This morning, while praying, I recalled two conversations I had years ago, one with an Episcopal priest here in Atlanta, the other with an Episcopal seminarian in Sewanee (whom I assumed went on to become a priest). The priest and I were talking about the boundaries between Christian and non-Christian forms of spirituality; i.e., what are the limits when it comes to exploring such practices as zen or yoga, or the teachings of Vedanta or Mahayana? She had an interesting insight:
“Most Christians operate under the assumption that if something is not explicitly commanded in the Bible, then it is forbidden. But it makes just as much sense to say that unless something is explicitly forbidden in the Bible, then it is acceptable, at least under some circumstances.”
This was an “Aha!” moment for me, as it helped me to let go of the notion of God I had been taught as a child: — the wrathful, distant God who is quick to condemn — into a more truly Christlike understanding of the graciousness of God, who overflows in his abundant love and joyful forgiveness. And it ties in with the conversation I had a few years earlier with the seminarian. We were discussing a vocational issue in my life, and he said something to the effect of,
“God will call you to a place of freedom. Your responsibility is to find that place.”
Jesus said, “You will know the truth and it will set you free.” But it seems to me that often we Christians approach our faith not as a force for liberation, but rather as some sort of anxiety-producing program for achieving purity, presumably to please the wrathful God. But when the striving for purity overshadows the experience of grace, haven’t we unwittingly undermined the very heart of the gospel?
Think about the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In this story, the penitent son is forgiven by God before he even has a chance to say he’s sorry — and meanwhile, the older brother resents the father’s lavish love poured out on such an “undeserving” figure. In so many ways, Christianity as an institutional religion strikes me as more worried about the older brother than the father. In other words, again and again our theology and our practice is all about appeasing wrath and judgment rather than celebrating love and grace. Of course, I’m thinking about this because I am saddened by the many voices within Christianity that say it’s not okay to practice contemplative prayer, or Christian yoga, or other forms of Christian spirituality that have been influenced by, shaped by, or merely resemble, non-Christian practices. I believe those voices are “older brother” voices rather than “forgiving father” voices. But I want to push this one further. The “older brother” within our ranks does not merely want us to eschew non-Christian spirituality. There are many ways in which the “older brother” within the church (or indeed, within our own individual hearts) works hard at undermining the radical good news of our freedom. When we encounter those voices, we need to cling to the love and grace of Christ. For Christ is all truth. And in knowing him, we are set free.