Generous Orthodoxy  




Saturday, September 26, 2015

Marilynne Robinson calls us to our better selves

It has been a long, long time since The New York Review of Books has published anything overtly, confessionally Christian (they used to, but that was at least 20 years ago. Well, maybe Eamon Duffy counts, but not really, since he writes as a Cambridge historian.) Anyway, all of a sudden here comes the unimpeachable literary icon Marilynne Robinson, who has written an article entitled, simply, FEAR. The first sentence is, "America is a Christian country." She is not being ironic. She is serious. "As a result, we carry a considerable responsibility for its [Christianity's] name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact. If we did, some of us might think a little longer about associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism."

How many A-list American intellectuals would undertake to confess our "precious Lord" in the ultra-highbrow NYRB? This article is astonishing. (It's acidly funny, too, in spots.)

She states her two basic premises: 1) "...contemporary America is full of fear"; 2) "Fear is not a Christian habit of mind." She elaborates: "Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved."  Wish I'd written that.

The article is illustrated with a photo of a Glock (?) with an American flag tag attached to it, and an image of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry with his gun. Yes, the article is certainly about our gun culture, and it is about French Protestantism, and the United Nations, and various other things, but mostly it is about Christianity in America, and the fear-filled turn it is taking in some quarters (see for instance this link):
http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/26/us/refugee-crisis-in-syria-raises-fears-in-south-carolina.html?ref=todayspaper

Here is an excerpt from the closing section of Marilynne Robinson's piece:
I take very seriously Jesus' teachings, in this case his saying that those who live by the sword will also die by the sword....Death is no simple thing when Jesus speaks of it. His thoughts are not our thoughts, the limits of our perceptions are not limits he shares. We must imagine him seeing the whole of our existence, our being beyond mortality, beyond time. There is that other death he can foresee, the one that really matters. When Christians abandon Christian standards of behavior in the defense of Christianity, when Americans abandon American standards of conduct in the name of America, they inflict harm that would not be in the power of any enemy. As Christians they risk the kind of harm to themselves to which the Bible applies adjectives like "everlasting."
I think this is the first time I have ever urged my readers to read a specific essay. It's short, only two pages. You will probably have to pay to read it, but it's worth it. Here is the link:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/sep/24/marilynne-robinson-fear/





Saturday, September 19, 2015

The migrant crisis and Christian identity

"Listen also to the immigrant who isn't from your people Israel but who comes from a distant country because of your reputation--because they hear of your great reputation, your great power, and your outstretched arm. When the immigrant comes and prays toward this temple, then listen from heaven, where you live, and do everything that the immigrant asks. Do this so that all the people of the earth may know your reputation and revere you, as your people Israel do...." (I Kings 8:41-43, CEB)
Every Christian who thinks seriously about his or her identity will acknowledge that the most serious historical charge ever to be brought against Christian civilization, insofar as there can be such a thing, was the utter failure of Christian Europe to protect the Jews. There is simply nothing to be said in defense, explanation, or excuse. The silence, the cooperation, the collaboration of the great majority of baptized and self-identified Christians as the Nazis caused millions of people--and not only Jews--to disappear into an indescribably terrible destiny is beyond excuse and beyond explanation. Moreover, serious study of the Nazi period teaches us that such a thing can happen again--and not only to Jews.

The current phenomenon of desperate migrants risking their lives to gain access to Europe--with its vaunted values--continues to be described as the greatest movement of peoples since World War II.  And yet there does not seem to be much in the way of voices from the churches. The Pope has said a few things (though his principal emphasis seems to be on the poor in general), and the Archbishop of Canterbury has issued a very strong statement, but in general, as far as I can tell, there has not been any great outpouring of voices from churches in either Europe or North America. Lech Walesa, as a lone individual, has shown his own Catholic faith by standing against the prevailing anti-migrant policies of the present government in Poland, offering to take a few migrants into his own home, and there have been a few others in Hungary and other Eastern European countries who have spoken out, but on the whole there has been a good more deal talk about "Christian Europe" defending itself against Muslim hordes.

I have been attending different churches and I don't hear many impassioned, intentional prayers asking God's guidance as to how we can help. I have gotten a grand total of one email, from Samaritan's Purse, asking me for financial help for the migrants--whereas when there are "plagues, pestilences, and famines," not to mention earthquakes, fires, and floods, I am deluged with online pleas for aid. According to yesterday's New York Times, a group of 20+ senior government officials have written a letter to the White House urging the acceptance of 100,000 Syrian refugees instead of the paltry 10,000 that Obama initially offered, and an allocation of up to $2 additional billion in aid for resettlement. Are our churches bombarding our government with such letters?

The complexity of the problem is so great that it is almost impossible to imagine how any concerted effort can be made in the EU. The nations of the former Yugoslavia are so poor and so unstable, so ill equipped to deal with the onslaught, that we cannot expect much from them. What really hurts is the voices--often from Eastern European officials--saying that "Christian" nations should not take in Muslim refugees. How does this posture recommend the faith of Jesus Christ to anyone but reactionaries and extremists?

All of us are frightened about radicalized young jihadists among us. There is no point in being starry-eyed about the risks and dangers of life in the age of globalized terror. We have learned plenty about the inadequacy of our screening methods and the weak points in our intelligence services. We should not be naïve or simplistic about the difficulties. But maintaining silence, or treating this humanitarian crisis as yet one more difficulty that will pass, is surely equivalent to pounding one more nail in the coffin of "Christian civilization."

I can't believe that Americans are not still able to embrace these words:
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
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PS. The day after I wrote this, I attended a church where a member announced that she had given up her idea of going to Washington to see the Pope so that she could send the money she would have spent on the trip to the relief of the migrants. May there be more such!


Friday, September 18, 2015

Sir David Willcocks 1919-2015

A great many people who have never heard of David Willcocks are nevertheless familiar with his arrangements of Christmas carols, now heard around the world. Rarely today is "Adeste Fideles" heard, at least in the better recordings, without the "Willcocks chord" on the first syllable of the word "faithful" and the descant that goes along with it. It was he who brought the King's College Chapel choir to worldwide attention, and it was his stewardship that elevated the Christmas Eve Festival of Lessons and Carols in the Chapel to become a beloved tradition. The tributes are presently speeding around the globe. His passing is an occasion for praise and thanksgiving to God by those who have rejoiced greatly to hear the outpourings of his superb musicianship in the service of the Church.

His life, including his notable service in World War II, was remarkable in itself. Here are two obituaries among many (the second one is best):

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/sir-david-willcocks-charismatic-conductor-and-organist-who-raised-choral-standards-round-the-world-to-new-levels-of-excellence-10506561.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11872141/Sir-David-Willcocks-choirmaster-obituary.html





Wednesday, September 16, 2015

What's Wrong With Spirituality? Part 3: Spirituality and Gnosticism

Gnosticism is the major rival of Christianity and always has been, all the way back to the Corinthian congregation founded by St. Paul. The letters of John show clear evidence of anti-gnostic polemic ("Beloved, do not believe every spirit"--I Jn. 4:1). Gnosticism is notoriously difficult to define because it has so many shapes. Gnostic ideas are present in all religions (excluding authentic apostolic Christianity), and in non-religious proposals as well (see my first Rumination about Sam Harris' gnostic alternative to religion), so it isn't easy to point to what is specifically gnostic about so many different points of view. However, an approach can be made by focusing on the word gnostic which, in Greek, means "knowledge." In I Corinthians, Paul is writing to correct the gnosticism in that congregation. "Knowledge (gnosis) puffs up, but love (agape)  builds up" (I Cor. 8:1). "If I have all gnosis...but have not agape, I am nothing." The central idea in gnosticism is esoteric knowledge (gnosis) that people can acquire by means of spiritual practices (a familiar enthusiasm in church circles these days), or by the exercise of the more spectacular spiritual gifts in an exclusive atmosphere (as in Corinth and some "charismatic" and pentecostal congregations today). Paul also refers in the same way, somewhat sarcastically, to "wisdom" (sophia) when he writes to the Corinthians, because he is rebuking the members of that congregation for their deep divisions. Those conflicts were causing the pneumatikoi (spiritual persons) to distinguish themselves from the "foolish." Give me foolishness over wisdom any day, Paul testifies, because "God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise...so that no human being might boast in the presence of God"  (I Cor. 1:27, 29) First on the list of that which is foolish and shameful is the cross of Christ (I Cor. 1:23-4), which finds no place in gnosticism.

This problem of gnostic spirituality manifests itself in different ways. For example, in some church circles, those who are able to follow a disciplinary rule, whether it be the conservative-evangelical "Quiet Time" or the Rule of St. Benedict, can easily be subtly (or not so subtly) seduced into thinking themselves spiritually superior, or allowing themselves to be admired or envied as spiritually superior. This leads to some people saying ruefully, or believing privately, that they are not as far along in their spiritual journeys as others are. I have often heard and seen this effect in groups. And in a quite different context, I was once dis-invited to preach in a charismatic congregation because I was deemed to be insufficiently Spirit-filled.

In many Episcopal churches, walking around a labyrinth is encouraged as a superior way of being spiritual, I tried walking around a labyrinth once, earnestly attempting to see what others saw in it. I got very bored in about three minutes and, I'm afraid, quit. Some would say that was proof positive that my spirituality is sadly lacking (true, no doubt). More and more labyrinths are appearing in more and more churches, in spite of the fact that only a few will be interested (gnosticism tends to major in the few). There is nothing whatever in scripture about such a thing, and very little in Christian tradition.

A review (NYRB 6/24/2004) of a book about labyrinths reports this:
Kern’s book includes pictures of labyrinths from throughout the world: temple reliefs from India, Native American petroglyphs, stamped gold rings from Indonesia. Stamped on coins from Knossos is the stylized maze that glared at us for years from the cover of the journal Daedalus; it was the great inventor Daedalus, of course, who built the primal labyrinth of the Minotaur for Pasiphaë, as well as a “dancing floor” for her daughter Ariadne. An Etruscan wine jug shows Theseus emerging from the first, and a sixth-century Greek vase shows him presiding over the second. At the center of the labyrinths we see the Minotaur being slain by Theseus, or when Christianity has taken hold of the myth, the Devil slain again and again by the Christian Warrior in full armor.  . 
This is actually pretty funny, since current attempts to Christianize this clearly pre- or extra-Christian symbolic path most certainly do not mention either the Devil or the Christian Warrior! (Strictly speaking, labyrinths are not mazes, which are much more interesting to some of us.) No one is really sure what the once-ignored, now-famous labyrinth in the floor at Chartres was all about. Some think it was a dance pattern. In any case, it cannot by any stretch of the imagination be construed as having anything to do with the Christian gospel. At best it is a meditation technique.  Biblical faith is not about silent meditation without content. It arises out of the Word, and specifically the "Word of the cross" (I Cor.1:18). One of the most important aspects of gnosticism for Christians to consider is its tendency to ignore, downplay, or spiritualize the cross of Christ. The so-called Gnostic Gospels have no passion narratives, which in itself disqualifies them.

I have given some thought to the matter of monastic discipline. Like many others I am a great admirer of Christian de Chergé, the Cistercian prior who, along with six of his fellow monks, was martyred in Algeria in 1996 (the story is beautifully told in the celebrated film Of Gods and Men, but much more thoroughly in the book The Monks of Tibhirine ). When a group of people decide to live in community by the rhythm of Christian prayer, worship, Scripture, and hospitality, whether they are Catholic like the monks of Tibhirine or Protestant like the members of the Bruderhof (with whom I have a respectful relationship), that seems to me different from the sort of spirituality that is being recommended today in the churches at large. If a person within the church seeks to join in regular prayer in solidarity with such an intentional group, that seems to me quite different from the sort of generic spirituality that divides Christians from one another and results in far too much emphasis on individual spiritual progress. The "word of the Cross" is not absent from monastic communities as it is in gnosticism.

Spirituality that is vague, individualistic, unbiblical, syncretistic, focused on the self and its supposed progress, is damaging to the life of the Christian community. Gnosticism feeds on the image of a staircase or journey with its corresponding idea of ascending or attaining a goal. It's true that Paul refers to attaining a goal in Philippians 3:12-14, but this passage is controlled by vs. 12 with its very strong emphasis on the precedence of what Christ has already accomplished in us.

The very idea of a spiritual dimension should make us wary, if we are readers of Scripture. How unspiritual so much of the Bible is! I once heard a theologian say that he didn't want to be asked about his spiritual life, but about his life. To me, this was a freeing statement. I have received a great deal of counsel, correction, guidance, advice, and direction during the course of my life, and it has all been an incomparable blessing from God. Why I should require a spiritual director is beyond me.

This is the third of three installments on the subject of spirituality. That's all I'm going to write on that subject for the present. What I'm focusing on right now is the migrant crisis and the lack of a significant response from the churches, both in Europe and on this continent.

==================================
A final wink-wink re spirituality, from my forthcoming book The Crucifixion:
The main character in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins says, “Beware of Episcopal women who take up with Ayn Rand and the Buddha and Dr. Rhine formerly of Duke University [the parapsychologist]. . . They fall prey to Gnostic pride . . . and develop a yearning for esoteric doctrine.” Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 94.


Monday, September 07, 2015

What's wrong with spirituality? part two

Yesterday's blog about spirituality (look back in Ruminations) immediately received a surprising number of hits. So here we go again.

Today's New York Times reports this, in the Arts section, from the esteemed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (I am a ballet lover, so my eye picked this up):
Standing alone in the Rothko Chapel in Houston when I was 22, I finally understood that abstract painting could be an emotional, even spiritual, experience. As the sun shifted in and out from behind the clouds over the deep blackened purples and grays of the paintings, a great sense of calm flooded my hyperactive 20-something mind. The colors seemed like portals to another realm.
OK, I can certainly connect with that. Let's get this on the table right away: people do have such experiences, and they are often memorable. I remember Paul Lehmann agreeing with someone who said that they enjoyed the young artists in their congregation. Yes, he said, artists can have a sense of "another dimension." Sensitive, artistic souls can sense "portals to another realm." Mozart's Magic Flute and a good many passages from Wagner's Ring cycle, to mention just two of endless available examples, have certainly given me intimations along those lines.

But what sort of dimension are we talking about? What sort of realm? Interesting word, that, since "realm"--unlike "dimension"-- suggests a dominion, over which presides a Power of some sort. Dare we call it a "kingdom"? And what is our relationship to such a realm? and is it automatically ours for the taking because we have had an experience of it? Wheeldon's upgrading of "emotional" to "spiritual" certainly gives the impression that he wants to say something important, even something objective. But how does one person's subjective spiritual experience translate into an objective, universal truth that can be shared as the basis of a community, let alone a community in which there are no distinctions (as in Romans 3:22, and yesterday's Sunday reading from James 2:1ff)? One of the most striking features of the Christian community as it is evoked in the New Testament is that in it, all distinctions are erased. Such a community is, it should go without saying, an eschatological reality, in the sense that such a community in all its fulness exists in God's future, not in "this present evil age" (Galatians 1:3); however, it is God's promise of such a future that enables Christians to behave without discrimination in the way that James depicts: "My brothers and sisters, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, do not show favoritism" (2:1).  So the point here is that spirituality in its various forms is too free-floating to be Christian truth. These forms are, for the most part, unanchored in anything this-worldly.

Moreover, spiritual experiences are individual experiences. No one can share another's religious experience. It's true that many people are moved by Rothko's black paintings, but not all in the same way, and many other people look at them and feel nothing at all. When I was 13 I attended a performance of Handel's Messiah in my home town. It was the first time I had ever heard it. I was completely overwhelmed (maybe that was a "religious experience") and could not speak for quite a while after. It was a great shock to me to learn that my friends, who also attended, were completely unmoved.

A recent copy of Christianity Today contains a review of a new book by Richard Foster's son Nathan. Foster pere's famous book, Celebration of Discipline (1978)  has sold zillions of copies and was a very hot ticket when I was new in ministry. I dutifully read it when it came out, or rather, I tried to read it, but it left me cold. The son's book is called The Making of an Ordinary Saint, and it tells of Nathan Foster's serious rededication, during a personal crisis, to the spiritual disciplines his father recommended. The review is very respectful, but critical. It's critical on the basis of the solitary nature of the author's journey, its lack of contact with Christian fellowship. The reviewer laments the drift toward individual, unshareable religious experience.

Speaking of journeys: a long time ago, at General Theological Seminary, I took a course in spiritual journeying. We read a lot of the mystics. We also read The Pilgrim's Progress. The difference between John Bunyan's book and all the others was so great that I couldn't see any link between them, except that everybody in Pilgrim's Progress was on a journey--but they were on it along with other members of the Christian community in close physical proximity, supporting one another every step of the way. Moreover, there are substantive references from Scripture on every page. In the class, we were asked to do a lot of vague meditating. I would immediately fall asleep. We were also asked to try to learn to say the "Jesus prayer," in and out, as automatic as breathing (I forgot to say yesterday that "Pray without ceasing" [I Thessalonians 5:17, also translated "unceasingly," "continually," or "constantly"] has also been invoked in the context of spiritual disciplines. Most, however, have not read Paul's injunction so literally.)  In any case, I was a flop at all of this. (Sam Harris was right: meditation doesn't work for everybody. Maybe I should get some LSD. See yesterday's blog post.)

I have seen how an emphasis on spirituality can cause division. It was very common in the mid-sixties, when a "charismatic movement" exploded in the mainline churches. Many congregations split because some had the feeling that others looked down on them as insufficiently spiritual. I have seen this happening much more recently, for instance in small groups where some members are constantly referring to their spiritual practices and their spiritual directors in ways that make the other participants feel like very poor excuses for Christians. This is precisely what was happening in the Corinthian church to which Paul wrote so passionately. Some "super-spiritual" teachers had come into the congregation and were leading its members into a false gospel of spiritual hierarchy (reread I Cor. 12-13 in this light). Paul's concern is to show what is truly of the Holy Spirit and what is not. Over against the self-styled pneumatikoi,(spiritual persons) and huperlian apostolon (super-apostles) who were apparently mesmerizing the Corinthian Christians, Paul sets "the word of the cross." That is the test of spirituality, and indeed of all religion. We should be wary of any spiritual teaching in the church that is not grounded in the teaching of "Jesus Christ and him crucified" (I Cor. 2:2).

A glance through some of the Internet sites concerning Mark Rothko yields some suggestive material. Dominique de Menil, the celebrated art patron who, with her husband, sponsored and paid for the Rothko chapel, said at the dedication, "we are cluttered with images, and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine." To which the Christian must respond that "the divine" is too vague a way to refer to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moreover, no work of art, whether abstract or not, and no image, not even a crucifix, can tell us of the scandalous historical particularity of a crucified Messiah unless it is preceded or accompanied by words. An image of the Crucifixion is without meaning to a person who does not know The Story. The central significance of Christ's horrific death can only be communicated in words--hence the central place of the Word in Biblical faith.

I read that Mark Rothko was deeply moved by Fra Angelico's frescoes in San Marco, but apparently saw only"the concentration on light" and the "spirituality"; typically for viewers of art in our time, the impact of Angelico's actual images of Christ was nil. Yet, interestingly, Rothko himself--a Russian-born Jew--is quoted as saying, "I insist upon the equal existence of the world engendered in the mind and the world engendered by God outside of it." I have no idea what Rothko meant by "God," but the statement about God engendering the world from outside the world is very close to what classical Christian doctrine says about God and the Creation. That is an insight that can be mined.

In any case, the energy and imagination that's being expended by the mainline churches in trying to foster spirituality, with little to show for it in actual commitment to actual Christian communities, would be far better directed to finding fresh ways of communicating the evangel of Jesus Christ and him crucified to those who are wandering about in vague spirituality. That "realm" that is sometimes sensed from beyond ourselves is not simply a feeling of "self-transcendence," however moving and memorable such experiences can be. That realm, that dominion, is the Kingdom of God, where justice and mercy begin and end in the Lordship of Christ over the entire kosmos.

In recent years, I have met many young Christian scholars, preachers, and leaders whose convictions about these central doctrinal affirmations gives me great hope for the future.

This is the second of three posts on spirituality in Ruminations.

(The quotation from Rothko is in a book about his work by Jacob Baal-Teshuva.)

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Speaking of generic spirituality, a few days after writing this, I came upon a quotation from an op-ed piece by Lt. Gen. (ret.) Gregory Newbold of the Marine Corps, who opposes women in front-line combat. He writes, "The characteristics that produce uncommon valor...are derived from the mysterious chemistry that forms in an infantry unit that revels in the most crude and profane existence so that they may be more effective killers than their foe." Having read quite a lot of war literature, I do not doubt that this is true. Then he goes on to ask how introducing women into this mysterious chemistry "will not degrade the nearly spiritual glue that enables the infantry to ... endure the unendurable" (emphasis added). This is a very important use of the word "spiritual" which, I think, will resonate with many combat veterans, not a few of whom testify that they spend the rest of their lives missing the bonds that they formed in warfare. The point here is that the concept of "spirituality" can be used to support virtually any kind of human endeavor without any reference whatever to the Christian gospel, and indeed antithetical to it.
(Quotation from "Gender Integration of Marines Brings Out Unusually Public Discord," The New York Times, 9/19/15.








Saturday, September 05, 2015

What's wrong with "spirituality"?


This morning on NPR, there was a long interview with one of our reigning atheists, Sam Harris, who is now set to become the leader of the burgeoning "I'm spiritual but not religious" crowd. He's written a new book called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. It was certainly interesting to hear him talk about this subject. He identifies spirituality as "self-transcendence" and he obviously believes this to be a primary goal in life. He believes that such experiences can be induced in certain ways, by various techniques (more about that in a minute).

For a long time now, I have been worried about the incursion of this thing called "spirituality" into Christian circles.  I don't think most people realize how new this conception is. I never even heard the word until the 70s. Social action dominated the scene in the mainline churches in the late 60s, and to some extent that emphasis survives (after all, there is considerable biblical and theological support for it), but it has largely been put in the shade by "spirituality." (I will now stop putting that word in quotation marks in this blog, though it remains in quotation marks in my head because it is so unsupported by the Bible, and so dubiously situated in the great tradition of the church.)

I first noticed this word in the mid-80s when a friend wrote me a lovely letter of support during a family crisis. I still have it, because it was truly heartwarming. There was just one thing that bothered me: she wrote, "You will be upheld by your spirituality." Whereupon I asked myself, what spirituality? God help me if that is the case. I decided that she must mean my faith. But I will not be upheld by my faith either, full of doubts and questions as it is. If I am to be upheld at all, I will be upheld by God. And by that I mean the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So there is a strong note of Pelagianism in the whole concept of spirituality. It is defined as something we can cultivate, something we can rely on. There is a sense that we have this inner core of spirit that we can gain access to, that we can develop, that we can trust if only we can uncover it through various disciplines and practices. But there isn't a tinge of anything like this in the entire biblical story. The best that anyone has been able to come up with in that regard is to focus on one single saying of Jesus, in only one Gospel, mistranslated "The Kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 10:10). It is pretty generally agreed by New Testament theologians that the proper translation of this one-off saying is something like "the Kingdom of God is at hand" or "has come near." The idea of a Kingdom of God "within you" is completely alien to the biblical world-view.

Do we hear any of the apostles or evangelists talking about how we should be cultivating our spirituality? about how we should learn to have experiences of self-transcendence? I don't see anything like this in the Scriptures. It is true that Jesus went out in the desert for forty days to wrestle with his Messianic identity, and later withdrew into lonely places to do the same, but there isn't anything in the Epistles about his followers doing that (the Desert Fathers didn't come along until a few centuries later). It is remarkable how little the apostle Paul talks about anything like what later became known as "spiritual disciplines." Paul never recommends going on silent retreats, or keeping a spiritual journal, or meditating, or contemplating. I am very thankful that he does not, because when I have tried these, I have been a total failure at them.

Interestingly, Sam Harris admitted in the interview that meditation does not work for everyone. Amen to that! So what does he recommend, with a straight face? Psychedelic drugs! They work for everyone, he declares. Although one cannot be sure what sort of trip one will have, there will definitely be a self-transcending trip. Apparently he is quite serious about this. The emphasis is on religious experience. No, amend that--spiritual experience.

I don't mean to sound overly sarcastic here. It's an important and serious issue. Is "religious/spiritual experience" (or self-transcending experience, let us say) at the center of the Christian story? This question cuts across parties in the church, because the so-called "born-again" experience is a requirement in some groups of Christians. I have often been asked to speak about my religious experiences, and I have always responded honestly by saying that I have never had any. Not in the sense that was intended in the question, anyway. I guess I would say that my baptism was a spiritual experience in precisely this essential sense: that in my baptism (aged about six weeks), I was received into Christ's Body and sealed by the power of the Holy Spirit.  There is something objective about that, as also with the Lord's Supper, that transcends the subjectivity of personal experience, however "self-transcending" such experiences may seem to be.

(The second and third installments in this series are also posted in Ruminations.)