Finding the True Path

A reader of my blog has emailed me the following questions. They seem to involve the question of how to embrace the Christian mystery when one cannot be sure if it is the “true” path or not.

As a former neo-pagan, didn’t you find getting to grips with Christianity’s necessity to hold a set number of essential beliefs? Don’t you have any doubts and don’t you find them restricting? I was wondering if you knew much about Islamic mysticism – sufism – and if you had ever written something about it before? … I feel more at home with Christianity, although the problem is that I do not believe that Jesus is the son of God and think that the bible and Christian faith are products of man rather than the divine. On that note, I will leave you in peace and hope you keep up the good work and your lovely and inspirational blog!

Some great questions. Let me start with the easiest one first. Alas, my knowledge of Islam is impoverished. Although my friends Joe (a practicing Muslim) and Darrell (who has done extensive work with the Sufi Healing Order) have encouraged me to drink the splendid and refreshing waters of mystical Islam, I have yet to do so. I hope to remedy that deficiency someday — just as I hope to become more fully immersed in the wisdom traditions of Vedanta, or Vajrayana Buddhism, or the Kabbalah… so many mystics, so little time!

Now, on to “Christianity’s necessity to hold a set number of essential beliefs.” I guess I didn’t get the memo. I know that many Christians approach the faith propositionally — in other words, see being a Christian as all about believing the right things — which, to my mind, is a variation of moralism, which limits Christianity to those who behave the right way. It occurs to me that both propositional and moralistic religion are obsessed with purity: only those without blemishes are good enough for God. The problem is, this flies in the face of Jesus and his message. The gospel is all about breaking down old purity codes in the interest of building or strengthening real relationships between human beings. Thus, Jesus will heal a sick man on the sabbath, and when the religious authorities challenge him on it, he points out that any farmer will rescue a cow that has fallen into a pit, sabbath or no sabbath. Likewise, Jesus uses common sense to recognize that hungry folks gathering something to eat is not the same thing as a whole day’s work. But he gets criticized just the same. Meanwhile, Jesus talks to “unclean” people, like the Samaritan woman at the well or the Canaanite (pagan) woman who comes to him for healing — indeed, the Canaanite woman gets the better of him when Jesus initially tries to dismiss her. He allows a woman regarded by polite society as a sinner to anoint his feet and massage them with her hair — talk about sensuous! He publicly dines with those regarded as “sinners.” In other words, Jesus seems to consistently put people before rules.

I approach Christianity in pretty much the same way. To me, the point behind being a Christian is not that I have to limit my way of seeing things, but rather that I get to hang out with a number of truly wise and loving people (such as the contemplative monks for whom I work). Now, I personally love Christian teaching and I do not advocate the kind of “anything goes” religion that suggests you should just make up what you believe (hey, even the Unitarians have guidelines for their religious practice!). But I do struggle with it, and frankly I reconcile my own doubts with Christian teaching by simply acknowledging, in all humility, that I myself do not have all the answers and do not know the mind of God. So I live in the tension of “not knowing” and recognizing that, on a purely rational level, much of what Christianity proclaims doesn’t make a lot of sense. But I try to live my faith not on a rational level, but on a trans-rational level. In other words, for me Christianity is not a logic-puzzle to figure out (there’s that temptation to propositional purity again), but rather a mystery to be embraced and lived into. Jesus didn’t say that the two great commandments were “Understand all the correct things about God” and “Believe exactly the same way as everyone else.” Rather, the marching orders for being a Christian are “Love God with all your heart, mind, strength and spirit” and “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” So I work on loving as best I can, and I figure that the believing part will take care of itself over time.

Now, as to your specific concerns: “I do not believe that Jesus is the son of God.” There are two ways of approaching this. If you want to sign on to the Christian mission of loving God, loving your neighbors, and loving yourself, sooner or later you’ll notice that most Christians at least accept the theory that Jesus is God. So I’d ask you this: are you willing to at least suspend your disbelief, and say, “I don’t know”? One of the most important verses in the Bible is “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). In other words, there is no such thing as “pure” belief anyway. So I think learning to live in the not-knowing is crucial. Now, the other way of approaching it is, frankly, more mystical (and probably more controversial). Consider these Bible verses, both of which quote Jesus:

  • “The Father and I are one.” — John 10:30
  • “Abide in Me, and I in you … I am the vine, you are the branches” — John 15:4-5

Taken together, this is a powerful message: Jesus is one with God, and we are called to be “part” of Jesus, to abide in him as he abides in us. In other words, Christian spirituality is all about abiding in God. Christianity teaches that those who love Christ are the Body of Christ, which literally means we are the Body of God. So Christianity offers a much more powerful way of immersing ourselves into God than any other faith tradition that I know of. And the key to it all is not believing the right things, or meditating the right way, or any other kind of knowledge-based or behavior-based effort. It’s all about love.

Finally, the Bible: you say it is a “product of man” rather than of the Divine. My response: “why limit it to one or the other?” I think the Bible is a beautiful, messy, mysterious, enigmatic, at times inspirational, at other times infuriating, document of the human struggle to connect with God. I also believe it is the word of God. I see both dynamics at work within it simultaneously. The splendor of Christianity is that it does not see matter, or humanity, or the messy stuff of life as alien to God. Rather, God works in and through our messy imperfections to do the undercover work of grace and love and forgiveness. Is it “perfect”? Of course not. Is it “pure”? By no means. But it is real, and the hope it offers is likewise real. And that’s good enough for me, for it is by that hope and that down-to-earth reality that I find the strength to keep loving, even in a world where handicapped children suffer and so many other people are in unresolvable pain. I can’t fix the broken world, but maybe through my choices I can make it all just a little bit more bearable, both for myself and for those I come int contact with.

And that’s what drives me as a Christian. And the more I keep my eyes on the prize (love), the less I worry about such things as whether or not I have all the right doctrines lined up in a row or not. I figure my beliefs are as imperfect as anything else in my life. And so I beg God for God’s mercy and forgiveness and I keep trying to do the best I can — which means, I keep trying to love.

I hope this helps. God bless you, wherever your journey may take you!

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  • Shadwynn

    Carl,

    I thought your answers were exquisite; and I can certainly relate. I think that one of the problems is what people identify in their minds when they hear the word “Christianity,” and I dare say that 9 times out of 10 they see those “propositional” forms of the faith. This is a turn-off for obvious reasons: propositional religion usually equals an “either/or” vision of spiritual reality. It is the fertile soil for perfectionism, self-righteousness, and religious intolerance. Because it seems that so many in our cultrue see Christianity through such a distorted definition, I often hesitate to define myself by that appellation alone. I guess at this point I feel most comfortable referring to myself as a post-Christian, Christo-centric mystic. Yet I have returned to the Episcopal Church because its liturgies (and especially the Eucharist) speak to my heart, not my head.

    Each one of us has to find our way. Yet it is precisely at this juncture of the faith journey that Jesus can be most meaningful to anyone seaqrching for depth of meaning in the interior life, not as some dogmatic, theological construct, whether Nicene, Chalcedonian, or Orthodox; but simply as the Way-shower who says to our searching hearts, “Follow me.”

    As a former neo-pagan myself, I understand the question you addressed. Unfortunately, when the adherent of one faith tradition is confronted with the theological terminology of another, there is often room for misunderstanding and bafflement. Take the term “Son of God.” By that do we mean a Jewish political king-figure (as in Messiah), a person with a special relationship with God, or “God the Son,” second person of the Trinity? Or all of the above? When people make the wrong assumptions based on theological misunderstandings it can definitely color their interpretation of a religion’s core identity. That is why I think your answer was so wisely mature. As much as religious knowledge can help with understanding, only the heart can perceive with the truest of vision. There is no way we can have perfect knowledge about everything. But we can start from the conviction that at least God has a perfect knowledge of our hearts. This can cultivate an honesty of approach in our search for the presence of the Holy.

    Your description of the Bible as “messy and mysterious and infuriating” among other things, made me laugh. How true! Yet inspiration and insight shines through it all, like treasures of Spirit in an earthen vessel.

    Thanks again for a response characterized by wisdom and humility.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Thank you, Shadwynn, for your kind words and insight. And thank you for reading, and for commenting — it’s good to “see” you again.

  • http://www.maidtoqueen.blogspot.com Laura

    Sounds to me like Jubilee in Asheville, NC would be a great place for this seeker to go.

  • http://heartofflame.blogspot.com/ Yewtree

    Carl, I really like your take on Christianity (though it surprises me that, given your stance, you have joined a creedal version of it, rich and often mystical tradition though Catholicism is).

    Your correspondent sounds as if they would fit right in with Unitarianism, actually. Unitarians embrace values rather than propositional beliefs (as your comment about us implies). And we believe that everyone is a child of the Divine, not just Jesus. And most Unitarians would agree that the Bible is a record of the human struggle to understand and communicate with the Divine, and the Divine struggle to communicate with us (Amos chapter 5 being a a good example of that).

  • http://heartofflame.blogspot.com/ Yewtree

    Oh, and I guess I’d have to add that each person’s true path is unique to them (as your final blessing implies). So maybe this person will end up with Sufism or something — I hope they find the right path for them.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    I’m sorry if my comment misrepresented Unitarianism (and perhaps I should have said “Unitarian Universalism;” forgive me, but I do not know if Unitarianism in the UK is exactly the same thing as the UU community in the USA). My point simply was that even within UU’s splendid culture of personal integrity and affirming the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” there are still principles and purposes that help to give the UU community its shape and identity. As you say, these principles represent values rather than creedal statements.

    As for why I became a Catholic rather than a Unitarian: believe me, I wrestled with this question. Ultimately I decided that, while I may think like a UU, I pray like a Catholic, and it was more important for me to be in a community where I felt validated in my prayer than in my thoughts. It’s not easy, but so far it seems to have worked.

  • noel

    this is why this web site makes me feel belonged belonging the belonger
    it is what the zen would call the sangha
    the spiritual community
    walt whitman would call it adhesiveness
    watching a drop of water merge with a much bigger puddle of water
    the drop of water a few moments before was recognisable and now merged it loses identity but gains……………

  • Brian Doyle

    My wife, our four year old, and I have been worshipping with a UCC congregation for a year now. Being raised by lapsed Catholics, it’s the first time that I have been a part of a faith community and I have done a lot of soul searching of late, reading Thomas Merton, William Johnston’s “Christian Zen,” Thich Nnat Hahn, etc.

    Our church is open and loving. It does not push “membership” but does invite people to join the congregation by confessing their faith in Christ. The teachings are very focused on Jesus. I personally struggle with this exclusive attention given to the life of the historical Jesus and wish for a more expansive practice–one in which it would be just as natural and acceptable to structure a Sunday School class around the story of the Bodhi tree as the story of the Cross.

    In my heart, I feel I am a Unitarian Universalist but the UU congregation near us is overly academic. I do not need my penchant for rationalism stoked but, rather, I need to be with people who will inspire passion and challenge me to grow spiritually.

    So, I try accept my situation as a paradox and remind myself that nonduality and nonattachment to views means not demanding the manifest forms of practice to conform to my own tastes and desires…..

  • noel

    be still and know that i am god

    be still and know

    be still

    be

    to brian…..william johnston is a great read
    i believe his years of working through zen and monologuing with christianity left him wasted………then he returned and his christianity totally renewed revitalised i guess enlightened

    carl i do think richard rohr is spot on when he says that in future christians will only be mystics

    what are christians now?

    no i do not mean the 20 or so million baptised……….i mean really true christians

  • Jeff

    The New Testament is full of sorts of inconvenient verses for those who want to keep things fuzzy. “If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him and he in God” I John 4:15 This acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God thing is real basic to “abiding in God”, like it or not, otherwise you’re censoring the New Testament according to your own tastes and beliefs and making it up as you go along. After all God said at Christ’s baptism and Transfiguration “This is my beloved Son with who I am well pleased” adding the words “listen to him(Jesus) at the Transfiguration. There are steel like bones of unchanging truth that provide the underlying framework for the “softer” flesh of Christian experience. Both are parts of the Body we are baptized into.

  • Jeff

    I believe it all begins with trust or faith not love, we respond to God’s love, as we recognize we don’t have love intrinsically in us for God and others. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” I john 4:10 “We love because he first loved us” I John 4:19 Paul said “I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20 As we grow in the same faith in the Son of God I think God pours out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Romans 5:5. Of course by faith in Christ I don’t mean mere mental assent to a truth – though that is part of the process – but a growing surrender and trust in an invisible eternal Person that is described in the Bible and is knowable personally in the soul in the here and now as Jesus of Nazareth. We grow “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”. This real flesh and bone Jesus who at the same time fills the whole universe is an absolute affront to the our time’s zeitgeist and calls for a deep metanoia (or change of mind) for us all.

  • Infinite Warrior

    For the impoverished in Sufism (and I imagine that would encompass even those of us who are somewhat familiar with it), I’m pleased to note that the inimitable Sufi poet, Rumi, has gained such a wide and tremendously diverse audience in the West. I might recommend any of Colman Barks’ translations of these great works such as The Essential Rumi by way of introduction. However, I fear no one could be satisfied merely drinking from Rumi’s well. Diving in and taking a long, leisurely swim, on the other hand….

    There are also some fantastic Internet resources and blogs such as that of Sadiq Alam, of which I am particularly fond, that are dedicated to the Sufi branch of the Wisdom tradition. Regardless of the culture from which it springs, I truly believe there is only One which takes many forms.

    “Christian spirituality is all about abiding in God…. So Christianity offers a much more powerful way of immersing ourselves into God”

    Christian spirituality and Christianity are, of course, not the same thing and you’ve done an amazing job of noting the differences between the so-called “mystical” and “propositional”. I suppose I would only add that it also provides a means of recognizing “God abides in us” as well.

    Namaste.

  • Brian Doyle

    “…And if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).

    I trust that we DO have love intrinsically in us for we are created in God’s image. The seed is there. The problem is one of imperfection. Christians call it sin. Buddhists call it dukkha. Both traditions agree that our worldly attachments blind us to our true nature.

    The metanoia that you speak of, Jeff, is notoriously difficulty to describe without some fuzziness. As Laotse says, “when the foolish hear of the Way, they laugh out loud. If it were not laughed at, it would not be the Way.”

    Those of us who perceive the presence and working of the Holy Spirit in non-Christian traditions do not wish to make it up as we go along. We are simply placing our lamp on the lampstand.

  • Brother Don

    “All you need is Love”

  • Gary Snead

    Thinking, feeling and praying….
    Black and White
    Some play the major chords,
    Some the minor,
    Some what they’ve learned,
    Some what they read,
    Some what they’ve heard,
    Some what they feel,
    But we all say Piano.

    I love, the best I can, the postings and those who post; The Holy Spirit within me calls me, nudges me, fills me, with love I cannot alone generate, let alone venerate. The Spirit groans groanings too great for words, full of the pains, sorrows, desires, Justice, Grace, and Mercy of God’s love, of the love of God. Yet, God knows you don’t have to love God. In the end every knee will bend, for love or not.

    No offense to some of my friends, Doctors of a certain specialty, but I am glad that studying the Path is not the same as ‘Pathology’.

  • Ron Green

    Nice summary.

    Personally, I believe that reality and mystery should check out each other.

    Praying and loving should be brothers and sisters to each other. Spirituality and morality have filial affinity. Faith in and love of God married to love of neighbor and trust in humanity.

    God bless.

  • http://www.sacredfisher.com Regina

    For someone wrestling with the notion of Jesus as the Son of God, the writings of John Cobb (notably, ‘Christ in a Pluralistic Age’) might be a good resource. Cobb (and other process theologians) approach the mystical with a science and reason-based methodology that for me enriches my faith, not by denying the mysticism but re-framing it from the context of our times. BTW, I’m probably a Unitarian in my soul but a Catholic by prayer, too. I embrace the paradox. :)

  • Brian Doyle

    Regina: Thanks for sharing the book recommendation. Our pastor introduced me to process theology a couple months ago. I will look up Cobb at our public library.

  • http://www.sacredfisher.com Regina

    Brian, you’re welcome. The Center for Process Studies also has some great resources.

  • Pingback: christiannonduality.com Blog » Blog Archive » DOUBT: nagging late-night and early-dawn questions

  • pjdeneen

    Carl,

    Thank you for such a thoughtful response. I’ve been a neopagan for nearly 20 years and I’ve been struggling lately with the same questions as the person who sent you the email.

  • http://slursofasaneman.blogspot.com Richard

    Amen. It is so refreshing to read your response which is almost exactly how I would I have responded. Great blog, I’m enjoying reading it. Cheers

  • N

    Thank you for your reply. It was very interesting and made me think deeply about what you wrote. Perhaps I could maybe say “I don’t know” to whether Jesus is the son of god because perhaps in reality that is my stance on all of this. I just don’t know. I have got quite used to thinking that Islam is the updated correct version of Christianity and thinking that I could never accept Christianity as I knew from the start that it was mostly corrupted. I think I really good feel at home with Christian practice and Christian prayer, which I don’t think I could be with anything else.

  • Joe

    What Islamic Sufism (part of the original question) would be able to contribute to this dialogue might look a bit like the following:

    1. Every Islamic ritual involves the formulation of correct intention. For instance, you don’t go on a diet during Ramadan. You instead formulate a clear sense that “I intend to fast this day according to the revealed law as best I comprehend it, solely for the sake of God and to seek God’s good pleasure.” That ain’t no diet. The validity of the fast depends on its intention. Problem: How do we really know our own intentions? What protects us from hypocrisy? Can any of us really pretend to do anything at all “solely for the sake of God and to seek God’s good pleasure”? (Hold on to this; we’ll be back to it in a moment.)

    2. Clearly what Carl refers to as propositional language is not adequate to solve this problem. Part of the curriculum in the formation of traditional Islamic scholars is Aristotelian logic, which holds that “propositionality” is about predication. Less jargonistically, this simply refers to the rules for safely assigning categories, attributes, and qualifications to something – i.e., providing sound answers about when we can correctly say A = B. The scholars of Islamic Sufism contend that all of this occurs within language, which is to say, by relating words to other words, concepts to concepts, created entity to created entity.

    3. God is the Creator who has no need for creatures and can in no way be affected by them. Thus there is no way in which knowledge of God can come about by means of relations among created things. Words and concepts are not causal in this way. Accordingly, logic, while necessary, can in no way coerce knowledge of the divine. Propositionality is expedient but utterly ineffective.

    4. Thus the formulation of intention in words (#1) is a kind of propositionality (#2) that is entirely useless and inefficacious (#3), albeit an explicit requirement of Islamic law. What are we to say about this?

    5. The resolution comes from the obligation of every single Muslim to engage in active efforts to purify intention through seeking certainty about God at a level that transcends the propositional and logical. This is known as purification of the heart – mysticism if you like. It is not optional. Purification of the heart leads to epistemological certainty through direct communication with God through God’s grace. The consequences of this are elimination of hypocrisy and all traces of mixed motives that corrupt the intention of acting only for the sake of God, together with growing levels of certainty in conviction. This is certainty, not by overhearing (e.g., “the Qur’an says to do things like this”) but by direct witnessing.

    One responds, in other words, not to creatures, but only to the Creator. This is not possible without the purification of the heart in order both to clarify and safeguard the integrity of the intention, and experiential certainty of divine things. That’s orthodox Islamic Sufism in a nutshell. Every Muslim is to be a mystic, and each one is to seek integrity and certainty through mystical means. Few Muslims realize this any more.

  • http://www.philfosterlpc.com phil foster

    Joe – Brilliant concluding paragraph. The same could be said for Christians, re: each Christian is to “take up his/her cross, and follow me,” to become the body of Christ.

    Tangentially, I am reminded of:
    1) Rumi’s sense that “Out beyond right doing and wrong doing, there is a luminous field. I’ll meet you there.” (with apologies to Rumi and C. Barks).
    2) Psalm 19:12 – “But who can detect their errors. Clear me from hidden faults.”
    3) Tao Te Ching – “The way that can be named is not the true way.” (with apologies to Stephen Mitchell).
    4) M. Ghandi – “I like your Jesus. I don’t like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Jesus.” (more apologies).

    Peace.


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