Monday, December 26, 2011

The Arrogance of Fundamentalism

A few years ago, a tee shirt appeared that had Lucy (of Peanuts fame) announcing, “If Everyone Agreed With Me, They’d All Be Right!”  Now, I am not saying that is the definition of a Fundamentalist, but it may describe the attitude of some fundamentalists I have known.

We see the presence of fundamentalism at every level – in religions, nations, and families.  Within Christianity and in each of its denominations there are the biblical fundamentalists, as well as doctrinal fundamentalists and the rigid adherents to Canon Law and/or “tradition.”  Even within the broad strokes of Anglicanism we find proponents of Biblical fundamentalism, anti-intellectualism, and ultra-conservatism.  This particularly has come to the fore within the Anglican Communion with the attempt to develop an “Anglican Covenant” which seeks a uniform conformity to a more conservative tradition.  This has been aimed particularly at the Episcopal Church in the United States because of its move toward inclusiveness, openness, and its presumed liberal views of human behavior and interfaith participation.

The fundamentalists, in every case, seem to convey to the larger church and to the entire community that they have a lock on the truth and there is a ready willingness to condemn others who may differ from them.  Further, the Christian fundamentalists believe that there is no salvation outside of the beliefs of their own faith community. 

I cannot and will not participate in condemning other religions and other faith seekers saying that they are cast out of God’s love and presence.  As a Christian, for me personally, Christ has been the way, the truth, and the life, and I have come to God through Christ.  But, do I believe that Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, and other people of faith in God and who seek God’s presence in their lives and in the life of the world are outside of the presence and love of God?  No!  Absolutely not!  I simply do not believe that the loving, redeeming, reconciling, and faithful God believes that way either.  Do I believe that the likes of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Dali Lama, or Mahatma Gandhi live or lived outside of the grace of God?  No!  Not for a moment.  I think these holy people have drawn us to God as clearly as the Tutus, the Mertons, the Bonhoeffers, and the Mother Teresas of the world.  Thank God for all people of faith and together let us grow in grace and peace.

The extremism of the fundamentalists of every sort and the self-righteousness of those who are convinced that they are the only saved ones and the sole possessors of the truth leaves little room for discussion.  The popularity of taking a fundamentalist position is, in some part, because accepting a rigid adherence to a given tradition requires so little thought on the part of the adherents.  They are told the narrow confines of what they are to believe and therefore there is no need for real intellectual participation.  And there is no one as quite as “right” as those who are convinced that God has given them the truth and all others are outside of the truth.  Thomas Merton remarked about the rigidity of some Christians who consider themselves to be among the “right:”

. . . [Some] keep turning the Cross to their own purposes.  Yes, it is for them a sign of contradiction: the awful blasphemy of the religious magician who makes the Cross contradict mercy!  This, of course, is the ultimate temptation of Christianity!  To say that Christ has locked all the doors, has given one answer, settled everything and departed, leaving all life enclosed in the frightful consistency of a system outside of which there is damnation, and inside of which there is the intolerable flippancy of the saved—while nowhere is there any place left for the mystery of the freedom of divine mercy, which alone is truly serious and worthy of being taken seriously.

                                                                     Raids on the Unspeakable

Merton did not have much patience with those who thought they had the truth locked up in their law and whose fundamentalism (whether it be to the Bible, the law, the nations, or tradition) blocked humans from freedom, movement of the Spirit, and genuine truth. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Incarnation: Liberation and Hope

The secular observation of Christmas that happens once a year, mainly influenced by the likes of Wall-Mart, Penneys, Macy’s, and Sears, along with the ecclesiaastical celebration of the Birth of the Christ, a sacred and wonderful liturgical expression of worship, are both secondary to the understanding that the Incarnation is a year around, lifelong way of living for the Christian. The business about the Birth of Christ is a genuine revolution that we sometimes seem to overlook.  God, by sending the Son into the world, has changed life forever, and we are a part of this radical revolution setting about the business of turning this world upside down.

We are empowered to move beyond thinking about God, and intellectualizing our faith, into knowing God in daily life.  God is real, God lives in us, and God is available to us in the present moment.  It is unfortunate that in many of the distractions of the sentimental customs and the myths that surround Christmas – as much fun as they are and as much joy as they offer – we have lost much of the power of the Incarnation, the knowledge and meaning of “Emmanuel," God with us in our own lives and in the life of the world.   Life with God is all about relationship with God and with one another.
John and Paul, not to mention the likes of Thomas Merton, taught that all Christian theology is a radical liberation theology.  The basic Christian message is that we have been set free from the limitations of our minds, liberated from the chains of our sins, released from the constraints of the law, and emancipated from the bondage of our fallen nature.  In freedom we are the heirs of the love, grace, and power of God.  Because of this liberation we are not only incorporated into union with God, but we are also placed in a special bond of unity with one another as brothers and sisters.  This moves us far beyond theology into a real, fleshy, mission based life with God in the world in which we live. 

We have been given a great responsibility.  We are forgiven and we are reconciled with God, so we are called to forgive those around us and be agents of reconciliation in a world where many have become alienated from God and from each other.  Not only is our life changed but we are empowered to proclaim a Gospel of liberation and hope to all people who desperately need the good news that they are loved, forgiven, fed and cared for, as well as, offered eternal life.  Gifted people must employ their gifts for the good of all.  We are the gifted ones, people who "have seen a great light . . . for to us a child is born, to us a son is given." [Isaiah 9:2] 
We who have seen the light of Christ are obliged, by the greatness of the grace that has been given us, to make God’s presence known to the ends of the earth, beginning in our own churches, within our own families, and in our own community. 

"We do not understand that this business about the crib is the real revolution that once and for all turned everything upside down, so that nothing has ever been, or ever can be, the same again."  ---Thomas Merton, Road to Joy

Friday, December 9, 2011

Advent and the Incarnation

The season of Advent, according to the tradition and wisdom of the Church, is intended to be a time of quiet preparation of our hearts and souls to meet the Incarnate God. It is intended as a period of watchful anticipation, repentance, prayer, and special devotion, preparing us for the miracle of the birth of the Son of God. Advent is meant to allow the turbulence of our harried lives to settle (wholly in contradiction to the message given by society), and be a time to move into an inner stillness where we encounter the Christ within and discover peace and hope. Is that the way this Advent is for you? For whatever good intentions and design of the Church Year, very few of us, I suspect, actually experienced Advent in the way in which it was intended.

We live in extremely anxious and troubled times.  Nationally and around the world there is a fierce anger, frustration, self-centeredness and attitude of greed and lust for power. There is an genuine of fear of job loss, homelessness, poverty, and, for many, there is a prevailing sense of hopelessness. This is all in addition to the usual seasonal anxiety of too much activity, too many tasks to accomplish, all producing too much stress in our lives, and too much distress in the lives of those around us.  We are left with questions of where are we now with all of this and what is next, not to mention the ongoing everyday demands of family, church, friends, and our own inner drivenness to accomplish, to succeed, or to simply survive.  This is all enough to wear down the most well disciplined and committed saint. We can lament the loss of the real meaning of Advent. I complain about this every year, but I doubt seriously that we can make it any different than it is. As much as we would like to be able to ignore the realities of secular living they are not going to disappear. So, how are we to live out the contemplative part of our relationship to God and with one another?

It is now, in the reality of the present moment, that the hush of grace descends upon us. This is the time to acknowledge every anxiety, every fear, every sadness, every pain of unreconciled relationships, every unresolved crisis, every need to understand, every desire to control, and then turn them over to God and simply be still. It is in stillness and grace that we are able to recognize and to receive the greatest gift of all — the incarnation of God in Christ. What this means is not simply some theological theory, but it means that God is one with us. God is participating in the life of creation. God is directly a part of our life -- not only in a text book, not just in the Bible, not hypothetically in the words of some preacher, but, in fact, in as real a way as possible. God is in our daily life and the Holy One lives in us and with us. Now, I want you to understand that I really believe this — we live in the sure hope of the reality of the presence of God  personally and directly in the present moment.

"This is not God in a cloud, or God in a sunset, or God in tablets of stone, or God as a moral force, or God as a theological concept. Not God in a sermon or in a sacrament. But the humanization of God. The naturalness of God. The simplicity of God. The unprecedented self-communication of God."
---- H. King Oehmig