Tag Archives: Christianity

Fox News Interviews Religious Scholar Reza Aslan, Makes a Huge Blunder

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Reza Aslan is an author, a religious scholar, a professor, and a leading voice in the sociology of religion. He has four degrees of higher education, including a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a PhD in the sociology of religion.

He also happens to be Muslim, and for that reason Fox News apparently doesn’t deem him fit to write about Christianity.

Aslan’s new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, was written with the help of the scholar’s 100+ pages of research notes, as well as over 1,000 reference books. It examines the historical context in which Jesus Christ was situated, as well as the social climate in which his work and rhetoric developed.

Despite Aslan’s 20+ years of research and scholarship, Fox News decided to focus primarily on his Muslim faith and whether or not this should disqualify him from writing about Jesus.

Seriously? Aslan reminds the reporter several times, “I have a PhD, and it’s my job to study and write about religions.” As many are asking, is this the most embarrassing interview Fox News has ever done?

There’s a tricky line here because, on the one hand, the presenter clearly hadn’t read Aslan’s book and relies more on bias and false assumptions than on truth. On the other hand, Aslan talks down to the reporter, in his own right relying more heavily on the word “PhD” than on the strength of his own character.

Either way, these individuals are certainly talking past one another, more in anger and pride than in any pursuit of dialogue.

What do you think? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below!

Why Yoga is Not a Threat to Christianity

url-2In a widely circulated blog, Reverend Albert Mohler, the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, took aim at yoga: “When Christians practice yoga,” he wrote, “they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga.”  The essay got attention, but it’s really just the latest variation of an old story. In fact, Mohler is practically ecumenical when compared to some of his predecessors.

Conservative Christians have been issuing lurid warnings about contamination from the East for more than a century. Back in the 1890s, Swami Vivekananda, the first Hindu leader to make a splash in the U.S., was mercilessly assailed on his Midwestern speaking tour. In newspaper exchanges that would have made for great TV had the technology existed, the erudite Vivekananda gave as good as he got, blasting Christian arrogance and winning the hearts and minds of open-minded Americans in the process.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the gurus and yoga masters who trickled into the West were greeted with alarm by xenophobes and self-appointed defenders of womanhood. Articles like “American Women Going after Heathen Gods” stoked fears of innocent maidens being seduced by dark-skinned pagans. In 1911 a broadside titled “The Heathen Invasion” claimed that yoga “leads to domestic infelicity, and insanity and death.” Come the late 1960s and early 1970s, a tidal wave of popular gurus attracted followers and were accused of doing the Devil’s work. In 1975, for instance, when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi appeared on Merv Griffin’s talk show (the Oprah of its day), protestors outside the studio carried signs like: Jesus is the Lord, Not Maharishi.

Now the anxiety is directed at what has aptly been called modern postural yoga. Fifteen to twenty million Americans attend yoga classes each year, and naturally most of them are from Christian backgrounds. On top of that, several varieties of Christian Yoga have cropped up. This has caused consternation and sometimes alarm among certain clerics; Reverend Mohler apparently is one of them.

I can’t help thinking: What are they afraid of? Are they that insecure? Do they think so little of their flock as to fear they’ll convert to Hinduism because they chant some Sanskrit mantras, or say “Namaste” instead of goodnight, or hear some tidbits of Vedic philosophy while stretching? Non-Christians absorb through osmosis countless doses of Christian theology just by living in America. We sing Christmas carols like they’re pop tunes. Yet, despite the relentless exposure, there is no sign of mass conversion. One is tempted to tell worried Christians to calm down with a few forward bends and some alternate nostril breathing.

What makes the fear of stealth Hinduism especially bizarre is that the ancient tradition has never even entertained the concept of conversion.  Every Indian teacher who made a mark in America has presented his or her teachings as more of a spiritual science than a religion—something students can try on for size and adapt to their own lives as they see fit, whether for secular self-improvement or as a spiritual practice that need not interfere with their own religions  This is, of course, especially true of contemporary yoga, which most students see as a fitness or wellness regimen and many find compatible with their various spiritual orientations.

Based on my research for my book, American Veda, the Christians and Jews who have leaped body and soul into Hinduism or Buddhism were not seduced away from their ancestral religions; they were already out the door and searching for alternatives.  In fact, there is a far more common trajectory among alienated seekers: they study Eastern ideas and then rethink, re-interpret and re-evaluate their own religions, and many of them return to active participation on their own terms.

The history of Americans whose Christianity was broadened and deepened by exposure to Hinduism goes back to the days of Emerson and Thoreau and has continued into modern times with millions of people, including leading thinkers such as Joseph Campbell, a lifelong Catholic, and Huston Smith, the son of Methodist missionaries.  In fact, the current revival of Christian and Jewish mystical practices was triggered by the popularity of Eastern meditation forms in the 1970s. (Centering Prayer is probably the best-known example of that phenomenon.)

This should comfort most Christians, although it might alarm fundamentalists all the more. The truth is, Christians who believe that theirs is the one true religion, that Jesus is the one and only savior of all humankind and that the Bible is to be taken literally as God’s only revealed word, will always feel threatened by a spiritual tradition that recognizes many pathways to the pine and many ways to engage in any particular religion. Old-fashioned religious supremacists are under threat not from yoga but from the currents of history itself. Reverend Mohler and his brethren may lament that, but those of us who welcome the rise of genuine pluralism and the advent of a rational spirituality can only say Amen.

Originally published in 2010

In the Name of Love: A Brief History of Valentine’s Day

HF - Valentine'sLove is in the air. If you’re in a part of the world that celebrates Valentine’s Day then you most likely can feel it. Whether you anticipate the day with joy or dread, this yearly celebration marks the time for chocolate and roses and heart-shaped cards, all in the name of love. But where did the tradition come from?

In this week’s episode of “Holy Facts” on The Chopra Well, Gotham Chopra explores some unusual expressions of love across cultures, including the murky origins of the biggest contemporary love celebration in the west: Valentine’s Day. Named after at least one of three early Christian martyrs by the same name, this day has come to signify something very different than what it originally may have been.

The Saint Valentine most likely connected with the holiday was a priest in the 3rd century Roman Empire. Emperor Claudius II had outlawed marriage for young men, believing that unmarried men made better soldiers than those with wives and children. Valentine – still in the minority at this point as a Christian priest – felt the injustice of the decree and continued performing marriages for young lovers in secret. He was soon discovered, though, and executed for his disobedience. To add insult to injury, it was also rumored that he tried to convert Claudius to Christianity during his interrogation.

The placement of Valentine’s Day in the middle of February may be associated to the anniversary of Saint Valentine’s execution. But many believe the Christian church established Valentine’s Day in order to “Christianize” an early Roman pagan festival, Lupercalia, which was celebrated at the Ides of February. In this bloody fertility festival, men would sacrifice a dog and a goat, then strip the goats’ hides and use them to gently slap the women. Women apparently lined up for this yearly hide whipping, believing it would increase their fertility in the upcoming year. The day ended with a random pairing of couples to…well, test the magical strength of the goat hides.

Once “Christianized”, and with the help of authors like Chaucer and Shakespeare, Valentine’s Day became more of a celebration of romance, exchanging animal sacrifice for letter writing, whips for poetry and chocolate. Sounds like a healthy evolution. Today, Valentine’s Day sales approach close $20 billion, what with the candy, roses and a bit of expensive jewelry thrown in the mix.

Love itself, however, is free. And nothing says “I love you” better than a homemade card and a big hug.

How are you planning on celebrating Valentine’s Day? Let us know in the comments section below!

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Can Friendships Withstand Different Belief Systems?

Heart in Leaf 021I had dinner recently with two of my favorite people on the planet. I have known these girls since I was 13. I love them both dearly, and yet, as sometimes happens, we have drifted apart. They are the type of friends that you can pick up with right where you left off, however long ago, and it’s like it was yesterday. At least, they used to be. This night was different; our husbands were with us. And these girls — with whom, once I could bare my soul — have, over time, as is the custom in our part of the world (the Bible Belt) become devout Christians. The four of them, husbands included, are in a bible study together. My husband and I rarely attend church. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Christianity. I think it is beautiful. I adore the energy of faith — any kind. But I also believe that there are many paths to God. (This is not a popular opinion in the region where I reside.)

After I voiced this opinion, one of the husbands, an extremely intelligent, fit creature who has created his own successes, scoffed and said, “Oh, that’s Pantheism; you’re a Pantheist.” I blinked. I am? I had no idea. I’m not into labeling myself. This led to a heated debate, which was in no way my intention.

“What is grace, Rebecca?” the leader queried, smirking.

I paused. No one had asked me this before. I could feel my face flush.

“Love. Kindness. Joy. Peace,” I replied.

“Undeserved favor,” he said, smugly. “And who bestows undeserved favor upon us, Rebecca?”

I could hear my husband behind me, giggling. He whispered, “Chase, I wish you would come hang out at my house.” Laughter erupted around the table.

My husband was responding to my being stumped. He was undoubtedly thrilled at the scene, something he rarely sees.

I looked Chase in the eyes and said, “Chase, I do not believe that we have to earn someone’s undeserved favor. I believe with all of my heart and soul that we are each deserving of love, pure love, unconditional love simply because we exist.”

“And from where did you derive this opinion, Rebecca?” Chase asked, softer now, smiling even.

“From holding my mother’s hand at her bedside as she gradually drowned in her own fluids. I came to understand things differently through that process as I saw her face death head on, with grace,” I replied. I then went on to discuss Anita Moorjani and Eben Alexander and their impact on me. He listened. To his credit, he even jotted a couple of names down in his iPhone notes.

“Where does suffering come from, Rebecca?” he asked, pointedly.

“I believe we create our own suffering,” I replied.

“Where did you come up with that?” he asked.

“I believe my mother, unconsciously, unknowingly, created her own illness. I believe she never forgave herself for three things:1. An early abortion; 2. My sister’s mental illnesses and lack of joy; 3. My father’s transgressions. I believe she loathed herself so greatly that she ultimately manifested her own terminal illness where her body decided to help her out and took over the job of slowly eliminating her,” I finished. The table fell silent.

One of my friends finally piped in and said, “None of us have been through what you went through, Rebecca. Obviously, you have a unique perspective.”

Chase had the final word, he said, “Well, you’re a seeker. I’ll give you that. I like it.”

And the conversation concluded on a slightly lighter note. I think the entire restaurant was relieved.

Please allow me to be clear: I do not believe that if someone has a different faith than my own, which is almost guaranteed because my faith is of a rare breed, I do not believe that they are wrong or that they will be punished in some way. These people, who were once my close friends, who knew me better than any other, their beliefs are so far from my own that it is a bit mind blowing. But the thing is, I love them still. I love them wholly and completely. I do not judge them. I am not interested in doing so. I do not believe that judgment is my job, nor do I believe it is a worthwhile expense of energy. I am here to embody love and gratitude. I am on this planet to spread joy, to remind any and every single person that I can that their life is beautiful, that there is love all around them that they might not be seeing, and that we are so blessed to have the opportunity to soak it in. Everyday. Soak. It. In.

I passed this article through my friends before publishing. Their response, true to form of the ladies who know and love me best in the world, was pure grace. They said it was an accurate account. One of them even drove straight to my house to tell me she wanted to be better friends this year. I was relieved and inspired. For love, true love, friendship love is bountiful and awe-inspiring. And it feels so good.

I believe true friendships can withstand separate believe systems. I am grateful that this is so.

photo by: cygnus921

The Point of Authentic Inquiry

spirituality-philadelphia-synergybyjasmineThere is a point that appears in a lifetime, regardless of chronological age, when healthy, true doubt appears. We doubt what we have been taught, and we doubt what others insist we must believe. This is the point at which true spiritual inquiry can begin.

Too often there is little support for the deep examination that this spiritually-healthy doubt demands. In my Episcopal confirmation classes — taken with other rowdy 12 year olds — the questions that we could ask with approval had little interest for us. The ones we were interested in, “What exactly is the devil? Where is hell?” were considered disruptive and impertinent. Although the point of the classes was to bring us into the church in a more mature phase, for most of us it was the beginning of the end of our churchgoing days. Something essential in us was denied. I have heard countless variations of this story from others who felt their right to sincerely question had no place in their religious upbringing.

We have sometimes found that we have to rebel against all we have known, since those who “know” are unwilling to allow inquiry to be an essential part of spiritual development. In our rebellions, we absorb new anti-beliefs, and when we dare to doubt them too, we again are branded as heretics. How many converted Buddhists scoff at the naive Christians who believe literal interpretations of the Bible while easily taking on the belief of reincarnation? How many fundamentalist Christians brand New Age visualization as the work of the devil and revile Hindus with their nirvana and multiple faces of God, while having personal conversations with their deity and continuing their own magical thinking about their version of God. Even proponents of inquiry often state what inquiry should reveal. In the “religion” of self inquiry, the concept of non duality takes the place of direct discovery.

Authentic spiritual inquiry reveals the joy of fresh insights and revelation, just as artistic or scientific inquiry does, but if we cling to the latest insight as a thing we know, that thing grows stale.

To be of real spiritual value, inquiry must be alive and fresh. Regardless of what we remember or have discovered from the past, each time we truly inquire, we return to not knowing what the outcome will or should be. No doctrine is needed for discovery. No concepts of multiplicity, duality, or non-duality are needed. In fact, we must put aside all of our doctrines and concepts for our inquiry. All that is needed is the willingness to be unattached to the outcome, conscious, and truthful.

Deep inquiry is not for the fainthearted or weak-minded. It is for those who are ready and willing, regardless of fears and discomforts. It is the challenge and invitation to mature. It is the invitation to give up past reliance on others’ discoveries while allowing those discoveries to encourage and even push us into our own inquiry.

Inquiry is not a coping mechanism. It is not present in human consciousness to provide certainty or comfort, except the sublime certainty that one has the capacity to discover truth for oneself. It is a stretching mechanism. It calls on the mind to stretch beyond its known frontiers, and in this way inquiry is support for maturing and evolving the soul. It frees us from the need to define ourselves to experience being ourselves. It is both humbling and a source of profound joy, but it does not provide a neat package of new definitions and stories.

The challenge in inquiry is to be willing to directly discover what exists with no reference points. Inquiry is no small challenge, for it requires facing the death of the inner and outer worlds as they have been constructed with no knowledge of what will take their place. We have the experience of releasing our constructed world when we fall into sleep, and we cherish and need this experience for our well-being on all levels. The challenge of inquiry appears in releasing the constructed world while remaining conscious.

This blog is adapted from Hidden Treasure: Uncovering the Truth in Your Life Story, which was published by Penguin Tarcher in 2011. In this life-changing book, Gangaji uses the telling of her own life story to help readers uncover the truth in their own. Publisher’s Weekly said, “This gently flowing but often disarming volume invites readers to examine the narratives that shape them, and is a call to pass beyond personal stories to find a deeper, more universal self.” In February and March Gangaji will be offering Retreats in Maui, HI. Visit www.gangaji.org for more information about Gangaji and her upcoming events, including the monthly Webcast / Conference Series, With Gangaji, which is currently undergoing an in-depth study of Hidden Treasure.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Synergy by Jasmine

Baptized Hindu

Question:

I was born a Hindu and after some painful moments in life, began reading the Bible and am now baptized. Since becoming Christian there is more peace and calm in me and I am also becoming more successful in my career. I feel like I have to somehow bring my parents, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces to know Christ as well. With the exception of a sister, the rest are Hindus. Is this my responsibility? Is this what God would want me to do? I love being Christian and now I am beginning to see my siblings as belonging to the "other camp".

Answer:

No, it is not your responsibility to convert others to Christianity. You can be sure they have noticed the peacefulness and success in your life, let them draw their own conclusions. Imagine how you would feel if your brother became a Muslim and discovered the same inner calm and prosperity you have found and then felt compelled to convert you to Islam to be in his camp.

 People have discovered peace and success in every religion, and even outside of religion. It’s not that one theology is the true way and all others are wrong. The true path to God lies in the heart and it can reveal its journey through any religion or none of them. There is nothing you are experiencing through Christianity that your family cannot also find in their hearts through Hinduism. It is important to be able to respect that for others, because that respect is a test of your own trust in God. If you don’t trust God can be revealed in others hearts except through your religion, then you are trusting a religion, not God.

Love,

Deepak 

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Paths to God

 Question:

I have been brought up my entire life as a Christian. Over the past few years, inside I have been feeling like being a Christian can’t be the only avenue to reaching God. I feel like I am missing something when it comes to connecting with God.  I’ve read some of your books and something inside me awakens. What would be your suggestion for me to do to get an understanding of where I am in my life at this moment?

Answer:

You are in the midst of expanding your understanding of God. In recognizing that there are different paths and teachings leading to the divine, you are learning to see that God is a reality that is accessible to everyone based upon their own inner reality. Reaching God is not dependent upon whether you happen to be exposed to the “right” religion.  

What matters is following a path to the divine that rings true to you and your spiritual experience. You will find that whatever brings you deeper into your core spirituality will bring you nearer to God.

Love,

Deepak

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What Would Jesus Do About Islam?

 When angry mullahs and oil despots want to stir up anger against the West, "Crusade" is an inflammatory term that comes automatically to their lips. The memory of Christian knights invading the Arab world is very long. The height of the Crusades ended seven centuries ago. But it’s not history that is at stake. Embedded in the worldview of many devout Muslims is a defensive and hostile attitude toward Christianity. The burning of the bible by a mullah somewhere in Iran wouldn’t incite mob action in the West, but a single extremist in Florida with a following of less than fifty led to violence and murder in Afghanistan — deliberately fueled by the president of the country himself.

Distasteful as it is, religion remains a major element in all three Arab conflicts that the U.S. has ventured into. The memoirs of former President George Bush are rife with religious motivations. There is little doubt that when he gave speeches about a "conflict of civilizations," he meant a conflict between two religions. Such a conflict doesn’t exist, not inherently. Jesus is worshiped as the Prince of Peace; one definition of the word "Islam" is peace. But history has created its own dogmas, and when human nature wants to justify aggression, any rationale will do, including God.

This issue is facing us again because the uprisings that are revamping the Arab world include a strong Islamist influence. In some places the specter of new hostility between the Shia and Sunni is boiling up. In other places the Muslim Brotherhood has a strong voice, and almost everywhere the populace looks to their traditional leaders, the clerics, for guidance. Crowds consider Friday, the chief gathering time for the faithful going to mosques, as a significant day for protest. There is a real possibility that fundamentalist Islam will loom in the future of many states.

The direction of history will be decided by another faction, one that has proved stronger than religion in Egypt: young people who want a future in the modern world. Like the student uprisings in the West in the Sixties, a youth movement in Islam isn’t likely to seize power after expressing its discontent. In every Arab country an entrenched military, traditional clerics, and explosive extremists hold the spotlight. Protests aren’t equal to organized, empowered elites.

What’s important is that the West doesn’t repeat Bush’s doctrine of fighting for God. If we honestly asked what Jesus would do about Islam, it’s obvious that his solution wouldn’t be war. He might even apply the Golden Rule. So far, President Obama has been more Christian than his predecessor, not by applying Christian principles but by treating Muslims with common humanity, tolerance, and understanding. These uprisings are part of a global phenomenon, the rise of the dispossessed. People don’t emerge from political repression as model citizens, much less saints. They are angry and resentful, so they lash out. They have been deprived for generations of education, so they follow demagogues. They know little of the world beyond what religion tells them, so they see others through the lens of religion.

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How India Gave Me a New Kind of Jesus

I grew up hearing about three kinds of Jesus. To the Irish and Italian Catholics in my Brooklyn neighborhood he was the only begotten son of God, Savior of all Mankind. Among the Jews there were two versions: the laudable ethical teacher—a nice Jewish boy who met with a terrible fate—and the Jesus that never existed, a creature of mythology, like Apollo or Zeus. In my atheistic home, where religion was the opium of the people, Jesus was largely irrelevant, except as a proponent of the Golden Rule and as the founder of a religion that perpetrated horrors in his name.
 
Then came the Sixties, and I was introduced to a different Jesus, by way of India. Like millions of my contemporaries, my hot pursuit of truth and personal fulfillment led me to the spiritual teachings of the East. I read the sacred texts of Hinduism and Buddhism as well as modern interpreters such as Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts and Huston Smith. It was called mysticism, but I found it, ironically, non-mysterious and eminently rational. I tracked down a yoga class—not easy to do back then, believe it or not—and learned to meditate.  Throughout my explorations, the name of Jesus cropped up surprisingly often, and always with respect. In Paramahansa Yogananda’s seminal memoir, Autobiography of a Yogi, the rabbi of Nazareth is treated with such reverence that I thought I must be missing something.
 
So I bought a New Testament, and it blew my mind. Because my spiritual reference point was more Hindu than Judeo-Christian, the Gospels seemed more like the Upanishads or the Bhagavad Gita than the churchy dogma I expected to find. The main character was a master teacher, a guru who prodded his disciples not just to better behavior but to union with the divine. His term for the Ground of Being was “Father,” but it was easy to evoke the language of the Vedic seers and substitute Brahman or Self. When he tells the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount not to pray conspicuously like the hypocrites, but to “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret,” I saw a guru directing his disciples to meditate. This was a Jesus I could live with: exalted in a way that befits a giant of history, but without the grandiose, cosmos-altering triumphalism that relegates non-believers to either irrelevance or damnation. 
 
I soon learned that Hindus in general, and the swamis and yoga masters who came to the West in particular, saw Jesus in much the same way, as a sadguru (true teacher) and a jivamukti (enlightened being) of the highest order. Some afforded him the status of avatar, placing him on the same level as Krishna, Rama, and other divine incarnations. In keeping with their pluralistic tradition, they considered the teachings of Christ, when followed properly, to be a legitimate pathway to the unified consciousness that is yoga’s true aim. 
 
In researching my book, American Veda, I discovered that this perspective has been filtering into America’s bloodstream ever since Henry David Thoreau equated Jesus with Buddha and called himself a yogi in Walden. It gathered steam as a stately parade of gurus arrived on our shores and exploded after the Beatles’ legendary sojourn on the Ganges in 1968. For a great many angry or alienated Christians, seeing Jesus in this way enabled them to reconcile with their religious heritage; many returned to active participation on terms they could live with, although their Christianity was often closer to that of mystics like Meister Eckhart or Thomas Merton than to the mainstream church. Even Christians whose spiritual lives were, for all practical purposes, more Hindu than anything else have been encouraged by their own gurus to remain connected to their Christian roots. This often entailed seeing Jesus as their ishta devata (preferred form of God). That these prodigal sons and daughters found their way back to the Jesus they love by way of a tradition that has been besieged by missionaries for centuries is one of the great ironies of religious history. And, in similar fashion, thousands of Jews who studied Hinduism and Buddhism have come to see Jesus as a mystical rabbi, a passionate religious reformer and a moral leader whose legacy was sadly corrupted.
 
The image of Jesus as a sage and sadguru may not sit well with clerics for whom Christ can only be the one true messiah and the hinge of human history. They ought to be glad that millions of people like me, who might otherwise view this season as merely a respite from work, or as humbug, will instead celebrate the birthday of a great holy man.
 
Philip Goldberg is the author of American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West.
 

Real Belief Is A Personal Search for Truth

 Author Anne Rice said last week that she was ‘quitting Christianity:’ The once-lapsed Catholic wrote that she could no longer accept her religion’s teachings on homosexuality, feminism, politics and birth control.

"In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian," Rice announced on her Facebook page.

Can you leave religion and keep Christ? Can you be spiritual without being religious?

Faith lingers, one way or another, in every society. For those who have given up on Christianity, there’s a newly coined term, "cultural Christian," to describe the half-hearted believer or the timid atheist who doesn’t want to be labeled as such. Unlike being pregnant or dead, which holds no middle ground, fence-sitting about God is so common that it might even be the majority position. The question is whether being a cultural Christian, accepting the trappings of faith without the substance, is viable. Or must a person take stronger, more positive steps toward a different kind of spirituality?

Breaking away can be soul-wrenching. It was meant to be. Organized religion tries to convince us that it has the patent on God, some faiths more loudly than others. Buddhism has no central authority or required attendance, while at the other extreme the fundamentalist branches of Christianity and Islam mandate daily prayers and hold the threat of damnation over those who don’t attend services. Fewer people are intimidated these days, however. Spiritual coercion seems to be on the wane. The number of regular worshippers has fallen sharply and continuously for decades in Europe, and although South America and the U.S. are considered more religious societies, the numbers are slipping there as well.

There have been other reasons to keep away from church and synagogue, especially the backlash over liberal theology. Christians gave up on massive guilt and a punishing God, replacing these with an all-embracing welcome from a loving God. This should have been good news for believers, but when Christianity was reduced to an ethical culture, it lost much of its mystery. The Kingdom of God has to be more than a donation drive for the needy. Good works cannot replace transcendence, and there’s no disguising that Jesus offered not only transcendence to his followers — meaning a world beyond pain, suffering, and sin — but miracles and the blessed presence of God in their lives.

Fundamentalists looked upon this failure as itself a kind of sin, or at least corruption of the faith, which caused them to surge into power. But behind the promise of being born again and finding Christ as your personal savior, they delivered more of the old coercion, sometimes with more fire and brimstone than ever before. Still, it can be said that fundamentalists took mysticism and the resurrected Christ seriously, and they attracted the common people whom Jesus most loved. Their most pernicious effect, on the other hand, was to deny love to anyone outside the sect, leading to bigotry trumpeted as God’s will.

If a cultural Christian adopts the xenophobia and harshness of the fundamentalist worldview, that would be a double tragedy, because the absence of God would be filled in with a false idol. The way to avoid this trap, and also the apathy of fence-sitting, is to use one’s birthright in good faith. Anyone born into a Christian society can claim a lofty but heartfelt morality based on love and compassion, the central teachings of Jesus, if you must leave God out. On that basis one might add hope of the afterlife and the promise that sin can be overcome and atoned for.

Using those elements of cultural Christianity, one can build a personal faith. It’s a beginning, at least. Ahead lies a lifelong journey to answer the great questions: Does God exist? Do I have a soul? Where should I place my faith? Organized religion gives the "right" answers to all of these, but throughout history real belief has required a personal search to validate the truth. To accept the truth blindly is the same as having no personal convictions of your own. By the same token, to say that you have adopted Christ without Christianity seems equally facile. The teachings of Jesus are staggeringly difficult to carry out in practice, as anyone knows who has tried to turn the other cheek or loved his enemies. But if you approach Jesus as a guide to higher states of consciousness, which is what he meant by saying that the Kingdom of heaven is within, then being a cultural Christian could open the door to true transformation in body, mind, and soul.

Published in the Washington Post

 

 

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