The Emergent Jesus Way (Part 1): Rising Above The Canopy

Thursday, January 31, 2013

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The rainforest consists of several layers. The ground layer soil is poor and any nutrients are quickly recycled. The next layer is made up of shrubs and plants which can tolerate low light levels. The lush undercanopy consists of smaller trees which compete for the light and space. The canopy is a continuous layer of tall trees. Occasionally trees push through the canopy to become emergents. (Excerpted from BBC's Learning Zone: Rainforest Structure)

The landscape of Christianity is changing, and with it a remarkable transformation in the ecology of faith. As the centuries have moved forward, knowledge and understanding have evolved, and today many who are committed to their faith can no longer accept old theological notions, belief systems, and ecclesial structures that have long formed the vast canopy that is the rainforest of Christianity. And some among those many committed faithful are rising above the canopy. They are emergents, boldly elevating their reach so as to receive the fullness of the sunlight that has long been obstructed beneath the rigid legion of trees that have populated the canopy for ages.

Emergence is accompanied by many critical questions: What does it really mean to be a Christian? What is the point of being one? Who was Jesus? Is what the Bible says about him literally true? Is the Bible the "word of God"? What/who is God? What is faith? What is the standard of faith? Who decides all this? How do we know?

To be an emergent is to demand authenticity. To be an emergent is to challenge popularly accepted doctrine and institutionally imposed dogma. To be an emergent is to want to understand fully rather than just accept blindly. To be an emergent is to break down walls and bust through barriers.

As I begin this series on The Emergent Jesus Way, I offer this inspiring imagery from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute:

[E]mergent trees ... bear the full brunt of all extremes of weather. Winds toss and churn them. The tropical sun beats down on them, drying them out. Rainstorms pummel them. Up here, temperatures drop from hot noons to cool nights, and rise again. To thrive above the canopy, plants and animals must be adapted to a bright, open, changeable world. Between rainstorms, the climate here is often dry because of the bright sun and strong winds. Emergent trees cope with this dryness by producing tough little leaves whose small surface area and waxy coating keep evaporation to a minimum. These emergent trees also use to full advantage the resources that these heights offer. They make the most of the open space that surrounds them by spreading their foliage out wide so their leaves catch as much sunlight as possible. They make use of the wind to disperse their pollen and seeds. Many emergent trees produce seeds with wings, so the wind can carry them away from the ground directly below, where they would be competing with the parent tree for food and water. (emphases mine)

YOU'VE HEARD THAT IT WAS SAID . . .

Most traditional Christians will tell you that in order to be a Christian you must believe in three essential things: 1) that Jesus was God, 2) that he descended from heaven, became human, and suffered execution on the cross two thousand years ago for the sins of humankind, and 3) that he rose from the dead two days later (died on a Friday, was resurrected on a Sunday) thereby defeating death and sealing the promise of eternal life to those who believe and accept Jesus as Savior. This story of salvation is often referred to as the Gospel, or the Good News, and is drawn from the Bible, which most Christians behold as the "word of God" and therefore the ultimate universal authority and standard of faith (Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians would say that "Holy Tradition" is the standard, which includes the Bible as the foundation but also includes the post-apostolic interpretive insights of ancient Christian theologians).

I reject two things here: 1) that the Bible is the "word of God" and the standard of faith, and 2) that the atonement salvation story is the Gospel.

Regarding the Bible

I have said many times that the Bible is a good word from yesterday, but it is not God's voice today. While I accept the Bible as a sacred treasure, I do not consider it to be an authority, inspired or otherwise. And why should I? For those who insist on the divine authorship and authority of the Bible, I ask: Says who? And how do you know?

I'm always astounded at how few Christians ask those two critical questions, and instead just accept the claim simply because that's what's been fed to them from their earliest years by whatever church tradition educated them. And for those traditional Christians who cannot shake such programming, not only is any challenge to the claim annoying to them, but they consider it outright blasphemous.

Many Christians point to the Bible's own contents in an attempt to prove its divine inspiration. In particular, they point to prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures (commonly referred to as the "Old Testament") and show how they were "fulfilled" in the Christian Scriptures (i.e., the "New Testament"). Of course, this is ridiculous. Anyone with the slightest hint of critical thinking skills can understand that the New Testament writers, in attempting to legitimze the theology they were manufacturing, referenced prophetic passages from the Hebrew Scriptures and applied them to the stories they created. It takes no great leap of intellect to arrive at this conclusion.

But then comes my favorite question: "How do you know these stories aren't true? Can you prove them false? Can you prove the Bible isn't the word of God?"

The problem with that question is this: The burden of proof is always on the claimant. A claim does not become true just because someone cannot disprove it. This is what's known as argumentum ad ignorantiam. It is a completely false argument, one which attempts to remove the burden from the claimant, and therefore an invalid standard of evidence.

So if someone claims that the Bible is divinely inspired, universally authoritative, and true, it's up to them to prove it, rather than up to me to disprove it. Where they cannot substantiate their claim, I am under no obligation to accept it. And it is exactly because the claim has never been substantiated that I do not accept it.

Having said all that, I believe there are "diamonds" of truth that can be extracted from the soil of the Bible. (More on that later.)

Regarding the Gospel

WHEREAS Providence . . . has . . . adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus, [who is filled with virtue] for the benefit of humanity, [a Savior] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order . . . with the result that the birthday of our God signaled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him; . . . therefore . . . the Greeks in Asia decreed that the New Year begin for all the cities on September 23, which is the birthday of Augustus; and . . . the first month shall, in accordance with the decree, be observed as the Month of Caesar, beginning with 23 September, the birthday of Caesar.

Decree of calendar change made in the year 9 BCE, inscribed on marble stelae in temples dedicated to the Roman Empire and Augustus, its first emperor. (Source: "Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography," by John Dominic Crossan; 1994, Harper Collins)

Within a decade before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, Octavius Caesar, Rome's first emperor, was named Augustus and declared to be a god. It was proclaimed as good news -- Gospel -- that he was savior for the benefit of humanity who would end wars and bring peace on earth. His birthday was seen as the birth of salvation. Added to his name was the phrase Divi Filius, meaning "son of the divine." In September of 14 CE, one month after he died, the Roman Senate officially deified Augustus, making him divine. This happened when Jesus likely would have been around ten years old.

It was not an original idea in the first century that a man could be divine, and both God and savior. That Rome's first emperor was declared as such is highly significant as it was widely heralded throughout the empire. This fact cannot be ignored when considering that Christians toward the end of the first century created an almost identical salvation theology, thanks largely to the influence of Paul, the so-called apostle. Mix the political device of deifying a king (as Jesus was believed to be) with Hebrew atonement theology, and we now have a Jesus who is not just Lord, but King of Kings; not just divine, but God; the savior who, by his sacrifice, forgives the sins of the world.

The Good News of Augustus translates into the Good News of Jesus.

But this is not the Gospel.

According to the book called Mark, the first Gospel book known to have been written, the Gospel -- or good news -- was not about the atonement sacrifice, but was about the arrival of the kingdom of God:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news [gospel] of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news [gospel]." (Mark 1:14-15; NRSV)

The arrival of the kingdom as the gospel message is seen throughout Mark, as well as Matthew and Luke (with scant references in the book of John). Of great significance are references to the kingdom being established here (see Matthew 6:10), as well as the kingdom dwelling within us (see Luke 17:20-21). This kingdom message is not part of an atonement or salvation scenario, which I suspect is a later innovation inserted into the four Gospel books by Christians loyal to Paul's teachings. No, the Gospel is about the kingdom, which is an ethos of transformation within ourselves and with one another.

SUMMING UP: What is the Bible? What is the Gospel?

The Bible is a sacred collection of writings authored by men, expressing their unique God-experience as understood through the lens of their ancient Hebrew culture, religion, and history. It is a good word from yesterday, but it is not God's voice today. In its deep soil are diamonds of truth, but it is not the truth. As such, it should be beheld and revered as a treasure that informs faith, but not as an authority that commands faith.

As to the Gospel, it must be freed from the chains of myth and revisioned upon the foundation of The Greatest Commandment: Love God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind, and your whole strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. As I proposed in my recent article Revisioning the Gospel, the Good News is this: That by the conscious and mindful embrace of Love (and God is Love) we can transform our lives and thereby create Oneness within ourselves, with one another, and with our living world. And this Oneness is the "kingdom."

As in the rainforest, today's emergents who desire to rise above the canopy of traditional Christianity so as to receive the fullness of the sunlight of faith "must be adapted to a bright, open, changeable world." And as we reach upward in the challenge of engaging new thinking and new ways of living in The Emergent Jesus Way, we must "spread our foliage out wide" and "produce seeds with wings, so the wind can carry them" and plant them into eagerly awaiting new soil.

But what does Love look like? What is God? How do we share the Gospel and thereby create Oneness? And what is the standard for determining "truth"?

I will be discussing these subjects in the next article in this series.

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