Throughout the decade of the 70’s, when I went through the gauntlet of  junior and senior high school, my father was a Youth Director, then Associate Pastor, then Senior Pastor at a Presbyterian church in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

The friends I had in the youth group at that church were some of the closest relations I’ve ever known in this life. When it came time to leave the nest in 1982, I had no idea the size of the black hole inside where my church youth group used to live. After all this time, I’m reconnecting with some of these old friends on Facebook, and it’s interesting to see how their lives have evolved during these intervening years — but, for me, I am mostly reminded of the fact that I’ve never since found a spiritual home — an ekklesia — like the one I knew as a boy.

EKKLESIA: In our English Bible the Greek word, “ekklesia” is translated in most places “church.” The word “ekklesia” is found in one hundred and fifteen places in the New Testament. It is translated in English one hundred and thirteen times “church” and the remaining times it is translated “assembly.” In classical Greek the word “ekklesia” meant “an assembly of citizens summoned by the crier, the legislative assembly.” The word as used in the New Testament is taken from the root of this word, which simply means to “call out.” In New Testament times the word was exclusively used to represent a group of people assembled together for a particular cause or purpose. It was never used exclusively to refer to a religious meeting or group.

An examination of the Greek word “ekklesia” reveals that the word is properly translated into English as the “assembly” or “congregation.” It is used to refer to a group of persons that are organized together for a common purpose and who meet together.

Based on the above, another way of defining the word “church” in today’s world could be “The Called Out Ones.”

I like the word “ekklesia” (or “ecclesia”), since it refers to the earliest group of Jesus followers, back before Christianity fell into the hands of mere humans.  There is a profound sense of communal intimacy in New Testament depictions of the early ekklesia. When I remember all the roadtrips, backpack treks, pancake breakfasts and sleepovers… I feel gratitude for having experienced such communal intimacy in this life, but I also wonder if such a thing could happen again.

I’m not talking about finding a church home.

I’m talking about finding an actual ekklesia — a group that is “called out” for a specific spiritual purpose, and is willing to evolve a tight-knit community based on agape love and a genuine desire to grow together.

Why hasn’t it happened?

I’ve long suspected that, when I “lost my faith” at some point leading up to leaving the nest, I began to regard church buildings as “quarantine zones” to be avoided at all costs — except for the occasional wedding or funeral. Over the years, I’ve become increasingly aware that my early indoctrination just doesn’t apply any more — I’d always had deep questions about the things they were teaching me, and when I left, I just set the whole thing aside and went about the merry business of living a life of unbelieving degradation. Unconsciously, I’ve felt unworthy of participation in the ekklesia, and have felt helpless to do anything about it.

That said… I spend an awful lot of time studying Scripture — 95% Biblical — and a steady prayer life is gradually being established. Some of my old religion wounds are being salved and succored through this practice. As time goes by, I find it impossible to ignore the setting of the early church — which was all about devoting one’s personal possessions, time and energy to supporting a community of Jesus followers — and I’m back to yearning for such a setting for myself.

What do you think? Is prayer and Bible study enough — just a relationship between me and the godhead — or must one follow New Testament injunctions to gather together around a common purpose?


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

Karl Barth's 14-Volume Church Dogmatics

 

Barth’s impact on the study of theology is immense, not only in his systematic and dogmatic constructions, but also in his construal of the history of church doctrine. One of Barth’s legacies was the inauguration of generations of historiography that sought to distinguish between the core insights of the Reformation and in the Barthian judgment the scholastic trappings that shrouded Calvin and to a greater extent the succeeding generations of Protestant orthodox theologians. Jordan J. Ballor

My wife and father teamed up to buy me Karl Barth’s 14-volume English translation of Church Dogmatics, making this (my 48th) one of the more meaningful birthday celebrations since childhood.

I’ve already situated the set on my desktop shelves, right here in front of my laptop, just above my Collected C.G. Jung.

I know, I know — my enthusiasm will not be shared by most.

For me, however, to be confronted daily by this much intellectual virtuosity, knowledge, synthesis and insight is a mystical boon — and if you’ve ever read the prose of either Barth or Jung (even in translation), you know what a stream-of-consciousness psychedelic experience it often is.

Now, the most amazing part.

This set is priced at the publisher’s website for $995.00 US. At Amazon, they’ve got it for $671.62.

But… at Christianbook, you, too, may receive this theological treasure for the low, low price of… $99.00.

Or… if you’re really into this thing, you can cough up $395.00 (down from $1095.00) at Christianbook for a paperback Church Dogmatics Study Edition 31-volume set, from T&T Clark International. For the extra bucks, you get the original German beside a revised English translation — and, hey, it’s only money, right?

As for me, I couldn’t be happier than to receive this handsome Hendrickson hardback set, into which I am about to dive headlong.

Yippee!!!!!!!

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.


I’ve had on my bookshelf a collection of Orthodox writings for many years. Occasionally I pass through an Orthodox phase, wherein the Philokalia, the monks of Mt. Athos, Sophiology and a tradition that is mystical to its very roots becomes all-consuming.

I’m in one of those phases now. This time, it is the Jesus Prayer that strikes me as timely and prescient.

Since the Orthodox Church is considered “Eastern,” it is no surprise that a type of “mantra yoga” would develop from its rich monastic tradition. As with certain Hindu, Sufi and Tibetan Buddhist practices, the Orthodox commitment to the Jesus Prayer seeks to connect the practitioner directly with the Absolute through the chanting of the Divine Name:

The name of our Lord Jesus Christ is a divine name. The power and effect of that name are divine, omnipotent and salvific, and transcend our ability to comprehend it. With faith therefore, with confidence and sincerity, and with great piety and fear ought we to proceed to the doing of the great work which God has entrusted to us: to train ourselves in prayer by using the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. “The incessant invocation of God’s name,” says Barsanuphius the Great, “is a medicine which mortifies not just the passions, but even their influence. Just as the physician puts medications or dressings on a wound that it might be healed, without the patient even knowing the manner of their operation, so also the name of God, when we invoke it, mortifies all passions, though we do not know how that happens” (421st Answer).

The idea is to inwardly repeat the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner”) while in ascetic seclusion, while performing household duties, while working, while traveling — in short, to remain in the prayer “unceasingly,” until the practice becomes so automatic that words are no longer necessary.

In repeating the prayer, we remain mindful of the person of Christ as Friend, Guide and Advocate, allowing the depth of our devotion to increase over time. Eventually, devotion is met by increased spiritual capacity, until we are completely enveloped by the Spirit and are ready for absolute surrender… as happens, for instance, through the ecstatic practice taught by the Buddha in his discourses on attainment.

One thing that I teach (see here, for instance) is that we must carry our meditative absorption off the cushion and into the world, in the form of “ecstatic saturation.” One way of doing this is to affix our attention on the “signs of absorption,” known as “jhana nimittas,” even while tending to outward responsibilities of life. As an experiment, I’ve lately been reciting the Jesus Prayer while out and about, since I’ve had what I would consider to be a mystical connection with Jesus since childhood. There is something about this devotional relationship that truly does elevate spiritual power and intensity within the practitioner.

The formulation of the prayer, asking for mercy since we are sinners, offers a way of repentance (i.e., “turning to God), which acknowledges those aspects of our being that have “missed the mark” in order to clear the deck, so to speak. Having received “purification,” we then abide in Christ’s Presence, opening to transformation beyond our ability to conceive.

Thus, the need for faith in the unseen….

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?

As someone who has spent the last 20 years questing for “enlightenment” through mostly Eastern approaches, these past five years have seen me drawn back into an investigation of the religious tradition of my upbringing: Protestant Christianity.

The process of daily Bible reading, sermon-listening and otherwise studying myself silly… has led to a degree of confusion, somewhat expressed through the name of this blog. Which model is correct? Enlightenment or salvation? Are they (despite rabid denials on every side) one and the same? If so… how do I rectify them in my own mind and heart?

Longtime studies in various forms of Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma), Buddhism, Sufism, Sikhism, Christian mysticism and other esoteric teachings have led to a personal determination that ecstatic union is the key to enlightenment (i.e., the full and complete merging with God, or the extinction of the illusion of separateness, characterized by an ultimate level of ecstatic absorption and saturation which solves the riddle of human existence once and for all).

If a teacher is not speaking from a place of ecstatic attainment (samadhi/jhana), I reason that what’s being offered is a mental approach that, while possibly interesting, will probably lead to just another diversion from That into which the ecstatic mystic is persistently magnetized.

The vast majority of spiritual literature does not fit the requirement of an ecstatic approach. Instead, we get innumerable “takes” on various sacred writings, each one pretending to be the “correct” interpretation, one that will lead to… enlightenment or salvation, depending on which tradition it belongs to. Ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine percent of these “experts” do not have a contemplative practice, but are instead committed to thinking their way out of their human predicament — which just leads to neurosis, since the ego-mind is not about to think itself into submission.

I believe that many in my position would throw up their hands and say something like, “Just meditate and let the dead scripture writers rest in peace.”

For whatever reason, that’s not been an option for me.

I know I’m not the first person to say this, but I have an inexplicable conviction that the Bible can be understood as an ultimate roadmap to ecstatic union with God, which is the Judeo-Christian concept of enlightenment.

I have not worked this out sufficiently in my head, however… thus, this blog.

I will follow my intuition in posting studies on this or that, looking for correlations between my own direct spiritual experience and what I find in the Bible, in ecstatic utterances of certain mystics, and in sacred scriptures that have provided powerful ecstatic insights during my 20 years’ journey.

My prayer is that whatever comes of this will be of some help to someone, somewhere, during this time of collective transformation.

May we support one another through whatever gifts we possess, according to the Divine purpose bestowed upon us in this life.