My father is a retired American Baptist and Methodist minister that now attends a Congregational church. I wrote to him to share my thoughts on eternal life with him from whom, since the beginning of my life, I have looked for advice and confirmation and who has always encouraged thoughtful contemplation of Christian teaching. I offer our emails here (with his permission) for your perusal in the event that you will find our discussion of Christianity and its problems contemplative. You will find that I take dad to task on the traditional Christian approach to salvation and thus eternal life. Though I am critical of what has become the traditional approach I mean no disrespect and agree with my father that Christ is the way to God. This does not mean, however, that I believe this way to God and the realization of eternal life need necessarily be put in Christian terms. In the following succession of emails I become a stickler for insisting that Christ is so universal that even the religion that bares His name cannot contain Him. In fact no name may contain Him and He is known by many.
Sent: Saturday, August 01, 2009 7:23 PM Subject: Eternal Life
I tried to scan and send you the letters and pamphlets that Mary sent me with this email but the scanned files are too large. I will send you copies of them by snail mail. In the mean time attached is my finished response to her. It only took me 7 months of on again off again writing to get it completed! If you feel so inclined I would appreciate any editing suggestions you may have as I plan to post it to my web site.
Love’s in everything,
Sent: Saturday, August 08, 2009 7:00 AM Subject: Re: Eternal Life
I have read through Mary’s letters and pamphlets and recognize traditional Evangelical Christianity in them. She and her husband have found peace therein and are attempting to share it. Acceptance of Christ is an abandonment of the attempt to save oneself and just go with God through Christ. I would share their joy with them, perhaps through the classical little pamphlet “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence (Forward Movement Publications).
I have read through your reply in both the short and long versions. You have found peace in the abandonment of self in the love of God and are attempting to share it. I can hardly do better than to share your joy the same way through Brother Lawrence. (Google it.)
Can you boil down your 11 pages to something succinct ending with the Prayer of St. Francis?
Sent: Sunday, August 09, 2009 2:09 PM Subject: Re: Eternal Life
I appreciate your desire to be even handed in your response to me and the traditional Evangelical. It is true that when one accepts Christ in the spirit of self abandonment they have found the same joy that I have found and that I express through “losing oneself in the goodness of God”. To me there is no difference. The paths are one and the same – the Word.
What troubles me about the traditional Evangelical approach to sharing their joy is what tends to come across as fear for those who have not yet found Christ and what appears to be the use of fear tactics used to persuade those lost in worldly perception. Such fear indicates a lack of confidence in the total goodness of God and such fear tactics encourages others to doubt God’s absolute goodness and thus helps to perpetuate the lost-ness of others.
Thus my response attempting to give credence to the notion that God is so good that the idea of separation from Him can only be imagined in the human mind - that it can not possibly be real, because there is no existence apart from God.
As far as succinctness goes I thought I did pretty well with my short version. That, followed by the Prayer of St. Francis, would be fairly succinct I should think. However, I do wonder if the effort to get things boiled down to a few words so that those with a short attention span can have a sense of knowing what one is talking about – particularly when it is something somewhat beyond words – may not be, at least in part, responsible for oversimplified, exclusive and thus confused understandings of what our relationship with God actually is and what it means to be “saved”.
I will read Light Heart’s 20 page version of Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God – is that the version you recommend? http://www.practicegodspresence.com/brotherlawrence/index.html
Love’s in everything,
Sent: Tuesday, August 11, 2009 7:58 PM Subject: Re: Eternal Life
I agree with you on Evangelical fear. You and I share the grief of realizing how many are missing the joy that is so available — you through knowing God’s unconditional love and I through knowing Jesus Christ. And yes, they are the same, so why not join together in the confession that our joy is in knowing the unconditional love of God through Jesus Christ?
And yes, add the Prayer of St. Francis to your short version — and stop. Your short version is succinct but not simplistic. Though I liked some of the images you bring out in your long version the length erased the impact of the short version. So I say don’t put the long version on your link – but if you must, boil it down. Maple syrup is better than Maple sap.
My copy of Brother Lawrence is pre-internet from the Episcopal “Forward Movement Publications,” 412 Sycamore St., Cincinnati, Ohio 45202. It consists of four conversations recorded by one who met him “upon the third of August, 1666,” and sixteen letters “which Brother Lawrence wrote with his own hand . . .” This is according to an excerpt from “the Preface to the Original French Edition, A.D. 1692″ which introduces the 47 page booklet by the Forward Movement. My copy is the Eleventh Printing, given to me when I was in Seminary, and is thoroughly used. I have two copies of the Twenty-seventh Printing and will send you one. (I haven’t thought to Google ”The Forward Movement” or ”The Forward Movement Publications.” I’ll have to do that for additional copies of Brother Lawrence I like to have has a hand-out.)
Sent: Thursday, August 20, 2009 8:22 AM Subject: Re: Eternal Life
I’ve received the copy of Brother Lawrence. Thanks. I suspect it may be the same translation I got off the internet but I have not yet made the comparison. I have read the conversations and two of the letters. They are very good. It is clear that Brother Lawrence has found the key to loosing himself and thus finding his true self. Through his monastic life solely devoted to practicing what he teaches he appears to have perfected the practice thus living the joy day in and day out. His is a great example to follow.
Regarding your question of “why not join together in the confession that our joy is in knowing the unconditional love of God through Jesus Christ?” Why not indeed. I kind of thought I just did when I suggested that it was the same knowing. Such a confession is not a problem among the like minded. It only becomes an issue with those from other religions. Christians, unfortunately, have made the name Jesus Christ into a tag that, when confessed, makes you a Christian. This would be a good thing if being a Christian meant universal brotherhood with all humanity. To most, however, being a Christian means membership in an exclusive group that will go to heaven when they die while all others are condemned to hell.
I choose to try and express my faith as inclusively as possible. I don’t believe that Jesus intended for His name to be used in the exclusive way that Christians, in general, are prone to do - if you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior then you are not like us. Because Christians are inclined to behave this way they are very much like other religionists who also practice their own version of exclusiveness.
I believe all religions are inspired by the same source for there is only one Ultimate Source. I also believe that all religions are human organizations and full of flaws. Exclusivism is perhaps one of the biggest flaws. We need to train ourselves to see God everywhere we look and point Him out there! … and over there! … and, yes, right here too! without regard to race, creed, or religion.
If Christianity had not made an exclusive religion out of Jesus and instead kept His name Holy by keeping Christ for any one (whether they have confessed Him or not) instead of just for themselves – so that the Hindu can stay a Hindu if he wants to and still be “saved”, or a Buddhist a Buddhist, etc. Even an Atheist can be saved and remain an Atheist if he so chooses if salvation is to be understood in loosing oneself in the goodness of “Life” – a term that can be taken to be synonymous with God or The Word if we are willing to see it that way.
(We must understand that any word we apply to the Word of God shall fall short in, or even negate, the human understanding of what the Word of God actually is. And a word misused or used in vain decreases its power to convey the originally intended meaning. The words “God”, “Jesus” and “Christ” are three such words misused so often that their power to convey to the hearer the meaning intended by the sincere user has been greatly diminished. Lets remember first that the Word is universal so that, potentially any word (such as “Life”) may be employed to allude to It and may help to reinvigorate the transmission of the meaning trying to be conveyed when understood in the proper context.)
I suspect you would call what I just said (before I went into my parenthetical tangent) un-Christian which would explain why you, apparently, don’t consider me one (one who does not know Christ as you do) but I don’t think Christ ever meant for us to use His name that way. Christ, I believe, is meant to be universally for everyone regardless of their religion.
Yes, we are changed when we “confess the name of Christ” but it does not mean we immediately set aside our cultural heritage (which is all mixed up with our religion) and adopt someone else’s. Eventually, we do give up everything (even the Christian his religion) and lose our self in God but this does not happen overnight. It works on us as dripping water on a stone until we have been fully transformed. And anyone from any religion may subscribe. “Confessing the name of Jesus Christ” is only the Christian form of a universal way to God.
We are to love each other – which is how we love God. That is all. Jesus said to love our brother as ourselves. The brother of the Christian is the Muslim, the Taoist, etc. To love as ourselves one from another religion or one who claims no religion is to respect the perspectives they hail from the same way we respect our own perspective. At the same time we must continue to reach for the highest apprehension and understanding of the truth that we can hold and see reflected in those around us.
So, in that spirit, it behooves me to respect your desire to have me confess Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and understand it is because you love me that you want this. I only ask that you respect my desire to find an expression of the truth of God’s grace that anyone may understand with out the unnecessary language of exclusiveness that the Christian religion has attached to it. For me this is the avenue I believe Love is calling me to take.
I hope you understand that my desire to explain myself to you is an expression of my love for you and that without the challenge you present to me as father and religious teacher I would consider my life and my thought to be far less rich and far less stimulating. Thank you for all that you are and for being willing to talk with me about these things.
Love’s in everything, Will
Sent: Tuesday, August 25, 2009 12:51 AM Subject: Re: Eternal Life
I accept that you know “the unconditional love of God.” What I don’t understand is why you are looking for another way than “through Jesus Christ.”
Your point about words becoming exclusive is well taken. But the solution, I believe, is in careful definition and consistent use of the familiar, rather than the importation of alien terms. So: GOD — that than which nothing is greater; JESUS — of Nazareth; CHRIST — the anointed representative of God’s reign.
“The unconditional love of God through Jesus Christ,” so defined, is the most universal and inclusive good news the world has ever heard. No other philosophy or religious teaching is so simple yet so profound. It is not that other philosophies or religions are excluded. When people embrace the good news that Jesus of Nazareth demonstrated God’s reign of unconditional love, they give themselves henceforth to following Jesus. And that is the definition of a Christian.
“The unconditional love of God through Jesus Christ” is utterly inclusive and accepting, but followers in this way of Jesus Christ find many things in their former lives incompatible. These they drop, little by little, or all at once. This is what has happened to you, Will. You have found many things in your experience of the church and so-called Christianity, incompatible with God’s unconditional love. You have tried a variety of radical departures from your heritage as a means of distancing yourself from these incompatibilities.
Of course, a Hindu can follow Jesus, a Muslim can follow Jesus, a Buddhist can follow Jesus, and even an Atheist can follow Jesus. But little by little, as they slough off what is incompatible with following Jesus, they will discover they are simply and truly Christian. Your “Why not indeed” (your e-mail above) is a welcome sign to me that you are ready now to be “a Christian following Jesus.” (That is what I have been doing all my life — trying to get Christians to follow Jesus.)
Sent: Wednesday, August 26, 2009 7:27 PM Subject: Re: Eternal Life
Thanks for keeping the dialogue going Dad,
What you say below all makes sense to me except at the end where you seem to prove my point by stating that all your life you have been trying to get Christians to follow Jesus. This you say right after saying that a Christian is someone who follows Jesus. Furthermore you began by saying that careful definition and consistent use of the familiar is the solution.
You’ve demonstrated just how difficult it is to consistently use the very familiar term “Christian” in a way that makes it clear what a Christian is. Is a Christian someone who is following Jesus -period? Or is a Christian someone who belongs to the Christian religion who may or may not be following Jesus? If a true Christian is the former than isn’t it incorrect to describe what you’ve been doing all your life as “trying to get Christians to follow Jesus”? If the latter is correct then is not the former incorrect? If they are, paradoxically, both correct then I suggest that the term is hopelessly confusing and it will always be risking a misunderstanding to use the term: If you say Christian and mean a follower of Jesus you could easily be misunderstood to be referring to an adherent or adherents of a religion about Jesus or just some fair Sunday church people. This is what I want to avoid. I think that, in general “Christians” (as in every other religion) have so adulterated their name that it no longer has adequate clarity of meaning and is beyond restoration as long as “Christians” continue to be so hypocritical .
Finding a fresh way to express one’s convictions I think is a positive and fruitful endeavor that can only expand understanding of the traditional way as well as produce an appreciation for the other expressions of the Way found in other religions. And if I’m found out to be a hypocrite at least I have not so much contributed to the defamation of the traditional expression of the Way. If everyone were to simply fall in line with just one uniform way of expressing the Way, I believe our understanding would be dogmatic, flat, intolerant, anti-unity and not representational of Jesus Christ at all. Hmmm. That’s kind of the whole problem isn’t it?
Actually I want to get Christians to follow Jesus too. When I write it is often with the Christian in mind. My approach is different from yours but I don’t believe that only one or the other of our approaches has to be the only right approach. Your approach is appropriate for you given your life history and lessons. Mine is the correct approach for me given my life’s history and lessons. I believe each person’s correct approach will be a unique one. If we all just followed a uniform approach we would not be thinking for ourselves but simply be sheep myopically dependent on the ordained priesthood rather than having a priesthood of all believers. Surely you agree with me on this point.
Love’s in everything,
Sent: Friday, August 28, 2009 9:18 AM Subject: Re: Eternal Life
Susan, Gloria’s daughter who is with us for two weeks, had a very good suggestion when she had the same reaction to “Christian” you had. How about “Christlike”? So, change my wording above to: “Of course, a Hindu can follow Jesus, a Muslim can follow Jesus, a Buddhist can follow Jesus, and even an Atheist can follow Jesus. But little by little, as they slough off what is incompatible with following Jesus, they will discover they are simply and truly Christlike.”
Sent: Friday, August 28, 2009 9:37 AM Subject: Re: Eternal Life
I like that well enough. To say someone is Christlike does not, in my mind, necessarily link them to the religion of Christianity and therefore allows anyone to be so labeled regardless of the culture or religion they hail from. More importantly it is more likely to invite and welcome anyone to bend their being or lose their self to put on the garment of the Christ Principle – that Divine Presence that makes one Christlike, that Word of God from which Jesus Himself hails – with fewer erroneous ideas associated with the over used labels “Christian” and “Jesus”.
Furthermore no one who is endeavoring to follow Jesus and therefore be Christlike would refer to themselves as Christlike, but in all humility and being only too well acquainted with one’s own foibles, would only allow that “Christlike” is their aim. This avoids the pitfall the term “Christian” has fallen into where it can mean anything from one who has a get out of jail free card, with a depth of meaning about as large as a monopoly game, to one who shares with Jesus the mantle of World Savior.
Thanks to Susan for her input on the idea.
Love’s in everything,
Your two paragraphs on our mutual preference of “Christlike” for the result of following Jesus, is a fitting conclusion to this long concatenation of e-mails on “Eternal Life.” Our thanks to Susan is also mutual.