A TIMELY REVOLUTION IN CHRISTIAN THINKING

There is a revolution slowly happening in Christian thinking and it is very timely as it focuses on the sacredness of the planet. This revolution has come about due to the theory of evolution and the rediscovery of a 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart.

    The theory of evolution has been integrated into Christian thinking by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit priest, and the rediscovery of Eckhart has been largely due to Matthew Fox, a former Dominican priest whose radical ideas caused Cardinal Ratzinger (before he became Pope Benedict) to force Fox to leave the church. Fox is now an Episcopalian (Anglican) priest, and still has a huge following.

    The revolution has been the gradual replacement of “fall/redemption theology” with “creation spirituality.” Fall/redemption theology in brief is the idea that human beings are broken due to original sin and need a redeemer to save them. Creation spirituality in brief is the idea that the universe is glorious, an original blessing, and that should be our starting point, not the fall of humanity.

    I think Fox’s mistake, and the reason creation spirituality has only gradually caught on, is that he put it in opposition to fall/redemption theology. Fall/redemption theology has a lot of backers since it is realistic about human sin and our five-thousand-year history of wars and corruption; it has been the dominant theology for the whole history of the church; and the Bible and most church services are full of it.

    On the negative side, it starts with the negative – we are fallen; it is based in Augustine’s warped theology (according to Fox) of original sin; and if we don’t repent of our sin, we are cut off from God and bound for hell. So, it is guilt and fear-inducing.

   Based on Meister Eckhart, Fox by contrast starts off with the goodness of creation as witnessed by the first chapter of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, in which God created everything as “very good,” including humans. Fox’s creation spirituality is joyful, focused on our fourteen-billion-year-old universe, instead of on human sinfulness, and is realistic about four “vias” or ways of spirituality that are found in Eckhart.

    In summary, the “via positiva” is about our universe as an original blessing and our awe when we contemplate it; the “via negativa” is about our fallenness, evil, and suffering; the “via creativa” is our recovery from sin and destruction; and the “via transformativa” is about communal social justice.

    A breakthrough occurs when one realizes that it is not the case that fall/redemption theology is not true, it is just that it is too narrow. We are broken and need a redeemer, and creation spirituality includes that but is much broader in its scope.

    Not only that, but creation spirituality is thoroughly biblical. The via positiva takes in not only Genesis 1, but also the celebration of nature throughout the Bible and by Jesus – his parables are full of the flowers, birds, animals, and harvest. The via negativa is not only in Genesis 3 but also throughout the Bible in the Jewish people’s subjection to slavery and exile, and in the crucifixion of Jesus. The via creativa is in the ongoing recovery of the Jews from hellish situations and in the resurrection of Jesus. And the via transformativa is in the social justice teachings of the Jewish prophets and in the era of the Holy Spirit after Christ’s resurrection, which formed a church community built on the sacred value of each person and on social justice.

    Creation spirituality is found, according to Fox, not only in Eckhart. It is latent in Thomas Aquinas, who was the major Christian theologian for centuries. In the past sixty years it is clearly in prolific writers like Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Ronald Rolheiser, Elizabeth Johnson, and Ilya Delio. It is obvious in “On Care for Our Common Home,” a major encyclical by Pope Francis. It is also in popular Protestants such as John Philip Newell’s rebirth of Celtic Christianity which is very creation-centered.

    Rather than putting creation spirituality in opposition to fall/redemption theology, Fox should have noted it does not negate it, but rather includes and transcends it. Creation spirituality is simply a broader, more biblical theology than fall/redemption.

 

Bruce Tallman is a London spiritual director and religious educator of adults. brucetallman.com

     

HOW RELIGIONS CAN LIVE IN PEACE

If we want world peace, it is becoming increasingly crucial that Christianity and Islam get along. However, how can any religions get along? Religion, by its very nature, tends to take things to the limit, to globalize its beliefs and absolutize its truths. If my truth is absolutely true, your different truth must not be true.

    This attitude generates conflict not only between religions, but also within religions. For example, Sunnis and Shiites have a long history of conflict in Islam, as do Protestants and Catholics in Christianity.

     One attempt to solve this dilemma is the annual World Day of Prayer wherein the major Christian denominations try to pray together. Another effort is World Religion Day, usually in mid-January, in which the major religions get together and speak their truth about peace.

    However, these approaches, while salutary, do not address the basic problem of how to handle conflicting truth claims. On the one hand, the Koran tells us that Islam is the true faith, Buddhism maintains the Buddha taught the true path, Christianity claims the absolute truth is Jesus Christ is Lord, and Hinduism asserts that Lord Krishna was divine.

    On the other hand, every world religion also teaches wisdom, compassion, prayer, fasting, taking care of the needy, and avoiding evil. Given this, no one can say that every major religion is all wrong or all evil. All of them have at least some truth or goodness in them. So, how do we reconcile all this? There are four basic approaches to truth.

    The first approach is that all religions are equally true and valid. However, this choice has to be rejected when you compare say rabbinic Judaism to Aztec religion with its human sacrifices in order to keep the sun-god rising, or when you compare say Voodoo cults with the sublime theology of Thomas Aquinas.

    The second approach is that no religions are true. This is the stance of the atheist or the person who cannot reconcile all the competing assertions of absolute truth, and therefore decides that all religion must be nonsense.

    However, this choice is not very satisfying either. Religion expresses the deepest insights of the human heart. To say there is no truth in any religion is to leave humanity in a truly hopeless situation.

    The third approach is black and white religious truth. This is the attitude of “we are saints, you are sinners,” “we have all the answers, you don’t have any,” “only Catholics will be in heaven” or conversely “all Catholics are going to hell.”

    This approach, when taken to its limit can result in self-righteousness and endless division, hatred, and war between religions and within them. Truth as black and white eventually disintegrates when you start to notice the shortcomings and sin in your own community and the virtue in others.

    The fourth approach is degrees of truth. This choice has as its basic premise that there is truth in all the major religions, but some religions are truer than others.

    This choice forces you to really study and weigh where you can honestly find the most truth, rather than just accepting or rejecting everything wholesale. This approach also allows you to be completely committed to your own tradition while at the same time being open to whatever degree of truth you find in other traditions. In fact, everyone could enrich their own tradition with the truths they found in other traditions.

    Catholics could learn a lot about humble service and justice from the Salvation Army, peacemaking and community from Mennonites, preaching and Bible study from Baptists, and joyous worship from Pentecostals. Protestants could learn from Catholics about the riches of the sacraments, contemplative prayer, the saints, and church history.

    Christians in general could learn from non-Christians: love of God’s law from Jews, detachment from Buddhists, a spirit of poverty from Hindus, and zeal for God from Muslims. These traditions could similarly learn a lot about forgiveness from Christians.

    An objection from evangelical Christians might be “If we admit there is truth in all the major religions, why reach out to them with the good news of Jesus Christ?” The answer is simply that, if you believe Christianity to be truer than other religions, you will want to reach out to them with your greater truth. In the process you might learn why they believe they have the greater truth, and so understand each other better. This can only be good.

     In a degrees of truth approach, every person is given the human right of freedom of religion and is free to believe that their religious tradition is truer than other traditions without absolutizing their tradition as the one and only truth.

    “All religions are true” has great tolerance, but no commitment; “no religions are true” has no religious commitment or tolerance; “black and white religious truth” has commitment but no tolerance; only the  “degrees of truth” approach has both the religious commitment and religious tolerance which together can lead to world peace.  

  

Bruce Tallman is a spiritual director and religious educator of adults. btallman@rogers.com

 

HOW TO APPROACH THE BIBLE INTELLIGENTLY

There are two basic approaches to Bible reading: faithful and unfaithful. The faithful approach, as Augustine wrote, is “faith seeking understanding;” the unfaithful approach seeks to tear down faith.

    The fact is that truth is interactive between the text and the reader. If no one ever read the Bible, it would become a museum piece that people looked at but never picked up. On the other hand, if people read everything in it literally it would seem absurd: talking snakes, rivers clapping hands they don’t have, hills shouting for joy, a great red dragon sweeping a third of the stars from the heavens with his tail.

As Richard Rohr says, the literal approach is important, but it is the least useful approach and misses so much of the deeply meaningful symbolism in the text.

    It is important to realize that the Bible is full of different genres: poems, history, wisdom writings, romance stories, gospels, letters, apocalyptic writing. If you took everything as the same genre, it would be like reading the newspaper comics as if they were the same as stories on the front page.

    In fact, the Bible is so rich, so packed and varied, you can find anything you want in it. you can find God as a monster who sends poisonous snakes to kill 30,000 Israelites for complaining to Moses when they have no food in the desert; God killing everyone on Earth in a flood; God condemning people to eternal torture in hell. This is the biblical God atheists like Richard Dawkins find.

    Or you can find God as a good shepherd taking care of his flock or God as a loving mother nursing her child on her lap. The question is: what did you want to find before you even started reading the Bible? That’s what you will find because it is interactive.

    The Protestant Reformation, which started in 1517 with Martin Luther, attacked the authority of the pope and so the Catholic church made the pope infallible, that is, incapable of making erroneous statements. Protestants reacted by making everything in the Bible inerrant, that is, without error. However, Protestants interpret the Bible in many ways, and without realizing it, it is their own interpretation they take as inerrant.

    The Bible did not fall out of the sky, it was written over about 1300 years by about 40 human authors who had different personalities, different life experiences, and who were affected by their own culture’s history and understanding of reality. So, they were capable of writing things that, with our greater knowledge, we know were inaccurate.

    There are thus two basic mistakes in approaching the Bible: to take everything in it as equally true, as if there are no scientific or historical errors in it, as fundamentalists do, or to take it as just another book and not inspired by God as some Protestants do.

    It is challenging to keep the tension between the Bible as both the inspired word of God and as written by fallible human beings. The Bible was meant as a faith and morals text not as a science and history text.

    There are no math or physics equations in the Bible, but there is an evolution of peoples’ understanding of God. Things develop from all the laws in the early books, some of which are humanly made, such as not combining two different fabrics in clothing, to prophets who criticize God’s people when they get off track, to Jesus who fulfills both the law and the prophets.

    So, when Christians approach the Bible, they need to take Jesus as their hermeneutic, or means of understanding what is written in the Bible. We need to always look at scripture through the wise and compassionate eyes of Jesus who was selective in his use of biblical texts, that is, he considered some texts to be more inspired by God and some as less inspired. He largely ignores the less-inspired parts.

    Faithful interpretation of the Bible necessitates a lot of prayer for guidance by God when reading it, as well as the need to listen to faithful Bible scholars who can help us understand what Jesus meant.

    If with their help we can discern how Jesus interpreted the scriptures, then we will get the proper interpretation.

Bruce Tallman is a spiritual director and religious educator of adults. btallman@rogers.com

GOD’S JUSTICE IS ETERNAL LOVE NOT ETERNAL PUNISHMENT

 You may find the idea that God is only pure love, not a mixture of love and wrath, revolutionary if you grew up as I did with an idea of God as an angry old man in the sky constantly watching us so he could punish us for our sins.

    Although I have grown beyond that image intellectually, the vestiges of it are still deeply planted in my brain and make it difficult for me to totally trust God. Even as an adult I used to think that, on the one hand God was purely loving, and yet on the other hand we had to maintain God’s “holiness,” by which we meant “hatred of sin,” and since sin has to be punished, God’s justice was always punitive and wrathful.

    But what if God’s justice is only restorative not punitive, and God is forever only pure love? What if, as the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr always says, “Jesus came not to change God’s mind about us, but to change our minds about God.”

    The best human being would do everything they could to fully understand and help others, not punish them. However, we live in a dualistic, tit-for-tat culture that divides people up into good and bad. The bad are your enemies and the culture tells us enemies are to be punished and destroyed.

    This punitive cultural attitude even infects our churches and warps our theology. Jesus taught that we should love our enemies, but many Christians do not believe that God does this, God condemns sinners to be tortured forever in hell.

    Jesus taught that we should forgive seventy times seven, that is, forever. But many Christians do not believe God does this, God sends people to eternal torment in hell.

    Why would someone as great as God, who has infinite power, knowledge, patience, kindness, love, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy choose to eternally destroy infinitely small, vulnerable creatures because of the stupid things they do, usually out of their own ignorance and brokenness? Doesn’t that make God infinitely petty, unloving judgmental and angry – qualities we don’t admire in any human being?

    Even in civil courtrooms, the length of the sentence must fit the crime – we don’t send people to lifelong imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread for their family because they are food insecure. Eternal punishment therefore does not make sense. What could we possibly do that would warrant, not just imprisonment but torture, and not just for a lifetime but forever? Forever is an awfully long time, particularly if you are being tortured! This idea makes God a monster who is eternally vengeful, something we admire in no one. This idea makes atheists not believers. Surely, God is far greater, not far lower, than the best human being?

    Maybe God’s holiness is God’s infinite and eternal love, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy? Maybe God’s holiness is like the story Jesus told about the father of the prodigal son who runs out to meet and embrace his son and celebrates his return, rather than punishing him for squandering his father’s fortune? Maybe God’s holiness is like Jesus who, when a woman is caught in adultery, rather than stoning her for her sin, as the elders wanted him to, says, “I don’t condemn you, go and sin no more.”

     I think the idea of hell as a place of eternal torture is a projection of our worst fears onto God and religious leaders used this to control people. It is easy to control people who are afraid. I also believe though that there is a hell, not as a place but a state of mind. We create our own hell or heaven on Earth by the choices we make. I suppose it would be possible to make eternally bad choices and so condemn yourself to eternal hell, but I don’t think God condemns us. Rather, God would eternally pursue us until we gave in to God’s eternal love.

    Of course, this brings up all the verses in the Bible about the wrath of God. There are good theological responses that give alternative ways of interpreting these verses, but I reserve my answers for another article. Suffice it to say for now, that the Bible is full of examples of God’s restorative not punitive justice. For now, let us merely consider and savor the idea that God’s holiness and justice are found in God’s eternal love not eternal wrath, that God is only loving not both loving and wrathful.

Bruce Tallman is a spiritual director and author of God’s Ecstatic Love (Apocryphile Press, 2021). See www.brucetallman.com/books

 

 

 

   

   

EVER-ADAPTING CHRISTIANITY

In the triad of world/flesh/devil

it is almost always the sins of the “flesh”

that are attacked by churches –

birth control/adultery/abortion/pornography

and seldom do sermons preach about the sins of the “world” –

the lust for wealth and prestige that the ego loves.

 

But the difference between the True Self

and the False Self is the difference between

“True Centering” (on God) and “Ego Centering” (on Self).

 

In fact, the True Self can include the False Self

because the way we become whole as humans

is by embracing every aspect of our existence –

our weakness/failures/mistakes

by humility/not taking ourselves too seriously –

we grow by wholeness not by absolute moral purity

which we never reach anyway.

 

Still, we consign to the unconscious

all fantasy, all psychic associations connected with

words/numbers/stones/plants/animals –

but for primitives all these things had numinous power.

 

Friedrich Nietzsche dismissed all primitives

and fancied himself to be a Rational Existentialist –

one who has the courage to stare into the abyss of non-being

and discover complete loneliness, complete aloneness

if God is dead.

 

There have been many Rational Christian responses

that have deconstructed the “death of God” movement

and people like Marcus Borg and Bishop John Shelby Spong

have also helped us deconstruct Bibical Fundamentalism

and there are many Postmodern Christian thinkers

like Brian McLaren with his book A Generous Orthodoxy

and others have developed The Postmodern Bible

and The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology.

 

As usual, Christianity has adapted to/learned from/gone beyond

whatever the world/the devil/the ego throws at us –

we always include and then transcend

all attempts to deconstruct the Truth.

SPIRITUAL PRIDE/RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE

Medieval pilgrimage was meant to be a cure for violence

but in the Crusades it became a consecration of violence –

if we believe God is only on our side

now we can kill in God’s name

and believe killing infidels is God’s will.

 

Religious violence comes from hubris –

proudly thinking we know all about God and God’s will

but for theologians like Meister Eckhart

God is better apprehended by negation than affirmation

God is an unspoken word/ineffable/

a light shining in silent stillness

which can be found in all religions

if you dig deep enough.

 

Hinayana Buddhism, the Lesser Wheel,

regards the Buddha as a human hero/a supreme sage/a saint

but Mahayana Buddhism, the Greater Wheel,

goes deeper and sees him as a world savior/an incarnation

of the principle of Enlightenment: silent light shining everywhere.

 

In Christianity, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)

reunited spirituality and theology so much

that its treatises are spiritual theology

and can be read as “lectio divina” – “sacred reading/sacred light.”

 

Jonathan Edwards, a Protestant philosopher and pastor

considered one of America’s most important

philosophical theologians, tried to discern

true religious affection from delusion.

He condemned both emotionalism and intellectualism

in religion because true religion

consists in “holy affections” from the heart

a unitary faculty of love and will

which cures the spiritual hubris

of thinking we can feel what God feels (emotionalism)

and think what God thinks (intellectualism)

which leads to religious violence.

 

“My ways are not your ways

and my thoughts are not your thoughts”

says the True Lord (Isaiah 55:8-9).

 

 

ONE RELIGION FOR ALL?

 A basic principle of Quantum Theology:

we must begin with the whole, the Unmanifest Source

of All that is within each part.

 

The obsession of science with objectivity/analysis/data

tells us nothing about reality and life

in its wholeness/depth/relationality –

these are mysterious forces of attraction in Nature

that cannot be explained by science alone.

 

Life transcends not only science/rationality/thought

but also our other big obsession, the pursuit of money:

play transcends money by reminding us

we are not just workers

and art transcends money by helping us see

hidden and deeper aspects of reality

than just producing and consuming.

 

Christianity became overly-rational

to oppose the over-rationalism of the Enlightenment –

in Europe this became highly academic theology

and in America fundamentalism – an over-reaction

to religious rationalism – but it left out reality

which includes everything – including inclusivity/

environmentalism/and other religions.

 

Some rationalism in religion is beneficial:

the Parliament of the World’s Religions

developed a “Global Ethic” – ethical guidelines

for all humans, religious or not

but this does not mean “a global ideology/

a single unified religion beyond all religions/

or a religion that dominates all others.”

 

The Parliament recognizes God’s love of diversity

and the Dalai Lama with his impish sense of humor

said that to have good interreligious dialogue

we need to honor the diversity of religions:

“To try to be Christian and Buddhist at the same time

is like putting a yak’s head on a sheep’s body.”

 

In short: it is impossible to reduce everything

to science/money/one religion.

 

 

DIVINE FEMININE/SACRED MASCULINE

 

Henri Nouwen was one-of-a-kind:

simple yet not simplistic/

deep in sentiment yet not sentimental/

self-revealing yet not exhibitionistic/

deeply personal yet universal/

sensitive to human weakness yet challenging.

 

Meister Eckhart was another great Christian expositor

who integrated heart/mind/feminine/masculine

and distinguished between ‘book learning’ and ‘life learning’ –

often an author’s life does not match their writing

but Eckhart walked his talk

and both his writing and his life

disclose God’s Truth to us.

 

Christians need to integrate their main value of love

particularly in marriage, a beautiful institution

that often gets overwhelmed

by ego/divorce/money/self-centeredness/lust/workaholism

and a culture that worships hedonism –

the pursuit of pleasure at all costs –

love without commitment or accountability –

calling it ‘free love’ or ‘polyamory.’

 

Everyone, but particularly married couples

need training in non-violence – a tactic of love

that seeks the salvation/redemption of one’s enemy/opponent

not their humiliation/defeat/destruction.

 

Everything, all personal relationships and cultural institutions

require a healthy balance of yin/yang/feminine/masculine –

after all, what good is a return to the Divine Feminine

if men refuse her because there is no return

to the Sacred Masculine?

 

But Henri Nouwen and Meister Eckhart are lamps

who can light our pathway to integration

and True Love – the marriage of the Feminine and Masculine.

FALSE PROPHETS, ATHEISTS, PEACE, AND WHOLENESS

 

Separation from the primal union with the mother,

the Garden of Eden, causes a lot of suffering, but is inevitable.

However, it is crucial to remember that there was

and there still is, a Garden.

 

The suffering of Jews/Blacks/Indigenous

has deepened them and elevated them

above the meaninglessness and triviality of the white man.

This is the secret spiritual heritage

of the United States of America and many other countries.

 

Between 1999 and 2009, the number of people

who identified as ‘religious only’ fell from 54% to 9%

and those who identified as ‘spiritual and religious’

grew from 6% to 48% – a ringing endorsement

of the value of spirituality.

 

Spiritual transformation normally results

in transformed relational virtues –

more honesty/compassion/forgiveness –

or it may mean you become a prophet.

Like any true reformer/prophet today

Jesus critiqued Judaism from inside Judaism

by Judaism’s own criteria and holy values.

 

Today, atheists who attack Christianity do so

based on Christian values, but they do not realize this

because western civilization has marinated in Christian values

for so long these values have become subconscious.

However, false prophets, unlike Jesus,

always attack from the outside – therefore

the Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse –

Dawkins/Dennett/Harris/Hitchens –

are false prophets – they have no real understanding

of the depths of the religion they attack.

 

In critiquing Judaism’s over-emphasis on Law/morality

Jesus helped us replace our one-sided emphasis on goodness –

we are good, you are evil –

with a healthier ethic of wholeness –

looking at both our own goodness and brokenness

and seeing both the goodness and brokenness in others.

When Christians do this – take the logjam out of their own eye –

they bring peace to the world.

 

 

LOOKING EAST AND BACK WEST

 

In The Mystic Heart Brother Teasdale pictured a tree

in which the branches are all the religions of the world.

The main branches: Judaism/Christianity/Islam/Buddhism/Hinduism

and the minor ones: Sufism/Shintoism/Confucianism/Bahaism.

and the come-and-gone ones: Greek and Roman gods and goddesses/

Inca/Mayan/Aztec religion.

 

It is possible to learn and grow from all these traditions:

from Buddhism, Anthony de Mello, a Catholic mystic

learned “the fantasy of attending your own funeral”

and “the fantasy of your own corpse.”

 

Many Christians would have become Buddhists

but the tendency of eastern religions

towards world-denial and over-spiritualization

are pitfalls that prevent Christians from embracing the east

and prevent eastern traditions

from discovering the riches of the Incarnation and the Cross.

 

The intrinsic connection between the mystery of Incarnation

and the mystery of Creation means that in Jesus Christ

we discover the divine clue

not only to the structure and meaning of humanity

but also the entire universe.

 

Karl Barth’s massive Church Dogmatics

thoroughly Trinitarian and Christocentric

reminded us not to lose sight

of the central doctrines of the faith

while attempting to live Christianity out in the world.

Our image of God is central to our understanding

of how God acts in the world

and central to our attempts to transform this world

rather than deny/withdraw from it.

 

The question for Catholics at the contemporary crossroads:

do we deny modern theology/cling to old notions of God/

revert to the static medieval worldview

or do we grasp the dynamic evolutionary universe

that constantly raises consciousness

toward integral wholeness:

the unity of God/self/others/the world?