifetime’s accumulation of negative, unskillful “dross” — that which holds us in attachment to human existence, with all its inherent trials and difficulties — through a rigorous and skillful contemplative practice that leads to ever-intensifying degrees of meditative absorption (jhana/samadhi). Daily saturation in the bliss, joy and ecstasy of skillful meditation has the effect of eroding — slowly-but-thoroughly — the “fetters” of action and belief that keep us attached to delusional existence. From a Buddhist perspective, “heaven” (or Nibbana/Nirvana) equals liberation from delusional existence, once and for all; we don’t have to pass through this “hell” world ever again; our individual ego-identity is snuffed out, dispersed in a way that (once again) makes no sense to those who’ve not tasted of the eight samadhi states described and enjoined in the Buddha’s teachings.

Rom 8:26 And as well as this, the Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness, for, when we do not know how to pray properly, then the Spirit personally makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words

The Ecstatic Buddhist meditation approach converges with the Christian prayer approach around what is known as the “baptism in the Spirit.”

In the depths of fervent prayer, just as in the bliss, joy and ecstasy of skillful meditation, the “Spirit” makes itself known. The result is “contemplation.” Focusing with all our being on the pleasant manifestations of the Spirit’s Presence invites these manifestations to expand, fill-out and energize, such that the contemplative is gradually “taken over” into ever-refining states of spiritual ecstasy. The Buddha expressed this phenomenon in terms of fulfilling prerequisites for Liberation (Nibbana/Nirvana). Jesus expressed this phenomenon in terms of fulfilling prerequisites for Salvation. Both depend on Samadhi/Spirit. Both challenge the contemplative to surrender his or her egocentric expectations for how the process should unfold, and to commit — in full trust — to spending the remainder of one’s life in an inevitably up/down practice that prepares us for the Final Goal.

Eph 6:18 In all your prayer and entreaty keep praying in the Spirit on every possible occasion. Never get tired of staying awake to pray for all God’s holy people

I know that “true believer” Christians and Buddhists will protest, but I believe that Buddhism and Christianity (leaving aside other traditions begun by enlightened mystics) offer two distinct ways of describing the same ultimate outcome, while the Path that leads there is one and the same.

Prayer — even if offered in hopes of material gain — is a pathway to contemplation, if the person praying approaches God in earnest humility, like a child before a stern and demanding Father. Meditation also leads to contemplation, if the meditator allows self-arising bliss, joy and ecstasy to peel back his or her layers of belief and expectation. Both these approaches enter “hyper-drive” once the “Spirit” (jhana/samadhi) is engaged. Both depend on utter and complete surrender — even if it means dropping (eventually) one’s concepts of a Father God, heaven, hell, Nibbana/Nirvana or the Wheel of Suffering.

Religion, even with its deep corruption and dilution, offers a vehicle for its most dedicated contemplatives — a vehicle designed to carry him or her all the way Home. Granted, the contemplative “seed” at the heart of today’s religions has been mostly hidden, demonized and otherwise excised from orthodox teachings, but this miserable state of affairs has never been able to snuff out what happens under the transformative, ecstatic influence of the Spirit (jhana/samdhi). The challenge is to reach a point of absolute surrender, which leads to commitment to a lifetime’s daily contemplative practice, which connects the contemplative with the Spirit (jhana/samadhi) and leaves individual efforting in the dust.

True prayer and skillful meditation both lead to contemplation. Whether we receive prayerful guidance from the Holy Spirit or from self-arising bliss, joy and ecstasy (jhana/samadhi), it really makes no difference. Either way, one is led “out of the desert” and into an enlightenment that opens the way to liberation and salvation. This is what the Buddha taught, and I believe it is also the Truth behind the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, wherein he sent back the Spirit to guide, comfort and transform those who avail themselves of it.

1Th 5:17 pray constantly

Teresa of Avila

And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”  Matthew 21:22 (RSV)

Since beginning this blog a couple months ago, the back of my mind has been occupied with an unasked question: What is the best-case scenario for this project of reconciliation?

As I feel my way toward some sort of synthesis between Judeo/Christian and Eastern approaches to contemplative attainment, and I extend a tentative hand out to those in the Christian world who show a level of openness and tolerance for non-orthodox points of view, I have to face the very real possibility that it’s just never going to happen — I won’t find an ideal church setting that somehow matches the vision hidden behind all these words.

This morning, for instance, I found myself browsing Google for local church websites. For the fourth or fifth time over the past couple years, I sampled sermon mp3’s, read “what we believe” statements, studied “about Pastor Bob” essays, and subscribed to both podcasts and emails. I found that most of the churches (even in Boulder) take the Bible as inerrant, believe that the Holy Spirit is a person (male, in fact), and insist that the unsaved will experience excruciating torment for all eternity. A few churches (this being Boulder) pronounced themselves safe havens for the gay-lesbian-transgender community, and I could find nothing definitive about their actual Christian beliefs — as though the Bible has long ago passed into oblivion, a vestige of an outdated humanity that has moved on to more exciting things, whatever they are.

This experience moves me closer to an insight that goes something like this:  The type of church toward which I would otherwise be drawn — that which studies the Bible above and beyond all other activities — is also intolerant and fear-based, guarding a fundamentalist/literalist company line that leaves no room for genuine dissent or even questioning (i.e., you’d better end up believing what the church believes, or you’re gone). The other type of church, which goes out of its way to ensure that everyone is safe and all viewpoints are honored, ends up adopting so many popular, New Age, Jungian-inspired elements that I may as well just hang out at the local psychic school, metaphysical bookstore or Unity Church — all of which I’ve tried (worked for several years at a metaphysical bookstore, in fact), without ultimate succor.

As for engaging a contemplative element within local church environs… forget about it! Other than the big Methodist church downtown, which at one point offered a “meditation” class that met on Tuesday or Thursday nights, there’s nary a mention of contemplative practice on any of the websites I studied. The meditation class in question was based on Joel Goldsmith’s writings, he being a past luminary within the New Thought movement of the early-to-mid 20th century. I actually love Goldsmith’s take on things… but, again, I can get that anywhere in Boulder; it’s not what I’m looking for in a local church home.

At a deeper level, I recognize that it’s not about all these churches failing to meet my hopes and expectations.  I know that they do not exist in order to conform to insights and directives arising from my own, personal journey.  Leaders and members of these churches have their own beliefs and experiences, and they’re just doing their thing.  More power to them!

If I’m honest, I never expected to find a church that advertises itself as a community of rigorous and skillful contemplatives (i.e., “urban monks”), teaching its members how to attain and sustain ecstatic union with the Divine as a method for actualizing Christ’s essential teachings.  Who could expect that, when none of the world’s other religious traditions (with the very, very rare exception) value the ecstatic core of their original teachings?

A test confronts me here.

This test asks me to trust.

Rather than grow despondent over the fact that the religion of my upbringing continues to marginalize its “natural mystics,” I am challenged to find a faith within that has already guided me to this point — and that will surely lead me to the most appropriate resolution.

From earliest childhood, in fact, this inner guidance has been operative and available, showing that all good things are not of “me,” but have poured forth from a hidden (yet all-Present) source that responds to conscious surrender.  In other words… things go best when I relinquish the stress and strain of feeling it’s all on “me,” and I present myself a willing “slave” of the hidden source.

So, I am ready to be surprised by what comes of this search, knowing that it will hit me when I least expect it.

This post is offered in mindful acknowledgment of my new friendship with Peter J. Walker, who is an up-and-coming voice within the Movement….

From Wikipedia:

The emerging church (sometimes referred to as the emergent movement or emergent conversation) is a Christian movement of the late 20th and early 21st century that crosses a number of theological boundaries: participants can be described as evangelical, protestant, roman catholic, post-evangelical, anabaptist, adventist, liberal, post-liberal, reformed, charismatic, neocharismatic, post-charismatic, conservative, and post-conservative. Proponents, however, believe the movement transcends such “modernist” labels of “conservative” and “liberal,” calling the movement a “conversation” to emphasize its developing and decentralized nature, its vast range of standpoints, and its commitment to dialogue. Participants seek to live their faith in what they believe to be a “postmodern” society. What those involved in the conversation mostly agree on is their disillusionment with the organized and institutional church and their support for the deconstruction of modern Christian worship, modern evangelism, and the nature of modern Christian community.

Here is the Movement’s home base:

Emergent Village is a growing, generative friendship among missional Christians seeking to love our world in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Here is one of the Movement’s Big Poobahs:

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, pastor, and networker among innovative Christian leaders, thinkers, and activists.

He is a frequent guest on television, radio, and news media programs. He has appeared on many broadcasts including Larry King Live, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, and Nightline. His work has also been covered in Time (where he was listed as one of American’s 25 most influential evangelicals), Christianity Today, Christian Century, the Washington Post, and many other print media.

Born in 1956, he graduated from University of Maryland with degrees in English (BA, summa cum laude, 1978, and MA, in 1981). His academic interests included Medieval drama, Romantic poets, modern philosophical literature, and the novels of Dr. Walker Percy. In 2004, he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity Degree (honoris causa) from Carey Theological Seminary in Vancouver, BC, Canada.

[…]

Brian has been active in networking and mentoring church planters and pastors since the mid 1980’s, and has assisted in the development of several new churches. He is a popular conference speaker and a frequent guest lecturer at seminaries and denominational gatherings,nationally and internationally. His public speaking covers a broad range of topics including postmodern thought and culture, Biblical studies, evangelism, leadership, global mission, spiritual formation, worship, pastoral survival and burnout, inter-religious dialogue, ecology, and social justice.

Another Poobah:

Tony [Jones] is the author of The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier and is theologian-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis. He is the author of many books on Christian ministry and spirituality and is a sought after speaker and consultant in the areas of emerging church, postmodernism, and Christian spirituality. Tony has three children and lives in Edina, Minnesota.

Poobah the Third:

Hi, I am Doug [Pagitt]. Thanks for visiting my site. When it comes to these sorta-formal, non-personal, psueo-professional introductions I like to refer to myself as a social and theological entrepreneur (something I would never do if we were to meet in person).

My work-life has a few aspects to it.

* * *

I have not read any of the Movement’s books, but I’ve been reading associated blogs and listening to various podcasts (like this one, which is really fun — lots of beer, clinking glasses, laughter and other assorted bar sounds).

My impression is that there is very, very little organization going on in this movement, by design. There is an aversion toward top-down hierarchical control, and an admirable recognition of myriad social justice issues that inform emerging theology in ways that I respect.

Part of me wonders, where the hell were these people in 1982, when I left the church in disgust? Where were the “homebrewed Christians” who love to unwind with a cold alcoholic beverage while discussing the Five Points of Calivinism?

Another part of me notices that I went through my “busting out” phase a long time ago, such that partying has long-ago been replaced by the self-arising bliss, joy and ecstasy of a rigorous contemplative lifestyle — and I now long for a Christian movement that recognizes and honors Christianity’s ecstatic beginnings:

1When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

5Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”

No, we don’t have to run around speaking in “other tongues.”

From direct experience, however (as reflected in many Eastern scriptural and teaching texts), the spiritual gifts spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12-14 are alive and well in the experiences of rigorous and skillful contemplatives, many of whom offer mutual support in peer environments here and here. Beyond the institutional Church, there are many (like me) who grew up as Christians, who continue to experience a direct and profound connection with Jesus Christ… but who have encountered varying levels of demonization, repression, aggression, avoidance, disdain and marginalization by “the priesthhood,” such that they had to look elsewhere for succor, understanding and guidance.

The obvious question, then, is whether or not the Emergent Movement offers a place for exiled Christians whose devotional practice has given rise to ecstatic phenomena and are looking for biblical grounding, spiritual fellowship and safe harbor — in short, something resembling the scene created by first century Christians.

Is the ecstatic — which has been traditionally persecuted within most major religious traditions, including Christianity — even part of the conversation… and, if not, would someone like me be welcomed to engage such a conversation within the Movement?

Can I be in the club…?

St. John of the Cross

Here is a recurring thought, stemming from ongoing studies of the Buddha’s discourses and a background in Protestant Christianity: Is it that insane to believe that life on Earth in this 3rd dimensional reality — this bardo, to borrow from the Tibetans — is actually a Hell realm?

What if, rather than necessarily being a fiery zone of unimaginable and constant pain/anguish, Hell is actually a relegation to the Wheel of Rebirth, doomed to being born over and over and over again in this world of delusion… until, at one point or another, one finally steps off the Wheel?

Hardcore conservative Christians insist that Hell is where we go if we turn our back on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, refusing God’s Grace as offered through the blood of the Cross — and once a person is judged to have missed his or her opportunity to attain eternal life in Heaven, that person must spend eternity in unimaginable pain/anguish, separated from God forever.

Universalists and other rogue Christians, however, are able to discern in the Bible a message of universal redemption. They maintain that, according to the overall Divine Plan represented in the totality of the Bible, every human who was ever born will have ample opportunity to attain redemption (i.e., be allowed into Heaven for all eternity), no matter how awful he or she may have been while in human form. Think of Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin and Idi Amin — they would all have the opportunity to “come to Jesus” and achieve eternal life in Heaven.

Christians, I think, get hung up on the notion that this human life — the one I, for instance, am living at the current moment — is all we get. This is our brief moment, “fallen” as it is, to secure salvation through belief in the archetypal Sacrifice of the Son — and then we die, at which time our soul moves on to its just reward.

But… what if the Buddhists have a more accurate concept of life-after-death? What if the Christian doctrine of Hell is only partially correct, in that Hell is actually what we encounter through multiple rebirths on this plane of existence — sometimes horrific, sometimes relatively blissful, always delusional until the light of Nirvana pops on…?

What if Salvation through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension is actually a Mystery-depiction of the one universal Path back into ultimate union with God?

These questions, I maintain, lead naturally to a view of the Bible that tends to restate (in an albeit roundabout way) the Buddhadhamma, or the Middle Path that Gautama Buddha described through the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

While the Buddha refused to expound on the theme of God, he never denied the existence of God. What he gave us, however, was a detailed and (I would maintain) universal set of instructions for getting off the Wheel of Rebirth — out of Hell and into Heaven, in other words — and this message was for all humans who would dedicate their lives to a rigorous and skillful practice of his instructions.

Do you think that Jesus really meant you could get into Heaven by reciting a formula? Or do you think that Jesus, through his teachings and the example of his life, showed us a certain Way to secure union with the Father? Was it really a simple question of faith and belief (i.e., Free Grace)… or did he insist on a much deeper and committed level of surrender?

I sometimes wonder if Jesus, coming 500 years after the Buddha, wasn’t recasting the Buddha’s instructions for a much, much different audience — and, like the Buddha, he insisted that the way to Heaven is attained by dying to this world so that we may be reborn into an infinitely better one.

For both, it came down to transcending the desire-saturated nature of human life on this planet, seeing through the machinations of Mara/Satan, keeping one’s eyes on the prize through constant meditation/prayer/communion.

Hmmmmm…..

To begin our journey, it seems wise to look into some questions regarding biblical composition — questions like: who wrote the Bible; who decided which books would make it into the Bible; and what constitutes biblical Authority?

Conservative evangelicals seem to rally around the notion of biblical inerrancy, or the idea that the Bible was literally written by the Holy Spirit through chosen human beings, and that the Bible in its original texts (which are now lost to us, but are inferred from extant copies) is perfect in every way.

Channeled, so to speak.

Right off the bat, I’ll list some material I’ve quickly found on biblical inerrancy. My own thoughts and conclusions will follow.

Definition (from a well-known and disseminated statement by conservative evangelicals):

1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witness to Himself.

2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms, obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.

3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.

4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.

5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

[From the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy]

Here is Wikipedia’s explanation of the above (which is just a snippet from a larger document):

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was formulated in October 1978 by more than 200 evangelical leaders at a conference sponsored by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, held in Chicago. The statement was designed to defend the position of Biblical inerrancy against a perceived trend toward liberal conceptions of Scripture. The undersigners came from a variety of evangelical Christian denominations, and include James Montgomery Boice, Carl F. H. Henry, Kenneth Kantzer, J. I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer, and R. C. Sproul.

Leading inerrantists regard the Chicago Statement as a very thorough statement of what they mean by “inerrancy”. The statement elaborates on various details in Articles formed as couplets of “WE AFFIRM …” and “WE DENY …”. Under the statement inerrancy applies only to the original manuscripts (which no longer exist, but can be inferred on the basis of extant copies), not to the copies or translations themselves. In the statement, inerrancy does not refer to a blind literal interpretation, but allows for figurative, poetic and phenomenological language, so long as it was the author’s intent to present a passage as literal or symbolic.

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy has been compared to the Vatican Council Decree Dei Verbum, which expounds similar teachings for Roman Catholics.

Here’s an excellent resource page on the topic of biblical inerrancy. From the overview:

The word “inerrancy” is used to refer to a text that is considered accurate, truthful, and totally free of error. A text that contains mistakes is errant.

The term is often used by conservative theologians:

  • In Judaism to refer to the Torah,
  • In Christianity to refer to the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. the Old and New Testaments),
  • In Islam to refer to the Qur’an, and
  • In other religions to refer to their own holy books.

The Torah, Hebrew/Christian Scriptures, and Qur’an do not agree on many topics including the nature of God; creation and origin of life, the world and the rest of the universe; various scientific topics; morality and ethics; personal salvation; the afterlife; abortion access; equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, and transgendered persons; same-sex marriage; and many other cultural matters.

Because the holy books of the world differ from each other, only one of them — at most — can be inerrant. Some people suggest that none are inerrant.

Since all of the people who are affiliated with a religion are members of minority religions, most people’s holy book cannot be inerrant. If they believe that their holy book is inerrant, they are probably wrong. Perhaps all are wrong.

And here’s a contrarian and scholarly write-up on the subject, from which I pull this concluding quote:

Is the Bible inerrant, by modern standards, in everything it asserts – even incidentally – about history, science, geography, math, and every other field of human inquiry? Was it meant to be? Our answer to these questions has been a resounding “no.” The Scriptures fulfill their intended purpose of communicating God’s word to His people, but they never claim to be something they’re not – a scientific textbook, for instance. These post-Enlightenment expectations, when superimposed upon the Scriptural testimonies, produce the most curious interpretations

My current view:

I can think of few things I’d rather believe in than a Bible (or Qur’an, or Bhagavad Gita, or any other holy scripture) that is absolutely perfect in every way. I would love to have absolute faith in a written revelation, trusting that God is speaking to humanity with crystalline clarity, devoid of any and all human contamination.

Having grown up in church, however, I’ve had occasion since early childhood to question the things that I was being asked (or forced) to accept regarding God’s Word.

Early on, I suspected that circular reasoning was being employed to brainwash the flock. Remember this little jingle they had us sing?

Jesus loves me! This I know,
for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong;
they are weak, but he is strong.

I would ask the question, “How do we know that this stuff is true?

The responses was always the same: “Because the Bible says so.”

If I persisted in my questioning, I would be sat down and stared at for a moment, before hearing, “You are NOT to question the Word of God, do you understand?”

What it comes down to is, we are to maintain a base belief that our given holy scripture is divinely inspired, that every word is spiritually authoritative (in some way, despite the seeming contradictions found between varying sections), and that all Truth worth knowing is contained within the pages of this book.

So, right out of the shoot, there was little or no room for questioning.

I remember being allowed (as a 7th grader) to attend an adult church class on the topic of Satan. On the first day I asked the teacher, “If God is all-powerful and we are all children of God, and we have access to God’s protection whenever we need it… what do we have to fear from such a being as Satan?”

The teacher thought I was causing problems and he kicked me out of the class, never to return.

I do, however, think that the Bible is spiritually inspired, and that there are incredible Mysteries within it. I think that it is a document that deserves deep and continual study, as it provides food for the inner being, as well as food for getting through the drama of existence. I believe it has the power to inspire us to bigger and greater things, to the extent that we are able to surrender to the highest principles contained within it (i.e., “Not my will, Lord, but Thine”). I think there are many, many layers of interpretation available within it, and that it’s actually okay to open ourselves to some of the more far-out theories — as in some of the Dispensational ideas spawned by the Plymouth Brethren many years ago — although their hyper-literalism leads me down the path of symbols, wherein I look for deeper meaning behind all the fear and trembling related to a coming Apocalypse.

I do think, in fact, that the Bible in its entirety offers a roadmap to enlightenment/salvatioin. I look forward to fleshing this out in future posts.

My own, personal bottom line is, there is no need for the Bible (or any other ancient document) to be deemed “inerrant.” Human beings were involved in writing, editing, inscribing, copying and choosing these documents for canonization. There is plenty of “saving” or “enlightening” spiritual food in them… and when all is said and done, we must individually live up to the challenges presented in these texts. We are, in short, to achieve a going home, a returning, or a reunion with That from which we first emerged — and this is not achieved by reciting some formula, or by thinking about it, or by any other shallow means of asserting our goodwill. It is achieved by fully surrendering, day by day, moment by moment, to the divine that is present within and without, self-arising, independent of external influence, transformative, beyond human corruption.

So, I won’t be taking each word from our biblical study as inerrant. I’ll be taking them as a Mystery that can only be resolved through the above-mentioned surrender — which, for me, involves a rigorous and skillful contemplative practice that leads to blissful union… and we’ll explain more about this as these posts roll by.

In the meantime… do you have any thoughts regarding the possible inerrancy of the holy book of your tradition?