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I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The Heart of Christianity

Beginning to read Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity -- a book that's been around for a couple of years, and I probably should have read it before now, though as I expected, much of what he says, what people have found exciting about the "emergent church" movement, has been a part of my experience of the faith from childhood. He articulates very well the way of seeing Christian faith that has always made sense to me, and that is now claimed by the "emergent church" movement. What I most like about the argument is how he sorts out 2 ways of looking at Christianity which have often been in conflict, but which also coexist in our time. These approaches share in common a deep commitment to the reality of God and the centrality of Jesus, but they understand "truth" in very different ways. One way, (which was never that much of an issue to me, but I understand how it has stopped many people) is the view of Christianity as being mainly about right belief, for the sake of getting into heaven in the next life. This goes with Biblical "literalism", which insists that what is in the Bible is all "factual." And with a lot of fearfulness about getting it wrong and so not getting into heaven.

My poet's heart is delighted when Borg points out what seems self-evident to me: that stories/myths/metaphors can be deeply, fundamentally "true" without being "factual." And that the practices of prayer, worship, compassion etc. put us in touch with the sacred mysteries of life in ways that intellect cannot fully do (though of course I also believe that the intellect is a great gift and delight and meant to be used!). That's why I encourage people to look at what the stories in Scripture are ABOUT, where they take us imaginatively, what they tell us about the deep truth of the Divine, which is beyond all language. It doesn't matter that much whether they "happened" in exactly, literally, the way the story tells (e.g. whether God really made the world in 7 days, or Jesus walked on water, or was born in a manger, or even rose from the dead -- though I have to say on that one (you can probably tell from my Easter poems in previous posts -- that I personally believe that he did, pretty much as the stories are told. But I don't think that's the only way to see those stories and embrace the truth of the Resurrection; the truth is still well beyond what the stories tell us, as is the mystery of the ongoing presence of the Risen Lord, so central to the Christian experience of prayer and practice).

I also like the way Borg emphasizes that the "emerging" view of Christianity (though I'd maintain it isn't "new" and he'd probably agree) does not insist that belief in Jesus is the ONLY way to truth. Rather, for Christians, it is the way we have been given. This doesn't exclude the possibility of other paths, at all. But it does free us to live within our own cultural frame: to probe, deepen, explore the relationship with the Divine that we are offered in the person of Jesus, who lived, taught, suffered, died, and as we insist, is alive among us still in some way that is "true" -- whether you can take a picture of it or "prove" it factually or not. We are free to explore our relationship with Jesus without fussing about who is in and who is out, which is the great trap, in my view, of all religion. The Christian tradition is based on the witness of people for whom these stories have been true and life-transforming. That transformation, in this life, is the invitation of the Gospel. And it's an open invitation. The promise of "eternal life" beyond this life is a part of the mystery, and it is a hope we hold as Christians. But the spiritual path unfolds in this life.

The story of Scripture is about repeated calls to return to the way of peace, justice, compassion and love, and often this means turning away from idolatry, greed, fear and all that causes us to make gods of our own narrow self-interest. It is an exciting journey, and to me it has always seemed like the heart of Christianity. I'm glad that Borg's work seems to be speaking to so many people who have been turned off by a narrow, exclusivist, literalist Christianity -- a version that, as he points out, belongs to the "modern" period -- coming with the Enlightenment's understanding of truth as "factual/verifiable" -- and missing what wisdom traditions throughout human history have recognized as the truth of the imagination, (this is actually the language of the English Romantic poets - Keats, I think, or Coleridge), or the truth of the "heart," the intuitive knowledge that takes us to the deeper mysteries of life, death, hope and transformation.

We are meant to look at the brokenness in the world and say, in huge grief and distress, "This is not the way it is supposed to be!" And through the power of God's Spirit, working among us, we are called to be part of a transformation toward the good things a loving God always intends for us and for all of Creation.

This is how I've come to see the "heart of Christianity."

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