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The Problem of Theological Dissension

“The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”
-Roland Barthes

One particularly difficult to swallow part of my life as an Evangelical Christian was the dissemination of information related to dissension within a community of believers, as well as the whole of Christianity. The story is simple and played out every day in countless churches around the world: my belief related to what is written in the Bible is right and your belief is not. What is meant is even more important than what is said. What is meant is this: I understand what God meant to a greater degree than you, and I was given, by God and the Holy Spirit, a greater clarity of information than you.

Now that is over simplifying it I realize. Rather than point out the obvious, lets entertain this idea for a moment and tease up some additional information. It is believed that the Holy Spirit (or really as it is found in context, the Holy spirit) is the source of correct understanding in a community. If you are deeply connected to the “Spirit”, you are able to know what is real and what is not.

Easy enough it would seem. So if you are a Christian you have the Holy Spirit telling you what is right and what is not. You have your power of intellect available to help you learn and your Spirit to help you discern between right and wrong. But how can there then be dissension in a community if all ideas and beliefs are directed from God as a source??

The common answer is that some people are simply misled, or Satan is leading them astray. Really, it seems, they just seem to have missed the point in it all. They are wrong because they missed something or have a crossed connection to the Divine. That’s not us, though! We (I) HAVE the answer. Sounds a bit like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where all animals are created equal but pigs were created MORE equal.

Aside from the lack of humility associated with this claim, there are major philosophical and theological problems that arise from the idea of some having the truth while others have some of the truth. Some congregations, such as that of Fred Phelps, simply rectify this issue by stating that only they are the true elect while all others are simply the lost. Some just view the other as wrong but still part of the elect or true believers.

This is a lot like four painters each visiting the house of a client in preparation for an upcoming job. Each painter independently speaks with the owner and discusses the color the owner wants used. The owner discusses a variety of colors for each room, but each painter hears just the color they like most. Later that day all four painters meet up to buy their paint and are shocked when each pulls a different color off the shelf. An argument breaks out between the four as they each attempt to convince the other three of their incorrect views on the upcoming job.

Now I am not (necessarily) advocating a view that all beliefs regarding a subject are correct. What I will advocate is that if there is dissension brought about from the understanding of a message, the issue becomes not who is correct but rather why the difference of opinion has occurred in the first place.

This is a major point that is not, I believe, discussed openly in Evangelical circles. I like to blame this dissension on the shift from dialectic to debate in Western dialogue. This answer is only a partial truth, however.

Let’s take a moment to read dissension for what it can tell us. Dissention, a difference of opinion, in this instance, means that the beliefs of two groups are lacking agreement on their beliefs. Two individuals can simply look at the same passage and read two different meanings. What does this mean? The point of reference must then be different. The two groups are out of phase with each other because their source is different. Let me spell this out: the source of information for Evangelical Christianity is not in fact the Bible, but rather the diverse backgrounds from which each reader is beginning the reading, which is then applied to a dialogue of belief. You start with your belief and then apply it to the text.

Dissention is also a unifying factor. Much like communities of the past unifying over geographical location, a common background leading to belief will unite a group into a common system of articulated understanding. A group in phase with each other will interpret a passage with common meaning. This commonality will then be interpreted as part of a larger narrative. If more than a few have a common belief it is rationalized as being in harmony with the divine.

The text of Christianity is not in fact the Bible in each congregants hand but rather the system of beliefs brought to the reading of the Bible. We do not read the Bible, we read ourselves into a broader narrative containing all aspects of our past and culture. In this sense, and given the diversity of situations in which we have to draw from as individuals, how can we expect any two people to agree completely on anything? We cannot. And this is the issue that must be addressed.

Christianity must read dissension as part of their narrative, rather than it being a battle between right and wrong. What Christianity doesn’t realize is that the message of love preached is not the message received by those not intimately involved with a specific denomination.

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Wandering Thoughts Inspired by Tao Te Ching

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

When we don’t see the self as self we have nothing to fear

See the world as yourself.
Love the world as yourself

Much like wei wu wei, the doing not doing or effortless doing of Taoism, the text of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching is riddled with seeming contradictions. In my understanding of certain Asian philosophies, polarity is not the definitive that it is in Western culture. How would one not see the self as self? Does this simply mean to step outside of our own thoughts and ideas? And what does that even mean outside of metaphor?

Though I am perhaps reading quantum physics and universalism into this, I read this to say we are all connected and it is only our consciousness and our immediate protectiveness that gives us the desire to focus on one’s self rather than on the reality of the interconnectedness  of all things and our non-singularity in the universe. The universe is not about us, the humans making a home on this planet. The universe was here before us and will be after us as well. We need to be reminded of this perspective and our placement in all things.

I believe the author is telling us to look at ourselves not in the natural, survivalist sense. We are really simply not just ourselves at all. If we are focused on just our lives we will worry for only ourselves and fear what happens to us only. By shedding this perspective we not only loose these fears but also gain a larger perspective of our place in all things. Rather than possessing self love alone, love the world as yourself – essentially, love the other as yourself as we are just part of the whole.

Hope and fear of the same substance? Both deal with the uncertain. Neither are true reflections of what will happen but rather our assumptions, both good and bad, regarding the future of what will be next. This is to live outside of the world and live in the imagination. We cannot know what will happen next. We can only move forward and deal with the moments as they come. This is very difficult for humans, who think like animals. We have natural and conditioned responses to what happens around us. Unfortunately this can take over and we can lose site of the reality of the situation – which is what is HAPPENING RIGHT THIS MOMENT AND NOTHING MORE. Of course, the real reality of the situation is that the time we use to mark our existence is relative. It is more true that the reality of the situation is what we perceive happening right this moment and nothing more.

So can we still look forward while keeping our feet planted in the moment? I do not know. In our culture we are always preparing for the future. In all cultures you plan for a dry season or a time when the crops don’t grow. But is it possible to live in the moment while preparing for the future as separate considerations? What I have in this moment is to prepare food for tomorrow. I can only know this moment but I can be aware of tomorrow and the next day.

To make this effortless is to achieve the extremely difficult. But there must be joy in this behavior. To be fully present in the moment is to let ourselves be on one moment and put away our fears and hopes for the future. To hope is not realistic, but rather a manifestation of our emotional connection to a possible outcome. We can strive to this but for it to be real is only if we achieve. Otherwise we will live in disappointment – which is of the past.

For me right now I am hopeful of the future. I picture amazing situations in which wonderful things will happen. I do this, it seems, for a multitude of reasons. The first is my difficulty living in the moment. I am constantly pulled in many directions by my desires. I seem to continually wish I had a different job or more money, or greater opportunity. If I reused that time to propel my current circumstances I would perhaps be in a different place all together, or perhaps a different perspective.

The second is that I am a dreamer. But rather than dream of what I should do, I spend my time thinking of what it will be like. This is distracting and prone to failure. It will never be how I imagine it being like. To focus on these things makes me afraid of it not happening. I am going for the wrong reasons rather than intention. But if I work hard to move towards the right direction I can in fact make meaningful use of the time I have and let wonderful things happen rather than trying to control a universe of possibility – which is impossible if not completely exhausting to attempt.

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Meditation On the Complexity of All Things

There is not an object or understanding in life that is not composed of the most intricate parts. The most basic of organisms is composed of complex cells, atoms, and strange subatomic particles so bizarre it  baffles the imagination of those who research their random movements. Our conversations are riddled with complex meaning, our very speech a marvel of innovation in both bodily functionality and mental processing.  The actions we take, the way we interact,  the beverages we consume, are all steeped in hundreds of years of development and tied to thousands of years of cultural refinement – not to mention billions of years of evolved forms.

When we look at life in these terms the resulting sensation can, or should, be something along the lines of amazement and overwhelming disorientation! To truly comprehend this reality is to conceive the impossible.

I truly have no deep, life changing purpose in writing this. I merely want to be sure to reflect on these ideas regularly.  I can often lose sight of the context of things when I am living the day to day. But in being aware of the immensity of life in all its parts I can reflect on the significance of the situations that effect me daily.

As the title suggests, consider this a 21st century meditation. :)

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Building a New Christian Theology: Jesus on the Betterment of the Community

“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire (Gehenna).”
-Matthew 5:22

I spent three years of formal education studying theology at the university level. If I learned anything during this time it was that the text of the Bible was more than subsumed into the tremendous deluge and breadth of theological understanding; the studied texts interpreted in light of the beliefs of the community. Simple chapters of Biblical text were expanded into volumes of dissertation, elucidated then by simple phrases or apocryphal connotations like dispensation, eschatology, soteriology, and pelagianism. Esoteric terminology more than causes a separation between initiated and nescient, it creates a chasm between the sacred and the profane or secular. The simplicity of a text was subject to a significant knowledge base necessary for full understanding.

Part of the danger of theological discourse is that the original meaning can become lost, leaving the system of belief and interpretation to possess a seeming absoluteness without the option to consider other possibilities. Once a term or belief is agreed upon it becomes part of the paradigm. Questions are not considered healthy or relevant.

For many years I wrestled with the above verse. The meaning baffled me. How could one deserve the fires of hell for simply calling someone a fool? What kind of a loving God would create such a simple excuse for damnation?

As I left the church and began to study the words and their meaning in the Greek language and  context, I found the word “hell” was actually “Gehenna”.  Not actually an analogy for Hell, as my former theology taught me, Gehenna was a valley outside of Jerusalem where the trash was burned and social outcasts were sent. If you were not a part of the community, if you broke the spoken and unspoken cultural rules you would be sent there to live your life alone and separate from the community of which you were once a part.

In this context Jesus is then referring not to sin against God punishable by death, but a place you simply deserved if you could not be forgiving, kind, and a part of the betterment of the community.

Even more so than today, in ancient times you relied on your community for survival. In fact, the bloody sacrifices in the Old Testament upon the alter of YHWH reflect this truth. Sacrifices were not made for the forgiveness of the  individual, but for the nation or community as a whole. All may play a part in this redemption, but it was not the forgiveness of the individual that mattered, it was that of the community as a whole.

In this sense contextual interpretation takes on a simpler and more satisfying meaning than that of eternal salvation, damnation, and penance for sins committed. To be ostracized was to formally relinquish the most meaningful aspects of your life: your relationships and connections with others.

The very simple truth, and one that I wish our churches, corporations, and country would understand, is that the happiness and success of the individual can only be predicated upon the success and happiness of the community. Perhaps the simplest truth presented by Jesus is simply that we are all in this together.

To read further in to the words of Jesus is to discover this meaning permeating the text. The Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most meaningful text ever written, is Jesus’ great discourse and reflection on the acts of the individual impacting the group as a whole. How much of this text is ignored by much of Christianity? Topics such as forgiveness, private prayer, doing good deeds in secret, and judging amongst others demonstrate for us what is needed for a community to not only survive but also flourish. If salvation was truly the point of what Jesus was teaching, why is it that in this text Jesus does not repeat over and over that we should each believe in him in order to escape the flames of Hell? Instead Jesus words reflect deep human and cultural needs and lack extremely complex themes unknowable to only the theologically literate elites of society.

In essence, Jesus came, in his words, to give us or teach us life to the fullest . This abundant life, as we have seen, is only obtainable in a community of love, forgiveness, and amongst consciously aware individuals actively seeking a better version of their selves. In writing a new theology the emphasis should always be on the betterment of the community, not the salvation of the individual.

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Life Beyond Organic Chemistry: Consciousness Versus Awareness

Anthropology teaches that ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture is the standard by which all others should be judged; that there is a standard way of living and all other variations are simply deviations of the better way. While ethnocentrism deals with human cultures, what is the term used to explore this concept at a larger, perhaps even cosmic scale? What if humans are not just convinced of being part of a superior race, but perhaps we are putting too much reliance on the idea that what we define as life is the only means through which the universe is conscious and, in some way different than ours, alive? Could we call it lifecentrism?

What if the universe is itself evolving? What if we, as living, self aware creatures are the apex of an already self aware universe? What if it is possible that the miracles of our existence are simply reflections of what the universe is already, but in a more articulated variation? In this sense, we are not purely conscious, but more conscious than rocks and pure, elemental material? What if we are not the conclusion of this chain of development but merely a step in a path that leads to a creation that we could not comprehend, but could possibly comprehend more of what the universe is in itself?

We are, it seems on earth at least to be the crowning achievement of biological evolution, a system of change related to organisms comprised of the basic building blocks of the universe. We are deeply connected to the system from which we came, and reliant on a fragile global and cosmic ecosystem. In our fragility we are adaptable. We are aware. We are conscious.

Consciousness is viewed by some to be a function of organic chemistry. Molecules formed in certain ways give rise to the sophisticated systems of our bodies’ internal wiring and structure. We operate because certain constants allowed this to happen. Consciousness is simply a lucky combination of evolved wiring in the brain.

But what if consciousness is separate from our biology, as many quantum physicists are beginning to find? In a sense our biology allows us to become aware of this system and perhaps even tune into consciousness. So it seems, consciousness and awareness are actually two different things. What if not only life as we deem it is conscious but also the very material that are the building blocks of not only life but all material is conscious?

If consciousness is not a function of awareness, than what if then rocks, trees, stars, planets… all aspects of the universe are a part of this remarkable universal connection of pure being that the religions have for centuries reported?

Sometimes I believe I’m becoming more animistic, the ancient belief that all objects contain a life-being. In antiquity, rocks and trees contained spirits, or a life force, that one could connect to or interact with. Though I don’t know if we directly commune with objects on a consciously aware level, I am beginning to think that we just might have more in common with these objects than we think.

If the universe is at some level aware we might just be one solitary manifestation similar to all the rest. One might need a brain or tool of some sort in order to be aware, and this may mean that the stars themselves might in their own way be alive. It is as if the spirit of life, the God or element of pure being alive in us is in all things in the universe, not just what we define as being life.

When we ask if we are the only life in the universe, we might in fact be asking the wrong question. We should be asking two questions: Does organic life exist elsewhere? How else can we define the term life beyond the search for a reflection of what we are in a tangible sense?

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