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Our Pieces of Pie in the Sky | Part 3 of 3

This is the final blog in a series of three originally titled “Why Kick a Man When He’s Down? | Smoking, Sin, Shaming and Salvation.” Like Reza Aslan reminded FOX’s Lauren Green, I too write from a PhD in history of religions perspective (although I have 1 versus his 4 PhDs), so please bear that in mind as you read this and other faith-related blogs.

Some delicious childhood memories of mine are of pies: strawberry, coconut cream, chocolate and french silk varieties (esp those with a graham cracker crust).

If you have only leisure and pleasurable pie eating memories then you likely are either an only child, one of two children, or from a family who never quarreled.

I’m the fourth of five children. A pie cut into seven does not big pieces make! Therefore, in my family, dessert time was satisfying, yes, but also stressful. It was imperative that you either dibs the pan or dibs your piece early, thereby ensuring you got, maybe, a half-bite more than anybody else (especially satisfying was getting the extra few strawberry syrup saturated graham cracker crumbs lining the pie pan).

Our childhood illogic, then, was as adult illogical as buying gas (petrol) today. You might travel 5 to 10 miles to buy discounted wholesale gas at $3.40/gallon, when a nearby station is selling it at $3.45, and the total cost saving differential for one tank of gas is only $.50 to $1 (before factoring in time and gas cost of traveling to and from).

Many people view salvation with a prized pie mentality. Heaven (or eternal life) is the ultimate pie or piece of pie, yet it simultaneously poses a troubling question, “How can I be sure I’ll get my piece if other, strangely different people are claiming they know both an equally good recipe and baker (perhaps identical, though different in name), themselves?” 

Gaining admittance and exclusionary bragging rights to heaven seem somewhat comparable to passing “GO” in Monopoly, except that, instead of a single player dominating the real estate market, a single religious perspective attempts to monopolize criteria for eternal eligibility and what constitutes truth.

Furthermore, the secret to passing “GO” without going bankrupt, landing in jail (hell) or being penalized by unlucky draw-cards, is to acquire insider knowledge of and obey prescribed code words (e.g., from Christianity – “Steps to Salvation,” “Four Spiritual Laws” or “Roman Road”).

Determining “who” is eligible and declaring “how” one may gain access to heaven is much easier if you have the power to entice and enforce people’s lifestyle and beliefs, which Christianity as a whole has had the privilege of doing for the past millennium-plus . . . . first, as the official religion of the post-Constantine Roman Empire, then, as the religion of European colonial powers, and finally, as the dominant religion of Super Power America and its global economic and political reach.

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An example of enticement, is an 1864 letter of American missionary Hyman A. Wilder, who wrote the following appeal for increased funding from his stateside “commander-in-chief,” Rufus Anderson –

“The greatest number of those [Zulus] who are now members of our churches, were first brought to listen to the gospel while in our service.  At present the only way in which we can get any one in a heathen kraal under the daily influence of divine truth is by giving him employment as a servant.  He is then willing to learn to read & to attend our religious services as a part of his daily duty.  Some of our servants are paid more, & some less, per month—the average is about 10 shillings exclusive of food, which costs from 5 to 10 shillings more.”

A colleague of Hyman’s, James C. Bryant, similarly wrote that he and his wife had twelve Zulu children in their family, all of whom “we have to hire them to live with us. . . . and pay them a trifle for their services—twenty-five to seventy-five cents a month.”

As a child growing up in a conservative Christian environment (Southern Baptist), I wasn’t enticed with money like those 19th Century Zulu children. But I was frequently poked (to borrow a FB term) to “make a decision,” and enticed by promises of “sins forgiven,” “a new life” and “the assurance of salvation/eternal life.” I was also coerced to some extent by required daily chapel attendance in high school and college, plus subjected to frighten-you-into-heaven apocalyptic movies, like The Burning Hell and The Hellstrom Chronicle.

Despite what some of you likely are thinking after reading Part 1, 2, and now 3, I do believe in the transformative, life changing experience of salvation or “being saved,” but just not in the overly prescribed (often by self-righteous, duplicitous fundamentalist-type Christians/preachers), supernatural, and exclusionary manner that many do (“only through Jesus” . . . although, this is how I initially came to know God).

Like many of you, I became a Christian early on, in the 3rd grade. It likely was a genuine “coming to God” moment, if for no other reason than that I remember it! Praying “the sinner’s prayer,” while seated on my tiled bedroom floor accompanied by my dad, as well as then meeting with our pastor to “confirm” that I understood the essential basics of my decision, prior to being slotted into a Sunday baptismal service.

Several decades later, and a lot of spiritual and wilderness walking since, I don’t look back on my conversion experience as having redeemed, ransomed or reconciled me to God. I view it as the beginning of a more intentional and conscious relationship with God, and one in which through the ensuing years following my initial “decision,” God helped me in a continuous process of reconciling “all things,” including my understanding and acceptance of self, plus a more inclusive perspective of the other, and toward the world.

If an Ultimate Being/Reality, God, exists (as I believe), thought me into being like a parent, and whose affection toward me exceeds even my own biological parents, then it’s inane, if not pathological, to think and live as if your eternal favor (salvation) is contingent upon right beliefs and right actions.

Who of you as parent would consign your own child to a fiery furnace or a forever-ever separation (however you may understand hell) from you, simply because s/he refused to believe this or that, or failed to demonstrate enough contrition? If one says, “But that’s the ‘biblical’ teaching,” then I say one has an unhealthy love and worship of the (literal) Bible, not to mention entirely Western (American) interpretation perspective, which all brings Matthew 23 to mind.

As a parent myself now (so much of who I envision and have experienced God to be derives from a family context), it’s unconscionable to imagine a god, who would create/birth humanity out of love all people, that is, not just Christians – yet then have so much righteous anger and repulsion of sin and sinner that it requires the violent death of a more than man in order to procure the amelioration of God’s wrath.

When it comes to this type appeasement theology, I share affinity with Desmond Tutu and his thoughts on an alleged homophobic God. He told participants at a recent UN meeting in Cape Town, “I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this.”

In the same way, if God is so repulsed by our humanness – which s/he is the author of, btw – that his “righteous anger” needs appeasing by sanctioning his son’s death, then I too refuse to go to such a heaven.

At the risk of being overly simplistic, my theology is more experiential than theoretical when it comes to Jesus’ death on the cross and the purpose and meaning behind it. I see it primarily as evidence of the freedom that humanity has to choose good and bad, and of Jesus’ acceptance of the false accusations and judgement, resulting in his choice to self-identify with struggling and hurting humanity. I do not see in it an essentialism way, whereby my redemption/reconciliation was “purchased.”

Rather, Jesus’ death as seditious insurrectionist is more a model for the world (not for inciting political upheavals, but for identifying with the poor and marginalized), but especially for “Jesus followers” of how we are too suffer alongside those who are hurting, in some ways analogous to how Mandela, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr are models of non-violent response to unconscionable acts of injustice.

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My theology of Jesus’ death on a cross is analogous to my South African mentor’s narrative of the death of his 5-year-old son, David Erik, who incidentally, my fourth-born daughter Erika is named after –

“The day after Christmas, Boxing Day, was a public holiday.  The family decided to go out to ‘Blue Bend,’ Doreen Caldicot’s farm, along the Ingogo River.  The children were playing together.  I was chopping wood and preparing the fire to boil water for tea.  We called the children for the meal.  David was not with them.

The next 7 hours were ‘gethsemane.’  David was nowhere to be found.  I must have run miles, hither and thither, up and down stream, tormented, exhausted, panic-stricken.  Exhausted and dejected, with encroaching darkness, as the sun was setting, my brother-in-law ran up to me and informed me that David’s body had been located at the bottom of a pool, near the picnic site.

As David’s body was being lifted from the water, I recall taking hold of his damp, cold, lifeless body and hugging him to my chest. . . . I felt demented as I carried this treasured child, now cold, limp, and lifeless up to the farmstead.  Everything was in a state of disarray . . . what was – no longer mattered.  High hopes, expectation and promise had evaporated.  The future ceased to be. . . . In the days and nights that followed, the good shepherd may well have been walking with us in the valley of the shadow of death.  What composure there was, was within the texture of nightmare, disbelief, and shock. . . . at the graveside, as the coffin was being lowered into the grave life-long friends quite spontaneously broke into song – ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus, Safe in his gentle breast.’

What peace there was came, but we were hurt and in need of healing, broken and shattered of all self-confidence.  We spent a few days with family, which was the kind of comfort that gave enduring strength.  We found little consolation in romantic and pious platitudes such as ‘God plucks his most beautiful flowers,’ and ‘Take comfort that this was the will of God.’  All we were concerned about as parents was ‘Is it well with David?’

I kept asking myself where the living Lord of the universe could possibly have been when David was drowning.  Then I remembered back on my mother’s death and a passage from Hebrews 4:14, ‘Since, then, we have a great high priest that has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.’

This gave me hope.  I knew then that the One who said, ‘Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the ages’ (Mt 28:20), . . . was none other than the One who in his promise was dying with David as he was drowning.  Jesus was drowning with David in the Ingogo River on December 26, 1962.”

I believe that confession of sin, of guilt, of whatever in life is keeping you and me from becoming the best (for all humanity’s good) and happiest version of ourselves possible, is life changing, but not as a precondition for God to forgive and start loving us again.

Rather, I see confession in a theologian C.H. Dodd type metaphor, as a thoughtful, emotional and potentially transformative act that initiates a seedbed of new opportunity, new life beginning, by helping facilitate inner healing of mind and soul within a safe and nurturing context or people.

In other words, for me, “salvation” is greater part psychological or psychosocial, than it is a once-off, other-worldly and supernatural act that somehow mysteriously transacts forgiveness and eternal access with God.

Part of the reason Christians, in particular, are so exclusive and adamant that “biblical teaching” insists on a ONE-WAY, “Jesus only” route to heaven is that their faith is almost entirely knowledge based – a residual aspect of the Enlightenment, where knowledge trumps experience.

It’s my assumption that most American Christians, especially Protestant-evangelicals, belong to the middle to upper echelons of society, their lives seldom, if ever, intersect with the world’s majority poor, marginalized, and “different peoples,” unless, of course, it’s of a quick and harmless type, such as landscape “leaf blowers” or “tree pruners,” most of whom in Austin, anyway, seem to be Latino, and Spanish-speaking-only.

What is true for many Western/American Christians today, is what was also true when slavery and the era of Jim Crow de facto segregation. As Winthrop Jordan noted, “Slavery could survive only if the Negro were a man set apart; he simply had to be different if slavery was to exist at all.”

In Relating to People of Other Faiths, former Emory University religion professor, and Christian, Thomas Thangaraj, similarly remarked that dichotomous boundaries of “saved” and “lost” are incapable of being maintained once the religious and cultural “different other” become your neighbor and your colleague.

Therefore, sustaining a sense of comfortable, sheltered from the cultural, religious and socio-economic different other, is essential to preserving a dichotomous self and religious identity, where you are the exemplar of truth and the “other” is the caricature of “lost” or “sinful.” Tragically, this also explains why, in my opinion, we are such a spiritually and wisdom impoverished people/nation – because we have isolated ourselves from the choruses of different voices and perspectives, which equally communicate “the manifold wisdom of God.”

That’s probably much more than you wanted to know about my perspective on eternal pie-in-the-sky, salvation, but if you persevered to the end, I’m sure you earned yourself a few heavenly gold stars!

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Two Words Affecting How People Different Are Viewed and Treated | God and Salvation

Among “Christian America,” a person’s understanding of who God is, in particular, but also what salvation is influences the way s/he views and interacts with the world and its diversity of peoples, cultures, and ideologies.

This is to say . . .

How we see and treat people distinctly different from ourselves is (largely) a result of our understanding of God, and whether or not we see “the others” as equally favored and forgiven by God.

Corroborating my assertion is a 2011 national survey, “The Values and Beliefs of The American Public,” which concluded that “four gods” dominate North Americans’ consciousness, namely: authoritarian, benevolent, critical, and distant. A co-author, Paul Froese, stated, “If I know your image of God, I can tell all kinds of things about you. It’s a central part of worldview and it’s linked to how you think about the world in general.”

It’s a no-brainer, I think, to state that where collective consciousness (or unconsciousness) of an authoritarian, critical, ever-vigilant, and prone-to-punish personage predominates – human or divine – there, too, resides a pervasive and underlying fear and insecurity, which often results in a 24/7 self-comparative (and End Time) mindset, lest one somehow be disqualified and Left Behind.

For example, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” is both early 1700’s sermon title, as well as sociological footnote on America’s past.

While God is probably slightly less angry than he was 300 years ago, I believe perceiving people first and foremost as “lost” (particularly Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists who predominate in the so-called and least “Christianized” 10/40 Window), and God as residing in a sterile, sin-free holy of holies somewhere in the heavens, and whose “righteous anger” needs satiating, is still a widely held belief of “Christian America’s” view of God, and correspondingly of “the different others'” fiery eternal future.

Rabbi David Hartmann aptly observed of America’s religious consciousness, “The longing to be eternally redeemed can become so profound that you doubt whether your way will take you there if you see another person enjoying his or her different way.”

My early faith story as example . . .

I grew up Southern Baptist, which if you don’t know anything about is the largest (conservative) Protestant/evangelical group in North American. “Salvation” lingo was as common as talking sports. During my 3rd grade, I recall my dad entering my room one evening, sitting on the floor alongside me, and after asking me a few “eternal type” questions, me soberly confessing both my sins and inherent sinfulness, praying the “sinner’s prayer,” culminating with asking God “in Jesus” to come live in my heart.

My point?

Salvation as I, and many of you experienced it, is like a peddled (spiritual) product, which aspiring saints procure using a Christian multi-step formula (usually it’s referred to as the “Four Steps to Salvation“): confess, believe, repent, accept.

We are assured that our profession and prayer of the 4-steps will appease/satisfy God’s righteous anger against both our past sinful acts, as well as our inherent sinful nature, and that He will reward us by forgiving our sins and allowing us access to heaven.

I see at least three problems with this view.

One, it assumes, based on a selective choice and interpretation of scriptural texts – and corresponding exclusion of dissonant ones – that the “salvation formula” is an absolute and “biblical” mandate from God; one uninfluenced by culture or socio-economic/sociopolitical history. John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 are prime examples of texts frequently wrenched from their social contexts and used in evangelistic and mission “campaigns.”

Secondly, “salvation-American-style” is de facto more an individualistic and cognitive act/rebirth, with minimal distinguishable-from-secular-society life effects.

Thirdly, it’s exclusionary, thereby creating scores of “Jesus (only) Camp” communities, and disregarding completely God’s concern and love for all humanity (and creation).

My later life faith story . . .

Through sharing life experiences with the cultural and religious “different other,” salvation became more a discovery of an abundant (and balanced) wholeness of life (John 10:10), as I sought and found the image of God in “the other.”

As Samir Selmanovic confirms, “We have saturated our religions with our own selves, and the most direct way to enter a new whirlwind of fresh and substantive religious experience is to seek and find the image of God in those who are not in our image.”

Salvation comes with the responsibility to love God whole heartedly, but as importantly to love neighbor as self, extending hospitality and respect to strangers, and avoid bearing false witness against the “different other.”

Salvation is not merely or even mostly some pie in the sky, as I was raised to think, which we acquire and partially experience in this life, but fully experience in the next. Therefore, salvation/life isn’t really all about me, but about “us.” To the extent that a majority of the world’s people still live in abject poverty and suffer unspeakable injustices, to that extent “my” salvation is incomplete and partial.

As Selmanovic again aptly remarks, “So much of who we all are depends on maintaining a polarized and conflicted world.  To challenge this state of affairs by finding God in the other not only disrupts our communal sense of identity but also alters our social and economic structures on every level, from our families to our nations.  In some twisted way, we have learned to benefit from the misery of the divided world we have created.  Now we have to unlearn what we think we know and then learn to embrace this newfound reality of our globally intertwined community.”

Like former 19th century Bishop to Natal/South Africa, John W. Colenso, I discovered via postgraduate studies that “all human affections have a religious character.” Among the many interfaith people with whom I have been fortunate to share studies and life, I discovered a common and shared humanity inclusive of varied yet shared affections, in which they, like me and my “kind,” were trying to find meaning and give expression to the inexplicable in life such as birth, suffering and death.

Salvation, then, through my experiencing God in and through “the other,” has thankfully become unshackled from an exclusionary 4-step process, in which in order for me to feel saved for eternity, other people have of corresponding necessity to be damned for eternity.

Regarding this tenacious Protestant/evangelical “Pharisaical mindset,” which takes pleasure in quick-step solutions to life and living, like “The Four Steps to Becoming a Christian,” Colenso stated that they (American missionaries in SE Africa) ask these type questions “not because they are impelled to it by that human love which fills the breast, and makes us hope, that, if possible, all may be saved at last, but from a desire to find a clear warrant in the doings of the invisible world for that system of exclusiveness, which they have begun to practise here on earth.”

Conclusion . . .

For about 20 years, my primary and controlling image of God might be likened to a tightrope. I was the tightrope walker, who daily and precariously traversed life’s landscape solo, clinging to my balancing pole, always looking directly ahead to what I was absolutely certain the Bible informed me about the future of the world and of “non-believers,” always looking down at, but never into the faces of the billions of people whose existence and life didn’t measure up to my socio-economic status or Christian beliefs, mindful that a misstep of my own (adultery, lust, etc.) could jeopardize my secure standing with God.

It wasn’t until postgraduate studies that I was forced (by assignments) to risk my faith, as it were, and engage cultural and religious difference first-hand.

Despite frequent discomfort at experiencing life from “the others'” perspective and narrative, only then did I become aware of and personally experience an alternate, life-affirming, yet feminine controlling image of God – that of a mother with her infant securely wrapped/strapped to her back.

My wife with one of our children.

My wife with one of our children.

It’s an image I hope will offset the millenniums’ old dominant perception of God as male, authoritarian, punitive, distant, unmoved, angry – yet, somehow contradictory, also loving.

A mother’s love is all-embracing, all-accepting, all-loving, and all-forgiving. I can think of no greater, more cozy cocoon in which to discover and come to terms with life’s struggles and self’s identity, than this. After discovering that you are first and foremost an individual of immense and divine creative value – and not first and foremost a sinner – you’ll experience the freedom to engage life alongside the scores of “different others” to mend and heal a fractured world.

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