Early Christians, Communism, and a Call For Us Today

When one truly ventures into the world of the first Christians, one enters a company of “radicals” (for want of a better word), an association of men and women guided by faith in a world-altering revelation, and hence in values almost absolutely inverse to the recognized social, political, economic, and religious truths not only of their own age, but of almost every age of human culture. The first Christians certainly bore very little resemblance to the faithful of our day, or to any generation of Christians that has felt quite at home in the world, securely sheltered within the available social situations of its time, complacently comfortable with material possessions and national loyalties and civic conventions.

-David Bentley Hart

DorothyDay006-1-1

Dorothy Day (right). 1974.

Over the past several years I have begun to realize how important it is in my life to become closer to Christ. This being both in a spiritual and religious sense, but also by the way I live my life. Unfortunately, this has not been an easy undertaking for me, and I find the more I study Christ the harder it tends to be.

My problems first arose when I began to embrace Christ’s teachings on non-violence. I come from a conservative evangelical Christian background, and there is perhaps no group in America that has deemed “respect for the military” of higher importance. I want to clarify that I have the utmost sympathy for soldiers that have served in the confines of the terror that is war. But the military complex as a whole is supremely antithetical to Christ’s radical pacifist teachings (Matt. 5:38-41, 5:43-46, 10:22-23, 16:24-25, 22:40, 26:52, Mark 10:18, 11:25, Luke 6:27-28, John 8:7, 18:36).

I became frustrated. Why are Christians often at the forefront of the pro-military campaign? It didn’t make any sense.

Non-violence was a big part of my revelation of Christ, but it was not the only thing. I began to see other issues that were antithetical to Christ’s teaching. In college I went on a trip to a community in Kansas City called Argentine. Argentine was almost completely comprised of Black and Hispanic folks, and was a very poor neighborhood. Many of the people living their were undocumented. We stayed in a church, worshipped with them, and became familiar with their lives. I quickly began to understand their situations much better than I ever had before. Many of them were in horrible situations and the decisions they made were made for their family. Some had to live separated from their children for years. This opened my eyes. Quickly refugees and immigrants became very important to me. Other issues also began to be revealed to me like poverty, race, mass incarceration, environmental destruction, and consumerism. They all started to become systems I could point to and say they were against true Christianity.

And I still believe they are, and I continue to believe that they are very important and must be frequently addressed as the evils they are. Christ blatantly exposed the reality of systemic sin and the urgency to correct it.

But this left me mostly with a Christianity that could only expose the sin of large institutions. And really what this leads to is only a lot of ranting – a problem that only leads to more problems, really.

This whole journey really began to challenge my faith. To me, much of modern Christianity had only taken the image and idea of Christ, all the while being wrapped up in some sort of cross between conservatism, empire, progress, militarism, consumerism, etc.

This is a hard realization for someone who has been a Christian his whole life. It creates doubts and frustrations.

But I soon began to realize why some of this was the case and why I perhaps was being hypocritical.

The other day I read the introduction to David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament. In the introduction, while he claims he always knew the “radicalism” of Christ’s teaching and the first Christians that followed those teachings, the urgent and provocative call to renounce the way of the world for the Kingdom of the heavens only became further illuminated in the process of transliterating the Ancient Greek into English.

What Hart realized was that the teachings and commandments of Jesus were so contradictory to the social, political, and religious systems in which the world functions under that to those of us that fit in so well to those systems, Christ teachings seem to be almost completely void of common sense. And as practically geared, scientifically minded, worrisome people we have ingeniously figured out how to morph scripture in such a way that Christ conveniently saves us from the burden of Christianity, rather than Christ revealing true Christianity to us.

The Gospel is just far too radical for us. Commands to love your enemies. Calls to sell all that you have and give the proceeds to the poor. Evil thoughts being equivalent to murder. Demands to hate your father and mother and let the dead bury their own dead. The call to never take up arms and to never have any possessions. That it is humanly impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of the heavens.

Realizing this made me have sympathy for Christians today. How can we achieve those things? Certainly it is impossible… By no means do I do those things.

Have I too much common sense to be a Christian?

But this is when the early church comes in. Before speaking to the early church I first want to clarify this: the early church was by no means perfect and it is not my attempt to make them appear without blemish. That being said, I do believe the first Christians, those after Christ, those in Acts, those persecuted by the Roman Empire in the first, second, and third centuries, were perhaps the closest representation of what it means to truly be Christian. And largely, this is because they strictly followed the teachings of Christ.

The early Christians lived in a time when they believed that Christ would very soon be coming back to earth. And so, to them, war wasn’t worth it. Persecution only made them grow stronger. As Hart makes clear, to the first Christians, the entire idea of owning possessions meant you were deliberately taking from others who were in need.

The first Christians were in fact communists or communalists, that is if you go by the strictly literal definition that everything is publicly owned and everyone is given according to their needs. Acts 2:44-46 states: “And all those who had faith were at the same place and owned all things communally, and they sold their properties and possessions, and distributed to everyone, according as anyone had need.” Acts 4:34-35: “For neither was anyone among them in need; for as many as were proprietors of lands or households were selling them and bringing the profits of the things they sold, and laying them at the feet of the Apostles, and there was a redistribution, to each according as anyone had need.”

For the first Christians, this is what you did if you were a follower of Christ. To us it doesn’t make sense. Didn’t some of those Christians work hard for their money? Didn’t they earn what they had? What about those who didn’t put in any work? This won’t teach them any good lesson about how to live if we just give them handouts. Right?

To us the communal style of Church that Acts portrays and that Jesus commanded seems like a form of stealing from those who had earned what they had. But to them they didn’t have any possessions. Even if they did. So they had their resources redistributed to serve the needs of others.

One thing to keep in mind is that the church was not using the government as its source of redistribution. That being said, the Christian church today mostly uses its money on itself. In fact, in 2001 (a time when a much larger amount of people associated themselves with Christianity than do today) a study was done that revealed Christians on average spend about 98% of their money on themselves. And Christians that claim they give lots of their money to the church might be upset in finding out that churches spend about 95% of the money that is given to them on themselves.

I guess what that means is as a church we have some work to do. But we also need to be aware of our politics. As Christians, we are not looking to our politics as a solution. A political system, ideal, or person is not going to solve our problems. Communism might be very close to what Christ calls us to, but communism without Christ is a very scary thing, as history reveals to us.

But politics also affect the lives of many people. And therefore, we need to be happy when we see our politics embodying a Christlike identity, and we also must be quick to respond to those who are experiencing injustices brought by political forces. But as Christians it is important to recognize that we do not find our solution through politics. In fact, if we find ourselves embodying a Christlike vision, it seems to me that it will be impossible for us to find a home under any current political ideologies anyway. In this way, we likely may feel misunderstood or even alienated by our politics, as they won’t fit in with the practical, commonsensical ideologies of our day.

Individually, what does this Christlike, Kingdom vision mean for us? Well, first it means to stray from the notion that the only reason Christ was on the earth was to die for us. Christ was on the earth to show us a new way. A way that reached its crescendo on the cross where Jesus died at the hands of our sinful systems. That is, the way of love expressed in forgiveness. This is Christ’s ultimate expression that we, in our lost world should look to as a means of restoration.

That is what Christ’s death is about. The new way. This is what saves us. We are not going to be able to perfectly embody Christ’s radical teaching. Though, some have come much closer than we might like to believe. Radicals like those in the early church, St. Francis of Assisi, Leo Tolstoy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Shane Claiborne and many others come extremely close to being the living embodiment of Christ’s teachings. Abandoning possessions, living in service of others, living communally, resisting the systems of injustice.

You see, what makes Christianity so powerful and so beautiful are its radical calls. Calls to love so much that you will find yourself loving even those who hate you. Calls to give all you have so that others may be helped. Calls to resist violence with such integrity that when someone strikes you on the cheek you turn your head and offer your other cheek to show there is no circumstance in which you will take revenge on someone. Calls to deeply resist the idea that you have only one mom and dad and one brother and sister but that everyone is part of your intimate family.

What I realize is that if we deliberately make an attempt to even try to get closer to the commands of Jesus, we will start finding ourselves quite lost in the world. We will start making decisions that don’t really make sense but are done because they are acts of love. Unfortunately that doesn’t fit in real well in our world and the systems that make it up.

But when we explore history we must remember it is not those who moderately go through the motions who change the world. It is not those who fit comfortably in to all the social, political, and religious commonalities of their day. It is precisely those who resist the comforts that orders the world so as to embrace a new way. A way that cannot be seen through the lenses of this world but only through the vision of Christ.

In our own lives I truly believe this means that we must live differently. That we must try as hard as we can to embrace the commands of Christ and to become more like the early church that lived eagerly awaiting the coming of Christ.

Please keep in mind: This is not a message of condemnation. For I would be the ultimate hypocrite if this was the case. It is a call. A call needed just as much for me as anyone else. But while it is an individual call, and I do believe that each of us need to make important personal decisions that will help us live more deliberately and closely to that which Christ calls us to, it is most importantly a call to the Church of Christ. That together, we must not just embrace the idea of Christ but also his teachings. Both individually, and communally, as the beautiful body of believers that makes up the church.

 

 

 

Early Christians, Communism, and a Call For Us Today

When one truly ventures into the world of the first Christians, one enters a company of “radicals” (for want of a better word), an association of men and women guided by faith in a world-altering revelation, and hence in values almost absolutely inverse to the recognized social, political, economic, and religious truths not only of their own age, but of almost every age of human culture. The first Christians certainly bore very little resemblance to the faithful of our day, or to any generation of Christians that has felt quite at home in the world, securely sheltered within the available social situations of its time, complacently comfortable with material possessions and national loyalties and civic conventions.

-David Bentley Hart

DorothyDay006-1-1

Dorothy Day (right). 1974.

Over the past several years I have begun to realize how important it is in my life to become closer to Christ. This being both in a spiritual and religious sense, but also by the way I live my life. Unfortunately, this has not been an easy undertaking for me, and I find the more I study Christ the harder it tends to be.

My problems first arose when I began to embrace Christ’s teachings on non-violence. I come from a conservative evangelical Christian background, and there is perhaps no group in America that has deemed “respect for the military” of higher importance. I want to clarify that I have the utmost sympathy for soldiers that have served in the confines of the terror that is war. But the military complex as a whole is supremely antithetical to Christ’s radical pacifist teachings (Matt. 5:38-41, 5:43-46, 10:22-23, 16:24-25, 22:40, 26:52, Mark 10:18, 11:25, Luke 6:27-28, John 8:7, 18:36).

I became frustrated. Why are Christians often at the forefront of the pro-military campaign? It didn’t make any sense.

Non-violence was a big part of my revelation of Christ, but it was not the only thing. I began to see other issues that were antithetical to Christ’s teaching. In college I went on a trip to a community in Kansas City called Argentine. Argentine was almost completely comprised of Black and Hispanic folks, and was a very poor neighborhood. Many of the people living their were undocumented. We stayed in a church, worshipped with them, and became familiar with their lives. I quickly began to understand their situations much better than I ever had before. Many of them were in horrible situations and the decisions they made were made for their family. Some had to live separated from their children for years. This opened my eyes. Quickly refugees and immigrants became very important to me. Other issues also began to be revealed to me like poverty, race, mass incarceration, environmental destruction, and consumerism. They all started to become systems I could point to and say they were against true Christianity.

And I still believe they are, and I continue to believe that they are very important and must be frequently addressed as the evils they are. Christ blatantly exposed the reality of systemic sin and the urgency to correct it.

But this left me mostly with a Christianity that could only expose the sin of large institutions. And really what this leads to is only a lot of ranting – a problem that only leads to more problems, really.

This whole journey really began to challenge my faith. To me, much of modern Christianity had only taken the image and idea of Christ, all the while being wrapped up in some sort of cross between conservatism, empire, progress, militarism, consumerism, etc.

This is a hard realization for someone who has been a Christian his whole life. It creates doubts and frustrations.

But I soon began to realize why some of this was the case and why I perhaps was being hypocritical.

The other day I read the introduction to David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament. In the introduction, while he claims he always knew the “radicalism” of Christ’s teaching and the first Christians that followed those teachings, the urgent and provocative call to renounce the way of the world for the Kingdom of the heavens only became further illuminated in the process of transliterating the Ancient Greek into English.

What Hart realized was that the teachings and commandments of Jesus were so contradictory to the social, political, and religious systems in which the world functions under that to those of us that fit in so well to those systems, Christ teachings seem to be almost completely void of common sense. And as practically geared, scientifically minded, worrisome people we have ingeniously figured out how to morph scripture in such a way that Christ conveniently saves us from the burden of Christianity, rather than Christ revealing true Christianity to us.

The Gospel is just far too radical for us. Commands to love your enemies. Calls to sell all that you have and give the proceeds to the poor. Evil thoughts being equivalent to murder. Demands to hate your father and mother and let the dead bury their own dead. The call to never take up arms and to never have any possessions. That it is humanly impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of the heavens.

Realizing this made me have sympathy for Christians today. How can we achieve those things? Certainly it is impossible… By no means do I do those things.

Have I too much common sense to be a Christian?

But this is when the early church comes in. Before speaking to the early church I first want to clarify this: the early church was by no means perfect and it is not my attempt to make them appear without blemish. That being said, I do believe the first Christians, those after Christ, those in Acts, those persecuted by the Roman Empire in the first, second, and third centuries, were perhaps the closest representation of what it means to truly be Christian. And largely, this is because they strictly followed the teachings of Christ.

The early Christians lived in a time when they believed that Christ would very soon be coming back to earth. And so, to them, war wasn’t worth it. Persecution only made them grow stronger. As Hart makes clear, to the first Christians, the entire idea of owning possessions meant you were deliberately taking from others who were in need.

The first Christians were in fact communists or communalists, that is if you go by the strictly literal definition that everything is publicly owned and everyone is given according to their needs. Acts 2:44-46 states: “And all those who had faith were at the same place and owned all things communally, and they sold their properties and possessions, and distributed to everyone, according as anyone had need.” Acts 4:34-35: “For neither was anyone among them in need; for as many as were proprietors of lands or households were selling them and bringing the profits of the things they sold, and laying them at the feet of the Apostles, and there was a redistribution, to each according as anyone had need.”

For the first Christians, this is what you did if you were a follower of Christ. To us it doesn’t make sense. Didn’t some of those Christians work hard for their money? Didn’t they earn what they had? What about those who didn’t put in any work? This won’t teach them any good lesson about how to live if we just give them handouts. Right?

To us the communal style of Church that Acts portrays and that Jesus commanded seems like a form of stealing from those who had earned what they had. But to them they didn’t have any possessions. Even if they did. So they had their resources redistributed to serve the needs of others.

One thing to keep in mind is that the church was not using the government as its source of redistribution. That being said, the Christian church today mostly uses its money on itself. In fact, in 2001 (a time when a much larger amount of people associated themselves with Christianity than do today) a study was done that revealed Christians on average spend about 98% of their money on themselves. And Christians that claim they give lots of their money to the church might be upset in finding out that churches spend about 95% of the money that is given to them on themselves.

I guess what that means is as a church we have some work to do. But we also need to be aware of our politics. As Christians, we are not looking to our politics as a solution. A political system, ideal, or person is not going to solve our problems. Communism might be very close to what Christ calls us to, but communism without Christ is a very scary thing, as history reveals to us.

But politics also affect the lives of many people. And therefore, we need to be happy when we see our politics embodying a Christlike identity, and we also must be quick to respond to those who are experiencing injustices brought by political forces. But as Christians it is important to recognize that we do not find our solution through politics. In fact, if we find ourselves embodying a Christlike vision, it seems to me that it will be impossible for us to find a home under any current political ideologies anyway. In this way, we likely may feel misunderstood or even alienated by our politics, as they won’t fit in with the practical, commonsensical ideologies of our day.

Individually, what does this Christlike, Kingdom vision mean for us? Well, first it means to stray from the notion that the only reason Christ was on the earth was to die for us. Christ was on the earth to show us a new way. A way that reached its crescendo on the cross where Jesus died at the hands of our sinful systems. That is, the way of love expressed in forgiveness. This is Christ’s ultimate expression that we, in our lost world should look to as a means of restoration.

That is what Christ’s death is about. The new way. This is what saves us. We are not going to be able to perfectly embody Christ’s radical teaching. Though, some have come much closer than we might like to believe. Radicals like those in the early church, St. Francis of Assisi, Leo Tolstoy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, Shane Claiborne and many others come extremely close to being the living embodiment of Christ’s teachings. Abandoning possessions, living in service of others, living communally, resisting the systems of injustice.

You see, what makes Christianity so powerful and so beautiful are its radical calls. Calls to love so much that you will find yourself loving even those who hate you. Calls to give all you have so that others may be helped. Calls to resist violence with such integrity that when someone strikes you on the cheek you turn your head and offer your other cheek to show there is no circumstance in which you will take revenge on someone. Calls to deeply resist the idea that you have only one mom and dad and one brother and sister but that everyone is part of your intimate family.

What I realize is that if we deliberately make an attempt to even try to get closer to the commands of Jesus, we will start finding ourselves quite lost in the world. We will start making decisions that don’t really make sense but are done because they are acts of love. Unfortunately that doesn’t fit in real well in our world and the systems that make it up.

But when we explore history we must remember it is not those who moderately go through the motions who change the world. It is not those who fit comfortably in to all the social, political, and religious commonalities of their day. It is precisely those who resist the comforts that orders the world so as to embrace a new way. A way that cannot be seen through the lenses of this world but only through the vision of Christ.

In our own lives I truly believe this means that we must live differently. That we must try as hard as we can to embrace the commands of Christ and to become more like the early church that lived eagerly awaiting the coming of Christ.

Please keep in mind: This is not a message of condemnation. For I would be the ultimate hypocrite if this was the case. It is a call. A call needed just as much for me as anyone else. But while it is an individual call, and I do believe that each of us need to make important personal decisions that will help us live more deliberately and closely to that which Christ calls us to, it is most importantly a call to the Church of Christ. That together, we must not just embrace the idea of Christ but also his teachings. Both individually, and communally, as the beautiful body of believers that makes up the church.

 

 

 

The Journey

ipp-summer-1

I was taken back into the past
And all I saw was darkness and struggle
Violence, hatred, and bigotry

I yearned for an all-consuming remedy
A harmonic, unrealized, idealized system
That would turn the tides of history

So I turned where all turn when they lose hope
I found a Political Man
A man with the perfect system, policies, and ideologies

But as my allegiance grew
I began to realize that the policies I had once idealized
Were not so great after all

I saw the bombardments continue
I saw greed prevail
While humans were no more than a pawn in his game

I grew weary of the Political Man
And after a short time I met the Consumer Man

The Consumer Man had it all

I wanted to be the Consumer Man
I wanted to look quick, sleek, and advanced
I wanted the iPhone, the house, the car, the family

Surely it would make me more happy?

But by iPhone 25
The new gadgets began to seem futile

The more perfect cars I bought, the less perfect they seemed
The house had three stories, but rarely witnessed a happy morning
And as perfect as Facebook made my family seem
Deep wounds appeared beyond the screen

I ran into another man, a War Man
His guns, his patriotism, his dedication to military
Would never budge under any circumstance
Surely he would bring me ultimate security?

I watched him sing the praises of the machines of war
In awe we stood,
But I quickly realized
“Security” was just a word
A word to make me feel safe
A word I could use to justify murder

Somehow it became real to me
The more security we were given
The more violence became our reality

So I found an Intelligent Man
With an unrivaled logical, factual, practical coherence
That rendered his opponents voiceless
And persuaded me instantaneously

But no matter how correct he seemed
Something was missing
A body can do good work with a brain
But without a heart how will it function properly?

So I searched out the heart of a Religious Man
To get me back on track

He was a righteous man
A man of authority
Who knew all the right answers

But the questions I was asking
Deserved patience
They deserved the deep, long struggle of searching
With the reality that perhaps I may never know
And maybe that is okay

He knew who was in
He knew who was out

I don’t know where to begin
But I just want to shout

I abandoned the Religious Man
I was hurt

So I found the Spiritual Man
Who’s life was an expression of emotion
Who was on top of the world singing the praises

But when struggle was realized
He couldn’t escape life’s mazes

Being built on emotion can be a powerful thing
But I wonder how long it can last?

Why am I lost?
Why can I not bring harmony
To a world that doesn’t know the cost?

Am I stuck?
Am I enslaved to one man or the other?
Show me where hope is!

Out my door I went
Head down
Face wearing nothing but my frown

When out of the corner of my eye
I saw a stranger pass by
“Why do you frown,” he asked
“When all the world is shining around you?”

Suddenly, a vision fell upon me
Of Christ upon the cross
Of the man sabotaged by the Political Man
The Consumer Man
The War Man
The Intelligent Man
The Religious Man
And the Spiritual Man

Yet what I heard was not words of anger

The man who knew
That politicians could never save us
That consuming material goods
Would only create in us an unwillingness to love
That swords saving us from swords
Would only give rise to more swords
That mind over heart
As correct as it seems
Is not the way of heaven
That righteousness
Is the surest sign of the lost
And that deep roots are not reached by the frost

This man on the cross
Murdered by a collection of these thoughts
Decided to forgive us
We don’t know what we do

I guess I agree with you

 

The Journey

ipp-summer-1

I was taken back into the past
And all I saw was darkness and struggle
Violence, hatred, and bigotry

I yearned for an all-consuming remedy
A harmonic, unrealized, idealized system
That would turn the tides of history

So I turned where all turn when they lose hope
I found a Political Man
A man with the perfect system, policies, and ideologies

But as my allegiance grew
I began to realize that the policies I had once idealized
Were not so great after all

I saw the bombardments continue
I saw greed prevail
While humans were no more than a pawn in his game

I grew weary of the Political Man
And after a short time I met the Consumer Man

The Consumer Man had it all

I wanted to be the Consumer Man
I wanted to look quick, sleek, and advanced
I wanted the iPhone, the house, the car, the family

Surely it would make me more happy?

But by iPhone 25
The new gadgets began to seem futile

The more perfect cars I bought, the less perfect they seemed
The house had three stories, but rarely witnessed a happy morning
And as perfect as Facebook made my family seem
Deep wounds appeared beyond the screen

I ran into another man, a War Man
His guns, his patriotism, his dedication to military
Would never budge under any circumstance
Surely he would bring me ultimate security?

I watched him sing the praises of the machines of war
In awe we stood,
But I quickly realized
“Security” was just a word
A word to make me feel safe
A word I could use to justify murder

Somehow it became real to me
The more security we were given
The more violence became our reality

So I found an Intelligent Man
With an unrivaled logical, factual, practical coherence
That rendered his opponents voiceless
And persuaded me instantaneously

But no matter how correct he seemed
Something was missing
A body can do good work with a brain
But without a heart how will it function properly?

So I searched out the heart of a Religious Man
To get me back on track

He was a righteous man
A man of authority
Who knew all the right answers

But the questions I was asking
Deserved patience
They deserved the deep, long struggle of searching
With the reality that perhaps I may never know
And maybe that is okay

He knew who was in
He knew who was out

I don’t know where to begin
But I just want to shout

I abandoned the Religious Man
I was hurt

So I found the Spiritual Man
Who’s life was an expression of emotion
Who was on top of the world singing the praises

But when struggle was realized
He couldn’t escape life’s mazes

Being built on emotion can be a powerful thing
But I wonder how long it can last?

Why am I lost?
Why can I not bring harmony
To a world that doesn’t know the cost?

Am I stuck?
Am I enslaved to one man or the other?
Show me where hope is!

Out my door I went
Head down
Face wearing nothing but my frown

When out of the corner of my eye
I saw a stranger pass by
“Why do you frown,” he asked
“When all the world is shining around you?”

Suddenly, a vision fell upon me
Of Christ upon the cross
Of the man sabotaged by the Political Man
The Consumer Man
The War Man
The Intelligent Man
The Religious Man
And the Spiritual Man

Yet what I heard was not words of anger

The man who knew
That politicians could never save us
That consuming material goods
Would only create in us an unwillingness to love
That swords saving us from swords
Would only give rise to more swords
That mind over heart
As correct as it seems
Is not the way of heaven
That righteousness
Is the surest sign of the lost
And that deep roots are not reached by the frost

This man on the cross
Murdered by a collection of these thoughts
Decided to forgive us
We don’t know what we do

I guess I agree with you

 

Who is God?

Gregory of Nyssa (335-394), for example, describes the divine life as an eternal act of knowledge and love, in which the God who is infinite being is also an infinite act of consciousness, knowing himself as the infinitely good, and so is also an infinite love, at once desiring all and receiving all in himself.

-David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss

hero@2x

There are two ways that we as humans can “see” love. One is by receiving a gift or an act of love. Somebody gives a hug, words of encouragement or acknowledgement, a gift, perhaps even something the giver had created.

The other way love can be “seen” is by one not just presenting an act of love unto another, but by being the very embodiment of love. This cannot be done by one simple gesture or act. To be the embodiment of love means to actually form oneself into a complete dedication to another. To be the home, the energy source, the peace, the servant, the friend of another.

In his book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss (if you are up for a challenging but really awesome read I would highly recommend it), David Bentley Hart (an Orthodox Christian philosophical theologian and cultural commentator) tries to clear up the question of who it is we are talking about when we talk about God. For him it is both for the progressively popular New Atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and so on, and also many Christians who don’t really have a full understanding of who God is. To Hart, most debates regarding the existence of God are pointless because neither side understands what god is actually being talked about.

Many of us disregard theology, philosophy, and history, seeing them as harmful or unworthy of our time in the modern, technologically advanced society we live in. We have little need for exploring the depths of the divine when we have churches that are powerful and emotionally charged, and a Bible that tells us everything we need to know. We don’t need to explore philosophy and its deep and often circular questions regarding our existence. We exist. So what? And in our advanced scientific age we have no need to listen to the voices of the past. We’re doing pretty good today, and we would have little to learn from those of the pre-tech societies.

But what this has really done is made us a very shallow bunch, so inclined toward the practical and simple that all our understanding is embodied in utilitarian ideas of how the world and us as humans should function. Which makes us overly materialistic and redefines success in ways I believe are not as beneficial as they might immediately seem. Which is why the question of God is one of many important questions that needs to be addressed.

What we forget is how we see God, how we see the Bible, how we see our past, how we answer the deep questions about human existence, actually has a huge impact on the way we act, think, what we value, and our morals. It really is quite important. And so it needs to be talked about. And with regard to the question of who God is, I believe David Bentley Hart gets at something truly profound. Something worth exploring for Christians and atheists alike.

What Hart finds troubling from groups like the New Atheists, but also more and more Christians is the view of God as a sort of demiurge in the mold of Ancient Greek mythology. Demiurge, meaning a sort of divine “world-maker.”

Personally, I have to some degree viewed God as a more advanced Ancient Greek demiurge. And I believe a lot of other Christians have also done this. In awe, we examine the astonishing aspects of the world we live in and ask ourselves how this could be anything but an act of God. It certainly could not be some random act of science. And so we declare it the design of God.

This brings us to the understanding of God as the Intelligent Designer of the world. But when we see God as a creator it opens up the idea that some of what God created, over time became not so great. Thus making that thing or person expendable or able to be grouped aside. We have an understanding of God as a being outside this earth, up in the heavens. Which for humans, though we would never say it, makes the earth a little less Godly.

What Hart suggests is that God is not some divine old man up in the clouds that created earth at a particular moment in time and occasionally interrupts the natural flow of earth with his divine love. According to Hart,

To speak of “God” properly, then is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being.

For some Christians, this understanding of God might strike as uncomfortable or unsettling, but as Hart explains this is not some “new-agey,” “treehugger” understanding of God but has always been the traditional understanding of God in the Church back to the original Church Fathers. However, with the rise of fundamentalism in 20th century this notion of God is being replaced by the “Intelligent Designer God” or the “demiurge God,” which has become harmful both for Christians and Atheists alike.

When we see God not as the imposer or creator of all things but the infinite source of being that gives all reality its life and meaning, it becomes challenging or perhaps impossible to praise the strongest military force in history as it commits “successful” bombardment of a foreign enemy, with or without all its “collateral damage.” It becomes difficult to see children ripped from their parents. It becomes difficult to see rivers polluted, mountaintops destroyed, and forests decimated in the name of progress and wealth.

God is the love source that equips life to each of us, regardless of the creed, group, or flag that is claimed. God is the wellspring of fresh water that provides us with life. This is what the first Americans understood so well. By “first Americans” I mean American Indians, not Pilgrims at Plymouth.

This is what the great mystics always understood, and it is what all of the great religions have always understood as God.

For Christians it is this reality of God we must learn to regather, for those that have lost it.

 

Who is God?

Gregory of Nyssa (335-394), for example, describes the divine life as an eternal act of knowledge and love, in which the God who is infinite being is also an infinite act of consciousness, knowing himself as the infinitely good, and so is also an infinite love, at once desiring all and receiving all in himself.

-David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss

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There are two ways that we as humans can “see” love. One is by receiving a gift or an act of love. Somebody gives a hug, words of encouragement or acknowledgement, a gift, perhaps even something the giver had created.

The other way love can be “seen” is by one not just presenting an act of love unto another, but by being the very embodiment of love. This cannot be done by one simple gesture or act. To be the embodiment of love means to actually form oneself into a complete dedication to another. To be the home, the energy source, the peace, the servant, the friend of another.

In his book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss (if you are up for a challenging but really awesome read I would highly recommend it), David Bentley Hart (an Orthodox Christian philosophical theologian and cultural commentator) tries to clear up the question of who it is we are talking about when we talk about God. For him it is both for the progressively popular New Atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and so on, and also many Christians who don’t really have a full understanding of who God is. To Hart, most debates regarding the existence of God are pointless because neither side understands what god is actually being talked about.

Many of us disregard theology, philosophy, and history, seeing them as harmful or unworthy of our time in the modern, technologically advanced society we live in. We have little need for exploring the depths of the divine when we have churches that are powerful and emotionally charged, and a Bible that tells us everything we need to know. We don’t need to explore philosophy and its deep and often circular questions regarding our existence. We exist. So what? And in our advanced scientific age we have no need to listen to the voices of the past. We’re doing pretty good today, and we would have little to learn from those of the pre-tech societies.

But what this has really done is made us a very shallow bunch, so inclined toward the practical and simple that all our understanding is embodied in utilitarian ideas of how the world and us as humans should function. Which makes us overly materialistic and redefines success in ways I believe are not as beneficial as they might immediately seem. Which is why the question of God is one of many important questions that needs to be addressed.

What we forget is how we see God, how we see the Bible, how we see our past, how we answer the deep questions about human existence, actually has a huge impact on the way we act, think, what we value, and our morals. It really is quite important. And so it needs to be talked about. And with regard to the question of who God is, I believe David Bentley Hart gets at something truly profound. Something worth exploring for Christians and atheists alike.

What Hart finds troubling from groups like the New Atheists, but also more and more Christians is the view of God as a sort of demiurge in the mold of Ancient Greek mythology. Demiurge, meaning a sort of divine “world-maker.”

Personally, I have to some degree viewed God as a more advanced Ancient Greek demiurge. And I believe a lot of other Christians have also done this. In awe, we examine the astonishing aspects of the world we live in and ask ourselves how this could be anything but an act of God. It certainly could not be some random act of science. And so we declare it the design of God.

This brings us to the understanding of God as the Intelligent Designer of the world. But when we see God as a creator it opens up the idea that some of what God created, over time became not so great. Thus making that thing or person expendable or able to be grouped aside. We have an understanding of God as a being outside this earth, up in the heavens. Which for humans, though we would never say it, makes the earth a little less Godly.

What Hart suggests is that God is not some divine old man up in the clouds that created earth at a particular moment in time and occasionally interrupts the natural flow of earth with his divine love. According to Hart,

To speak of “God” properly, then is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being.

For some Christians, this understanding of God might strike as uncomfortable or unsettling, but as Hart explains this is not some “new-agey,” “treehugger” understanding of God but has always been the traditional understanding of God in the Church back to the original Church Fathers. However, with the rise of fundamentalism in 20th century this notion of God is being replaced by the “Intelligent Designer God” or the “demiurge God,” which has become harmful both for Christians and Atheists alike.

When we see God not as the imposer or creator of all things but the infinite source of being that gives all reality its life and meaning, it becomes challenging or perhaps impossible to praise the strongest military force in history as it commits “successful” bombardment of a foreign enemy, with or without all its “collateral damage.” It becomes difficult to see children ripped from their parents. It becomes difficult to see rivers polluted, mountaintops destroyed, and forests decimated in the name of progress and wealth.

God is the love source that equips life to each of us, regardless of the creed, group, or flag that is claimed. God is the wellspring of fresh water that provides us with life. This is what the first Americans understood so well. By “first Americans” I mean American Indians, not Pilgrims at Plymouth.

This is what the great mystics always understood, and it is what all of the great religions have always understood as God.

For Christians it is this reality of God we must learn to regather, for those that have lost it.

 

What Do You Need?

We’ve acknowledged that the problems are big, now what is the big solution? When you ask the question, “what is the big answer,” then you are implying that we can impose the answer. But that is the problem we are in to start with. We’ve tried to impose the answers. The answers will come not from walking up to your farm and saying, “this is what I want, this is what I expect from you,” you get up and you say, “what is it you need?” And you commit yourself to say, “alright I’m not going to do any extensive damage here until I know what it is you are asking of me.”

-Wendell Berry

field-858650_1280-940x300

“What do you need?”
Is a question that often eludes us
Yet, it is all around us
But we cannot see it
We are too busy
We are too important
We are too righteous

In a world full of problems
Asking questions is far too difficult a task
It requires too much patience
We are too busy
We are too important
We are too righteous
For “what do you need?”

Why should one ask such a question
When they know for a fact the answer
We don’t need to ask questions when
We are too busy
We are too important
We are too righteous
For “what do you need?”

We are creative, innovative
At times, perhaps too much so
That we have neglected the ever-important question
“What do you need?”
In favor of fixing the problem ourselves
Without regard for the crier’s plead
We are too busy
We are too important
We are too righteous
For “what do you need?”

Well then, where in the world is “what do you need?”
Isn’t it everywhere?
In all that is sacred
In all that has been created
From the voices of those behind bars
Those on the street corners
Those who are sick
To the voiceless trees in the woodlands
The swarms of fish in the seas
The beautiful wings of the air

Surely we must ask the sacred what they need
We think we are too busy
We think we are too important
We think we are too righteous
For “what do you need?”
Yet we forget we are but dust
And to dust we shall return

So next time you are creative
Next time you want to do the fixing
Next time you want a solution
Ask the sacred what it needs
For it might be far different than you perceive

And remember, next time you think you are
Too busy
Too important
Too righteous
Next time you see yourself as king
I’ll let you in on a little secret
Dust ain’t too busy for anything

What Do You Need?

We’ve acknowledged that the problems are big, now what is the big solution? When you ask the question, “what is the big answer,” then you are implying that we can impose the answer. But that is the problem we are in to start with. We’ve tried to impose the answers. The answers will come not from walking up to your farm and saying, “this is what I want, this is what I expect from you,” you get up and you say, “what is it you need?” And you commit yourself to say, “alright I’m not going to do any extensive damage here until I know what it is you are asking of me.”

-Wendell Berry

field-858650_1280-940x300

“What do you need?”
Is a question that often eludes us
Yet, it is all around us
But we cannot see it
We are too busy
We are too important
We are too righteous

In a world full of problems
Asking questions is far too difficult a task
It requires too much patience
We are too busy
We are too important
We are too righteous
For “what do you need?”

Why should one ask such a question
When they know for a fact the answer
We don’t need to ask questions when
We are too busy
We are too important
We are too righteous
For “what do you need?”

We are creative, innovative
At times, perhaps too much so
That we have neglected the ever-important question
“What do you need?”
In favor of fixing the problem ourselves
Without regard for the crier’s plead
We are too busy
We are too important
We are too righteous
For “what do you need?”

Well then, where in the world is “what do you need?”
Isn’t it everywhere?
In all that is sacred
In all that has been created
From the voices of those behind bars
Those on the street corners
Those who are sick
To the voiceless trees in the woodlands
The swarms of fish in the seas
The beautiful wings of the air

Surely we must ask the sacred what they need
We think we are too busy
We think we are too important
We think we are too righteous
For “what do you need?”
Yet we forget we are but dust
And to dust we shall return

So next time you are creative
Next time you want to do the fixing
Next time you want a solution
Ask the sacred what it needs
For it might be far different than you perceive

And remember, next time you think you are
Too busy
Too important
Too righteous
Next time you see yourself as king
I’ll let you in on a little secret
Dust ain’t too busy for anything

Spiritual, Not Religious

By listening to the echoes of an older Christianity, we gain a better sense of our own place in the long history of the church. We are not chained to the past, we are free to innovate. We must constantly translate Christianity into contemporary culture, but we do so by maintaining a conversation with our mothers and fathers, with our older sisters and brothers. Their echoes are important, their voices need to be respected. Christianity doesn’t belong exclusively to the living, but is the shared faith of all who have confessed Christ. This is why tradition matters. G.K. Chesterton called it “the democracy of the dead.”

-Brian Zahnd

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Most young Christians today, scarred by the long, questionable history of Christianity, and embarrassed by modern evangelicalism and fundamentalism have begun to either deny Christianity itself, or disregard the religious and traditional aspects of it in favor of it’s state of being. Thus rendering themselves “spiritual, but not religious.”

At first glance, this is an attractive idea. The religious aspects of Christianity are rather boring and unattractive to the modern individual. We really don’t want liturgies or traditional prayer. We don’t want songs and chants from the Medieval Age. The sacraments are nothing really important. Many protestants and evangelicals have realized this. In these circles, music is fun. Music rocks us and excites us. We also really only have a need for communion once a month, and the liturgies and creeds are merely nonexistent. And the saints, well they hold virtually no value.

So what are these churches left with? Well, pretty much the Bible and a pastor. So from these two things come all authority. This is what constitutes the majority of American Christianity. The Bible and a pastor. Having a strong emphasis on only these two things leads to vastly over-emphasizing the importance of them.

And so, protestants and evangelicals construct their faith from the Bible and their pastors. But we seem to forget that Christianity has a long historical tradition that consists of so much more.

Unfortunately this can lead to troubling situations for those coming out of these churches. Not the parents and grandparents, but the youth. The generation that leaves the house and their former church to become exposed to the secular world in which a vast range of beliefs exists.

So, when a child raised in a family that has constructed their Christianity merely from the Bible and a pastor, and goes on to graduate high school and enter into college, they have but one stronghold to their faith: Biblical fundamentalism. And in college, when they take a history course and hear about some of the terrible things that have been done in the name of Christianity, or take a Bible course and hear about the drastic contradictions within the Bible, or a biology course and realize the world is actually 4.5 billion years old rather than 6,000, they become embarrassed of what they have always believed. All of the sudden their entire Christian faith structure is falling apart.

To any thoughtful person, these are tough things to deal with. For some it can become so embarrassing that they choose to deny their entire belief in Christianity. For others, unwilling to completely give it up, they resort to a new spiritual kind of Christianity. One that is formed through their own thought and their own personal life. This is fun and intriguing. It is freeing in the sense that any of the problems of religious Christianity can simply be washed away in a denial of the religious, and an embracing of the spiritual.

The spiritual doesn’t have problems. It has no history. It is your perception of reality. It is how you feel in the moment. How you are moved. It doesn’t have dogmas, liturgies, chants, sacraments, rules, fundamentalism, or any of the other boring and frustrating things about Christianity. It simply embraces the moment and offers the occasional and very personal prayer. Religious Christianity however is not suitable enough to amuse ourselves in the age of personal satisfaction, entertainment, and consumerism.

First, I want to say to those who have gone down this rode, I understand. It is hard to not be bitter about a significant chunk of Christian history. It is hard to feel like at times you have been fed a lie. I would like to offer a few words of encouragement to help you through this process and maybe allow you to rethink abandoning Christianity or religious Christianity.

Before we address this I would like to examine the Christian religion and what exactly makes it up. It is important to always understand that at the center of Christianity is Christ. Not the Bible, not prayer, not your pastor. Christ. And this really is a great thing. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Virtually everyone admires Christ. As Brian Zahnd says,

One of the most astounding things about Jesus is that virtually no one is a critic of Jesus. Critics of the church yes, indeed. Critics of Christianity as it has developed, absolutely. But Jesus himself remains deeply admired. I don’t really know of any serious critics of Jesus. As they begin to criticize Jesus they begin to sound silly even in their own minds. Nietzsche tried. Nietzsche would try to rail against Christ and then he would change his mind and think he was the greatest man that ever lived and he just kind of bounced back and forth. He could never truly convince himself that he ought to be attacking Jesus.

No one can truly accept the fact that Jesus was anything less than a great man. So the idea that Jesus is at the center of our faith is a pretty great thing. Not just for us individually, but for all of Christianity.

Now, with our understanding that Christ is at the center of Christianity, anything that is truly Christian should in fact look “Christ-like.” Just because horrible acts have been committed and are still being committed in the name of “Christianity” doesn’t make those acts “Christian.” In some cases, far from it.

Here’s what we Christians need to remember. Before the rule of Roman Emperor Constantine and the converting of Rome into a Christian Empire in the 4th Century, Christianity was a radical pacifist religion of people oppressed by the powers of empire. And thus, it was not only a religion of the oppressed, but for the oppressed.

But things changed with the reign of Constantine. Now Christianity transitioned from the religion of oppressed and radical pacifists to the very oppressive empire that it had previously been oppressed by. It became the oppressors. And in this process, it lost sight of the central figure of Christianity. (This whole idea is brilliantly portrayed in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.) Since this moment, Christian Empires have engaged in horrific crimes against humanity in the name of Christ and “Manifest Destiny,” while completely disregarding Christ’s radical teaching.

So if we are to understand what is Christian, well, it is Christ. And be careful when someone claims to be doing something in the name of Christ. All too often they fool us, and are really doing something in the name of “empire,” or “consumerism,” or “republicanism,” or “fundamentalism.” It is surprising how we Christians fool not only others, but also ourselves. In America, the majority of Christians have convinced themselves that Jesus is republican. And without further ado, are now capable of sitting in a church pew on Sunday and going out the next day to cast a vote for a man who brags about “grabbing women by the pussy,” lies without constraint, has had multiple affairs with porn stars, loves to flex America’s military might, constantly demonizes groups and individuals, and is the physical embodiment of American wealth and power. It takes a complete reformulation of the Christian religion to convince oneself that this decision is in any way “Christ-like.” Yet, this is where Christianity stands in America.

Keep in mind, this is not saying that those who engage in particular acts like the one above or other acts throughout history are not Christian. It is simply saying that the acts themselves are not Christian, and they are extremely harmful to the Christian body as a whole. But as we all know the great thing about Christianity is you don’t have to be very good at it. If we did, we might all be doomed.

While Christianity has had its moments of completely losing sight of it’s central character, Christ, it also has had its times where it has engineered some moments of the most supreme beauty. Moments like Saint Francis fighting for an end to the crusades. Or the Catholic liberation movement in Latin America. Or Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin starting the Catholic Worker movement. Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer fighting for the Jewish people and against the Nazi regime. Or Martin Luther King Jr., fighting for an end to racism, militarism, and poverty. This past Christmas I saw a video of a group of Christians, led by Shane Claiborne, protesting for DACA members by standing outside Speaker Paul Ryan’s office holding hands and singing “Silent Night.” The video ended by showing them still singing “Silent Night” as they were handcuffed and sent to prison.

What I’m saying is that yes, Christians have engaged in embarrassing acts. But these acts were not truly Christian acts. And when we examine Christianity in light of its true tradition, we see the profound beauty of it.

One of the major aspects of being a part of this religion is not only engaging with it in the present world, but also in its rich historical tradition. This is why when we take communion and eat the body and drink the blood of Christ so that we can embody the love and forgiveness of Christ, we are not just doing so as a single church but as an ancient historical tradition in which Christians have collectively engaged in for 21 centuries, all with the same goal in mind. To become as a people the living embodiment of our redeemer.

The same goes for all the sacraments. The same goes for the Scriptures, the prayers, the psalms, the creeds, the liturgies, and the saints. These are not just mindless practices that we engage in occasionally because we call ourselves “Christians.” They are part of the rich historical tradition that shapes us and connects us to all those throughout history who have confessed Christ as King, back to the very man himself.

This is what it means to be a religious Christian. For some reason, modern versions have turned Christianity into solely an individual religion about personal salvation, personal sin, and prayer for God to do what we want, rather than prayer as formation. But Christianity is so far from that. We are a body of believers, and have been so for 21 centuries. 2,000 years. And if you count our Jewish roots, which you should, probably something more like almost 4,000 years.

If we choose to deny Christianity because of cowardly imposters of the religion we will allow the slanderers, the hypocrites – the Pharisees, if you will – to absolve us of the most beautiful and gracious message of Christ.

So keep your spiritual, cause you need it. But don’t loose your religious. I truly believe it will benefit you if you allow it to. And perhaps more importantly, may be the saving grace for the Christian church’s survival.