Celtic Spirituality in Kentucky

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

What do you believe? or How do you practice your faith? Two different questions.

One way is to address these questions is to ask what is the difference today between Christianity and the other Wisdom Traditions. One aspect alone jumps out. Christians alone tend to define themselves by WHAT they believe about their founder. “What do you believe about Jesus?” is a typical question among many today whenever the topic of faith or religion comes up. .

Right belief, or ortho-doxy (right teaching), the content of the teaching has become the criteria of faith. Before some Christians will ever engage in further conversation, this is the question they must ask. Either you believe this. . . . or (you are not saved, or, you are not one of us, etc).

In contrast, the other Wisdom traditions put the emphasis on moral behavior: Jews, Muslims, even Buddhists, etc. Yes, there is a monotheism, a belief in one God (or one main creator-God, Hindu) in the Abrahamic faiths, but the Koran, the Torah, and the gospel itself, are about behavior. Which can offer us an curious perspective about our Christian tradition.

When one reads the Gospel, Jesus is not about what you believe, but how you behave, the Beatitudes, the least of my brethren, the wounded one in the ditch, etc. Jesus’ essential message was to reform Judaism, to bring it more fully to the Love of God and Neighbor. The Kingdom was right here, in celebration, without sacrifice, without official priests. This was the Gospel of Good News. Jesus came to start a movement of renewal. Then the church came and started an institution based on who Jesus was, emphasizing the What-ness of our faith..

Organized religion took the much easier choice. Talk rather than walk. (Have you not noticed how your evangelical cousins are ready to judge you by what you believe, and even discontinue conversation when they find out you differ on one of their own core beliefs?)

The distinction is crucial. As soon as we put the emphasis on the what-ness of our beliefs, human ego and worrying mind get involved and will always judge my own vision, my own belief system, as superior to that of another. Which is the sad and tragic history of Christiandom.

There is no evidence that this happened much during the early centuries of Christianity, though certainly there was vigorous argument about who Jesus was. The influence of Greek philosophy was early evident in the prologue of the gospel of John.

A crucial question is how did the Christian community grow so fast that it was a substantial minority, perhaps even a slight majority of the Roman empire by the time of Constantine? The rate of growth from the tiny sect in Judea via Paul’s travels, is estimated demographically as about 25% per year. See how Christians love one another and how they care for the poor, the orphan and the widow. The early church did not grow by leaps and bounds by having distinct official creeds.

The first large turning point in the development of Christianity was the Nicene Creed coming out of the Council of Nicea. When bishops were given power over others as Roman officials is when active persecution of the Jews and those who believed differently began. The burning of the first synagogue. The destruction of the great library of antiquity at Alexandria. The use of religion for “power over” others began.

Notice something significant about the Nicene Creed. It skips the actual life of Jesus, and has nothing to say about love and compassion. Jesus was “born of the virgin, suffered, died and rose again.” Creeds were a response to debate, to signify who was an insider in Christian faith and who was not, that is, a boundary maker.

But no creed can be a full statement of faith, but only an ecclesiastical response to argument. This is why there is no mention of God being present already, no mention of the Kingdom or the teachings of Jesus. Creeds give us a very limited and dangerous doctrine of God.

I propose the Nicene Creed is the first great perversion of Jesus teaching in our Christian history.
The Creed made Ortho-doxy, or Right Teaching, the criteria of What is a Christian, not behavior Jesus summoned

The obsession with orthodoxy, or right belief, continues today among many, if not most Christians. It is a stealth idolatry and a distortion if not perversion, in my opinion, of what Jesus was about. It is the main reason for the many divisions we have in Christianity. It is not merely fundamentalism or literalism but a stealth idolatry of any concepts as representing Eternal Truths.

With literalism or orthodoxy we have right talk about Jesus, about teaching, singing, praying, preaching. Different denominations can talk endlessly about differences in their beliefs. With ortho-practice as our guide, we consider what behavior we are called to, how to walk the talk.

It was acceptable during the first centuries to argue about who Jesus was, until Constantine. After that definitive document, belief about Jesus was used to include or exclude many. The Nicene Creed was a political document used by the Emperor for political stability, and by the Roman Church for thousands of years for the same purpose.

It is also a document used by authority to justify the torture and murder of many, and to ignore the challenging renewal to which the vision of Jesus will continually summon us again in every age. For example, the organized churches could proclaim the Creeds for nineteen hundred years and ignore the human rights of slaves. Not to speak of other blindnesses.

Ortho-doxy is the great hidden or stealth idolatry of our time. It is used by fundamentalists and radical extremists in every faith to judge others as heathen, unworthy of respect and fair treatment. Jesus did not preach himself. He preached a gospel of compassion for the outsider and stranger. That is not found in our creeds. Organized religion came and preached Jesus.
For this reason, organized religion becomes too often a distortion of the gospel of Jesus and a slave to its own belief systems and traditions. Jesus’ teaching was not about right belief, but about changing our hearts. Mostly he did it by stories and example.

“What is a Christian?” defines content or talk. “Who is a Christian?” can rather define the behavior necessary to walk the way, how to follow the man from Galilee, the rabbi, the teacher of Wisdom.

“How do you practice your faith?” elicits a very different response than “What do you believe?”
Here is my charge. For any brand of Christianity to emphasize the content of belief over the practice of faith is a perversion of what Jesus was about. It is to make talk more important than walk.

My faith is a precious gift and I am called to love. For me to say that my Christ is the only way to God is arrogant. I can only say that the Wisdom of Jesus is the way for me. For me to claim that my faith path is superior to that of any another is not only prideful folly but also contrary to the message of Jesus.

I propose that the walk of all Wisdom traditions is similar: compassion, justice, and welcoming the stranger. Most all the native or indigenous religions of the earth practiced the same virtues. Celtic Spirituality is a Re-membering. ###

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