Category ArchiveProgressive Faith Movement
In the past I have critiqued what I call institutional or “doctrinal” Christianity, that which seeks to control the movement of spirit and the forms of worship associated with the examples, teachings, deeds, and spiritual presence of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. I have shown how this oppresses the very people it is meant to redeem, and I have shown how it violates other religions and belief systems which may not assume any God whatsoever. I have shown how world-driven efforts to control the power of spiritual example leads inevitably to self-idolatry, the opposite of spiritual goodness and truth. Now it is incumbent upon me to appeal to inspiration to offer an affirmative alternative to the bigotry, abuse, violence, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and spiritual sickness that comes from self-idolizing attempts to enslave and control the image of the spirit.
I am not seeking to establish merely an individual belief system, but rather offer a possible communal spiritual practice. Therefore, I must clarify the difference between a worship community and “doctrinal” religious institutions. Worship communities (Christian and others), in the way I describe them, strive to democratically, spontaneously, creatively, and persistently express and support the movements of the spirit through worldly, social actions. Doctrinal religious institutions, on the other hand, appear to be dedicated to despotically stamping their particular notions of the spirit on the world.
As evidence, institutional Christianity, with its “church” and its doctrine, has developed politically-driven systems that assert themselves as “God’s plan.” Rather than the will of God, however, they are (in my belief) the historical articulation of laudable human desires to be near God, bent into twisted and idolatrous efforts to “be” God - replacing spiritual inspiration and uncertainty with worldly proclamations, conditions, and fundamentalisms. In many ways, looking at its philosophical and practical operation, this kind of Christian religiosity often proves itself profoundly anti-spiritual.
In matters of conscience (“Should we align ourselves with the persecuted Jews or tacitly support the Nazis?”), institutional Christian churches, for instance, have almost always chosen the worldly over the spiritual, siding with political power and expedience, as such churches did in Germany during WWII. There is an unfortunate but clear indicator of their character. The ostensible function of earthly religious authority is to serve the spirit in all matters and instances, and yet, when given the choice, that authority seems to always find some rationale to defer its immediate and urgent moral responsibility in order to “live to fight another day” by accommodating oppressive forces. It is no surprise, with these habits and taste for power, that churches themselves often become those oppressive forces.
I don’t have a sweeping solution to this conflict, except to say that a more universal, more humane, and more spiritually powerful form of Christianity (and other religions and schools of spiritual thought) must speak up. I do feel that the historical time may be right for such speech to be heard and translated into a powerful worldly force and creed. What might that look like? Well I’ve gathered some ideas and listed them intentionally as “commitments” not “commandments.” Both “commitments” and “commandments” are imperatives. They both rest on “shall”. However, commitments say, both “I shall” and “we shall” (think of marriage vows) while commandments say “you shall”.
In commandments the authority comes from an external demander. In commitments the authority comes from an internal voice. I think it is time we take spiritual responsibility and give to that “still small voice” inside us and that larger present connection between us their proper authority. It is time to decide that “I shall” and “we shall” choose for ourselves democratically what we might honor from the smallest and frailest to the biggest and most (seemingly) invulnerable.
I will attempt to state these commitments in a fashion that might be universally accessible, at times drawing out examples in the Christian tradition which is my home. This is meant to be embracing, an offering to my brothers and sisters of the world and a call to the larger religious institutions to open their arms and their hearts, reform their abuses, ask forgiveness, and rejoice.
Ten Spiritual Commitments
I and We shall be guided by the presence of spirit in all things. In so doing I and we shall channel and express the ineffable as familiar, as humble, as stillness, as interdependent being.
I and We shall love all unconditionally. In word, thought, and deed, I and we shall uphold equality and justice by loving neighbor, stranger, and enemy alike. I and we shall do so without judgment, but with discernment, that we may evoke life purpose, responsibility for suffering, and opportunity for joy.
I and We shall recognize the inherent goodness of God’s creation in essence and form. Diversity is therefore both the beautiful and necessary elaboration of spirit. Pluralism, embrace of diversity, is the law and the glad response to reality.
I and We shall not set the world against itself, nor heaven against earth. I and we shall renounce depravity (and its handmaidens authoritarianism and control) as the basis of human existence. I and we shall commit to healing all animosities between creatures of the world and between heaven and earth. Intolerance, vindictive or punitive conduct, and condemnation are blasphemies and forms of spiritual self-hatred, as we are connected to each other.
I and We shall not attempt to solely possess or claim God’s name, for I and we share that name with others. I and we serve God, not the other way around. God’s wisdom is available and accessible to all, and cannot be captured or held hostage to any ideology or doctrine.
I and We shall continually witness and confess our partiality, impermanence, limitation, and imperfection. Therefore no interpretation of sacred experience can be absolute. All human experience has context, historical and otherwise. Though we may strive to know the eternal, we ourselves are not eternal. I and we must accept with equanimity and gladness our mortality, our change, our growth, our learning, our transformation.
I and We shall not force our own image of God on others. Coercion is a serious and grievous spiritual sin. There is no faith without free choice, nor can authentic faith come from fear. Coercion prevents faith by replacing it with ideological “belief”. Persuaded belief serves not God but false prophets and human detractors.
I and We shall not seek salvation, nor any reward for belief, but rather turn ourselves toward grace and spiritual openness within which awareness, contemplation, and experience of God are properly rooted. Failing to recognize the presence of a loving God as its own good is to turn God into an instrument instead of an end, is to use God for our own desires.
I and We shall not worship our own individual or collective image of God or, in the Christian tradition, Jesus Christ. Understanding “What would Jesus do?” (or other respected divine teachers) is gained from studying in context and emulating in spirit and practice the movements of God and the presence, examples, teachings, and actions of that divine teacher. For instance, one cannot be a warmongering, money-loving bigot and claim to be a legitimate follower of Christ who was and is the Prince of Peace, the rebuker of the wealthy, and the champion of the marginalized and downtrodden.
I and We shall not pronounce another’s damnation before God. To do so is an acute insult to God and a blasphemous presumption of spiritual authority.
Past responses to my earlier blog essays on faith (http://www.waagnfnp.com/category/religion/progressive-faith-movement/) have made a secular case against institutional religion. Salman Rushdie in a recent Bill Moyers interview made an artistic and literary case against religious fundamentalism. My Jewish yoga teacher, Sandra, brings up the religious pluralist argument (in response to institutional Christianity in particular, which has seen fit to aggressively assert itself as the religion). Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have made the atheist argument with their respective books, The God Delusion and God Is Not Great (which are apparently the number one and two Amazon UK’s bestselling titles under “Religion and Spirituality” according to Harper’s Magazine, October 2007). Perhaps it is time to make a spiritual case against institutional Christianity from a non-institutional Christian mystic perspective.
First I must do so observing that Christianity as a form of faith is thoroughly conflicted, within its own widespread spiritual and religious body. The development of a fractured Christianity has emerged from powerful and fateful choices among various traditions within Christianity. One of the most powerful divergences was (and is) the cleaving between a “mystic” Christianity and a (let’s call it) “doctrinal” institutional Christianity.
Mystic Christianity emphasizes emulation of an historical Jesus, following of a sublime, eternal Christ, metaphorical understanding of Gospels, and the cultivated experience of spiritual truth embracing the totality of existence.
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Affirmative religious support for gay marriage is apparently extraordinarily novel even for educated citizens. This I learned when I engaged a 50-something lawyer from the San Francisco Bay Area over the issue on my flight outbound from Oakland to Boston to participate in a panel entitled: Gay Marriage: Moving from Tolerance to Affirmation. When I told him that I and other panelists, as part of the progressive faith movement, were presenting a Christian pro-gay marriage moral and religious case, his reply was “I didn’t know there could be such a thing.”
This got me to thinking both about the very real and unnecessary divide between religious and secular awareness and of the silence or tacit agreement of even mainstream religions as to the abuse of the civil rights of gay people.
Some political and legal headway has been made. The state of Massachusetts, for instance, has extended the right of gay marriage, yet theological and moral conviction in favor of gay marriage has been largely absent. This was to change in a small but mighty way as, for two hours, in February 2007 in front of a modest audience, six panelists attempted to join consciousness and conviction across ideological and belief traditions and confront Christian-in-name intolerance on its own terms.
Rev. Anne Fowler, from the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, talked about her work within and outside the church as a straight person to support the inclusion of gay people in the institution of marriage. Pam Werntz, a gay Episcopal mininster, related how her own marriage brought her into community with others in a way that she could not have imagined had she not been extended the right to marry. Justin Lee, the founder and executive director of gaychristian.net, an online gay evangelical Christian community, waxed practical about the need for religiously inclined gay citizens to have an ability to connect rather than be alienated from faith.
The other three panelists, Gina Farag, myself (Zeus Yiamouyiannis), and Otis Gaddis, III had coordinated a foundational and progressive moral and religious argument based upon certain observations and premises.
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It occurred to me from my last post, that I (and other commentators), were starting from differing cultural and philosophical premises. A short historical summary of these premises is in order.
First there is the older, conservative notion of a society organized around hierarchical hereditary or “divinely-appointed” leadership. Here a society’s individuals vest their wills in a collective guided or managed by charismatic supernaturally “chosen” authorities and transmitted through, for instance, monarchies and institutions like the Catholic Church. Tending toward autocratic rule by its very nature (and possibly theocracy if the autocrat is “speaking for God”) this notion responds to threats to survival and fears of change by replying, “If only you listen to me, I will lead you, I will protect you from physical harm, I will give you meaning.” An excellent example is the Grand Inquisitor narrative in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamozov.
No one in the WAAGNFNP conversation really seems to support this premise, though I think that some aspects of conservative and/or classical thought ought to be preserved and taken up—honor, tradition, antiquity, ritual, virtue, etc.—in order to acknowledge our accountability to our own history and those who have gone before. In this sense, I am part “old school” conservative. However, I realize the danger of the conservative premise is real. It is a surprisingly small and fatal set of steps that may lead one from speaking WITH God, to speaking FOR God, to finally simply believing one IS God, infallible, chosen, and superior to the humanity.
Second, there is the innovative liberal Enlightenment response.
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It has been an interesting spectator sport watching candidates communicate their faith “approaches” in the political arena. Hillary Clinton seems committed to operating upon faith as a kind of demographic variable to be diplomatically embraced with the help of advisers. John Edwards is fairly typical of the liberal politician: Faith is personal, almost wholly personal, an attribute of both a stout and moral leader and a caring Christian man. No atheism or animosity to religion here, whewww, and none of the nasty side effects of authoritarian, conservative pseudo-Christian warmongering. Edwards is religion in its unthreatening glory– personal, friendly, earnest, and (innocuously?) virtuous. We can all dedicate ourselves to the nobler unifying issues, like healing the economic rift between the “two Americas”.
I won’t discuss the Republican candidates because I find them so sanctimonious, monolithic, and calculating as to be boring and strangely agnostic in their presentations.
Barack Obama, I find to be the most interesting, because his engagement of the action side of faith (organizing communities and confronting the injustice of racism) has presented challenges to the gauzy images that many Americans have come to expect from their religiosity. Patrick DeTemple has already discussed from a ground’s-eye view much about the political side of Obama in a recent post, so I won’t spend too much time there, but Obama serves as an interesting case study of a larger dynamic playing itself out on the political stage, a different kind of “triangulation” in which faith plays a kind of litmus role:
- The negotiation of the dialectical materialist and Marxism-influenced past of the 1960’s, and its own tensions between “opiate of the masses” secularism and liberation theology.
- The desire for a “mainstream” present in which conflicts and hard choices can be fluffed into non-existence or packaged into comfortable simulacra (think of oddly new-age flavored televangelism).
- And the opportunity (and challenges) of a progressive future in which faith might act as a verb, helping us to engage, rather than run from the unknown, and having us come to terms with injustice in the service of a renewed spiritual vision which both embraces diversity and empirical truth and points beyond it.
I recommend the recent front page article in the New York Times on Obama to get a first hand look at this stormy love triangle. Obama was mentored by a scion of the 60’s, Jeremiah Wright, a pastor at Trinity Congregational in Chicago.
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For all those that would seek to impose religious doctrine on a nation,
a world, a people, I would simply counter as a person of faith, that
faith requires freedom of belief, and in this strong sense, separation
of church and state. No faith can come of imposition. Choice is
always a requirement of faith. Confronted with the unknown, I need my
brothers and sisters of different beliefs to inform my understanding
and my choices. I may find my roots in a religious tradition
(Christianity, in my case), but realize that my exercise of faith can
never come from authoritative attempts to determine who I am and what I
Furthermore, faith, faithfully exercised, is generous. It invites
contrary views, because it knows that truth, in any deepened form that
we may know it, requires our facets of experience to come together,
from our deepest present understanding, to form a more complete and
universal knowledge. Faith, as deep spiritual interest, requires a
similar honoring, an engagement, understanding, intuition, and
experience of mystery, not a battle of wills. For the will, for all its
great power, is still quite attached with the ego, the interlocutor,
not the advocate, of the spirit. To betray faith to the will, to
political will or other, to collapse church and state is to exalt the
world over the spirit and to betray faith rather than uphold it.
Much jeering has spewed forth in the current battle between the
“reality-based” community (largely secular acolytes of scientific
empiricism and Enlightenment tradition) and the so-called “faith-based”
community (a largely fundamentalist “we-create-reality-you-study-it”
I am a scientist by training, a philosopher by nature, and a person of
faith by choice. In my experience, reality emanates in large part
from faith. Our lives themselves are exercises of faith. The meaning
we construct, the purposes we pursue, the poetry we create cannot be
merely captured or inspired by cause-and-effect, mechanistic thinking.
Conversely no faith worth its name can call itself faith while
insisting on rejecting rationality. Though faith may acknowledge the
non-rational, something beyond the merely rational, it should be secure
enough to embrace what is in front of its face. Without this faithful
engagement with empirical reality, personal suffering and social
injustice could be ignored (or victims blamed), and the central and
ubiquitous religious tenets of human compassion and loving-kindness
would be rendered void.
Reductive scientism and irrational religionism fail because they seek
to impose rather than embrace. Faith requires embrace. Let us work
toward a church and a state that eschew all authoritarianism and
embrace the challenge of this faith called democracy.
By Frank L. Cocozzelli
“Give me their names!” Demanded Bill Donohue, honcho of the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights, when the artist Cosimo Cavallaro stated during a TV interview that two priests wanted to display his statue, Chocolate Jesus.
The confrontation took place during a recent edition of Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN. While Cavallaro remained dignified, Donohue was bombastic: “You’re lucky I’m not as mean [as the Taliban], because you might lose more than your head” he declared, displaying his usual Un-Christian scowl..
Donohue, if nothing else, is consistent, having once said, that bringing back the Inquisition “… is awfully tempting.”
But Cavallaro was wise to Donohue. He stood his ground — and refused to name names. He defended his right to express his beliefs according to his own conscience, free of coercion and called the Catholic League president the bully that he truly is.
It seems that Donohue and his Catholic League cannot handle the supposition that a Catholic artist would express his ideal of Jesus in a manner very different from his own. Why? Because Cavallaro had the nerve to cast Jesus in chocolate, crucified in the nude (as the Romans actually carried out such executions). Another Bill Donohue dust-up that is designed more to create anger and hatred for the freedom of expression rather than to further an ethic of self-discipline, charity and tolerance that signifies Catholicism at its finest, just as its Founder meant it to be. The self-styled Grand Inquisitor, once again, failing to see the forest for the trees.
“Give me their names. ”
These are chilling words that have echoed throughout history. It is the demand of agents of authoritarianism. Embedded within its use is the pernicious offer of “perhaps I’ll go easier on you if you give me someone more important for me to destroy.”
In our own recent American experience Senator Joe McCarthy demanded the same of witnesses who appeared before his Senate Committee on Government Operations that he chaired; as did members of the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). We know what happened to some of those whose names were given; blacklisting, bankruptcy, family break-up and even suicide. Names were demanded for the purpose of instilling fear and stifling dissent.
We can easily imagine what Bill Donohue would do with the names of those two priests. Being the bully that is, he would most likely give their names over to Church hierarchy-perhaps Cardinal Egan or even to my own faith’s version of HUAC, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in Rome. In case you didn’t know, the CDF’s former name was The Office of the Inquisition and was headed by the former Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
If Cavallaro had given the names of two priests, Donohue would have made their lives hell. After all, that is what bullies drunk on power do to others less powerful. Sadly, Donohue has more and more friends in the Vatican who think like him; men who will stifle anything that threatens their narrow interpretation of faith.
The truth is that their Catholicism lacks confidence. They fear new ideas and different forms of expression. And because of its own self-constricting nature, their Catholicism demands the need to control the freedom of thought that exists within the surrounding secular society. What the Catholic League and its ultra-orthodox Pharisees offer is not spiritual hope, but a faith of anxiety. It is an aspiration of the church and state as one acting as the gatekeeper to salvation but attained at the cost of both government and Catholicism defiled.
In order to carry out his increasingly theocratic agenda, Donohue cynically uses his faith as a prop to undermine liberalism. He abandons coolly reasoned discussion in favor a hysterically exaggerated accusations of anti-Catholicism; a technique designed to push the emotional buttons of faction-all while often ignoring real expressions of anti-Catholic bigotry of his fellow Religious Right provocateurs.
But as history has shown, the inflexible often become the victims of their own set ways. Such religion crumbles from its own inability to foster agreement and cooperation. Corruption is often hidden in the name of the image of sanctity. As we have witnessed, reasoned dissent naturally arises. Perhaps we will even soon see the Catholic will be the Joseph N. Welch to Donohue’s Joe McCarthy. Welsh, a hero of American democracy stood up to McCarthy–who was also demanding names– saying in the infamous Senate Army-McCarthy hearings:
“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
We now have the example of an artist standing-up to the bully on national television. I hope it will give others the nerve to do the same.
Oh, and if Donohue fails to get Cosimo Cavallaro to give up the names of the priests who wanted to display his Chocolate Jesus, don’t feel sorry for him–he can always wage his culture war on those candy companies that sell chocolate crosses around this time of the year.
Frank L. Cocozzelli is a director with the Institute for Progressive Christianity and writes a weekly column at Talk to Action concerning both Liberalism and the Catholic Right. This article originally appeared Talk to Action.
Thanks to Liz for this graphic.
A central faith question for our time: “What would religion be if it weren’t trying to sell something?”
The reply is not easy to the tongue. Our religious imagination has been captured, felt up, coveted by self-serving “right hands of God,” and appeals to our most primitive emotions: fear of damnation, love of money, hope of eternal reward. Yet let us inquire more deeply.
What indeed would religion be without the falsely evangelistic snake oil of the “prosperity gospel”, which, against Jesus, blesses the worldly and materialistic rich over the humble and suffering poor. What would religion be without New Age gurus selling recipes for personal/universal awareness. What would religion be if it were not simply grafted on to political campaigns to attract so-called “values voters” (yet another term of vanity). “Holier than thou. Holier than thou,” proclaims the bankrupt faith whose coffers are bursting with coin.
In the last week we are “graced” with the launch of GodTube.com, the “Christian answer to YouTube,” according to the recent March 26th Newsweek. We witness a “BattleCry” rally attracting tens of thousands of Christian youth to San Francisco (the den of the devil I suppose) to rail against materialism (while using a wholly corporate, materialist format—rock concerts, etc.—to do so). We have a mega-rich celebrity Brazilian husband and wife televangelist team trademarking the word “gospel” and getting caught smuggling in 9,000 dollars IN A BIBLE into the United States (New York Times, March 19, 2007, A3). Talk about an apt metaphor. You can’t make this stuff up.
This is not the first time that the powers in the world have attempted to dominate and obscure the presence of spirit, and I’m quite sure it will not be the last. However, this is a time of acute and unrecognized irony. “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Yet, the love of money (and its attendants, status, power, ego, and ideology) seem to be America’s unifying religion. The idol of the almighty dollar is confused with an almighty God. Money is religion! Capitalism is democracy! Poor people deserve it! We are chosen! The absurdity is evident. The mistake of the Pharisees (the falsely pious of Jesus’ time) is resurrected for yet another run.
When irony has lost its power, and spiritual kitsch substitutes for conscience, is there a way out of the mess?