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Thinking Out Loud

Cherry Picking Faith

by Michael Jinkins | Jun 28, 2016

Cherry Picking FaithSomeone - I won't say who to protect the guilty - recently sent me an outrageously funny parody of a worship service that's making the rounds on YouTube. The service purports to be in a "spiritual but not religious" congregation.

The preacher who presides is outrageously hip and cool. He is relevant to the point of the ridiculous. The person offering his testimony in the service is so utterly bizarre he defies description, sharing thoughts he has written down apparently under the influence of some "special" mushrooms or something equally hallucinogenic.

I laughed till I wept. But, like a number of things I personally may enjoy, I will not recommend the video because it goes well over any acceptable boundaries of decorum. I won't encourage you to watch it. I won't provide a link to it. And I will only obliquely reference it here. Just to make a point.

During the "sermon" in the video, the extremely appreciative congregation (which is as hip, cool and relevant as their pastor) "ooh" and "aah," nodding their heads and swaying with joy when the preacher stresses how different their church is from merely religious institutions. His sermon provides a litany of disconnected thoughts, disconnected not only from any clear coherent message, but from each other. The preacher cherry-picks first from one then from another well-known representative of spiritual thought, traversing a variety of sages and celebrities from different faiths and spiritual traditions. One quote abuts another in a veritable train wreck of ideas all of which were chosen either because the quotes sound cool or because the preacher wants to be identified with the sages and celebrities he's quoting, not because any particular quotation contributes to an actual engagement with a deep way of being human, spiritual or faithful.

There's no way any description can do justice to how funny the video is, or how thoroughly it made me cringe to watch it. In the cause of "not being religious," the preacher and the congregation have reduced the meaning and content of their faith to something so thin, so superficial it would make a bumper sticker look profound by comparison.*

Now, I want to get this straight: I don't particularly care for the word "religious" myself and probably have as much suspicion of organized religion as anyone around, though I also have deep respect for the faith that is conveyed in and through religious institutions.

My Reformed theological roots make me suspicious of "religion" on theological grounds. Karl Barth, the greatest Reformed theologian of the twentieth century, wrote one of the finest sustained critiques of religion ever conceived in his brilliant theological commentary on St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. Barth differentiates faith in the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth from the human collection of rites, ceremonies and practices commonly called "religion." Barth's argument is that religion, like every other aspect of human life and society, is fallen and stands in need of God's redemption. No religion can ascend a ladder "up" to God. In fact, from a Reformed perspective, religion can lead us as far astray from God as anything else in this fallen world.

Religion can and often does simply enshrine our tendency to make "gods" of ourselves, which is why, although I am an official representative of a major Protestant mainline denomination, I am often as disillusioned as the most jaded among us of "institutional" or "organized religion." It is so easy for us to sacrifice humanity on the altar of institutions, religious ones included. However, I have also been hesitant to align myself uncritically with those who say they are "spiritual but not religious."

The "spiritual but not religious" critiques often feel just a little too blithe and facile, a little too cool and trendy, to ring entirely true. I am often reminded of C.S. Lewis' senior demon, Screwtape, in The Screwtape Letters (1942) recommending that his nephew and novice demon, Wormwood, not bother to try to convince the new convert that Christianity is illogical. This is a dangerous strategy, Screwtape tells Wormwood, because once the new believer's mind is fully engaged he may discover the deep rationality of Christian faith. Rather, Screwtape advises Wormwood just to convince the new believer that Christianity is out-of-fashion with the trendiest people. Appeal to the convert's vanity, not his intellect, says Screwtape.

These days far too many of the arguments against religion, in general, and the church and Christian faith, in particular, seem to follow Screwtape's script.

When pressed to describe myself, I tend to avoid saying I'm religious. Instead I say that I am a person of faith. What I mean is this: I try, with only sporadic and moderate success, to follow Jesus of Nazareth while also trusting God's mercy to be more effectual than my faith or ability to follow. With every passing year, while I find Jesus more and more fascinating, more provocative, more beautiful and worthy of devotion and imitation, I also understand Jesus less and less. The mystery of Jesus of Nazareth grows larger and more profound the older I get. Thus, I tend to depend more on the vast treasury of Christian wisdom and experience than on my own individual experience. This treasury, sometimes referred to as "tradition," is deep and rich. And it is as conflicted about what we should call the "Christian thing" (religious, spiritual, faith, practice, devotion, or mysticism) as any contemporary seeker.

The Reformed tradition to which I belong is deep and rich itself. And, in contrast to sectarian versions of Christianity, the Reformed tradition is invested in insuring that we value the larger Christian traditions from across history and around the world, from Irenaeus to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Gregory of Nyssa to Lady Julian of Norwich and Desmond Tutu, from Justin Martyr to Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz to Gustavo Gutiérrez. According to the Reformed tradition, to be narrowly sectarian betrays the Spirit of Christ.

Being a Christian means we get to tap into a particular and sustained "way" of being human and being faithful in God's world, a "way" which bears traditions and practices and even counter-traditions from one generation to another, and has drawn on renewals and reformations and counter-reformations for over twenty centuries. The variety of Christian faith understandings is further enriched by other deep "ways" of being faithful and human. Because we know the God who is Lord of all creation, we are free to partake of wisdom which comes to us through cultures and faiths other than our own.

So I want to second the motion presently on the table that being a Christian does not have to mean we are exclusivist. Nor does being a Christian mean that we have to be card-carrying members of only one faith "club," especially a club that defines itself by fiercely opposing and demeaning other faiths. Nor does being a Christian require us to swear fealty to an institutional brand that secures its survival at the expense of humanity.

We worship the free God, the living God. This God is passionately devoted to making us free so that we can live before we die.

There is much to applaud in the various attempts to speak of the life of the Spirit in ways that cross traditional boundaries. There is much to applaud in learning from other faiths and practices. And there is much to applaud in the nurture of what we sometimes call "multiple faith identity" (that is, the conscious engagement and identification with more than just one faith tradition).

Mature faith can be nourished by various streams of very different rivers of thought, very different ways of understanding God and humanity and the meaning of life. But mature faith grows when planted deep in fertile soil. Seeds sown on thin soil, as Jesus tells us, wither under the blaze of the noonday sun. Mature faith requires something more than slick slogans and cherry-picked smatterings of various philosophies and faith traditions however cool they may sound.

I remember one day visiting a close friend who then taught middle school. Now, first, I want to say that anyone who teaches middle school students deserves the highest civilian honor our nation can bestow, and maybe a Purple Heart too. Walking around her classroom that afternoon, I saw cheerful posters intended to inspire students with lofty passages from famous philosophers. I can't remember the quotes, but a poster offering a quote from the French Existentialist Albert Camus hung next to one from Plato next to another from William James, and so on, all around her classroom.

I told her I loved the quotes. But, I said, "You know, lifting them out of context like this, and putting them on the walls next to each other is really pretty incoherent. Each one of these philosophers is saying something he or she believed to be true, but they are saying it in their own terms from their own historical and philosophical contexts. And, frankly, they often contradict each other in really important ways."

"What do you suggest?" She asked, as only a weary middle school teacher can ask when, at the end of a long day, she is trying to be patient with a tedious and pedantic friend.

"I would suggest you tell the kids these quotes are really a sort of philosophical sampler or smorgasbord. Keep the quotes, but say something like this to the students: 'Camus sounds like he might be saying something similar to Plato, but really, they are in an argument, a centuries-old argument, about the meaning of life. It's an argument you might want to jump into the middle of yourself."

I don't recall if she took my advice, which is just as well, but we are still friends.

There are lots of times, listening to some very popular spiritual speakers (like the one parodied on YouTube), when it becomes clear that they aren't really engaging in any deep, coherent faith traditions or sustained understandings of life at all, but are just doing what John Lennon and Paul McCartney say they are doing in their song, "Michelle," singing: "These are words that go together well."

Well, maybe, these words go together well. Maybe not. But, here's what I know. When the scorching sun comes out, seeds planted in thin soil just die where they lie.

Learning from various faith traditions and philosophies of life is very much an aspect of the age in which we live, this secular age, which, as Charles Taylor has observed, is predicated on the power to choose. I, personally, believe the impulse to cross boundaries of faith and philosophy can enrich one's life immeasurably. But, when we engage in varied "ways," we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the faith traditions in which we engage and from which we borrow, to engage them deeply and with integrity.

That takes time, attention, discipline, respect, and a willingness to be teachable, to possess what Zen master Shunryƫ Suzuki once called "the beginner's mind." It's certainly a lot more than cherry-picking cool statements from different spiritual or philosophical voices and forcing them into an incoherent mishmash. And it is a lot more rewarding.

* A faith that can laugh at itself is, I think, a healthy and more mature faith; and a faith that can't take a joke is, I believe, pretty insecure. Thus, I'm always on the lookout for good religious satire that can help us see the ridiculous in ourselves and in our beliefs. Recently The Washington Post ran a story on a satirical website Babylon Bee, which is what The Onion might look like if it were written by and for Evangelical Christians. Among its headlines was the following: "Mountain Climber Recovering After Decision to Let Go and Let God." The website reminds me somewhat of that great source of religious satire The Wittenburg Door, although, frankly, nothing else has ever really taken the place of The Door at its best.

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