At the Threshold is compiling some of the notable pieces we have published. Soon, we will have a downloadable collection available on our website. Please take the time to read this article by Joe Morris Doss, which we first published on Oct. 11, 2013. You may also read more Notable Voices on our site.

 
By Joe Morris Doss
 
At the Threshold’s call for church reform tends to aim at the need within the institutional church to confront abuses like fundamentalism and discrimination, but there is also need to address those who stand outside of the church and argue against the faith. In particular there seems to be a growing industry that sells versions of the faith that are as simplistic as they are incorrect. The industry ranges from TV programs that sensationalize assertions and speculations, to conferences for self-congratulations of the utterly secularized, to books that debunk theology.

The general view being promulgated today is that faith is for the silly or the naïve. Part of what makes this frustrating for the informed believer is that what is being offered are merely restatements or reformulations of tired old theories, long since dismissed. I recently received a message from a close friend that offered an example of what that anti-faith industry is saying. It made me long for real and substantial doubt instead of the pablum being offered on the streets today.

My friend enjoys my respect as well as affection; he is a bright professional with talent, a fine mind, and a good heart. (I also know that he was raised in an intellectually unsustainable evangelicalism.) He asked me about a conference soon to be held in London, during which a historian named Joseph Atwill is scheduled to propose that the Roman aristocracy conjured up the Jesus story in an attempt to “…control, defeat and influence the Jews.” My friend believes that this theory helps explain the similarity of the Jesus story to prior religions that offered saviors and messiahs. He went on to declare that there is nothing new about the New Testament account that wasn’t to be found in some prior religion or religious figure. Furthermore, his sources indicate that we cannot be sure Jesus really existed, but all that can be said for certain is that someone of that name lived at around that time.

My first thought was to recall a conversation I had with a PhD Marxist professor of Charles University in Prague in 1969, a serious conversation in which we challenged each other with doubt about our beliefs that struck home, that made us reach deep within to see if we really believed our claims and our general posture toward life. These were the heady days of the Marxist-Christian dialogue before Russia completely suppressed the Czechoslovakia Spring. I remember Professor Julius Tomin admitting that the Marxists usually lost the debates with Christians, “…because, after all, you have the best thinking of the last two thousand years to back you up. Still, I think we are right and you are wrong.”

I recalled the content of this conversation in comparison to the rubbish being placed before my friend and considered how valuable it is to face genuine and profound doubt for the development of genuine and profound faith.

It then occurred to me that one of the important reasons Christianity, or faith of any sort, is in decline within today’s western society is rooted in the level of doubt we face. Are we up against a worthy foe, perhaps another great religion or a threatening philosophy? No, Christians in our society oppose the pitiful and small anxieties of a society that operates at an anti-intellectual and surface level of obsession with consumerism and facile experiences, trying with frantic desperation to encounter meaningful reality that is actual, and that is in the present while drowning in the immediately past and the constantly looming future. How are people to know faith when questions get stuck at a “Sunday School” level — for those who have an atheistic desire to tear down faith, and for the popular understanding of the Christian faith?

I had to assure my friend that respected historians, Christian and non-Christian, are in agreement that the man Jesus actually walked the earth. Marxist professor Julius Tomin had no problem acknowledging this as a fact, based on many independent sources. But in addition, Marxist Professor Tomin would have laughed at the assertion that there was nothing new in the Jesus story; he would have deemed it non-sense. Then he would have asked some pressing question about Christian claims to special revelation: Why has Jesus been accepted in the West, as though he came to them instead of to the world?

To answer my friend: The stance of Christians is that God is and has been available to everyone at all times and in all places, revealing the divine love and purposes since the beginning. If one looks deeply enough, Christians believe the reason can be seen for why Greek Christians termed Jesus “The Logos,” the pre-existent “Word.” This has been a way of saying that the good news in Christ, indeed the Christ himself, has been available to everyone everywhere, well before and apart from the man given the very common name of Jesus. That is, the faithful can see the fullness of what was revealed about God and God’s relations to creation in the Jesus story prior to the first century and apart from Israel and Christianity. But then “The Logos” became flesh, and that makes the difference. It is sad to have people who have some sort of need to prove “non-belief” pervert this “logos theology” in an assertion that what was unique about the man and his good news is just a re-run, or another way of saying what was already there.

For example, the news of Jesus about the Kingdom of God cannot be reduced to and equated with other faith assertions about “after-life.” That is not what the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed comes down to. The use of this kind of fallacious reductionism is the normative methodology of argument made by today’s pop-atheists. (Christianity is not unique; there are always people who will get in the face of anyone expressing faith — whether it is faith in God or in science or in art, or in anything else) That is, they reduce that which is unique into a generalized religious proposition and then equate them in order to dismiss each.

I can only imagine how the thesis will be made by Atwill that Romans were out to invent a new religious movement for the purpose of, somehow, doing-in the Jews — something for which the Empire needed no help or “covert CIA-like activity.” At the Threshold calls Christians to face into real doubt — why there is a lack of justice in the world, why there is suffering, why there is something instead of nothing, and so on. At the end of the deliberations and challenges awaits the pearl, the one thing that counts: faith in the Kingdom of God that is at hand.
 


By Joe Morris Doss

Spiritual Without Being Religious. Really?

Sounds sort of nice, but what does that mean?

In 1960 I was a youth delegate to The 1960 White House Conference on Children and Youth. Ike was president and greeted us to the conference. I recall him saying that he was concerned about a future in which so many youth seemed uncommitted and had trouble articulating any belief. He noted that some pundits had dubbed us “The Lost Generation.” Then he concluded, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe.” It was only a short time later that I opened Time Magazine to see a young teenager sitting on a hospital table for an examination before having an abortion, and crying. She was wearing a sweatshirt with the quote: “It Doesn’t Matter What You Believe As Long As You Believe.” My memory is that my heart went out to her, and I hoped she could believe in her future.

I think of that from time to time, and consider how well the quote spoke to the rising generation’s besetting religious issue. Most young people of that generation were raised either Christian or Jewish, but many more than the previous generations were easing away from the faith handed to them by their family and society. Many of these remained churchgoers and considered themselves “religious,” but they were adhering more to cultural expectations and had less of a grip on what made their belief distinctive and meaningful. They developed, as I put it, a strong Christian memory but they were satisfied with little “belief,” and what they held was largely sentimentality. Ike was right about his anxiety, but in my opinion he had the wrong solution. Belief is not a value in itself and belief in “whatever” can be a form of self-delusion.

The next generations eased on down the line in the process of going from “religious without formed belief” to today’s “spiritual without religion.” A New York Times article by Mark Oppenheimer  provides information about the latest developments in this pattern of being “spiritual without being religious”: “So many Americans describe their belief system this way that pollsters now give the phrase its own category on questionnaires. In the 2012 survey by the Pew Religion and Public Life Project, nearly a fifth of those polled said that they were not religiously affiliated — and nearly 37 percent of that group said they were ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious.’ It was 7 percent of all Americans, a bigger group than atheists, and way bigger than Jews, Muslims or Episcopalians.”

The Rev. Lillian Daniel wrote a book on the subject, “When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough” (Jericho, 2013). Her frustration resonates for me. What can being spiritual mean without the presence of the divine? I’m not talking about the presence of the divine in beautiful scenes of nature or sentimental memories, but what does being spiritual mean without mining down deep into one’s selfhood to discover the incarnational reality of God in whom human beings live and move and have our being?

I feel a bit guilty in saying so, but without what spiritual mining is about and without living in a community of those committed to one another and to the service of the world, I find the phrase “spirituality” rather empty. What is this spirit, from whence does it come, why is it there and for what?

The Rev. Daniel speaks for me in pointing out that “spirituality,” in and of itself, fits too snugly with complacency, whereas religion challenges the faithful to deal with life and with what requires courage and faith, which absorbs and uses both the pain and the opportunities in facing death, fighting poverty and opposing injustice. Religion, by bringing people together, in community, at regular intervals, facilitates an ongoing conversation about matters outside the self, and making for selfhood.

“Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me,” she writes. “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”

Spirituality without being religious? Really?


By Robert Mann

In the struggle for equality, past is prologue. In the Fifties and Sixties, many Southern politicians opposed racial equality, but for the sake of respectability couldn’t reveal their racism and prejudice. So, they hid behind principles of “freedom of association,” “states’ rights” and private property rights. They argued the federal government had no right to order school desegregation or require businesses to serve black citizens.

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