Where I Find Beauty in Christianity

I would not call my father an ultra-deep religious thinker, at least not openly. He has been a church-going Catholic for over five decades, just like his parents and their parents so on and so forth. Yet even in his quiet devotion, he has come up with some gems over the years. One such pearl of great price is his emphasis on religion and beliefs being personal and determined by the individual first and foremost. That will serve as the basis of this post. However, as a corollary, I think beliefs should involve the input of others, so I encourage comments as a way of stimulating thought and inquiry.emmaus

Christianity is, for me, rooted in the present. At the same time, it is also rooted in Jesus of Nazareth. I try not to get caught up in the death of Jesus, because although that has played an important role in much of Christian history, I don’t think it captures the essence of the “Jesus movement.” In contrast to the Stoic resignation which had enabled the socioeconomic and political domination of a small percentage of elites, the message of Jesus was one of nonviolent action. The kingdom of God is a reality for the present, for the here and now. Unlike the Maccabees of a century earlier, the power of the Jesus movement and its ability to last would be based on its inclusiveness, justice, compassion, and focus on living intimately with God in this life, rather than violent revolt which provided only a temporary solution.

While I hold the physical life of Jesus in high esteem, I keep the resurrection just as close to my heart. I choose, however, not to view it as a climax because that connotes finality. I find little satisfaction in viewing the resurrection as an event which took place on a single day, in which the body of Jesus walked out of a grave. I am unable to relate to such an occurrence. Most likely, the disciples fled while Jesus was on the cross, his body was buried amongst other crucifixion victims, and he was left alone. Yet it is that situation that demonstrates the power of the Jesus movement. Most other disciples, when their leader had died, would have abandoned their dream of radical change. The disciples of Jesus however, as days, months, and even years went by, realized that it was more than a man who made the movement. The kingdom was waiting to be unleashed, and the presence of Jesus was inscribed forever on their hearts. The resurrection is much more powerful than a body rising from a grave. It is an experience which can be partaken of even today. The despair the poor, socially marginalized disciples had to overcome is testament to the dying and rising that occurs everyday. Despair is the closest we can come to death, meaninglessness, and emptiness; rather than stoic resignation, the resurrection calls for us to conquer despair. The resurrection is a courage to overcome the forces which bind us in this life. I try to embrace it. That, for me, is the crux of where I find beauty in Christianity.

This powerful experience could only be described in metaphorical, physical language. The stories the Gospel writers used are powerful expressions of the meaning of the resurrection. Perhaps the most common symbol is Jesus as the paschal lamb, sacrificing himself as a ransom for atonement. While this may be one image which has been developed more than others, it is certainly not the only one. However, its meaning extends into the heart of Jewish Christianity in the first century. No longer would the bonds of sin and legalism hold back anyone from the God accessible to all.

A favorite of mine is the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. This captures the despair which the disciples must have experienced. Two of them are walking and meet a man (Jesus) whom they do not recognize. They sadly recount all that as happened, but the man encourages them, saying it was all meant to happen. As they eat the disciples recognize the man as Jesus, and he vanishes. It concludes by stating how they recognized him in breaking bread. The meal is integral to Christianity. It represents friendship, openness, and acceptance. Those virtues are representative of the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus. Even early in his mission, it is emphasized that Jesus opened up the table to all who desired. This story is at the heart of Christianity, and the call to courage and action manifested in the resurrection.

During this holiday season, I am immensely grateful for my Christian upbringing. I am also thankful that I have been able to explore and, as my dad has said, make my beliefs personal.

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Miracles Reappraised

I feel as though my prior, cursory treatment of spiritual experiences and the miraculous was inadequate, especially since it only addressed healing. In this post, I will seek to define a miracle, lay out modernist/philosophical objections, and conclude with a postmodernist/perspective-based model of miracles with God in the panentheistic sense being assumed.

The courage of being even in despair.

The courage of being even in despair.

What is a miracle? Assuming a theistic deity, a miracle today involves a God who intervenes from “out there” (outside of the universe?) in order to alter apparent laws of nature. The interventions occur randomly, often appearing to have little rhyme or reason; but more on this in a moment. Thus a miracle today consists of outdated perceptions of deity, in which accruing God’s favor through supplication is the primary vehicle for effecting a miraculous occurrence.

The modern era has yielded scientific and philosophical objections to this concept of a miracle. Scientific objections include a Newtonian-based reality in which the universe operates mathematically and is therefore closed to intervention. That is the primary reason for the emergence of deism in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a God of science. Although the Newtonian worldview has been challenged, the idea that there are scientific laws in the universe still retains a level of legitimacy. Beyond laws of nature, the problem of the potentially infinite vastness of the universe poses another problem to traditional ideas about miracles. From where does God intervene? As I alluded to earlier, is it outside the universe? How distant is God? Such is the problem with the theistic emphasis on divine objectification and transcendence, rather than a balance between immanence and transcendence. Finally, and perhaps most critical, is the philosophical problem of evil. Why does God let people suffer continually? How can God help some while letting others suffer? Though it has been stated before, how could God have allowed the Holocaust to happen without preventing millions of deaths? What about the genocide in Darfur today? Perhaps the words of the Epicurean Paradox will summarize best the conundrum of the theistic deity:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Perhaps then, the miraculous needs to be reappraised and understood differently. In this sense, phenomena deemed inexplicable due to the boundaries of science and the modern worldview are instead seen as “marvels” (see Crossan, “Birth of Christianity”). The postmodern understanding which I propose sees the miraculous in light of both the modern worldview and the power of perspective. In illustrating the power of perspective, the late author DF Wallace recounted a story of an atheist and a believer:

“There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.'” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was, was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”

In sum, the miraculous is in the eye of the beholder. However, I believe this dichotomy can be transcended. For one thing, God as both immanent and transcendent addresses the problem of where God is located. To illustrate this concept of the divine, I use this analogy (I think Marcus Borg has used it as well):

All that is (ie all that is part of being) is represented by a circle. God is represented by a larger circle which surrounds the first one.

This also addresses the issue of the Newtonian worldview. Marvels occur within the creative structure of being. In other words, the Newtonian world is merely the product of being itself. As I discussed in a prior post, they come about in moments of grace in which a person experiences the power of the divine through courage (which I use synonymously with faith).

The problem of evil also becomes irrelevant, as instead of the onus being placed on God to act as we endeavor to manipulate through prayer and other methods of gaining favor, the onus is on us to courageously move beyond all anxiety and experience the divine within; or, in a different sense, we experience the full potential of our humanity. With the theistic understanding, God interfered with free-will. However, with a panentheistic understanding, our free-will both enables us to experience (and exude) the divine, and, unfortunately, make us responsible as agents of suffering and tragedy. One who choses the latter option has surrendered to the despair of existence and only serves to spread it on to others. Natural tragedies as well are the unfortunate products of the structure of being. Suffering is a part of existence. Yet an immanent God is always within and around us when we suffer. We have the ability both within and without of ourselves to overcome 1) the negativity of anxiety and 2) estrangement from the divine throughout. That is the meaning of a participatory Kingdom of God, in which we transcend the perceived limits of ourselves to overcome the evils which appear to dominate.

A Mormon’s Survival Guide

CommunityOfChristLogo

This blog entry is specifically for my friends who are LDS and may be contemplating attending Community of Christ. I hope this also is able to bring a new perspective to my friends in Community of Christ, so that they may become better at reaching out to our LDS friends and truly making them feel welcomed at the table. I hope that both communities can use these tips and hopes that we can come together in “community” of Christ.

Survival Tip One: Don’t Trust Everything on the Internet.

My journey with Community Christ started with the internet. I had been vaguely aware of Community of Christ growing up, but I had heard lots of rumors. Rumors such as: “they no longer believe in the Book of Mormon, they believe Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet, and they no longer believe in the restoration.” There are many other things I’ve heard said, but these are the main falsehoods that are spread about Community of Christ. As you search the internet, you will find some Community of Christ members who may back up these claims, but keep in mind they only speak for themselves. The church’s official webpage acknowledges the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and The Restoration. All of them are seen as very important parts to the development of Community of Christ. There are countless of people who believe in the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and The Restoration just as strongly as LDS members, but there are those who don’t. This at first can be very confusing to us who share an LDS background. It’s hard for us to understand how this can possibly work and at times it can be frustrating to Community of Christ members on both sides, but remember Community of Christ affirms the Worth of All People and all our welcome at the table. If you have an LDS background and you have a strong testimony of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the Restoration don’t be afraid to share that with others. There are plenty of Community of Christ members who feel just as strongly about it as you.

Survival Tip Two: Open Yourself to Receive God’s Message

When I first started attending my local CofC congregation I was listening for someone to reference the Book of Mormon. Week after week passed and I heard nothing. Then one Sunday someone spoke from 3rd Nephi and I was like “finally!” Looking back on it, I missed a lot of important messages because I was fixated on wanting a book referenced. Remember that Community of Christ does affirm the Bible as the scriptural foundation of the church. The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants serve as additional witnesses of Christ’s love and mercy, so don’t be surprised if the Book of Mormon is not mentioned the Sunday you attend or if you attend for awhile and don’t hear it. Be patient and allow yourself to receive God’s message. Remember scripture is not to be worshiped.

Survival Tip Three: Introduce Yourself

When you attend the LDS church for the first time everyone wants to talk to you and they want to know what they can do for you and if they can share with you the “gospel.” The Community of Christ does not proselytize, so it may be likely that no one will pressure you to sit down, so they can share the “gospel” with you. Don’t take this the wrong way. They’re just not that interested in converting you. However, you may want to speak to someone about the church in further detail especially the church in your local area. There are a few things you can do. Some congregations have slips that you can fill out with your information you can do that and wait for someone to contact you, or you can introduce yourself to the “pastor” or a person presiding. Tell them you want to know more, and they will share with you. So, don’t be shy and don’t wait for someone to actively pursue you. Pursue them first!

Survival Tip Four: Jesus Must Be Your Foundation

John 14:6 clearly states: “I’m the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus is the foundation. While there are many things and mediums in which we can communicate with God we must acknowledge that ultimately he is what he says he is. Joseph Smith when asked about his religion said: “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it. But in connection with these, we believe in the gift of the Holy Ghost, the power of faith, the enjoyment of the spiritual gifts according to the will of God, the restoration of the house of Israel, and the final triumph of truth.” (Elders’ Journal, July 1838, p. 44) We make things so difficult. Tip Four is simply have Jesus as your foundation.

Survival Tip Five: What would Joseph Smith Do?

By this time you probably have a lot of questions and you probably have been dealing with the questions “What Should I Do?” “Where should I Go?” “What is right for my family?” etc. Remember you’re not alone with these questions and great men and women have struggled with the questions for centuries. When Joseph Smith was faced with these same questions, he turned to James 1:5-6 “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting…” As we know Joseph went into the grove and he prayed. He had an experience that changed his life and forever changed the lives of those who would know him as prophet. Final Survival Tip: Pray.

Sin & the Cross, and Why We Need Them

I want to share my recent blog post: The Cross, or Why We Need It.  It is on my blog.  I take on the dominant view of the cross about personal salvation and sin. My testimony is that the cross is a witness from the ancients about life in empire, the fate of God, & human relationships. I welcome your comments.

(Click to go to mattfrizzell.com)

What is the future of the Community of Christ in a North American post-RLDS perspective?

I just published a long-ish blog post that responds to the question, “What is the future of the Community of Christ in a North American post-RLDS perspective?” The post focuses on questions of Community of Christ identity in light of its North American heritage.

I share the link here to invite reactions and comments to my observations about the nature and limits of RLDS identity and how I believe Community of Christ logically fulfills essential non-sectarian strands of RLDS heritage in Restrationism and early American Christianity.   I welcome responses from Mormonites, ex-Mormons, Community of Christ members, Restorationists, historians, theologians, and others.

CLICK HERE to go directly to the post, or follow the links above to my blog.

Blessings,  Matt Frizzell

Some Walls Just Came Tumbling Down

The boundaries separating Community of Christ from other Christian denominations have just gotten considerably more porous.

Item No. 1:
Last week CofC leaders released details on new procedures for church membership for Christians previously baptized in other denominations. An interim policy takes effect January 1, 2011, and will be valid through the following August 31.

On September 1, 2011, an official policy becomes effective. It is anticipated that a new church-members introductory course will be available by that time, and all new prospective members will be required to complete it. Until then existing resources (Walking with Jesus: Disciples in Community of Christ and Sharing in Community or We Share: Identity, Mission, Message, and Beliefs) may be used by local authorities.

A key element in both the interim and official policies is that this procedure is only for those people who were baptized (1) at the age of eight or older and (2) their baptism involved water [full or partial immersion, pouring, or sprinkling]; in other words: infant baptism does not qualify. All people seeking membership in Community of Christ in this way must agree to a Shared Understanding of Baptism statement.

Included with the official announcement of this significant policy change was a letter from church president Stephen M. Veazey. In it he explains how the policy came into being, its direct connection to Doctrine and Covenants Section 164 (approved in April 2010 at World Conference), and a brief personal reflection.

Item No. 2:
On November 10, delegates to the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches U.S.A. unanimously approved Community of Christ for membership. A report by a NCC committee recommending approval is here (the report also includes the church’s “We Share” document). The NCC report makes for interesting reading, particularly the section that notes that the Community of Christ’s “founder” was not Joseph Smith Jr. but Joseph Smith III (admittedly, this information is provided by a representative of Roman Catholic bishops and excerpted from a letter by him to the committee).

The announcement on the church’s Web site is here. While this announcement is not totally unexpected (recall that the NCC’s general secretary, the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, addressed the CofC World Conference this year and expressed his strong support for this step), it does represent a significant (some would probably substitute “radical”) development in RLDS/Community of Christ history.

These separate announcements are not simply administrative actions, of course. There are major theological and historical issues involved. Clearly there are those who view this moment in the church’s long history as a leap into religious maturity while others see it as damning proof of apostasy.

Perhaps in both cases this becomes a core question: Now that the Community of Christ allows church membership for Christians without requiring rebaptism and the denomination is a part of the National Council of Churches USA, what difference is that going to make as the church (understood as a worldwide communion, national churches, mission centers, congregations, and faith movement) moves ahead?

In its shortened form, it’s simply this: So what?