Monday, June 09, 2008

I May be a Heretic, but at least I’m Not a Pagan

Why Labels are Dangerous and Ignorant

“How can you call yourself a Christian?” Dan said, shaking his head.

We were standing outside my favourite pool hall. I was puffing on vanilla flavoured cigarillo and taking judicious sips from my beer. He wasn’t being harsh or judgmental, I knew that, but it didn’t help me answer the question. I could have given him the basic line about accepting and believing the whole creed of Orthodoxy, about Jesus and the Trinity and the Virgin Birth, but that wasn’t what he was talking about anyway.

He pointed at my beer.

“Christians don’t drink, Steve. Or smoke. And when was the last time you even went to church?”
Despite my longing to mention C.S. Lewis or any number of Christian writers who would argue otherwise, I merely grinned in response.

“I’m voted off the island, then?”

Dan snorted, took a much longer swig from his own beer, and let out a giant belch.

“In my church, the one I grew up in, you’d be, like, a heretic.”

“Guess I’ll scratch that one off my list.”

I took another sip from my beer, enjoying the sweet vanilla scent of the cigar. My marriage had ended less than a year ago, and I’d moved to a basement apartment with my cats about two blocks away. I was working in a group home to (barely) pay the bills. I spent as much time as I could here at Masconi’s. It wasn’t that I’d given up on God exactly, more like I’d given up on the thing called Christianity – at least parts of it.

The truth is that my faith – this idea of who Jesus was and what He said – never lived up to the black and white ideals or the assumptions and arrogance that seemed flow out of the religious structure in which I held a platinum membership. Still, I missed it. I missed church. I missed Christians. I missed talking about Jesus and the encouragement to live as he did. What I didn’t miss was the sterility and authoritarian morality structure that inevitably lapsed into condescension, blame, and gossip.

Sometimes I would be teetering home after a ‘long night at the office’ and it would be hours before I could sleep, idly petting my cats or staring into the night sky from my lone window, wondering why God had left. Hadn’t I done things the way He wanted? I wasn’t sure what I believed anymore, which led even my completely irreligious friends to scoff when I told them I was a Christian. (Ironically, some of the staunchest defenders of fundamentalism are those who "don't practice" their faith anymore. They only recognize one (skewered?) form of Christianity, the rigid, pious stuff of their childhood. This is why, of course, they don't practice their faith. Go figure.) What I did know, however, was that the Jesus Sub-Culture had not and did not work for me.

Ten years have passed since those days.

It still doesn’t work for me.

In purely historical terms, when it comes to Orthodox Christianity, I am a heretic. I am not sure about hell (I more likely accept the idea of annihilation) although I believe in heaven. I am not sure where I stand on homosexuality. (Is it is sin? Is it acceptable?) When it comes to the Trinity, I think it’s a good idea – and a brilliant attempt to explain the Nature of God – but I see it as unnecessary adage to following Jesus of Nazareth. In my conservative Seminary, I have been called a heretic. (both inside and outside the school) What does this mean? Does it matter?
Well, if I lived at another time it would. John Calvin had no qualms about executing heretics, and he had the power to do it.
As a pastor, I was always careful in what I said, lest it be misinterpreted. Conservative Christian leaders do not encourage their followers to think for themselves. They encourage them to follow the company line, even if it isn’t understood. (Most Christians do not even know, let alone understand, the Nicene Creed, the generally accepted creed of orthodoxy, and what it means) Instead, we assert people who think outside the box to be heretics, where they are isolated so their “dangerous ideas” will not be spread further. Ideas like saying the words “I don’t know” without adding a “but” on the end of it.

No, we in the church soundly reject the proposals of the heretics. And in the process become pagans.

Here are few examples.

We “go to church.” This is not a Christian idea. It is a remnant of Greco-Roman paganism. For early Christians, the people – not the architecture – constituted a sacred space. Clement of Alexandria was the first to use the phrase. (Around 190 A.D.) This eventually led to the construction of cathedrals and the idea of "sacred space". It is nearly impossible to walk into a cathedral and not be impressed with the power of space. We do that now, as well, with our idea of modern “worship”. A good worship leader is seen as someone who uses music to create the same 'sacred' space – something that has the same effect of a properly built basilica.

Christians also picked up the idea reverencing the dead in the second and third centuries. The Christian dirge and funeral come straight from pagan tradition. Christians also venerated the bones of saints and martyrs. The crucifix made its first appearance about the fifth century. In AD 321, Constantine decreed that Sunday would be a day of rest – a legal holiday. Constantine was also the first to name church buildings after saints the way pagans named their buildings after their gods.

And what of our order of service?

1. the greeting – as you enter the building, you are greeted by an usher or appointed greeter (who should be smiling!)
2. prayer or scripture reading – usually given by the pastor or song leader
3. song service – led by a professional song leader or choir or worship team
4. the announcements – news about upcoming events, usually given by the pastor or another leader
5. the offering – sometimes called the “offertory”, usually accompanied by special music
6. the sermon – the pastor delivers an oration lasting twenty to forty-five minutes
7. altar call, Lord’s Supper, prayer for the sick, etc…
8. the benediction – blassing or prayer from pastor or song to end the service

This is the unbroken liturgy of 345 million Protestants across the globe from week to week. For the last five hundred years, few people have questioned it. But the Protestant order of worship has nothing to do with the Bible. It has its basic roots in the medieval Catholic mass. Important to understand here that the Mass did not originate with the New Testament, but grew out of ancient Judaism and paganism. However, the Catholic mass is actually based partly on the Judaic Temple service, partly on Greek mystery, vicarious sacrifice, and participation. (Will Durant)

I could go on and on. My point is not that we must change the order of service to sever the ties between the church and paganism, but that when we condemn people for thinking “outside the box” we fail to realize just how much crap we accept within our own box. Humility is the only certainty when we come close to God, along with some other noted traits you may recognize such as love, hope, gentleness, and patience. But when we exude doctrinal certainty we fail to accept the limited nature of our own understanding. That is, we fail to accept our own humanity. And when we do that, we become guilty of the most dangerous heresy – and the most pagan idea – of them all: that we are like God.

Of all that people proclaim and reject within the church, the only idea which I wholeheartedly distinguish as both silly and dangerous is the divinity of humankind. (Please, just look at our history. If we are god, we really, really suck at it.) The idea of divinity leads only to arrogance, which leads to hegemony, which leads to... well, a whole pile of "dung." (to quote the Apostle Paul).

The ancient Hebrews would have agreed with this. They used a word “Kadosh” when referencing God. It means “other.” God is completely “other.” He is not attainable nor divisible. And you know, that gives me hope, for as much as I long to follow Jesus and live like Him, I know that Someone completely Other walked in my shoes and is around to help me.
This week, my prayer is that you would take a closer look at what you believe, and what you condemn. We are quick to call people names and hand out labels. Heretic. Pagan. Christian. But what does it mean? Do we use those titles to reassure ourselves that we are right? Have we become so arrogant as to believe that we have it all figured out?

It is possible to live with conviction and without certainty. By its very definition, relationship with God implies nuance and dynamics and humility. For in the moment we believe we have it all figured out, we have stepped beyond what Jesus taught, and accepted something far worse.