"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How Hip Is Your Church? The Quest For An Easy Ride To Salvation

“Meet you at the caves!”, shouted The Prophet (aka Lyn Henny) as he leapt up from the lotus position on the Vishnu ghats in Hardwar, sprinted among the Hindu faithful who had come to cremate their dead, bathe in the Ganges to remit their sins, drink its sanctifying waters, and pray at one of Hinduism’s holiest sites.  The ghat was crowded with pilgrims, so The Prophet had to step lively to avoid babies, teacups, and very old women on stretchers.


He leapt over the small rivulet that two centuries ago had been cut through the rock to give the ill and infirm easier access to Holy Gunga, ran down the well-worn path towards the village, and climbed the steep incline to the caves of Mahabharata far above the town.  It was there that he and a hundred American and European followers of Sri Ramakrishna Vedanta Vivekananda Rao had convened for the celebration of Stellar Night, a cosmic event during which the planets and stars were aligned in such a way that earthly harnesses would be removed and positive spiritual energy would be released.

Stellar Night was not a feature of traditional Hinduism, although to the casual observer a religion which incorporated Astral Projection, earthly transfiguration, and the ascent of the sanyasi into the One, Brahma, Atman, and the Holy Sphere of the Universe could certainly have believed in a universal liberating force originating in the stars. Or so thought The Prophet and his young devotees to whom he preached every evening by the waters of the Holy Mother Gunga.

The Indians who came to Hardwar and whose families had made the pilgrimage for centuries couldn’t make heads nor tails of these young men and women who dressed in loin cloths or long robes, who uneasily wound themselves in yoga positions which contorted the inner organs and made the free flow of kundalini impossible, and who polluted the sacred space with their outcaste habits, faithless mockery of Hindu ablutions, and untoward intimacy.

Hindus are a very tolerant lot, but up to a point; and the line between acceptance of the eccentric Other and rejection of the intrusive, distracting, and defiling heathen was another. As the informal cave commune grew, the resident priests of the town, fearing that their faithful would abandon Hardwar and go instead to Varanasi, Allahabad, or Nasik, three of the other seven holiest Hindu sites in India, met to discuss what to do to protect their livelihoods. The priests did a good business on the ghats of Hardwar.  Pilgrims paid for prayers, invocations, last rites, and cremation; and their gross revenues, not to mention the inns, restaurants, and tea shops that catered to the families of the dying were substantial.


Needless to say, most of The Prophet’s followers never attained enlightenment.  They barely made it to first base, giving up the quest after a few months of watery diarrhea, dysentery, the surprisingly cold nights of the low Himalayas even in summer, and the onset of rickets. “I don’t know how they do it”, said one young man from Oklahoma, referring to devotional poise of even the most skeletal Indians who must suffer from the same debilitating illnesses that he did. Cleansing one’s mind of earthly illusion and searching for the face of God was not at all possible during bouts of urgency.

Yet for every Randall Bight from Oklahoma who left, there were hundreds more to take his place.  There were no war stories coming down from the hills but tales of insight, beauty, and spiritual evolution.

Randall, the Prophet, and their fellow travellers were attracted by Hinduism’s mystery and seemingly simple path to enlightenment.  They were tired of being hectored by preachers, pastors, priests, and rabbis. Randall had had more than enough of Father Brophy’s hellfire-and-brimstone sermons (“Can you smell it now? Are the sulfurous fumes of Hell beginning to burn and sear your lungs? Can you feel the eternal flames licking at your ankles?”) and was drawn to Hinduism’s softer and far more forgiving nature.  There was no vengeful Old Testament God there who warned against trespass and denial of his commandments, only the promise of individual spiritual growth.

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One could argue that Randall was, like every other twenty-two year old, simply dreamily romantic and idealistic. While this might have been true in his case, his flight to the Himalayas was more symptomatic of Americans’ search for the quick fix. Why deal with questions of morality, sin, perdition, and right behavior when Hinduism offered a gentler ride. Yes, one might spend many often painfully reincarnated lifetimes, but how could perennial returns to life be that bad? And yes, the abject poverty of the wandering sanyasi and the ascetic life of the spiritual hermit might be difficult; but what were these minor chafes when compared to the the frightening presence of an all-powerful, demanding and vengeful God?

Pope John Paul II spared no words to express his hostility to evangelical Protestant sects.  The Los Angeles Times reported on John Paul’s visit to Brazil in 1991:

In a scorching blast at evangelical Protestant "sects," Pope John Paul II accused them Sunday of seducing with "false mirages" and misleading with "distorted simplifications."

He exhorted Brazilian bishops to stem the rapid expansion of rival religions in this traditionally Roman Catholic nation of 150 million people by leading a counter-campaign of Catholic evangelization.

On the second day of a 10-day tour in Brazil, the Pope made it clear that he is not happy with the state of Brazilian Catholicism. He told a national convention of bishops that religious ignorance and "serious lack of doctrine" among the people has left them vulnerable to moral deterioration and "to the seduction of sects and new religious groups."

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John Paul’s successors have been no less critical. While expanding on the teachings of Augustine and Aquinas, the doctrine of logos and the rationality that underlies Catholic teaching, and in so doing have defended the fundamental doctrines of the Church, they have also been terse and to the point.  There is no simple way to God. Cults and sects which focus on ecstatic encounters with Jesus Christ and personal relationships with him are nothing more than chicanery and charlatanism. Catholicism like Hinduism is built on an understanding and appreciation of the most subtle and complex principles of divinity, humanity, and the relationship between the two.

It is not surprising that thousands of scholarly books have been written on the first verses of John alone.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

‘The Word’ is an English translation of logos, an early Socratic concept of rational being. The entire book of John is based on the Christian adaptation of that ancient principle. Theologian Stephen L. Harris claims the author of John adapted Philo's concept of the Logos, identifying Jesus as an incarnation of the divine Logos that formed the universe

As the Logos, Jesus Christ is God in self-revelation (Light) and redemption (Life). He is God to the extent that he can be present to man and knowable to man. The Logos is God, as Thomas stated: "My Lord and my God." Yet the Logos is in some sense distinguishable from God, for "the Logos was with God." God and the Logos are not two beings, and yet they are also not simply identical. In contrast to the Logos, God can be conceived (in principle at least) also apart from his revelatory action─although we must not forget that the Bible speaks of God only in his revelatory action. The paradox that the Logos is God and yet it is in some sense distinguishable from God is maintained in the body of the Gospel.


This complex theological issue is raised here only to illustrate the point made by John Paul – religion is not a simple matter. Only through rigorous intellectual study can one even begin to understand the nature of God, Christ, and the Trinity. Faith, he said, is a matter of rationality and belief, not belief alone.

Emma Green writing in The Atlantic (4.15.15) about Rachel Held Evans’ new book on authenticity in the church reports:

"I caution against the idea that the way to get young people into church is to be hip and cool and have a pastor who wears skinny jeans", [says Rachel Held Evans who] could have been talking about any number of much-hyped contemporary evangelical congregations: the Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, for example, whose pastor started a website called PastorFashion.com, or Mars Hill, the Seattle megachurch that dissolved amid controversy in 2014, but left behind a large network of congregations. Many of the fastest growing churches in America are exactly what Evans describes: Places with Sunday morning rock bands and chic websites and pastors who occasionally, yes, wear skinny jeans.

Evans is exactly right about the further dumbing down of religion.  When religion becomes a fashionista side show, a theatrical event, a circus, and a feel-good exercise in vanity and self-denial, it is doomed. Although America is often considered the most religious country on earth (behind India of course), it is based on the flimsiest of excuses for belief.

Evangelical apologists have of course denied what they call this Papist claim.  Martin Luther’s Reformation was all about ridding the religious experience of cant, ceremony, and venal interlocutors; and charismatic Christianity has brought the devout even closer to their maker. Augustine, Aquinas, and logos simply get in the way.

I suppose that there is room for all under the big tent; and belief in God is what counts; but having only just scratched the surface of the complex theology and rational philosophy that underlies Christianity, I can’t help thinking that the more one understands the most profound elements of faith, the more profound that faith is.

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