Spiritual but not religious? Beliefs matter.

The Feasts for Newbies: Trinity Sunday (Part One)

Featured Image -- 3527                    Snark Meter.005

Trinity Sunday is that feast in the Christian Year that is about a doctrine rather than an event. And let’s be honest, doctrine sounds like divisive, dusty stuff. You may be one of the many who avoid doctrine with, “I’m spiritual but not religious, I feel no need of your divisive, dusty doctrines. I have the real thing.

bored girls.001

I am sympathetic. Experiencing the Holy One is certainly where it is at, but the “spiritual but not religious” answer is a bit too pat. Here’s why: My son’s college offshore sailing team just sailed the Annapolis to Newport race. My son was navigator. Getting ready for three days offshore meant lots of prep work – 20 hours pouring over charts, marking shoals with yellow and red highlighters.

Saying, “I have the real thing,” though, is like standing on the dock looking out over the water excited about how beautiful it is on the shore. Why would you want to pour over dusty doctrine instead of enjoying the shore? For the same reason a sailor learns his charts. Yes, charts can be divisive – people will argue over which route to take. Yes, it is boring to turn from actual water to paper facsimiles of ocean. My son, who invested hours in those charts, agrees with you: Charts are boring.

They are also necessary. At least they are if you want to get someplace truly amazing. Standing at the dock is fine. But making landfall in Newport and seeing the great homes of the Gilded Age from the Sea is truly amazing…and you can’t get there without charts. Theology is our chart. Doctrine is the vetted, agreed upon experience of thousands who have sailed before – utterly necessary to go anywhere truly spectacular.

18556798_1369690136411881_8997499169209709733_o

When we are young we think that what we want is to appropriate spiritual wisdom as it fits us, the way we would pluck entrees at a cafeteria, picking what “fits” us. But what we need is not a “spirituality” of our own contrivance, but to surrender ourselves to something, someone greater.

One can be vaguely “spiritual but not religious” on the humid shore in Annapolis, or you can venture into the open ocean and journey to the perpetual cool breezes of the Rhode Island summer. At Pentecost, Christians are empowered to get off the dock and experience the real thing. but doctrine is the chart warning us of the shoals, and pointing us toward deep waters. And the doctrine that really matters, the single doctrine that all other doctrine hangs on is the Trinity. Here is why:

We humans spend our lives answering the Great Questions…questions we hoped would get answered in college only to be told, “Don’t talk about that. Get a major that will score you a good paying job, here’s a beer and a condom, stop thinking so deeply!” But the Great Questions stalk us through life like store security follows suspected shoplifters. Those questions include…

  • Why am I here? (The God Question)
  • What went wrong? (The Pain Question)
  • How is it fixed? (The Salvation Question)
  • Who am I to be? (The Existential Question)

You might be surprised to find out that the early Christians camped out on the first question: Why am I here? The God Question. They realized that if one gets the God Question right, everything else works out. Unlike many other theological questions, the answer to the God Question is specific, agreed upon by all Christians: The God who made us is the One who reveals himself as a Tri-unity…one God in three Persons: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The God Question is how we ended up with the Nicene Creed. It took 300 years to articulate One God in three Persons. The Nicene Creed Christians recite is a very broad statement. All major branches of Christianity: Catholics, Protestants, Greek Orthodox, and Pentecostals…all stack hands on that really, really, really broad answer to the God Question. Unlike later confessions which sought to define what Christians should believe, the Nicene Creed is the least one must believe to be considered Christian by other Christians – the minimum admission to the Christian “playground” of the Holy Trinity. “Without the Trinity,” Christians say, “no harm, no foul, but you are just not one of this tribe.”

A later creed, the Athanasian Creed would elaborate…

“We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.”

They are three and they are one. And they are both at the same time.

That matters because beliefs have outcomes. What we believe about God seeps into everything we are and do.

For example, a Mormon friend once asked me to read the book of Mormon and ask God if Joseph Smith is a true prophet. I said I would if they would return the favor and read Hebrews 1 about Jesus being the final revelation of the Father, and ask God if Joseph Smith might be a false prophet. That sounded fair to me, but my friend objected strenuously, “No!” I asked why. In exasperation my friend stammered, “What if God lies?” That sounds shocking to most ears, but when your God is an exalted human, as he is for my LDS friends, God telling a lie isn’t so crazy. But when your God is an uncreated being of infinite, complete and self-contained love…a being who shaped the cosmos out of a desire to share love, the joyful dance of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with humanity, well, deception is simply an unthinkable violation of that being’s very nature.

So yes, theology can be hard work. But is a good work. The question boils down to this: Will you be satisfied to have a narcissistic, humid little experience from the dock when the offshore adventure of eternity beckons?

Pull out the charts and do the work of learning the doctrines of the faith. They chart the boundaries of the journey of love that has sustained the generations. The captain of our souls invites you aboard.

Trinity Sunday Sermon Link

Advertisements

Spiritual but not religious: Code for “trendy yet not helpful”

religion-is-nonsense
Snark MeterHIGH.001

I recently walked the final leg of the El Camino de Santiago in Spain.[1] Before leaving I was in a coffee house having a conversation about the trip. A guy behind me asked, “Why Spain?” My response, “It’s a spiritual thing.” Today a lot of people, particularly millennials, care about “spirituality.” 250,000 people walked The Camino in 2015. More will this year. My coffeehouse acquaintance, reflecting the cultural trendiness of “spirituality” said predictably, “I’m curious about that, after all, I’m spiritual but not religious.” To be “spiritual but not religious” is all the rage. Everyone wants “spiritual,” but many desperately reject “religious.” The question is “What do people mean by, “not religious“?

My friend Michael, a really smart priest in Dallas jokes, “‘Spiritual but not religious’ is code for ‘too lazy to get out of bed on Sunday.’” But I don’t think that’s it exactly. After all, millennials seem to be fine with ritual: We watched 2000 people a day crowd the pilgrim masses at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. So while my coffee house acquaintance and many others seek “a personal experience of the divine,” and are also willing to check out a religious service, they are most definitely not running out and joining a church. So, if “religious” doesn’t mean, “I don’t like ritual” or “I’m too lazy to get up on Sunday,” what does it mean?

What is “not religious”?

In the very least, “not religious” means “I don’t see value in joining a faith community.” Perhaps this is because the churches they know are engaged in social causes they don’t like. Or because it is too narrow…or too broad (“everyone is too similar,” or “no-one is like me”). The cynical might say millennials are like Goldilocks – impossible to please. My snarky reply is that the body of Christ has done church by focus group and now doesn’t like it when the masses return the favor.

The second thing “not religious” seems to mean is “I want to do my spiritual life on my own terms.” It is to this group I appeal: Doing your spiritual life on your own is ultimately empty.

Look for example in Luke chapter 7. The first ten verses give us the story of a Roman centurion whose favorite servant is dying. Hearing that Jesus is on his way to town, he sends the town’s Jewish religious leaders with whom he is on good terms to request that Jesus heal his servant. Jesus turns and heads toward his home. The centurion, realizing that a rabbi visiting the home of a gentile becomes ceremonially unclean, sends a second set of friends to tell Jesus, “Lord, do not trouble yourself. I am not worthy” for you to be in my house, “therefore I did not presume to come to you.” He finally says, “You don’t even need to come. Just send the word to heal, and I trust that it will be done. After all, I am under authority too.” Jesus sends the word and the servant is healed. Then it says, “Jesus marveled at his faith.” He then turns to the crowd and, in one of the very few instances of Jesus interacting with a non-Jew, holds the gentile military occupier up as the example of “spiritual.”

What makes the Centurion Jesus’ model for “spiritual”?

First, notice that the man calls Jesus “Lord” (master). Every single one of the the bible’s 66 books uses the word “lord.” It appears nearly 8000 times in the Bible. (For comparison the word “love” is used about 800 times.) As a title for Jesus, “lord” emphasizes his authority, his rule over the whole world. Unlike most religious leaders, the centurion calls Jesus, “Lord.” Let that punch land for a moment: the leader of the most powerful military the world had ever seen calls Jesus, “the one with authority.” Whereas the religious leaders treated Jesus as a colleague, the truly spiritual defer to Jesus as Lord.

Jesus calls that deference “faith.” Faith in the bible is the opposite of sin. Soren Kierkegaard, father of existential philosophy, in a little book called The Sickness Unto Death said, “Sin is: in despair not wanting to be oneself before God….Faith is: the self, in being itself and wanting to be itself, grounded transparently in God.” Sin, regardless of what you may have learned in Sunday School, is not “doing bad things.” Sin is more subtle and much more dangerous: It is seeking our identity apart from God. While its’ antithesis, faith, is finding our identity in God. Faith, finding our identity in the God revealed in scripture and lived out in community, is why being truly “spiritual” always involves being “religious” as well.

Why do we need a defined faith and a defined faith community?

 Simply because they bring us into our created purpose: Finding our identity in Christ as we humbly, confidently surrender to the one rightly called, “Lord.” And having to express that faith by surrendering to other troublesome humans in the community of faith.

 The world, my friends, has realized the vacuousness of life without God. “Spirituality” is an acknowledgement of our unavoidable religious nature. “Spirituality without religion,” though, is an attempt to be nourished through a steady diet of dessert. It is the idolatry of the almighty self. The repeated more than reflected upon millennial mantra of “I’m spiritual but not religious,” reminds me of the six junior high girls I once saw walking through the mall wearing matching red “Dare to be Different!” T-shirts. Convinced they were saying something unique and profound, they failed to see the irony.

Whose fault is this?

Whenever those outside the Christian faith fail to connect there are two dynamics at work: Humanities’ own sin nature (“There is none who seeks God, no not one.” Rom. 3:10-11), and the church’s communication and demonstration of the faith. Unfortunately, instead of showing the way of faith as joyful surrender, popular Christianity has too often attempted to make faith palatable – serving up healthy doses of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, “Cheap grace.” Too often the evangelical church has dropped surrender for wish-fulfillment. Conservative churches have often settled for a message of self-help: “seven steps to…(fill in the blank) – diminishing God to one who exists to meet our desires.

While the conservative church has lowered God, the progressive church, on the other hand, has tended to elevate humanity. The progressive church removes the need for redemption by purging our documents of the words of surrender: Father, king, Lord…if a symbol might be deemed “oppressive” or “problematic,” it is not to be understood in its’ redeemed context, but struck from our hymnals, prayer books, and bibles. But God is not known either by shrinking him or elevating us. God is known through faith in the triune one who joined us and became “obedient to death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In the 1970’s there was a movie called “The Stepford Wives.” In it, a newcomer to an idyllic NYC suburb notices that the wives are unbelievably beautiful and docile. It turns out that the husbands have been eliminating their wives and replacing them with lifelike robots who behave according to the husbands wishes. “Spiritual but not religious” is code for “I want God on my terms.” “Spiritual but not religious” creates a Stepford God who comes on command and exists as a cosmic Jeanie in a bottle or as a dysfunctional parent who wants to be your buddy but won’t give you the discipline your heart craves. And, by the way,”spiritual but not religious” is a natural result of American Protestantism’s uncritical embrace of individualism and rationalism. It is Protestant Christianity that insisted that the world is not a magical and sacramental place and that the almighty self does not need the church to mediate God’s presence. How is “spiritual but not religious”  not the ultimate natural byproduct of the Reformation?

Overcoming the idolatry of the Almighty Self is why the historic church does the things she does when she gathers in worship: In the liturgy we remind our hearts that God is God and we are not. That God is Father and we are not. That God is King and we are not. That Jesus is Lord and we are not.

Jesus calls us to be spiritual and religious; to view our humanity perfectly fulfilled in Christ and our broken idolatrous selves perfectly redeemed by Christ. That can only truly happen in a community of other broken, annoying people.

 

[1] We did a very small portion. Our iPhones say we walked 150 miles in 10 days. It is fantastic!

Photo from: here

What is truth?

15813134301_faf9c81d6f_bSnark MeterrealMID.003

Our cultural “believies” and the war against fundamentalism.

Unless you have spent the last two weeks living under a rock you have been stunned by the violence in the name of religion. This is not the first time the news has been bad. And not the first time religion was involved.

In the Christian calendar last Sunday was Christ the King – the one modern day in our liturgical year. Christ the King Sunday was given to us by pope Pius XI at the end of WWI. As hard as it is to imagine, the carnage then was far worse: 18 million died as machine guns, planes, tanks, chemical warfare brought our ability to kill into the modern era.  And an ugly truth: the leaders on both sides claimed to follow Christ.

Pius XI called it, “a failure to remember God.” He thought, “the people need to remember that this world does indeed have a king, but that king is not us. The pope set aside the last Sunday of the Christian year as an acknowledgement of the gracious rule of the King of Peace…and to grieve and groan our failure to walk in the way of peace. It is a day to remember and return – sort of a societal Ash Wednesday.

Christ the King is a powerful idea. But there was another response to the Great War: Rather than deepen religious commitment, some philosophers and politicians sought to eliminate it. The results of the attempt to eliminate religion were staggering. The next 70 years saw the atheistic states of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Amin and the Kmer Rouge kill more people than every religious war in history. Somewhere between 110 and 260 million people died at the hands of those seeking to eradicate religion.

Religion proved far more resilient than they imagined, though. 20% of America was still in church last Sunday. China and Africa are in the midst of the fastest extension of Christianity in history. Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam are also growing. Social science has acquiesced to a persistent truth: Humans are religious.  Maybe you have noticed that the narrative has changed from “God is dead” to “there are too darn many gods.” But a question remains: What do we do when people behave badly and use religion to justify that behavior? Since eradicating religion didn’t work, today another solution is being tried: To relativize and privatize religion.

You may not know it, but this isn’t the first relevatizing’s first rodeo. Pontius Pilate attempted the same strategy 2000 years ago. (John 18:33-38) Hours before being crucified Jesus was delivered to Pilate’s doorstep by religious leaders begging for his execution. Pilate, of the Roman knight class, was governor – the ancient version of being on a military “remote.” Do well and he would retire to a cushy life. Blow it and he would return home in disgrace. The last thing Pilate wanted was a religious squabble getting out of hand. Going inside he asked Jesus,  “Are you the king of the Jews?” (v.33) Jesus replied,  “My kingdom is not of this world, that’s why my soldiers aren’t fighting.” (v.36) In other words, Jesus wasn’t breaking Roman laws.

Pilate pressed him, “So you are a king?” (v.37) Pilate wants to worm his way out of the sticky political mess outside. Jesus wants to get into the mess that is Pilate’s interior: “I have come to bear witness to the truth.” “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Even on trial, Jesus is inviting Pilate to himself. Pilate shrugs,  and utters the expression forever linked to his name, “What is truth?” (v.38) Then, knowing he is going to condemn an innocent man, Pilate walks out without waiting for an answer.

We all have times when we, like Pilate. don’t want to hear it…times when we want what we want and don’t want others intruding on those wants. Quite the opposite of Christ the King, this is me the king. Comedian Charles CK calls these, “my little believies.” He says, “I have things I believe. I don’t follow them. They just make me feel good about who I am. They are my believies.” “Believies” aren’t new, they’ve been with us since Adam and Eve did what they wanted in the garden. It’s always easier to walk away from truth than to confront where our beliefs lead.

In his book The Reason for God Tim Keller looks at our cultural “believies.” The first “believie”: “There can’t be one true religion.” The claim to exclusivity, we are told, is wrongheaded and dangerous. “After all,” this line of thought goes, “religion is nothing more than a cultural construct – Syrians are Muslim and Americans are Christian because of the culture in which we were raised. The arrogance that arises from the conviction that one has the absolute truth is responsible for the evil in our world.” So, we are told, religion should be condemned and relegated to the purely private sphere of life.

Tim Keller points out, though, that condemning religion is only possible if one holds to some other, some alternate, belief system – and all belief systems require both a “leap of faith” and a perspective of superiority. For the secularist both of these are inherently inconsistent. Keller also argues that privatization is never possible as everyone, no matter what faith or creed, brings a value system into the public discussion.

Now we are hearing a new “believie”: “Religion isn’t the problem. Fundamentalism is.” But be honest, we all have fundamental beliefs. In a pluralistic world the issue isn’t how deeply we hold our beliefs, but where those beliefs lead. Rather than pretending differences do not exist between religions, what if we were honest about them and instead evaluated which set of beliefs lead their believers to be the most loving and receptive toward those with whom they differ? Which set of unavoidably exclusive beliefs lead to humble, peace-loving behavior? Using those criteria, I believe Christianity has much to offer a world in crisis…much more than the secularists solution of relative, culture bound, privatized religion.

How could you possibly trust someone holding the philosophy that truth is relative not to cheat you?

After all how could you possibly trust someone holding the philosophy that truth is relative not to cheat you in business? Not to cheat in your marriage? To finish the job of parenting your children? Oh, a relativist might do all of those things. But there is nothing in their belief system to encourage their dependability. Heck, you can’t even count on the relativist not to crucify the innocent son of God.

The problem with our culture’s believies, is that they leave us with bigger problems than they solve. In contrast to our culture’s “spiritual but not religious” view, the Christian world view teaches:

  1. Truth is Objective (Truth is what is.)

Atheist Bertrand Russell talked about proving a teapot orbiting between earth and Mars.” But my ability to argue the point is irrelevant to that object’s actual existence. Either a teapot is spinning out there or it isn’t. Contrary to the oft repeated myth that truth is relative, Truth is what is, regardless of what I would like it to be. 

  1. Truth is Revealed: Truth is difficult to discern. Luckily we were not left on our own at this point. Truth was revealed generally in nature, but specifically in Jesus Christ and God’s word, the scriptures. Truth is what God says it is…not what I or my culture would like it to be.
  2. Truth is Narrow: The only area in which we struggle with the idea that truth is “narrow” is religion. Think about it…

Do you want a chemist with a broad definition of chemistry? Imagine a “broad” chemist bringing you a glass of H2O2: “What is one little extra atom of oxygen among friends?” Unfortunately H2O2 isn’t water. It’s peroxide. Truth is narrow.

Do you want an accountant who has a broad definition of addition? “Who says 2+2 must = 4? Why can’t it equal 3 or 311?” I’m guessing the IRS auditor will not be sympathetic. Why? Because Truth is narrow.

Do you want a pilot with a broad definition of what constitutes a runway?  “That airport is really busy today, but the freeway is long and straight. How about we set this 737 down on the Interstate?” Truth is narrow.

Do you want a spouse with a broad definition of love? “This is great Janice. Our love is awesome. Why don’t we share it…You have four sisters. Let’s all get married!” The answer to all of these is, No way! Truth is narrow. And finally…

  1. Truth is not private, it’s Personal. For a Christian, truth is not a what, truth is a who. Christian faith is based in the who of Jesus Christ. God loved humanity so completely and so relentlessly, that having seen our rebellion from before creation, God had a plan in place to redeem our fallen world. It involved his son Jesus Christ personally coming to earth, demonstrating a life of peace and self-sacrifice…A life of love and intimacy with his Father. And a life in which our rebellion and God’s wrath would be satisfied by Jesus’ self-emptying love – his personal replacement for you and I on the cross. And we know it worked because three days later Jesus walked from the tomb, seen by scads of people, and was bodily assumed into the clouds before his stunned follower’s eyes. People, truth is personal – bound irretrievably and irrevocably to God’s love for you, personally, through his son, Jesus Christ.

What is truth?

Jesus told Pilate, “I came to bear witness to the truth.” Jesus Christ said, “The truth will set you free.” And Jesus said, “I am the truth.” Looking at Jesus, his friend John wrote, “To all who receive him. Even to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.” For Jesus, this is personal. It is about you and I becoming family with God.

What do we do with Truth?

The great need for truth in our day is not to win the argument for absolute truth’s existence, but to walk in humility as children of the True One. What part of the truth of Christ’s kingship over your life bugs you? What do you not want to wait around and hear? Where are you passing the buck or fearing another’s agenda in your life? When you see the news do you fear? Or do you see God’s opportunity to share the love and light of Christ? The world cannot afford for you and I to privatize our faith. If you are the follower of a King whose kingdom is not of this world, despair not – light shines brightest in the darkness. The world most needs light when it is dark outside.

(An adaptation of a sermon. To watch that sermon click the graphic. Sermon starts 17 minutes in.)

Christ the King 2015.001