What If: There is No “Right” Religion?

If you have ever been a part of a religious group that believed that they had the corner market on the right-ness, you get this question. Because I know that most of my readers are coming with a basis of a Christian perspective, I want to start in that territory. Even within the fractured Christian church, we find vastly different approaches to the correct faith. Not only can we not agree that one denomination (or non-denomination) has it correct, but even within churches of the same theological pathway, there is the rightER way. Just ask my Church of Christ and Baptist friends. Because there is Baptist and then there is Southern Baptist. There is the “progressive” CofC that shows videos with music and then there are the ones where salvation is deeply tied to all the rules. Friends, we have plenty of this within our own bubble.

Growing up as a United Methodist, there were many in other denominational circles that fully believed that I did not understand the real meat of giving my heart to Jesus. I came to that awareness at an early age. Somehow I was ok with this differing reality within the confines of the Jesus camp. But something began to happen as my circle broadened. I remember being invited to my first Bat Mitzvah. Upon receiving the invitation, the questions began. What does this mean? Why do some religions have different traditions? Why do they get a big party?

And then the harder questions. Wait. Just. A. Second. If they don’t believe what we believe about Jesus…then what happens…eternally? To an 8th grade heart this unthinkable. And then came the questions of other faiths. What about my Muslim friends and those that belong to churches that do not believe in the Trinity? What about my Mormon friends and those that have no faith at all. AAAANNND THE CHILDREN IN SMALL REMOTE VILLAGES THAT HAVE NEVER HAD AN AMERICAN MISSIONARY VISIT? If you have run in the Evangelical Christian world and simultaneously have a compassionate heart, you know this spiral. And you probably know the answer that I was given. I swallowed this for many years. I wore it as a badge of successful faithfulness. I knew something that all of these poor people did not and for that I would be in paradise and they in eternal torment. Because, Jesus.

This is such a black and white issue in the core tenants of modern faith. But what about the historical faith? Jesus clearly taught that he was the incarnation of the Divine. Within the beliefs about the reason for the death and significance of the resurrection of Jesus, the Church has a wide road of varying postures. I love studying the modernization of the Church because one thing is continual, even from the early moments of creation: God is up to something new. God’s very nature is expansive and generous. At the very heart of this bigger, more encompassing love is the person of Jesus. As someone who believes that with my entire being, it is very hard for me to reconcile that a certain way of believing about Jesus became the defining point of separation between the in and the out.

The more that I have worked to understand the heart of the biggest of the biggies – of ‘in or out’- for most Christians, the more I go back to the understandings of the ancient Christians. I grew up with penal substitutionary atonement as the primary basis for all eternal implications. The more I study the ancient church, the more that I have come to understand that this theory (and that’s what it is!) is a modern one. Much like the other conversations that we have had the past few days, I am not here to convince you that I am right. I actually think that is where most Christians get it wrong.

The non-religious world couldn’t care less what those of us that enjoy huddling together in holy houses expouse as “good” theology. They really don’t care. At all. If anything our continual drum beat of unwillingness to ask a question is off putting and door closing. My peace with this question has come through years of asking the hardest of the hard questions. It has required listening and reading and digesting. It has required being uncomfortable and not knowing. None of which, for the record, do I love to do. It is not comfortable. It is not easy. But I have done it.

With that work, I have landed in this place. “Right” implies that there is a “wrong.” I am not qualified for the job of judgement on the issues of all knowing spiritual insight. Without God’s job description (which, by the way, none of us have) I think it is high time that we get out of the business of absolutes. What I know, FOR ME, is that I can see the love of God in the person of Jesus. I do not, however hold tightly to the ideas of atonement that I was taught for many years. I have embraced a generous and open faith, one that aligns much more closely to the ancient Orthodox and early believers. To answer these questions is to awaken more than 2,000 years of complex doctrine and thought, much of which, I believe dilutes and confuses the deep message and hope and restoration that is found in Christ. So that’s where I am going to camp out. I’m pitching my tent in tremendous love and overwhelming grace. I’m majoring in the welcoming of questions and the ability to trust that no human constraint, theory or idea can embody all that is the Knowing. I’m setting a bigger table.

“Jesus is bigger than any one religion. He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called “Christianity.” ― Rob Bell

What If: Mary Was Not a Virgin?

I once read an article about the danger of questioning the “biggies” of the Christian faith (and this would fall into that category). The author compared it to trying to take one pearl off of a strand. A problematic situation developed when you begin messing with the pearls of the faith because if you remove one, you are likely to lose the entire strand. My first response was laughter. And then I realized that this author was serious. They really believed that by taking off one pearl, we faced the very real dilemma that the whole thing would fall part.

Insider tip to my faith: I think God can handle all of our pearl removing. I am quite confident, in fact, that each time we dive deeper and look harder and pursue connection, we don’t just screw with the nice jewelry, but instead we have the ability to create a statement piece that can shape our soul and heart and hope. There is not one part of me that believes that this whole thing falls apart if I question or doubt or even decide that I can’t fully commit to every detail of a story that has been challenged for thousands of years. I really think that the God of the Universe can handle my wrestling. I actually think God delights in it.

This is why I am not afraid of saying some things on this topic. First of all, what if? Does it change everything? Why? What is the significance of the Virgin Birth in YOUR life?

If you are still with me, let me show you a few interesting things as I have wrestled with:

  1. Context – Do you know where the prophesy of the virgin birth comes from? Let me share with you why I love Pete Enns. He is waaaay smarter than me and he always has a way of cutting through the crap to what I need to know. He shares in his blog about the root of the word that is used in Isaiah (which is where the Gospel of Matthew draws the prophecy from) to predict the miraculous birth of Jesus. The Hebrew word in this text that is translated virgin in English, is literally defined as a young women, post puberty that was not married – thus culturally she would traditionally be a virgin. The interesting part to me is there was a specific Hebrew word that translated exactly to virgin. So why not use that word? These things intrigue me. And make me wonder.
  2. Experience – What part of the Virgin Mary is vital to your understanding of faith? Is it because you have always been told Mary was a virgin? Is it important that the mother of Jesus never had sex before he was conceived? Is it because that is the word used in the Bible that you read? I’m not questioning any of these for you. I am asking if you have ever done the heavy lifting of your own faith to know if this even matters to your understanding of the life of Jesus. Think about it!
  3. Connection – Anytime I bump up against a question, I always go to the history of the followers of faith. The Christian church has seen some things. There are as many understandings as there are people who have followed Jesus. I can assure you that us asking these kinds of questions is not new to God or the people of God. It is also deeply challenging for me to learn about the ways that my questions and faith align with others throughout the ages. It is these very questions that have called Church councils whereby the great creeds of faith come into existence. So if it is not new, why not dig deeper into how the people of God have struggled through the centuries?

I am more committed than ever to discussions on context, experience and connection. Asking about these areas of historic and universal faith have allowed me to use the lens of my own experience and see how God is teaching and growing me to work out my own faith. What if Mary was not a virgin? I don’t want to answer questions like this for you. When they pop up, I want to help you have the tools to seek the answers for yourself. That is the beautiful thing about trusting that God is enough. We don’t need a smarter, more faithful guide to give us all the answers. We need our own desire to explore and in the process, people to teach us how to ask better questions. Let’s do that together.

What If: We Took Gender Labels Off of the Divine?

Yep. We are going there. This is a big one for me that I need to talk about. Today is my birthday, so I am giving myself a gift. There is a glorious freedom that comes with each passing year. While I come across as someone that always speaks their mind, I also want to belong. My primary and consistent place of safe belonging has always been in Christian community. There are many things that I have carefully weighed the cost of confessing in spoken and written word throughout my years. This post is the first of a few where I’m going to use my 4 1/2 decades of life to hold me while I trust my knowing, honest voice to speak.

I know that people don’t agree, and that is ok. Just come sit in my living room any night of the week and you will hear four different perspectives on any given topic. I want to be very clear that I’m not looking for acceptance and agreement on all the things. I am walking into some areas that I have studied and lived and grieved and embraced for decades. In the process, I have met and been in deep friendship with people that are afraid to ask these questions because they know the cost of answering them the “wrong” way. Before I go any further, I am going to be firm on this. My blog will not be a place of shaming or mean spirited hate spewage. This is a place to ask ANY question, and in order to do that we need safety. I will gladly block and delete commentary that is not helpful and loving. You do not have to read anything I post. As a matter of fact, if it is not helpful, please do not. I desire to build a home for those that are looking and can’t seem to find a place to land. That requires us to not have all the answers. Together.

Now, back to the question. There is a dangerous thing that happens when God is labeled by our human words. First of all they are wholly inadequate. Words are representative of one language, culturally derived and hold weight. Unfortunately, when we cross borders and generations and context, words are loaded. They are loaded with assumptions and baggage. They are loaded with delight and disappointment. For instance, say the word dream and some immediately think of Peter Pan while others quickly associate their night terrors. That is the reality of communication insufficiencies.

When we are studying ancient texts that were written in other languages and to other cultures, we give great trust that our 2020 English translations are accurate. Unfortunately, most of us do not do the heavy lifting to understand the detailed nuisance of centuries of translations. Before we go much further, I want to define a few terms. Sex is a biological term. Gender, in contrast, is defined by the World Health Organization as, “the socially constructed characteristics of women and men, such as norms, roles, and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed.”

Hebrew (the language that introduces us to God in the Old Testament) is exclusively gendered. For instance a table (shulchan) in Hebrew is masculine while the sun (shemesh) is feminine. This binary reality has lead many faith leaders to use the masculine as the default. At the same time, we see examples throughout scripture where God represents a more female gendered reflection. For instance throughout the Psalms, the images of God as a mothering protector are many.

Because of the connection and association of words and genders, defining God seems impossible. What we know from the text is that from the very beginning of creation, humanity represents the image of the Divine. There is not one gender that is a more “true” reflection. Again, language and gender and cultural norms are completely insufficient for the deep well of hope and love that is God. So why is it that so many people of faith struggle with a gender neutral image of God? If we were to walk into most religious gathering spaces, there would be a gender assignment for the Divine. He, Father and Him are the most common, but this is not exclusive. Even churches that are sensitive to the need for gender neutrality sing songs with masculine language and bristle on the rare occasion there is a feminine pronoun or descriptor for God. While I could go on and on about this subject, those that have had this conversation with me before know that my personal call has long been to depict God in words like Creator, Healer, Divine, Spirit and Comforter. None of these words are exclusive and most importantly for my heart, none of these are easily associated in our culture with a gender.

Let me share one final thought to help you understand the weight of this discussion on people. If there is one thing that stands in our way of trusting and desiring God, it is our mistrust of people. I don’t care how many times that a wise spiritual person has told me that God is not human, they just as quickly assure me that God is represented in every creation – including humanity. So when we use ‘he’ or ‘him’ and even ‘she’ or ‘her’ to give representation to the Divine, we immediately assign humanly associated labels, whether we like it or not. If you have been a victim of incest and your Sunday School teacher prays to Father God, how can you pray? If you were assaulted by your mom when she was drunk on Saturday night, the last thing you want to hear at church is how “she” is holy and just. If you were date raped by your boyfriend, how can you ever trust that “he” is compassionate and able to heal? We cannot divorce our human context from our faith journey. Perhaps this small shift in language could be the open door that allows someone to see that God is not human. God cannot be boxed in. God, in all of God’s greatness is God alone.

What If: The Devil Doesn’t Even Begin to Describe the Evil of this World?

The devil. What a fascinating historical and literary image that scholars have passionately pursued for generations in all areas of art. The movies, in particular, offer eerie representations of what happens when human desires reign and a pitchforked, latex wearing red thing wields destruction and demise. In almost every religious expression, we see a representation of evil at work in the world, but in the faith that is rooted in Biblical texts, there is a figure that carries many names (Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub, the Antichrist, Father of Lies, Satan) and has one purpose – destruction.

Recently, I have been watching National Geographic’s The Story of God with Morgan Freeman. This fascinating look at all aspects of faith and religious practice has been a wonderful trip around the world to explore the way that people connect with the Divine. The first episode of season 3 is called “Search for the Devil.” In this episode, we are introduced to many expressions of perceived evil. While the different understandings and approaches to the existence of evil is intellectually fascinating, I find it important to note that there is a universal stream of belief that flows through most religious traditions. Almost without exception, there is a base agreement that there exists in the universe a presence that divides. I often wonder if my attempt to quantify and define the presence of the forces against, have pushed me to once again build a box of “understanding” that fits. The more I explore the “why’s” and “how’s” of my faith life, the more insufficient these boxes feel.

Like many belief structures of the Christian faith, it is fascinating to me the ways that different periods in history had vastly different views the devil. While many people who study the Bible would trace evil to the serpent in the Garden in Genesis, there is actually no mention of the devil in the creation narrative. Interestingly, the Hebrew word that is later translated as devil or Satan, was used to describe the human oppositions to the prophetic work of the Spirit of God in the Old Testament. In the direct translation of the Hebrew, the same word is “the adversary.”

While we can spend an enormous about of energy dissecting and challenging the way the Church has defined evil in the past, I wonder if a more valuable conversation is rooted in our experience of division. If the roots of “evil” and the “devil” are in separation and destruction, we know about those things. We don’t need to define them because we see and feel them every day. There is no doubt in my mind that you and I both know evil: cancer cells dividing to kill, the bullet that flies through an English classroom, the fist that lands on the cheek of a child as a drunk parent rages, the trauma of rape, the bottle of pills that is a siren in the mind of a suicidal teen. These are images that define the desperate and powerful work of adversarial force.

We live in a world that is saturated with a power hungry hierarchal pyramid of inequality and hate. We continually make excuses for the ways that we (YOU and ME) are outside of this norm, and yet each and every one of us are perpetuators of the very divisive nature that scriptures and mystics and shamans and elders teach others to caution. The more I study the devil and the power of evil, the less I care about the definition or the “correct” theological wrapping paper. What I know is that the elements of separation (the very context of evil) are all around, many in ways that we would like to ignore and minimize. What if rather than worrying about the reality of the horns or the talons of the creature, we acknowledged in our spirit that we look evil in the eye everyday – in others and more importantly in ourselves. The only way that I know to drown the voices of hate and division and lies is to first recognize them and call them out, and secondly to breathe (remember our conversation on this subject?) love and healing all over those wounds.