This post was a huge, profound, thought-provoking undertaking for me. That’s why it’s so long. Sorry.
Starting with this disclaimer is probably in order: What you are about to read is based on my opinions. I will admit that no religious publication – NOT ONE – has contacted me for a quote or a book deal. But that does not change my convictions which have evolved over years of studying the works of many respected Christian leaders, authors, and theologians like Richard Rohr, John Shelby Spong, John Phillip Newell, Marcus Borg, Diana Butler Bass, and Dr. Seuss, just to name a few. This process has required me to open my heart and mind to possibilities beyond religious orthodoxy or “rules” that often made me uncomfortable in my own skin. I have grown to understand the folly of my long-held beliefs that you are going to hell and I am not, and other ridiculous “truths” of faith. You’re welcome.
So, let’s start here: Do you know how Christianity, as we know it, began or why there are only four gospels in the Bible? Many studies have revealed that there were more than four gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas, at the beginning of Christianity. Who decided on the four? Was it God? You might think so if you subscribe to the notion that God wrote and/or directed every word in the Bible. Or maybe a group of Jesus’ followers started a Jesus Fan Club: #jesusrocks and wanted to develop a list of requirements for membership. Stephen J. Patterson tells us, “The study of Christian origins during the last fifty years has revealed much more variety than our forebears ever thought possible. How did it happen that the many versions of Christianity that existed in the beginning, were eventually overshadowed by the one version we know as Christianity today?”
What was so important about the Matthew, Mark, Luke & John gospels that the others were discarded? Hint: They are called “synoptic” gospels, which means all four of them rocked the same message the church could offer on a continuous loop to the illiterate masses of the day: Get in line or get snatched by the powers of hell! Your choice.
According to Wilfred Cantwell Smith, religion “systemized ideas about God, religious institutions, and human beings; it categorized, organized, objectified, and divided people into exclusive worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, ‘us’ versus ‘them”. Smith explains the stark difference between our understanding of religion and religio is that religio describes “a particular way of seeing and feeling the world. The archaic meaning of religio was that awe that men felt in the presence of the uncanny dreadful power of the unknown….it is something within men’s hearts.” When was the last time “religion” rendered you awestruck? Exactly.
Do we even care about any of this in the midst of Covid, the loss of jobs, despair, and the civil unrest we see in the news daily? I believe that’s precisely why we should care (the point of this post).
Anyway, let’s take a peek at just one of the rejected gospels: The Gospel of Thomas. Because why not, right out of the gate, bring up something contrary to everything we Christians have been taught! In it, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “When will the kingdom come?” Jesus said, “It will not come by looking outward….Rather, the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.’” In other words, God’s kingdom is not located in heaven, and the only way to “get there” is to “believe brothers and sisters” in the church’s theology of heaven and hell. Thomas is telling us that the kingdom of God is right here, within our very being.
“So, wait, Linda…you’re saying you don’t believe in heaven and hell? Good luck with that on Judgment Day, standing there all exposed, surrounded by your big huge piles of regret! Then, you’ll be singing a different tune!” You would be like, “Sorry, Lord, I didn’t mean it! How about a redo? You’re good at redo’s, right? I take back every hateful word and thought I ever uttered!!!”
And God would be like:
I never said I didn’t believe in heaven and hell. Actually, that’s one of my core beliefs, right up there with “I know I am a beloved trainwreck, peevish with a little touch of psycho mixed with an occasional love-the-world moment”. However, my belief in heaven and hell is in the context of relationships. (More on this later)
Anyway, back to Thomas. Elaine Pagels (Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas) tells us, “The Gospel of Thomas also suggests that Jesus is aware of, and criticizing the views of the Kingdom of God as a time or a place that appear in the other gospels. Here Jesus says, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘look, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds will get there first. But the Kingdom of God is within you.
It’s hard to describe. But the Kingdom of God is something that you can enter when you attain gnosis, which means knowledge. But it doesn’t mean intellectual knowledge. So this gnosis is self-knowledge. It’s a question of knowing who you really are…knowing yourself at a deep level. The secret of gnosis is that when you know yourself at that level you will also come to know God, because you will discover that the divine is within you.”
Alrighty then, so why didn’t Thomas and other gospels make the cut; didn’t make it into the Bible? Is it because the Church wanted to control God and charge admission to heaven?! That is very likely considering what we know about Irenaeus, who created this mess:
Irenaeus of Lyon was a second-century bishop and an unapologetic antagonist toward Gnosticism that had crept into “his” church, corrupting “his” people. The following is from an article in Christianity Today. There’s a lot here, but well worth the read:
FOUR GOSPELS, NO MORE, NO LESS
Near the end of the second century, a church leader in the Roman provincial city of Lyon became concerned about a new prophecy that had recently come to his part of the world. Irenaeus of Lyon was worried. Such sayings seemed to open the floodgates, allowing prophets to say whatever they chose, no matter how odd or scandalous. Irenaeus felt he had to do something.
In Lyon, dozens of Christians had been thrown to the beasts to be ripped limb from limb. In the face of such danger, Irenaeus wanted solidarity. The new prophets threatened to divide his house. He countered this “false religion” with five books titled: “Against Heresies” where he describes and then refutes many early schools of thought that thrived in the first two centuries of Christianity. In fact, Irenaeus’s work went a long way toward establishing the notions of Christian orthodoxy and heresy. To refute the ideas of his opponents, he drew upon four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He said, “It is not possible gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are.” (He used some nonsensical formula to “prove” it.)
Irenaeus was interested in identifying a story around which he could rally his churches in the face of possible persecution and martyrdom. His choices reflect precisely that circumstance. The canonical four are all very similar. Each presents the story of Jesus as that of a martyr. In each, Jesus lives his life in faithfulness to his calling. In each, he is betrayed by a friend and suffers an unfair trial. In each, he is tortured and finally executed. And in each, God vindicates him by raising him from the dead.
What, then, should Jesus’ followers do? Just as Jesus persevered to the end, they too should persevere, even to the point of death. God had raised Jesus from the dead. God would do the same for them, if they remained faithful until the end. This, then, became the Christian story. The gospels that Irenaeus embraced were gospels that interpreted his own life and the martyrs he admired around him.
The gospels provided the theme of fidelity, but also the specific beliefs to which Christians were expected to remain true: Jesus’ miraculous birth, the vicarious nature of his death, his resurrection, and his eventual return to judge “the quick and the dead.” Christianity was a religion of beliefs. Those who wandered from those beliefs were punished. Those who refused to accept them, like Jews, were persecuted.
Today, churches of every stripe continue to insist on right belief—their beliefs. Through all of this, Irenaeus’s four-gospel canon remained. But beginning in the eighteenth century, some scholars of the Bible began to wonder about the biblical gospels themselves. The faith they seemed to authorize—that Jesus was born miraculously, that he raised the dead, that he himself rose from the dead—now struck them as less than credible. This was the Age of Reason. Did Christianity have anything to offer modern people whose capacity to reason and think critically would not permit them to believe the unbelievable?
I’m not sure, and even the researchers of “belief” admit that many people won’t tell the truth when surveyed about their faith. But we can still address the fact that there seem to be many “professed” Christians that adhere to the orthodoxy of their particular faith tradition without a second thought.
Paul Coutinho, SJ (How Big Is Your God?) says, “The Western understanding of truth is a philosophy. It is a set of beliefs that you can think about and know….God’s love must be merited through prayer, good works, and obedience to the rituals of the Church. God is the great Other.” Growing up, Coutinho was taught to believe “God was a small and petty God” and that “God was waiting for me to come up to heaven so he could send me to hell.”
Gandhi believed, “Christianity became disfigured when it went to the West. It became the religion of kings.”
Do we wonder how God is seen as a distant and punitive judge, not a loving Father? Marcus Borg tells us Jesus was brutally crucified by the powers that be for defying Roman authority. His death was not God’s plan to atone for our sins. What kind of God could we even believe in that would do such a monstrous thing? This is a God who “loves” a special few of us with conditions? Great. Sign me up.
This God, this distant up in the sky God, looks down on us with obvious frustration and shakes his head, “No, I’m not coming down there. You people are messed up! Besides, I’m in that high-risk category for Covid, you know, with my age and all. But, I’m rootin’ for ya’!”
And what about the idea of belief? What does that mean anyway? If I say I’m a Believer, does that require anything of me? Not really. Not if I believe in a God of rules and regulations. That’s a huge stretch from its original meaning. Borg explains, “Before about 1600, the verb believe always had a person as its direct object. To believe in somebody (in this case, God) is not the same as believing somebody. But it goes even deeper. Its origin means “to hold dear, to belove”. Thus, to believe in God does not mean believing that a set of statements about God are true, but to belove God. For a majority of American Protestants and some Catholics (believing in the rules) is what saves us. Or is it beloving God as known in Jesus that saves us by transforming us?”
Ouch. So, we should ask ourselves, “If believing in the rules meant to keep us in line will not transform us. What will? If being transformed has some inherent, unrelenting appeal to you, it can get really dangerous because beloving God comes with a caveat: It requires change at the deepest level of our being.
John Phillip Newell has observed, “The walls of Christianity are collapsing. In many parts of the West that collapse can only be described as seismic. It had become isolated from the other great religions of the world, ossified in its dogmas, paralyzed in the trappings of infallibility. What is the new thing trying to emerge from deep within us and from deep within the collective soul of Christianity?”
Is Christianity as a set of rules and infallible truths dying? That seems to be what some believe even though many church leaders of all faiths appear to happily whistle past the graveyard regardless of the deafening echo of emptying churches and the statistics:
A 2015 Pew Research study showed that Americans who believe in God dropped from 92% to 89%, and a bigger drop of Americans who say they believe in God with absolute certainty (from 71% to 63%). The largest drops have been among mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians. Among non-Christians, the pattern is mixed. Most religiously unaffiliated people continue to express some level of belief in God or a universal spirit. However, the share of religious “nones” who believe in God has dropped substantially in recent years.
Bede Griffiths calls our current state the “fossilization of Western Christianity”, leaving a vast expanse of emptiness in its place. We are a country that is broken, a people struggling for meaning. A truth that has become more and more apparent during these trying times. So many people feel lost and afraid with no sense of hope for our future. We are barraged daily with violence and hate from all sides. And it should frighten all of us that our political leaders have also lost all sense of decency and concern for the greater good of all Americans.
But, dear ones, take a deep breath! This is not the end of the story because God does have the last word. He does have the power to heal our individual and collective brokenness if we would just allow him into our hearts. That’s where change must begin. That’s where our faith ethos can bring forth and empower the essence of our very being and create change. I believe we are now on the precipice of a conversion experience like we have never seen before. The time for change is now, but we must know what that change looks like. We have to be able to name “truth”. It is not the “truth” that we have been spoon-fed by the church and government leaders, but the “Truth” of an omnipotent, loving, merciful, compassionate God who longs for us to recognize our belovedness as his blessed and broken sons and daughters. He longs for us to recognize Jesus as his beacon of light guiding our way in the darkness. And he longs for us to rejoice in the certainty that all are welcome at his table of plenty. All. Of. Us. No matter if others are of the same faith, a different faith, or no faith at all. This is not a private club. God wants you to know who and Whose you are. He wants you to claim your birthright and help others do the same.
We have wasted far too much time scratching around in the dirt, eking out a mundane existence when we were meant to soar, thrive, and be the light of Christ to a hurting world which is the essence of our very existence.
Joran Slane Oppelt interviewed Bishop John Shelby Spong, who said we need the “antidote to toxic Christianity.” Ultimately, he recommends the creation of a new church — not Christianity 3.0, but a full re-boot, a Christianity that returns us to the original teachings, mission, and ministry of Jesus Christ. https://youtu.be/eyjUFRNbQPY
Polls abound that document the mass exodus from the intuitional Church. I’m among those numbers. As I grew spiritually, I realized that, in good conscience, I could not continue to “show up” for participation in a broken, hypocritical church that left me empty and wanting. It is a church refusing to let go of the remnants of a sinking ship. Going down with that ship are its leaders clinging to imagined power and pew sitters content with the status quo because of the false belief that it rewards their adherence to their religious obligations and willingness to do what they’re told without question, holding out for the rapture, I suppose. Diana Butler Bass tells us that a good example is “Willow Creek Community Church which is one of America’s most famous mega-churches. It has suffered membership stagnation and a lack of enthusiasm among the faithful. Pastor Bill Hybels confesses that Willow Creek….has failed to meet the congregation’s deepest spiritual needs.”
Butler Bass quotes David Korten from his book, The Great Turning “The Great Turning is an awakening – a movement to reorient human culture toward connectedness, economic quality, democracy, creation, and spirituality. The Great Turning awakens us to becoming ‘fully human’”.
Bass says, “Awakenings imply new awareness, inner transformation, a change of heart and mind, and a reordering of priorities, commitments, and behavior. The Great Turning is less of a turn toward something completely new and unknown; it is more of a Great Returning to an ancient understanding, of finding a forgotten path of wonder and awe through the wilderness of human chaos and change.” She believes that “many people in the West have been reaching toward religio – only they call it ‘spirituality’”.
Harvey Cox, “…people want to have access to the sacred without going through institutional and doctrinal scaffolding. They want a more direct experience of God and Spirit.”
Is it reasonable to assume that those who have left the church have done so because it leaves them empty of purpose and void of a fulfillment they know intuitively as their deepest longing? I can speak to that question within the context of my own story.
By the Church’s definition, I would have been labeled a heathen most of my life until my wretched soul was “saved” at the time of my baptism into the Catholic Church forty years ago. But, upon closer inspection, my heathenness was merely whitewashed for appearance’s sake, the pictures, and the celebratory luncheon that followed. You could say I was probably more heathenly after rising up for those baptismal waters, all full of my newfound piety.
John Eldredge tells us, “Christianity is not an invitation to become a moral person….when transformation comes, it is always the aftereffect of something else, something at the level of our hearts. Christianity begins with an invitation to desire.”
Paul Coutinho, SJ – excerpts from his book, How Big Is Your God?, “The Eastern understanding of truth is an experience. In the East, experience that affects life is true. Truth is that which touches ones heart and changes one’s life. In the Yahwistic tradition God never forgets we are weak, imperfect and sinful. This God is intimate. If you don’t experience the Divine inside you, you won’t find God anywhere. Each one of us is an unrepeatable revelation of the One from whom all things have come. Gandhi used to say, if Christians had actually done what Jesus taught us to do – namely, love our enemy – the world would long ago have been transformed. He challenged us to turn our creed back into deed.”
Luke 10:27 in The Message, “He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.” How powerful and scary is that? What would it mean to our world now if we loved like that!? But that is what God has deeply, fervently longed for since the beginning of humanity. And since the beginning of humanity, we have mostly failed him except for a few shining lights in the darkness, a few God moments, which is the Divine trying to get our attention in an otherwise ordinary existence. God hides in plain sight. He is ever present to us in myriad ways, but we’re too busy or indifferent to notice.
Remember when the churches were closed because of Covid and we got to go to “church” in our pajamas? Well, guess what? In Genesis 28:16, Jacob is all tucked in bed when he has this revelation, an AHA moment if you will, “Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it.” Today’s translation might be something like: “Holy Moly Batman! God is everywhere! Not just in the church building at 9:00 on Sunday morning!” If that fact didn’t just cause you a bit of trembling and a whole lot of angst you might need to get your pulse checked.
During this critical juncture in our history, you may feel overwhelmed and frightened. You may have bought into the belief that we are beyond hope. But, that is a lie. There have been countless positive and hopeful examples of those who refuse to give up on themselves and others the world has rejected but God named blessed.
Those who can rightly see God, who lives and moves and has his being right in our midst, will lead the way to a “rebooting” if you will; a movement back to God’s creation story of love. The indifference to God, injustice toward our fellowman, the environment are in-our-face truths that have played out on T.V. and social media for months now. How can we go back to business as usual? We can’t “unsee” the abuse that we have either participated in or have chosen to deny. Either way, we are culpable.
Heaven and hell can be best understood here in this place of uncertainty and ambiguity. It’s time to choose. We have created and are living our own heaven or hell right here. They are both manifest in our relationships, first with God and then with each other. If we push God away, that is our hell. If we choose God over all the worldly lies and temptations, that is our heaven.
BUT! Big, huge BUT here, we are in a very exciting place where we have an opportunity to be a part of the change God longs for. It’s time, and we are uniquely prepared, whether we know it or not, to step into the void, to reimagine, and then participate in God’s plan of renewal for a broken world. We are called to love and serve, to be Christ to others. Now is our time. Let’s do this!
“Let us not become weary in doing good” Galatians 6:9
And, lastly, what you have been waiting for with bated breath. Here’s my life in two phases. My rendition of Dr. Seuss –
My life before God’s intervention:
But, then God grabbed onto the worst of me until I gave up my stubborn will. Just in the nick of time I might add!