Tag Archives: religion

The Animist side of Christianity


“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” – C.S. Lewis -the voyage of the Dawn Treader

dawn treaderRecently I encountered an article on Facebook from ‘the week’, a to me unknown publication, which argued that Paganism might be making a comeback in the US. Now while a compelling case could be made for this idea, I must say that with this specific article even my Pagan FB friends didn’t seem to take the article very seriously. I could also remark that the word ‘come-back’ is a bit weird since ancient European or Mid-Eastern Paganism has never been present on North-American soil as a majority religion. Not even in the pre-Columbian  Viking settlement, since Leif Erikson was  actually an Orthodox Christian, but that’s besides the point

Although no-one seemed to have been particularly impressed by the article in the the interesting and quite respectful Facebook conversation it created on my wall, and I’m not going into all the issues here (write your own blogpost about Paganism and scapegoating if you feel inclined to do so, I will surely read it and probably even share it!), there was one thing that caught my eyes because I’ve been meaning to write about for a while now. And that ‘thing’ is the first difference given in the text between a ‘Christian’ worldview and a Pagan one: in Paganism, according to the text, we have a ‘world full of agencies’, as they call it:

“As seen in the ancient Greek, Celtic, and Norse traditions, the pagan idea most alien to the modern worldview is probably the belief that the entire cosmos is animated by agencies.”

I must confess that the word ‘agencies’ sounded for a second like they were talking about dull bureaucratic entities, but since those are never very animating in any sense of the world that can’t be what they meant. What they do mean something like a world animated with spirits, or a world full of persons, some of which are humans. In other words, basically they’re talking about an Animist worldview.

And here comes my main point: while some people might not like the idea of an Animist worldview (some of which are connected to Modernism, others probably to fear of the unknown), this is not at all something that needs to be opposed to Christianity. But indeed i’s rather something antithetical to modernism and its philosophical forefathers, and thus also partly to the forms of Christianity that either helped forming modernity or in a secondary move also those that have been shaped by it.
It probably starErasmus 2ted with Erasmus or even Scotus and was very prevalent in the Renaissance tendency to get rid of everything viewed as ‘superstition’. And so in Christian modernism (which includes a lot of protestant traditions) we find a fear and adversity to any even remotely animist idea. A commenter on the first post of the series on ‘faerie’ on Dr. Richard Becks  experimental theology blog gives us a nice example of this resistance to ascribing any animist dimension to this Reality we live in:

When we re-enchant the World, what are we doing? Part of the Reformation’s emphasis was to strip the world of fantasy, not of spiritual. Peasants no longer had to fear that an irate saint of the local bridge would drown them if they did not drop a florin in the toll-box. Of course, the agents of the so-called Enlightenment took the critique without their source. There were no such things as spirits, devils, angels, gods etc. nothing that man’s “ever-watchful eye” could not prove.

(Note that the guy is going way too far for a pure reformation or actually any small ‘o orthodox Christian’ worldview. Luther himself would be quite shocked to hear that there are no devils for example…)

The main fear here, apart from a modernist control issue and a humanist ‘man conquers nature’ ideology, is probably that of idolatry: that the ‘agencies’ if we acknowledge them will become too important, and that they might take the place God only deserves. This is a valid concern, and people who do acknowledge those realities do sometimes fall into this trap indeed. But an argument out of fear of consequences is never a good way to accept the reality of something.
I will also add here that strangely enough the same concerns are never uttered towards human power, systems, and Winkian Powers like Mammon, while those are recognised and their claims to legitimacy are sometimes uncontested. No matter if they are seen as personal or not, their influence stays the same, and keeps us from God and from seeking first the kingdom and Hid righteousness all the same…

So it might go completely against the grain of a lot of modernist Christianity, buDyingDryadt it certainly is my intuition that recognising this ‘Animist dimension’ of the created world is not really a heterodox oddity of some ‘progressive’ green modern thinker, lost in basckwards synchretism and making up stuff that has no basis in either the bible or Christian tradition or something else fringe and new. I’d rather say that it is just a part of Christianity, even though it might be hidden for eyes that cannot see it. It is very clearly present in the bible, and moreover has been often voiced by the Christian tradition.

And I’m not only thinking about angels in heavely realms here… (I do believe that Charismatic Christianity and Pentecostalism were among other things part of a movement of the Spirit to bring this and other spiritual dimensions back into modernist Christianity, lest it be rendered completely impotent as a dead muggle religion, that often has been moved only in the private space altogether.)

As one of my Facebook-commenters said: “I might be simple-minded, but, how could you read the Psalms and not be basically OK with animism?”. There are lots of verses in the psalms that seem to ascribe agency and the capacity of worshipping God to animals, trees and the elements of nature. When I was a kid one of my favourite songs was about trees that clap their hands for God.

We do take this as pure metaphor as moderns. I don’t know if that’s the best way of viewing it though. There is a rather animist worldview in the background of most of the bible that we just dismiss as moderns. The problem for Christianity is not that the world isn’t full of living beings, but that the are not to be seen or treated as divine in themselves. This is the danger of animism.

zone50But I would say that it’s quite clear most moderns outside of the New Age and Neo-Pagan niche are not at all in danger of divinizing nature, thus and giving so much respect to creation that it diminishes our respect for the Creator. Au contraire mes amis, most of us can need a healthy dose of realisation that Nature is Alive. That we humans are not everything. And also that God Himself is Present and Neo-Paganism (as well as New Age, but also the rise of Charismatic Christianity on the other side) is indeed an answer to this reductionist modernist desacralisation and disenchantment. Smashing the mystery out of Christianity (something that goes back at least to the reformation), is a good way to sterilise religion and in the end kill it from within. Too much Bultmann-manouvres and Christianity dissolves completely…

I’m not saying anything new here. The pre-modern church has always believed in intelligent non-human agents in the cosmos and in nature. Even the Pope seems to agree with that, which can be read through the lines in his ecological encyclical Laudaro Si (read it here Did you ever think of a time when we would read Papal encyclicals on the internet?). The title alone is a strong reference to the Animist dimension, as it is a quote from Saint Francis’ canticle of the sun.

The canticle (just as psalm 148 for example) is a perfect place to see how the Animist dimension is fitted into a Christian worldview. The elements and the creatures (yes, even death) are seen as persons, fellow creatures that all are made by the same Creator, and that all worship the same Creator. And while it starts very certainly with an affirmation of a very Monotheist God-centered Christianity, all the other things are fitted neatly in there too. So let’s meditate on this text and psalm 148 for a while to close our thinking about the Animist dimension of Christianity… (This translation comes from wikipedia. )zonnelied

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.
To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.
Amen

So what do you think?

peace

Bram

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Conversion


Conversion is more than a change in direction, it’s a change in connection. (Frank Viola & Len Sweet’)

I was recently re-reading the introduction to A Jesus Manifesto jesusmanifestby Frank Viola and Len Sweet, a book that urges Christians to put Christ at the centre of their faith in very powerful language, when my eye fell a sentence which seemed to be filing in a gap in my thoughts somewhere, even though I can’t even exactly say why. But it did remind me that there are much more different factors in conversion than most people think of….

Conversion is more than a change in direction, it’s a change in connection.

Conversion, often simply seen as the change of religion, which can be more accurately be described as the turning towards Something Higher that hadn’t an important place in someones life before, deeply impacts a person, and it does not happen overnight. One does not just become a Christian, or Marxist, or modern Pagan, or very convinced atheist without changes on different levels or domains of their lives.

There are at least 4 different levels that I will explore in this post.
Edit: Note that I’m only talking about the individual level here, and thus about conversion of a human being in one lifetime, not of his family or culture over the generations…. Shifting baseline is a very strong factor here, and things like forced conversions will play out very differently over a longer time and beyond individuals… Even the kakure kirishitans are not recognisable as Catholics anymore…

Intellectual acceptance of information
This is the lowest level of what happens during conversion, and if it happens it’s  not actually a conversion at all yet. Just accepting information as true in the abstract can be a step in a conversion, but it’s not at all the most important thing, even though some atheists and Christian apologists use all their energy to work on this domain. At least that that’s what I would conclude from the way they try to convert people by using a lot of reasoning and logic.(I suppose  personality type is very important here too.)

The issue is that belief and faith are not the same thing at all. Belief is accepting information, while faith is trusting Someone/something. Americans who have faith in the constitution don’t believe that the document exists, but that it is important, and that it should be followed because it will bring liberty for all and yadda yadda… Christians should have faith in God, and thus trust God to take care for them in some kind of way. (See psalm 23 for example) Mere belief in something that goes against the naturalist worldview is not ‘religion’ at all. It is often part of religion, but some people can have just a very intuitive connection to God (or another deity) with no concrete beliefs at all, only a deep natural connection. That’s what faith is, not just ticking the box before every line of the creed…

Acceptance of a Reality in a Paradigm shift
This is a step deeper, and goes beyond the rational to the acceptance of a Reality that is percieved in one way of the other, and thus accepted. Often a paradigm shift happens when the data don’t seem to fit with the beliefs held, and the old worldview is rendered obsolete by the actual world as encountered by the person. This is often not a choice, but a realisation that just needs to be surrendered to.

On the other hand, just accepting a reality does not convert anyone either. I can believe_800happily accept the existence of Loki, fairies, or the information in Marx’ das kapital’ without converting to anything at all. A lot of people believe in God, not just as information but a knowledge of a Reality, without doing anything with it.
That’s no conversion at all yet.
Only if I make a connection and change my life towards one of the things I’ve acknowledged as a reality I really convert myself..

Polytheists are very interesting in this regard. They acknowledge the existence all kinds of gods, but that doesn’t mean that their path involves all of them. The polytheist will have connection with certain gods or deities and not with others that are as real to them, just as a human I do have friendship with certain people and not with others, even though I do completely believe in their existence…

So what’s needed for a real conversion is not just accepting how reality is, but aligning ourselves with that Reality.

Change in direction
So a  change in direction is what is often seen as a definition of conversion. You change your ways, and thus convert. ‘Repent and follow me’ is what Jesus said.
But there is a-one problem: this still can be completely outward, or in other words, fake. One can pretend to convert, and change outward ways without having any conversion at all.

Forced conversions for example are often lacking in this area. People are outwardly converting to the new religion, and become nominal Christians, or Marxists, or Muslims, but in their heart and behind closed door they remain connected to their old gods or God. Crypto-paganism probably lived on underground for centuries after the moment when Christians or Muslims made their religion the State religion.

The same has happened with Christians under rule of other religions that 330px-Maria_Kannonexpected them to convert, sometimes under threat of death too. The Japanese kakure kirishitans are a fascination excample of that: the Japanese Catholic Church went undergound during the Edo period after the Shimabara Rebellion in the 1630s when Catholicism became forbidden, and remained hidden until recent times, slowly evolving to something hardly recognisable.

No-one can really be forced to convert. It’s easier to take someones life than to take away the connection they have with their God in some cases. True believers will keep their connection no matter what happens…

Making a New Connection
Real conversion is also making a New Connection, as Frank Viola and Len Sweet said in the original . Not just an outward change in direction, but an inward change in connection.
We turn away from our former values, and gods, and embrace Something New that will guide our life, and connect with it.
When we become Christians we will from now on follow Christ, make Him the center of our life, and build our life around Him.
Others see that the deep Truth in Marx’ writings calls us to change not only our lives but the world for better. Or or give ourself over to the Higher Truth of science and reason because there’s nothing else to demand our obedience as source and truth. And so on… But it is only when we make the connection to whatever Higher thing we have come to believe in as real, that we really convert…

This does have several implications for us as Christians, as well as for others I suppose…

what do you think?

peace

Bram

Some interesting things elsewere (Jan 2015)


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I used to have a series called ‘Some interesting things elsewhere’  that disappeared when my time got absorbed by other things very different than blogging. I was planning to resurrect those series, and make one list of interesting reads that I encountered each month at the end of said month, but suddenly it’s February already, not January anymore, and my list isn’t that long yet and I still haven’t posted the first one… But I still think it’s not a bad idea to resurrect this series so here is the first edition nonetheless…

So what did I read recently that stood out?

Lana hope with ‘an instrumental view of language and Christianity: a critique‘. Just read it!

Two interesting reactions to the whole Charlie Hebdo thing from Khanya in South-Africa and Vinoth Ramachandra in Sri Lanka.

Heather Goodman with some critique of a more fringe Charismatic theory that relates contemporary studies of epigenetics with the supposedly biblical idea of ‘generational curses’.

This Orthodox text would make a lot of sense if it wouldn’t have the exclusivisionist part in the end: the spiritual person is not  moral!

An older article from the ‘Anglican pentecostal’ that explores the idea of being ‘slain in the Spirit’ with the Orthodox idea of the ‘energies of God. Very interesting line of thought!

Magickal blogger Peregrin Wildoak makes a lot of sense here in his analysis of the word ‘love’ in the works of Aleister Crowley. Although not a Christian himself when he speaks from a Christian paradigm he seems to understand Christianity better and make more sense than a lot of Christians for some reason…

If Jesus talked about loving our enemies, he meant it, and he also meant our real enemies, not just people we vaguely don’t like. Good piece on formerly fundie.

Morgan Guyton is having a very interesting series called ‘radical Jesus ‘101’ on his blog. In the first issue about who and what is God he compares the trinity to ‘a polyamorous  love triangle’ (it even makes sense and is quite orthodox…)  Be also sure to read the second part called  is humanity good or evil.

And this just came in: Eric at the Jawbone of an ass with identifying religions to species. And when we’re in the category ‘other faiths’: Iceland to build first temple to Norse Gods in 1000 years. (I decidedly like neo-paganism more than materialist atheism and logical positivism, so in today’s world I find this good news…)

so what did you read?

Bram

The power found in the True Language of the Universe…


I know I’ve not been very active lately here on this blog. I’m wrestling with some stuff in and outside of my head -it’s not because it’s in my head that it isn’t real…- and though I do have a lot of unfinished posts on various subjects that will hopefully be finished and posted one day although a lot of them might see the light, I’m quite unsure about what to write at the moment. This post is another impulsive train of thought that just needed to be written down, and it does most probably fit somewhere in my demodersiation-project.

As some people kearthseanow already, I’m an enthusiastic reader of fantasy and scifi and likewise books, so after re-reading some Narnia, LOTR, and a few Terry Prachett books late last year I’m currently (re)reading Ursula Le Guins Earthsea series. I do say (re)reading because I’ve only been reading the first 4 ones before, and now I’ve also reading the collection of short stories called ‘tales from Earthsea’, and the last novel ‘the other wind’. It’s both interesting and challenging to me that the worldview in those books is sometimes much further away from mine. LOTR, Narnia, and even Harry Potter (indeed, Harry Potter) do have a pretty Christian background-worldview, while Earthsea seems to have some taoist and pagan (Native American?) concepts incorporated that are further away from my own thinking, with sometimes concepts and philosophies that I can’t agree with, but still very interesting to think about.

For this post there is just one idea I want to touch upon, which is the background behind the magic in Earthsea but also interesting outside of that context: the power of the old speach, which is the language of the making of the world. For those unfamiliar with the books: the world of Earthsea is created by some creator being name Segoy, more specifically it is called into being using that ‘true speech’. (There is a parallel with Christian thought here, but also differences: the world is called into being by the word of a creator as in genesis, though not ex nihilo, nor is the creator very active in the world anymore. So maybe there’ a more deist touch here even…) Wizards in Earthsea still use this very language of old speech since it is very powerful, if you do know the ‘real name’ of something (or someone) you have power over it. It is sort of the language underneath the universe of Earthsea.

Now outside of those books, the idea is still a very interesting one, and, dare I say, important one: If you know the language of creation, the language by which the world was made, and can speak it, you have power over the world.

I don’t think that true name magic is very original, nor do I expect Le Guin to claim that it is a new idea. Ideas like this do exist in a lot of cultures and more ‘magical’ thought (it’s behind the idea of most ‘spells’), but in a way the same idea also lies underneath modern science. We just don’t expect that language by which the world is made to be an actual language with words.

einsteinLet me explain what I mean with that: We modern people describe the world in formula and theories, looking for the ‘true name’ of things in the abstract language of mathematical equations and weird symbols, so we can not just explain the world around us, but also have power over it. We can visualise how an atom looks, and split it, either to make energy and electricity, or to make one of the most abominable weapons ever. We can unravel the language of DNA, and not just to find out how certain characteristics are coded in our genes, but also to alter organisms.

If you learn the language of the making of the universe, which is the same language the universe still speaks, you sometimes can control it. That’s one of the reasons why a lot of scientists are still looking for the ultimate formula that describes everything. We want to unravel the code in which the universe is programmed, so we can be able to re-program it in our own taste… Which is still the same goal that any serious magician had. I’ve said before that science and magic are like twins in a way.

And yes, it is true that to do anything at all, you need to understand the way the world works, learn the language, and submit to it. It is in submission to the rules of the language of the world that we can gain power over it, not just by writing symbols on a board. By submitting to the rules of the grammar of creation we can make the word submit. And as humans we do want this to be absolute. But the question here is ‘can we?’? I do find the modern idea that the universe can be completely understood ‘rationally’ in our terms, in our language and abstract system, to be naive hubris at least.

Now, science is only one attempt to try this, and one that is very useful in one area (the visible, material part of the world), but there are more dialects of the true language of the universe that the universe speaks, and though magic might not be in vogue in the high places nowadays (although our technology can be more evil than a lot of dark magic), there are working systems of magic that have found bits of the language to the universe useful to exercise power. (Chaos magic can be quite effective in the right (?) hands I think for example, if we get outside of the realm of more traditional occult magic(k) )

Let me note here that religion can probably be viewed in similar ways, but with a big difference: the ‘control’ part on our side should be absent for healthy religion, lest we fall back into some form of magic. This is often the case though, and not just in pagan systems, but also in some parts of Christianity. But that would be one more adventure in missing the point. We can use the language of the world (insofar we decipher it) to be able to understand and master nature, but we can only learn to speak the language of God (or the tao, or the order of the universe, depending on your tradition) in order to align ourselves more with Him. But we can’t put the Source of Being in our pocket or use it as a pet hawk to catch the hare we want to eat for Christmas…

In the end we are part of a bigger whole. We humans are not to be masters of the universe. We are almost gods maybe (see psalm 8 in the bible), but we never will be gods. We didn’t make this place, and didn’t invent the rules that were written in all of creation…

So we can try to learn to understand the language of the universe (in part, and in our fallible human way) but we will never be God, never be the Source of being, and in the end we will always be answerable to the Ultimate Source of Being.

(And as a Christian I must add that, while it is impossible for a human to really learn ‘the language of God’, it actually works the other way. God came down and learnt to speak our language, and became human in the person of Jesus. This is the opposite of all our power games. God did not come to make us submit in that way of power, He came as we are. See also this post)

Peace

Bram

Stop being influenced by America?


World-Map-1Like you all know and can see, I blog in English here, for different reasons. My mother tongue (Dutch) is only spoken in a small part of the Terran planet, and I do like to read a lot of things about the rest of the world too -which is miraculously technically possible now in this weird new era thanks to the internet-, so an international ‘lingua franca’ is very handy for both reading and writing when it comes about broadening the world. So that’s why I employ English here. (Because I don’t read nor write Russian, Japanese, Cantonese, or Arabic. Being able to do that would enable me to find even more viewpoints , but alas…)

Belgians can like all people (from tribal people to modern Westerners) be quite myopic sometimes, as any population, so I like to have a lot of perspectives from different places and different ages, which is the best way to be aware of the blind spots of my own individual and cultural perspective. Being able to read what happens not only here in Belgium but in exotic places as Asia or America can sometimes challenge a lot of ‘self-evident’ assumptions that I might have accumulated by participating in my culture.

But I should watch out with the internet if that is my goal. Sometimes it’s not true that I have many perspectives. There still is a danger though that I fall

into the trap of taking in too much of the presupposition of the most dominant empire within the English-speaking world. I don’t know why, but I keep on stumbling onto a majority of US content on the internet. Maybe I have too much US contacts and interests, or maybe they are omnipresent, I don’t know… And the problem here is that the US is not my country, and has a lot of things that are alien to me, that don’t even make sense to me (or sometimes even for any other outsider) but for Americans due to historical reasons they are completely normal and logical. This is true in politics and religion for example.

The 2-part-system makes no sense at all, for a non A-merican Obama is not ‘left’, let alone ‘socialist’ and actually not that different from GWB after all…

Same with religion, as an Evangelical Christian I am amazed at how strange the American version of my faith (which appears to be influencing a lot of evangelicalism around the world btw.,which might actually not be that healthy at all, since the US is in a process of dechristianisation) can be, and about some things they take fro granted as self-evident. Especially when those things make no sense and hurt people as some beliefs and practices in the -anthropologically very interesting- fundamentalist corner of American Christianity. Same for the liberal side, which is as weird as our ‘humanist’ anti-religious liberals here in Europe sometimes, and sometimes just built on a frustrated reaction of the other side without having much to say about things that are not covered by the other side.

So I think I need to actively search more perspectives of Christians (and other interesting thinking people) from all around the world of all colors cultures and sexes or whatever. I don’t see why American perspectives should dominate what I take in, I just began writing and reading in English to get away from my own myopic perspective and now another one wants to hypnotise me.. I need to see a kaleidoscope of perspectives where certain problems and polarising questions are not dominating and tainting everything. Like reading old church fathers from before Augustine and Eastern Orthodox writers can be very refreshing after countless unnecessary calvinism-‘arminianism’ debates I need to get away from the idiocy of both fundamentalism and the more extreme opposite on the liberal side… Both are distracting, adventures in missing the point, and if I take these kind of polarisations as normative it’s constantly taking too much energy to battle both sides.

The weird polarisations taken for granted in my own country (which are sometimes completely different from those in the US) are enough to lose a lot of energy which I could use to get to the point instead of having to defend myself. In the end there is no reason why the dominatnt culture US should influence me more than the fascinating culture of Tuva, or the old Sumerians or the Piraha… It’s good to know the thought of a dominant empire for a lot of reasons, but still I should not be brainwashed by the complications of another culture with as much problems as my own, and fight a lot of weird ideas that are not part of my story. I need to focus on my own battles. There are a lot of things in American fundamentalism (and liberalism), but they are not closer to my bed than the problems of the copts in Egypt or the Tibethan buddists…

So I need to refocus my scope and get more globally again, recognise what’s my area and what not and what is helpful to me and what not, and let others battle their own problems, for one man can not supervise the whole planet. And this means filtering and being conscious about what news is priority.

God is everywhere doing different things with different people and I’m not God, I’m not called to be omnipresent nor am I to be a part of the empire of the US…

May God bless and keep the US as much as the rest of Terra, but sometimes save the rest of the world from their influence… (and from ours, and other aggressive worldviews…)

peace

Bram

It may or may not be a religion, depending on your definition (pt II)


For those who missed part 1, this is part 2 of my reaction to the viral ‘hating religion but loving Jesus’-video that everybody even remotely christian and even their atheist bulldog seem to be posting on facebook nowadays. Part one, in which I elaborated on definitions of the word ‘religion’ is here, and should probably be read before this one…

After the semantics it’s time to go to a problem that’s way more serious, and dig deeper in the message itself: It seems like Jeff Bethke makes his way of being a christian, and thus the gospel, antithetic to everything he denounces as ‘religion’ (which seems to be all that can go wrong with Christianity, and all he dislikes about some other christian groups) which makes the word ‘religion’ useless.

So let’s look at some of Bethke’s statements:

Now back to the topic, one thing I think is vital to mention,
How Jesus and religion are on opposite spectrums,
One is the work of God one is a man made invention,
One is the cure and one is the infection.
Because Religion says do, Jesus says done.
Religion says slave, Jesus says son,
Religion puts you in shackles but Jesus sets you free.
Religion makes you blind, but Jesus lets you see.

I still do not know what Bethke’s definition is of religion, but it seems like his ‘religion’ is something really really bad nonetheless, and actually a very good scapegoat to dump all the problems of Christianity and the rest of the world on, sometimes leaping into ridiculous exaggerations. The above part is a good example.

I disagree completely with some of his statements… Religion is not the infection. Or doesn’t he agree that God himself instituted the religion of the Jews? Which would be very strange for a bible-believing evangelical, like he seems to be. Okay, religion did get infected with a lot of bad things (just like the Christian religion) but the problem was not ‘religion’ but the things infecting it. It’s a very weird deduction actually… Will you get rid of your child when it has a disease?

But it goes a lot further:

This is what makes religion and Jesus two different clans,
Religion is man searching for God, but Christianity is God searching for man.
Which is why salvation is freely mine, forgiveness is my own,
Not based on my efforts, but Christ’s obedience alone.
Because he took the crown of thorns, and blood that dripped down his face
He took what we all deserved, that’s why we call it grace.
While being murdered he yelled “father forgive them, they know not what they do”,
Because when he was dangling on that cross, he was thinking of you
He paid for all your sin, and then buried it in the tomb,
Which is why im kneeling at the cross now saying come on there’s room
So know I hate religion, in fact I literally resent it,
Because when Jesus cried It is finished, I believe He meant it.

I know the “Religion is man searching for God, Christianity is God searching for man” theme, and there’s something to that, but still I don’t completely agree. It’s easy to say, but in the end the Jewish religion was also instituted by God when He, and not some evil people or delusional demons, but God Himself gave the laws to Moses! So I don’t see his logic why he can renounce and literally resent religion as a whole here, or proclaim Jesus and religion two different clans. And Jesus never abolished the laws, he fulfilled them, transcended them. But He surely never went denouncing them as evil. And religion-bashing is not the way to further the gospel.

It almost looks like the problem of the new atheists. They see a problem with fundamentalist religion and so keep the fundamentalism and ditch the religion. The anti-religion rhetoric does put all the blame on whatever ‘religion’ is supposed to be and then declared Jesus something completely different.

But there is something more that’s troubling in his approach. Now look at the above presentation of the gospel? What’s missing?

Firstly, like more evangelicals tend to do, the resurrection is completely ignored for some weird reasons, as if a ‘good Friday only gospel’ will ever be complete. But let’s not go into that, and also skip the idea that ‘Jesus thought of me’ while on the cross for now… And how he sees the ‘it’ that has been finished at the cross as ‘religion’ is beyond me.

But now we come to probably the weak point of common ‘born-again theology’. We are born-again because our sins (or the punishment for it) have been taken away by Jesus on the cross and now it’s all finished…. But that’s just the beginning. We have a whole life of growth before us. Being a spiritual baby alone is not enough. It’s even quite risky, babies are vulnerable beings that cannot survive without aid from others, and that are meant to grow into adulthood. (so they can make babies themselves, spiritually I mean) We are saved, and we are being saved, the bible used both, and they must be in tension. Salvation is not one moment, but an ongoing process that will never be perfected in this life, and something we have to bring to the world around us.

Sin is not just a problem that needs to be forgiven, Jesus destroyed the Power of sin, the infection that the fall brought has been recapitulated when He overcame the powers of evil, sin and death which were not strong enough to take him. Sin is something much more serious than just an offence to God, it’s a destructive force that pervades the whole universe…

Jesus didn’t finish all things at the cross, he started them. The resurrection was the beginning of the New heaven and earth. We are not just reconciled to God, but called out to proclaim the Kingdom of God ourselves. We gain a whole new life in Him, we are called to follow Him and further that Life in this fallen world. Which means action and a changed life, and the word ‘relationship’ implies that too.

And this is the last big problem with the ‘relationship with Jesus’ idea, which is actually quite troubling if you think about it. Sarah Moon has pointed to it in her excellent blog post. The view on relationships one would derive from this theology would be a very defunct one. Firstly nothing at all is said about what the relationship with Christ means in the poem, so we have to read between the lines if we want to know what he means. The hints in the beginning where he describes what religion is not are not that bad, but there’s no connection at all to the main dish, which is the atonement theory in the end, that seems to trump all, and doesn’t even try to say what our part is. 

There seems to be not that much about how to maintain the relationship in this view. Don’t we need to do certain things to keep a relationship healthy. Just accepting something from someone will never makes us lovers as far as I know… And being ‘in love’ with Jesus all the time is not a relationship. A relationship requires effort, interaction, and sometimes blood, sweat and tears…

In the words of Sarah who expressed it more eloquently:

Relationships are about action, not just desire. That action will look different in every relationship, just as different people approach religion in different ways. But if I “love me some Jesus,” then I’m going to do things for Jesus. I’m going to love the people that Jesus loves. I’m going to help him accomplish his task of redeeming a hurting, broken world. I’m going to embrace rituals and ceremonies and organizations that bring me closer to him and that provide an outlet for me to love his people.

This “love for Jesus” that so many evangelical churches support seems like the immature love of a 13-year-old girl scribbling  on a bathroom wall a heart and the name of her crush.

I’m tired of settling for that shallow, intangible, romantic emotion of being in love with Jesus.

Let’s get off our asses and love.

What do you all think?

Shalom

Bram

It may or may not be a religion, depending on your definition (pt I)


If you recognize the quote in the title you are a die-hard fan of my music. (If you don’t, it’s the opening lines from ‘NT Wright is a sound theologian‘ on my almost finished album ‘cyberluddism‘ that can still be listened and downloaded on bandcamp)

Now to the point, There is a a video that has been going round on facebook lately that is so viral that it seems everyone remotely Christian (from die-hard evangelicals to vaguely Jesus-inspired hippies) has been sharing it. It actually reminded me that the word ‘viral’ is derived from ‘virus’, like in a computer virus or a flu virus… It’s called “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus” by some Jeff Bethke guy who does some spoken word poetry with music behind it. And by now I’ve had it with everyone and even their goldfish sharing the bleeping video on facebook. Please, I’ve seen it pass like 20 times today… Have mercy…

Now there’s a lot of things that I like in the video, Jeff Bethke does makes some good points. (read the words of the poem here) And the production quality is great and the speaker is very articulate. That’s not my issue. But there are some things I find quite shallow, not to say cliché, and the ‘a relationship, not a religion’ rhetoric is getting a bit irritating sometimes….

Some interesting remarks about the problems with this video are written by the American Jesus, Sarah Moon, Elisabeth Esther, Jake Belder and Patrol Mag and by this girl on youtube. I’m not going to repeat everything those people say, so they might be interesting to read too…

So what’s my problem with this video and the ideas behind it? Actually there are several and maybe they indicate my theological disagreement with some articulations of popular evangelical theology. The first disagreement is a question of semantics. The definition of religion used is completely shallow, it seems like that word is used to describe all that those people don’t like. Which is kinda stupid, since everybody knows that Christianity IS a religion for most people.

Now I do know where the ‘it’s not a religion’ thing comes from… The simplest version I’ve heard is that religion in man’s way to get to God (or to get salvation), something which will never work, but that Christianity is God coming to man and we just need to accept that to be saved. That’s more or less the core of charismatic and post-evangelical idea behind ‘I am not religious’, like I’ve heard it for years and years…

But there is more to the word religion. Religion is something that innate in humans the way God created them, and the solution to wrong religion is not to abolish all religion, but to find good religion. Religion is something broad and is very hard to pin down, and the word has too much behind it to dismiss it all with an evangelical cliché… I find the seven dimensions of religion by Ninian Smart very interesting. (thanks to Matt Stone @glocal christianity)

Ninian Smart suggested that, whatever else a religion may be, it usually contains certain recognizable elements:

Ritual: Forms and orders of ceremonies (often regarded as revealed).

Narrative and Mythic: stories (often regarded as revealed) that work on several levels. Sometimes narratives fit together into a fairly complete and systematic interpretation of the universe and human’s place in it.

Experiential and emotional: dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, liberation, ecstasy, inner peace, bliss.

Social and Institutional: belief system is shared and attitudes practiced by a group. Often rules for identifying community membership and participation.

Ethical and legal: Rules about human behaviour (often regarded as revealed).

Doctrinal and philosophical: systematic formulation of religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form.

Material: ordinary objects or places that symbolize or manifest the sacred or supernatural.

I think most of these are in one form or another present in almost every form of Christianity, (yes, the sacraments of bread and wine and baptism are clearly rituals!) except maybe the material aspect in protestantism. There might be discussion about this… And I do know there could be much more definitions of religion. But just re-defining religion so you can denounce it, like the evangelical tradition seems to do, is a bit weird. But they’re in good company. Bonhoeffer already did it. And people like Greg Boyd (a thinker I generally like and respect, like I do with Bonhoeffer) are doing the same.

But I would say let’s quit it please. It creates a sense of superiority in some christians who feel high above those poor ‘religious folks’. And it complicated conversation with a lot of people who just see religion as a word for believing in God or gods. Or have academic definitions like Ninian Smart.

Oh, and if we’re biblical christians, maybe we should look to the bible, where the book of James defines for us what good religion is supposed to be:

James 1:27 Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Or is that a liberal social gospel and being saved by works? Nah, it’s the bible!

Shalom

Bram

(stay tuned for pt II about the gospel like it’s presented in the video!)