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Goodbye Old World, Hello New

by James L. Foster 

There are four revolutionary movements currently underway, any one of which has the potential for changing the world as we have known it. All four happening simultaneously virtually guarantees that a new world order will be born in the lifetime of most of the readers of this article.  What I am talking about here is not technological (though communications technology may well be an enabler of the revolutions) and it is not political (though politics will certainly be greatly impacted.)  No, what is happening is much more basic, addressing the world views and the deep issues of faith and reason held by most of the human inhabitants of this planet.  What is happening is a fundamental mind change.

1.  The first revolution is within the Christian Church.  Because Christianity comprises such a large number of people throughout the world, a major shift in its understanding of itself in relation to other major faiths will have significant effects on every other religion.  These changes have to do with insights into the very roots of its origin in the 1st and 2nd centuries of the Common Era.  Because of the work of numerous Christian and Jewish scholars on the comparatively recent availability of both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hamadi texts, Christianity is wrestling with significant challenges to its exclusivist teachings and the identity of it founder, Jesus of Nazareth.  It turns out that these texts, originally suppressed by the Church Fathers, seriously undercut Christianity’s exclusivist claims of superiority and historicity.

One immediate effect of the deciphering of these ancient texts is the discovery that we have new grounds for relationship with other religions, since major Christian doctrines that have purportedly been inspired by God to the exclusion of all other religious doctrines, may have origins that are far more human than divine.  For the centuries-old barriers between religions to come tumbling down, has a potential for peaceful relationships—even appreciative relationships—that has never before existed on such a massive scale.  One significant example of how these non-biblical writings are changing our understanding of the Christian faith has to do with the identity of Jesus Christ—born of a virgin? No; Killed for our redemption? No; Son of God? No, unless we are prepared to accept that we all, like him, are sons and daughters of God; Non-political and sinless?  Hardly.  Exemplary, yes, but as human and divine as the rest of us.

Another major example of this change is in the discrediting of the historical doctrine of the Trinity (one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit).  This doctrine alone has been an impediment to interfaith relationships in as much as the Christian Church has characteristically taught anyone who thinks otherwise is destined for eternal separation from God—or, in a word, Hell.  As it turns out, contemporary historical research shows that it was not until 325 AD that this decision was made by a Church council that was badly divided.  Its conclusions were made not on the basis of reasoned theological debate but rather on the basis of political power and brute, sometimes lethal, force.

With these kinds of changes in the teaching of the Christian Church will come the opportunity for genuine dialog, particularly with Islam and Judaism.  If these three major religious faiths can come to the place of mutual respect and appreciation, the world we live in will be all the better for it.  Let the new dialog begin!

2. Nonviolent atonement is yet another challenge to a cherished doctrine of the Christian Church, this time on the basis of biblical exegesis.  Challenged are two theories of the atonement (the saving work of Jesus Christ by atoning for our sin), the Penal Substitution Theory authored by St. Augustine (4th and 5th centuries) and the Satisfaction Theory (authored by Anselm in the 12th century).  These theories have been bedrock theology in the Christian Church.

The first, Augustine, says the sin offended God’s honor and caused inconceivable debt and that the debt must be satisfied or punished to satisfy God’s honor.  Since the payment of the debt is so far beyond what humans could do, only God could pay it.  There fore Christ (who must be God) paid the debt by his death on the cross.

The second, Anselm, speaks of retributive justice.  God has to “get even.”  Sin incurred a debt and has to be punished (payback).  Therefore, since humans cannot possibly pay the debt, God punishes Jesus instead.

Both of these theories make of God a vengeful, violent ruler and compromise Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness.  If sin is paid for (i.e. the debt is paid and the account is balanced) there is nothing to forgive.  If God is truly forgiving, it means the debt is written off and there is no need for either repayment or punishment.

 Nonviolent atonement says that God is neither vengeful nor violent (the violence attributed to God, especially in the Jewish Scriptures, notwithstanding).  Therefore God cannot be blamed for Jesus’ death.  Jesus suffered the fate of many of his contemporaries—death at the hands of the Roman occupiers, with the probable collusion of Jewish antagonists.  It was man’s violence, not God’s that killed Jesus.

This distinction is important because it deprives us humans of a major rationale for engaging in violence, i.e., “God, our Father, did it, therefore, so can we.”  If, as God’s children, we wish to emulate God’s relationship to us in our relationship with others, we can no longer justify violence. 

3. Nonviolent communication is a discipline taught by Marshall Rosenberg.  Though many of the principles he teaches have been taught before by the likes of Jesus and Gandhi, Marshall is a gifted in formulating a clear and doable way to put the principles into practice.  Nonviolence is broken down into many tiny and tangible steps, that when learned and put into practice can transform formerly confrontive and hostile relationships--whether these relationships are between individuals, groups, or nations—and whether or not both sides practice it.  These nonviolent “techniques” can be practiced, as it were, unilaterally by anybody, anywhere, in any circumstance.

Marshall’s books and seminars are proliferating as others take up the work of spreading his teaching.  What was originally one man’s crusade, is becoming a movement which will grow exponentially as others both practice and teach the disciplines he has so neatly packaged. 

4. A fourth movement gaining momentum in our day is the result of the writings of the French philosopher Rene’ Girard.  Rene’s writings have the effect of holding up a mirror in which we see ourselves for who we really are.  The starting point for Girard’s theory is “acquisitive mimesis”.  Girard proposes that much of human behavior is based on “mimesis”, an all-encompassing expression of imitation, but focuses on acquisition and appropriation as the object of mimesis, contrary to most of the extant literature on imitative behavior (Girard 1979, 9). Girard describes a situation where two individuals desire the same object; as they both attempt to obtain this object, their behavior becomes conflictual, since there is only one object, but two people.  “Violence is generated by this process; or rather, violence is the process itself when two or more partners try to prevent one another from appropriating the object they all desire through physical or other means” (Girard 1979, 9).  In his mimetic theory, Rene’ argues that imitation is an “ability that is fundamentally linked to characteristically human forms of intelligence, in particular to language, culture, and the ability to understand other minds. This burgeoning body of work has important implications for our understanding of ourselves, both individually and socially. Imitation is not just an important factor in human development, it also has a pervasive influence throughout adulthood in ways we are just beginning to understand.” – (Susan Hurley & Nick Chater)

A related area of Rene’s A thought is scapegoating.  “This scapegoat is, according to Girard, an arbitrary victim: For Girard, there are several conditions for the choosing of the scapegoat.  First, the scapegoat is, by definition, an arbitrary victim, at least to the degree that the victim has, in reality, no direct bearing on the problems that are causing the community disturbance.  However, the victim is not arbitrary to the extent that most scapegoats tend to have similar cultural traits that allow Girard to classify them as a group.  Normally they are an outsider, but on the border of the community, not fully alien to the community.  This victim belongs to the community, but has traits that separate him/her from the community.  Several common victims are elucidated by Shea, summarizing Girard's list in The Scapegoat (1986): children, old people, those with physical abnormalities, women, members of ethnic or racial minorities, the poor, and '`those whose natural endowments (beauty, intelligence, charm) or status (wealth, position) mark them as exceptional" (Wallace 1994, 253). 

Paradoxically, this victim is often deified.  Not only was the victim the cause of the violence, but, since this victim was sacrificed, s/he also becomes the salvation of the community, since sacrificing the victim becomes the method of ending the violence.  So the victim is surrogate because s/he was sacrificed instead of the entire community being sacrificed. 

Once this process is established, it becomes mythologized.  The immediate memory reconfiguration becomes woven into the oral history of the people.  This figure that was sacrificed was the deity who saved the community from destruction.  Since the pattern started with the cessation of violence by the original human sacrifice, the continuation of that pattern is understandable.  But as culture progressed, and specifically with the introduction of the Jewish religion into the world's culture, symbols--animal sacrifices and sacred rituals--were used in place of human sacrifices.  Thus Girard claims the origin of religion is rooted in violence. (Jeramy Townsley)

If any of this sounds familiar, we have only to look at our own religion and consider its origin.  And if it makes us uncomfortable, it may be that when we look in this mirror, we do not like what we see. (For more on this, see the review of the book by Suzanne Ross.

Conclusion

Each of these revolutionary movements, as I have called them, qualifies for such a designation.  According to Webster a movement is “a) a series of organized activities by people working concertedly toward some goal” and “b) the organization consisting of those active in this way.”

The first of the above listed revolutionary movements is represented by several organizations, the most notable of which would be the Jesus Seminar that includes such notable members as theologians John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk and Marcus Borg.  Institutes for Christian Spirituality, the publisher of this journal, En Christo: A Journal for a New Christianity is another such organization.  The number of books that are being written to address the multiple changes that are already taking place continue to proliferate.  Change is hard, particularly when it is in areas in which we have a lifetime investment, but it is also necessary if we are to mature in our faith and vision of what God is doing in the world.  Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of the future of humankind was of a final stage of development during which we would mature spiritually to our fullest potential.  I have always hoped that he was right and that I may be one of the fortunate members of our species to participate in that process.  I dare to hope that the dramatic changes happening now in Christianity are an indication that it is so.

The second movement listed above, nonviolent atonement, is smaller but is quickly gaining momentum.  It, too, has just initiated in May of 2008 the formation of an organization called Theology and Peace to promote research and publications supporting fresh biblical understandings of the nonviolent, compassionate Father of us all.  Michael Hardin of Preaching Peace along with Catholic theologian Anthony Bartlett, Mennonite theologian Sharon Baker and approximately 40 other biblical scholars are among the charter members of the organization.

Marshall Rosenberg’s organization, Center for Nonviolent Communication, though new, is already spawning others devoted to spreading his program for teaching nonviolent communication in a wide variety of secular and religious contexts around the world.  It is already providing resources for the rapid dissemination of the principles he espouses.

Finally, the movement built on the teachings of Rene’ Girard, has fostered Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R), a well-established organization with a world-wide constituency.  Other organizations, too, are involved in promoting Rene’s teachings on violence and religion, notably Preaching Peace, founded by Michael and Lori Hardin; The Raven Foundation, founded by Suzanne Ross, author of The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things; and Institutes for Christian Spirituality.

How long will it take for these and other initiatives I have not covered to have a visible impact on our world?  My guess is years, not decades.  The impact is already considerable, but the world is a big place.   We will know that it is happening when these concepts become the fodder for conversations of the people in the pews.  The internet is providing the means for rapid dissemination of information, a phenomenon which Teilhard did not envision but would confirm his anticipation that each phase of human development would be significantly shorter than the one before.  God willing, this journal will have at least a small part in bringing about the revolution.

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