A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity

By Spencer Burke 2006 (excerpts from his book)

The philosopher Archibald MacLeish declared that ˜a world ends when its metaphor has died’, and modernity’s metaphor has surely died.

Dissent is not disloyalty. The business guru Art Kleiner said that ‘a heretic is someone who sees a truth that contradicts the conventional wisdom of the institution “ and remains loyal to both entities.’

What if Bonhoeffer was right? (refer to the previous ˜ideas from the edge’) What if the last nineteen hundred years of Christian theology and practice were just a temporary form of self-expression? What if we have now reached the point where we can live beyond religion? Could it be that we will soon see the spirit released in the world in brand-new ways, without the baggage of religion? Could it be that the eventual collapse of current religious systems will in fact prove to be a literal high-water mark in faith “ that in fact many of the ‘fundamentalists’ aren’t fundamental after all? For years, preachers have appealed to people to join the church and experience Christian salvation using this phrase, ‘It’s about relationship, not religion.’ The only problem is that it’s seldom true. In actuality, the relationship promised by religion is usually predicated on commitment to the institution as much as it is to God. You don’t have to be in church for long to figure out what the expectations are “ whether it’s tithing, teaching Sunday school, praying or going to confession “ and what they expect you to believe becomes even more apparent.

Rather than facilitating a dialogue between followers and God, the church has a tendency to interpret individual’s relationship with God for them. Rather than responding to the call of god on their life directly, individuals often find themselves responding to the call of the church. What seems like obedience to the teachings of Christ is often adherence to external and dogmatic belief systems. This ‘false advertising’ of sorts has no doubt also contributed to the interest in new spiritual paths.

For the most part, Christianity seems frozen in history “ and recent history at that. When it comes to Scripture and its interpretation, modernity rules. Try as they might, most Christians today can’t seem to get out of the quagmire of modern views regarding the role and function of religion. They may put a new label on the box, but the contents remain unchanged. For a society looking for alternative ways to practice faith, that’s just not good enough. The product simply isn’t compelling. We need to move past religion. I believe the time is right for another way of looking at the Christian message, freed from the confines of religion and open to the possibility of a radical new incarnation and manifestation. The message of Jesus needs to evolve for our times.

In Mark ch 2, Jesus says ‘No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins.’ Here Jesus cautions the movement he is calling into being against appearing new or even progressive when it is in fact ‘old,’ meaing fundamentally connected to the dominant symbolic order. To do such a thing would jeopardize Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God. The old order was not sufficient to contain Jesus’ radical message, and that is just as true today.

This tendency to hold on to the familiar remains a problem for many followers of god today. Religion becomes a place we retreat to, where we hear the old stories, lovingly preserved but frightfully disconnected from the realities of life.

Views toward religion in society have changed drastically over the years. Many people no longer seem to need a religious structure to practice their faith. Religion today functions as a sort of second-tier resource, providing tools, rituals, and concepts for those developing new ways of practicing faith¦. I’m not saying that religion and religious institutions will disappear anytime soon, simply that our relationship to them has already changed.

I see religion as a human construct “ useful in some cultural contexts and potentially harmful in others.

Spiritually, some people see the growing divide between religion and spirituality as a loss. They bemoan the shift away from religion and decry secularism because they cannot conceive of alternative ways of encountering God. But with the loss of religion comes the opportunity for other ways of practicing faith to emerge.

Throughout history, religions have attempted to unify the world by seeking converts to their particular visions of the relationships between humanity and the divine. They’ve offered humanity a global vision of life’s ultimate meaning as filtered through their teachings. But more often than not, these efforts have been perceived as attempts at dominance, making for an uneasy relationship with the world. Religion, it seems, is often about what makes us different and separates us, while spirituality seems to be more about what we can hold in common and what might connect us. Religion, by nature, always tries to divide.

.. Christians ¦ presume that God’s primary occupation is the ˜hell and judgement’ business. But what if we’ve got it wrong? What if God’s primary occupation isn’t punishment for sin? Truth be known, most Christians have conceived of a God who is less forgiving and less compassionate than they are.

Christianity sees itself as the broker between Jesus and the culture. ‘If you want to find Jesus,’ it declares, ‘you must come to church. Here we’ll show you how to receive Jesus’ primary gift of salvation.’ But the primary function of religion is not to be a mediator between God and humanity. Instead, Jesus forges a direct relationship between humanity and the kingdom.

The role of religion, then, is to point the way to god, not to control the flow. The goal is not to make people forever dependent on religion or the church for communion with God, but rather to help them on their journey. Salvation is something that happens between God and people individually and has communal implications.

John Drane recently published a book titled Do Christians Know How to Be Spiritual? It’s a fascinating question, really.

I believe we need to present the message of Jesus outside of brand Christianity. We need to present grace in such a way as to generate wonder and amazement.

Maybe the greatest gift the Christian religion can offer the world right now is to remove itself from the battle for God. Perhaps it’s time to release the claim to universal privilege it grants itself as the only ‘true religion.’ I realise this may sound mad to some people, but I trust that others will be excited by the prospect of encountering the message of Jesus without the baggage of brand Christianity.

A secular society does not by default mean a godless one. It more accurately means a ˜religionless’ one. The stage has been set for a new manifestation of the Christian story “ a secular version “ outside the confines and constraints of the religious realm. Not all the mechanisms are in place yet for helping people engage with Christian ideas about God and faith outside of Christianity, but they are beginning to develop. The cultural shift in favour of spirituality over religion and toward a God freed from the constraints of religious dogmatism and feudalism is exciting. The table is being set for the future, and I believe we will see the ideas that have captured humanity’s imagination about God for centuries transitioned into new contexts. Grace is bigger than any religion. Grace cannot be bound by any humanly constructed religion. Religion needs to embrace grace if it is to offer any hope to the world.

What if religion is only a step on the ladder to heaven and not the top rung? What if religion only carries us so far and cannot get us all the way to our destination?

No doubt part of religion’s demise can be seen as symptomatic of an increasingly postmodern culture. I hesitate to use the ‘p-word’ because I really don’t want to get into a struggle over what postmodernism is and isn’t. But semantics aside, I think it’s clear that the way people engage with and practice their faith, whatever it may be, is changing. Generally speaking, objectivity is being replaced by subjectivity. People today often take their cues from their own internal life rather than external institutions. (DA comment “ postmodernism leads to relationship not religion)

Grace ¦ is a subversive and scandalous twist in human history. Religion declares that we are separated from God, that we are ‘outsiders.’ Grace tells us the opposite; we are already in unless we want to be out. This is the real scandal of Jesus. His message eradicated the need for religion. Christians have reduced the grace encounter to the recitation of the ‘Sinners Prayer’ “ a prayer, by the way, that you won’t find anywhere in the Bible but is widely regarded as the way conversion begins. Repentant sinners acknowledge that Christ died for their sins on the cross at Calvary, providing salvation for all through his sacrifice. The assumption is that once people repeat this prayer, they are born again and will go to heaven when they die. It is a lovely idea, but once again, it reduces the human-divine relationship to a onetime transaction rather than a lifetime journey.

To be honest, I have no desire to reform the church. Unlike Luther, I’m for Protestant transformation, not reformation. I don’t want to make Christianity hip or cool. A number of people are attempting to do this already. Will adding coffee or candles ‘fix’ the church? Last time I checked, people weren’t rejecting institutional religion because they didn’t like the ambience; they’re rejecting it because they don’t relate to the message, the ideas, or the concepts it advances about God and life.

To speak about moving beyond institutional faith is not an attempt at being cools as much as an acknowledgement that we live in a new age in which the restraints of religion inhibit the flow of God’s grace into the world.

  • I’m concerned when Jesus’ death is brokered by Christianity simply as a business transaction.
  • I’m concerned when institutional Christianity is so married to a particular political ideology that it supports policies and actions counter to the message of Jesus.
  • I’m concerned when institutions demand their biblical interpretations to be the ultimate source of absolute truth and then use this truth to condemn and judge.
  • I’m concerned when Christianity is presented as the only way to God.
  • I’m concerned when institutions use the name of Jesus to maintain a patriarchal system that perpetuates women’s status as second-class citizens.

The institutional church has come to be known over the years for its obsession with boundaries. It seems to spend so much of its time monitoring other people to see what they are and aren’t doing. It creates formulas to determine who’s in and who’s out, who’s lost and who’s saved. On the occasions when these formulas don’t seem to work, the church often tries to strong-arm the situations and explain them away with phrases like ‘lack of faith’ or ‘blinded by the devil.’

The Christianity most of us are familiar with is built on answers. I was raised on a ‘Jesus is the answer’ form of faith, which implied that Christianity is the definitive answer to every single on of life’s problems “ even those that are not specifically addressed in the Bible. Imagine my surprise to hear Alan Jones of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco say that the ‘task of the Christian minister is to guard the great questions.’ Indeed, that’s the very thing institutional churches today generally don’t do. They don’t ask questions. They present answers “ answers to questions that people in our culture aren’t even asking. Institutional faith is struggling today because it is formulaic and knowledge-based in a world that is fluid, flexible, and open to new ways of learning an interacting.

Like most institutions, the church has a desire to survive. To do that, it must follow certain laws. One of the primary laws of institutional survival is that the majority takes precedence over the minority. Institutions have to place more value on their own survival than on individual survival. As the late advertising guru Tibor Kalman once said, ‘Religion works better for corporations than for people.’ Max Weber, the sociologist who defined the modern age as an ‘iron cage’ ruled by bureaucrats and experts, said that social systems can be organised in three ways “ by the sword, by the purse, or by the word.