Posts Tagged ‘orthodoxy’

JAMES 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Faith and works (or deeds) are the soul and body of the spiritual life. Just as the soul animates the body and the body incarnates the soul, so faith energizes our good works and good works actualize our faith. This dynamic relationship between faith and works was kept in focus so long as faith itself retained its critical position in Christian belief, as that which believes (in Latin, fides qua creditor: faith as basic trust and surrender to God) rather than that which is believed (fides quae creditor: faith as a point of church doctrine).

When the confusion set in, as it did already by the time James is writing, the avalanche towards a more dogmatic orthodoxy had begun – a deviant momentum from the original spirit of Jesus and his gospel that we have not yet been successful in correcting.

Typical characteristics of dogmatic religion are that it is excessively weighted on the side of doctrinal purity, is largely disengaged from the practical-ethical complexities of real life (evidence by general and absolute judgments on contemporary moral issues), and is aggressively exclusive in its ideology. Early Christianity was showing signs of degeneration in this direction, and despite the writer’s good efforts, the trend continued in the post-biblical period.

Of course, we are not suggesting that doctrinal clarity and a more or less systematic understanding of spiritual matters are unimportant. Faith as a simple and fundamental total trust in God needs the mind as much as the will for its full development. James’ point is not that faith  must become less intellectual, but that it needs to be more ethically relevant. In short, it needs to be morally productive. Faith that lacks a strong efferent nerve to the limbs and muscles of practical choices and actions is (as good as) dead.

JOHN 6:35, 41-51

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Jesus was perceived as a threat to theological security by those who had anchored themselves inside the fortress of religious literalism. It may be helpful to define more carefully what we mean by this term. There is a time in psychological development when the stories of scripture and tradition are not so much interpreted as simply accepted as descriptions of the way things are, were, or will be. This is the period that James Fowler names the “mythic-literal” stage of faith.

A child must not be faulted or criticized for taking the stories literally. At this stage the imagination is just coming alive and the dividing membrane between fantasy and reality is magically flexible and porous. Religious and cultural narratives are implanting the young mind with the information, moral values, and world perspective deemed necessary to live functionally as a member of the tribe. Most importantly, they are shaping the developing personality around deep principles and universal truths.

Sometime in early adolescence the capacity for symbolic thinking is awakened, and the stories that were taken literally in childhood begin to open up to new insights and discoveries. Narrative portraits of God, for instance, can now be appreciated more as metaphors than literal descriptions, and the reality they name can be more readily acknowledged for the genuine mystery it is. It is possible at this stage for the individual to grasp and entertain such notions as ground of being, universal spirit and unconditional love in his or her contemplation of the divine mystery.

It is possible, we need to emphasize, because it is precisely at this developmental moment, on the threshold of a breakthrough to higher awareness spiritually, that the orthodoxy of anxious and dogmatic leaders slams shut the window and pulls down the shade. This is where religious literalism takes hold: It’s this way, and only this way.

Jesus was a threat to such literalism because in his teaching, his parables, his manner and his very person, he mediated a mystery that no theology can manage or contain.

JOHN 6:35, 41-51

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Once again, the writer of the Fourth Gospel is exposing our human habit of taking things too literally. From the Christian mystical perspective, existence itself points as a sign to the divine transcendent reality energizing and upholding all things.The material universe is radiant with the glory of God, the revealed Law declares God’s deeper intention for the human being in community, and Jesus embodies in flesh and personality l’amour che muove il sole e l’altre stelle, as the poet Dante says: the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

The problem lies with the blinders of our fixed habits of mind, deep cultural assumptions, and the dogmatic orthodoxies of religion. These obscure our spiritual vision and would tie our attention to the pointing finger rather than the moon to which the finger points.

When Jesus identified himself as the bread of life come down from heaven, his benighted audience could think only in terms of what they knew – common table bread and ordinary family origins. But perhaps we let them off the hook too easily when we make it out to be mere a matter of ignorance. Frequently, in those who strongly reject the notion of a Truth higher than their own familiar traditions and orthodox belief systems, there is a corresponding deeper fear of losing their grip on what provides them some measure of certainty, comfort, and control.

2 SAMUEL 7:1-14a

 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.

It seems nearly inescapable that once religion gets located and our sacred representations of God are arranged just so in the holy space of temples and shrines and churches, human society falls into the divisions of ranks and classes. When our god is believed to dwell more inside the sanctuary than outside among the people and in nature, those whose job is to supervise the rituals of worship, recite the blessings and prayers, and authorize the official orthodoxy, become increasingly decked out in special insignia and perched in places of high honor.

Deacons, elders, junior priests, parish priests, cardinals, bishops, archbishops, high priests, and so on, form an ascending gradient of value and influence, from common folk in the secular world to the ordained hierarchy of the sacred realm. Inevitably we have insiders and outsiders, members and aliens, the “chosen people” and the heathen throng.

Yahweh had first been revealed as the God of slaves, whose special favor was on the underdogs, the low-born, the orphans and rejects of the world. Perhaps that is why he was so adamant against the tower of privilege that temple-based religion so easily becomes. Centuries after Solomon made the fateful decision to build a temple in Jerusalem, the prophets continued to rail against its excesses and abuse of power.

ROMANS 8:22-27

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We might be tempted to dismiss Paul’s language as so much poetic flare – all this talk of creation as “groaning in labor pains.” To what end? we ask. Does he mean to suggest that the universe is a womb of sorts, and that something presently hidden from view is about to be delivered forth?

The birth event, what Paul calls “the redemption of our bodies,” must therefore not be interpreted along some modern-day evangelical lines to suggest that our salvation is a rescue out of the world – as if the infant is really being saved from the mother rather than given forth from and through her. Paul’s concept of redemption is more consistent with the theory of evolution, where life, mind, and soul emerge and are produced out of simpler and more primitive forms, than it is consistent with the popular Christian (Puritan-evangelical) notion.

Furthermore, the intimacy with which the Spirit of God is involved in our groanings, our hopes, and our weakness, challenges our orthodox beliefs concerning a deity who swoops down and spirits away repentant souls to heaven. In a real sense, religious orthodoxy is the womb within which the human spirit gestates and matures. All our assumptions and dogmatic beliefs must eventually open up to release us into an experience of mystic union with The Holy One.

ACTS 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

When Peter raised his voice above the blend of voices giving praise to God, to address the skeptical few who were wanting to pass off the entire event as drunken disorder, he cited the prophet Joel who long ago had seen this day approaching.

Joel had lived in a time that was spiritual stagnant in many ways, with the institutional structures of religion effectively suppressing the deeper life and hope of the common people. In pure and challenging language, the prophet pictured a future day when God’s Spirit would no longer be domesticated by the bridal and harness of conventional religiosity, but would break out upon all people in wild and creative energy.

For the prophet Joel this was both good and bad news, depending on who was considering it. To those in power, especially the priests and other brokers of orthodoxy, this vision was a portent of disaster – “blood, fire, and smoky mist.” No more would blessing be distributed retail by a religious management, or forgiveness the reward for submission to due process. For the great majority, the coming day promised new release from old burdens and access to God that was both direct and personal.

What Peter and the rest were witnessing, they believed, was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophetic vision. God came through the cathedral ceiling to dwell among and within “the little people.”

ACTS 10:44-48

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said,47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

In the story of the early Church, the Holy Spirit is clearly the primary character. Whatever is done or said by the apostles, the miracles of healing, conversion, and growth are humbly attributed to the activity and blessing of the Holy Spirit, with the apostles serving only as its agents or brokers.

As far as strategy was concerned, these early Christians watched for clues and invitations in what God was doing in the world around them. When the Holy Spirit had already moved upon the Gentiles, inspiring them each to praise and profess God in his or her native tongue, the only thing Peter and the other apostles could do was try to catch up to what God was doing.

Peter’s exhortation that these Spirit-filled Gentiles be baptized was in its day a revolutionary idea, for it transgressed on a boundary-line between “insiders” and “outsiders” (circumcised and uncircumcised). His boldness has not been a consistent mark of the Church through the centuries, however, where definitions of piety and Christian orthodoxy have frequently (and ironically) condemned the activity of the Holy Spirit outside its jurisdiction as scandalous and heretical.

ISAIAH 61:1-4, 8-11

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

It would be a significant oversight, indeed, if we didn’t take notice of how the identity of the one speaking these lines almost imperceptibly shifts from a messianic figure (the anointed one) to God himself (who promises a new covenant in verse 8) and back again. Of course, we can’t leave out the voice of the prophet himself, who is unnamed but writing in the tradition of the eighth-century Isaiah of Jerusalem.

Try to imagine the shock to orthodoxy introduced by someone who is not merely speaking about God to the people, but who is speaking as God to them. All of the established and sacrosanct certainties about insiders and outsiders, about the nature of faith and what the future may hold, what it means to follow God’s will and where that might lead – all of it is thrown into question by the in-breaking first-person declaration of God himself, in and as the prophet standing before them.

The divine possession of the prophets – or their daring and imaginative impersonation of God – is different from what is commonly found today among so-called charismatic assemblies. Isaiah was not pumping up his congregation with bellowing recitations of scripture. He wasn’t trying to arouse a complacent audience with pulpit-pounding promises and warnings. Quite the contrary, Isaiah (and the other major prophets) was using the voice of God to challenge the orthodoxy of his day, and to leverage a ground-level transformation in the spiritual consciousness of his generation.

EPHESIANS 1:15-23

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.20 God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

As the decades after Jesus rolled on and Christianity shifted paradigms, from a Hebraic-historical to a Hellenic-metaphysical orientation, the work of Christology (the theory and doctrine concerning Jesus as the Christ) became increasingly other-worldly in focus. Earliest (oral) traditions had tried to continue with the social revolution begun in the life and teachings of Jesus, proclaiming human freedom from guilt and debt by a new dispensation of God’s unconditional forgiveness. As time went on, however, as the religio-political system of oppression continued and grew even more sinister, Christians began turning their hope to other dimensions – first to an end-time apocalypse and then to the realm of metaphysics.

The letter to the congregation in Ephesus (Ephesians) was written in the name of Paul, but not likely by the apostle himself. Its language is freighted with Greek metaphysics, where victory over the axis of evil is less an awaited future event (the Jewish expectation) than a current fact, with Jesus (as Christ) presently exalted over every rule and authority and power and dominion. This is obviously a long way from the gospel guerrilla who was crucified for his perceived role in fomenting revolt against Rome, and a good distance also from the apocalyptic messiah who will come again someday soon.

We’re not saying that a metaphysically oriented religion is bad or wrong, by any means, only that this shift from “what’s ahead” to “what’s above” changed the nature of Christianity in a fundamental way. Indeed Jesus’ kingdom movement, announcing the in-breaking power of God through the surrender of faith, the courageous decision to act, and the generous outreach of love, soon was transformed into an institution of ordained leaders, orthodox doctrines, membership rosters, and operating budgets.

With this shift from history to metaphysics, from the temporal urgency of Jesus to the transcendent deity of Christ, from social revolution in the world to individual salvation from the world, it might be said that Christianity lost its way and became a world religion.

ROMANS 1:16-17, 3:22b-31

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

22For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has the faith of Jesus.

27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

The apostle Paul is credited with the “invention” of Christianity. He is the one who proclaimed Jesus as the long-awaited messiah of the Jews and introduced him to non-Jews (Gentiles) as the “Lord and Savior” of a new mystery religion. We need to remember that Paul’s letters to various church-starts and key leaders of the early movement were written 10-20 years before the first Gospel (Mark, c. 70 CE) told the story of Jesus. The canonical Gospels inherited Paul’s makeover of Jesus as Christ (of Jews) and Lord (of Gentiles), and their later elaborations incorporated an oral tradition of Jesus-sayings into this mythological framework.

Being a Jew himself and a member of the puritanical sect of the Pharisees, Paul would have been dead-set against the lifestyle reputed to the actual Jesus who had been indicted and executed under the Law a full generation earlier. Jesus had been an aggressive proponent of desegregation and equal rights under the inclusive and unconditional forgiveness of God. He reached out to “sinners” and kept company with outsiders, insisting that they and not the so-called righteous were closest to God. For his transgression, Jesus was found guilty and paid the penalty of death.

Somewhere on his way to prosecute the fugitive followers of Jesus, Paul underwent a conversion experience whereby he realized that the Law, which was the orthodox definition of righteousness, had condemned a truly perfect and righteous man (Jesus) and thereby nullified its own authority. Jesus had upheld the genuine spirit of the Law (love of God and neighbor) but its heavy net of quibbling rules was used to bring him down. As a consequence, the Law fell victim to its own fatal self-contradiction.

What had seemed a victory for the Law and and orthodoxy was really its terminal defeat, and the one who had been condemned under the Law came out vindicated in the end. (This is likely where the metaphor of resurrection occurred to Paul.) Before he became Christ and Lord, Jesus was the man whose relentless faith and boundless love had saved the world from religion. As Paul saw it, “the faith of Jesus” in his followers upholds, reveals, fulfills and transcends the true intent of the Law. They are free at last.