I was thinking the other day, “It’s about time. After all, I visited his part of the world for the first time when I was but fourteen.”
It’s true. It was the first of many trips around the world that I was fortunate to take. My mother was a tour planner…tour leader, too. She and Dad would lead groups on trips to faraway places and my two brothers and I got to go. By the time I graduated high school, for example, I had been to Europe and the Middle East on three occasions, but also to the Scandinavian countries, as well as the far east including Russia, China, Thailand, and Japan. Hawaii was included in all those trips too.
It was a remarkable childhood, to say the least.
You can imagine then, to a young Baptist boy growing up in a conservative Southern Baptist church with its conventional notions of Divine exclusivity and its theological propensity to act as the self-appointed guardians of God’s grace, that I would see things in my travels that would lead me to question my narrow upbringing.
Before traveling the world, for example, the most “other” in terms of religion I had ever known was another Catholic. So, when we visited Rome for the first time, I found myself wandering around the Basilica of San Pietro with thousands of other Catholics who were waiting for the appearance of the Pope. I could not help but wonder who these Catholics were and where they had come from. I knew that Baptists could trace their lineage all the way back to John the Baptist himself but, I wondered, when after us did these Catholics appear?
LOL! I had a rather limited understanding of Christian history at age fourteen.
What I did have, however, was the curiosity to ask questions. Even hard ones. So, as someone else has said, I, too, was born with a WHY chromosome. I’ve questioned things all my life.
I heard a psychic on the radio the other day advertising her services.
“You have problems? I’ve got answers. Call me at 1 – 800…”
I thought. “If you are so psychic, wouldn’t you know who had a problem and call them?”
My propensity to question has led me to the conclusion: Christian fundamentalism doesn’t work anymore. Not only in its more extreme forms, as in Islamic fundamentalism. We all know that does not work. Nor can it be tolerated. But, fundamentalism does not work in it’s tamer versions either. In the tamer versions of Christian fundamentalism, for example, followers vent their anger on the world they’ve failed to save by believing in and praying for the imminent return of Jesus and the rapture of the church. In other words, since they’ve failed to save the world, they pray and long to get the hell out of it.
A kind of paranoid schezophrenia fundamentalist Christianity.
Fundamentalism, either in its harsher forms or milder versions, has never worked. But this is especially true today.
In our increasingly scientific and pluralistic world, fundamentalist theology unravels at almost every seam. I’m becoming more and more aware of this and I suppose I’m becoming a bit bolder in my public admission of it, too. God has not appointed me, nor has God appointed you, to be his guardian over truth. For one thing, you and I “can’t handle the truth.” But it’s also because our little minds and even smaller egos too often try to squeeze God into our little box of limited explanations. In other words, we are guilty of the very thing God warns against – “fashioning God into an image we can manage…control…manipulate…put parameters around…and, basically, just incarcerate in our little heads.
But God is not only bigger and grander than you can imagine, God is bigger and grander than you can imagine.
For me, the shift in my thinking began even at fourteen when we visited Kathmandu, Nepal. That beautiful city that sits under the shadow of the snow-covered Himalayan Mountains. Can you imagine how impactful it was to observe, as I did, the Buddhist Monks in prayer and meditation, sitting in the familiar Lotus position, draped in their saffron-colored robes?
“What do they believe?” I asked myself.
“How is it so different from what I believe?”
“If God is a God of love but Christianity is the only way to know God…the only way to go to heaven, why would God permit so many other religions?”
“Why would he allow so many nice people to be so misled, too?”
My confusion was compounded when, after meeting some of them and then exchanging conversations with the monks who knew English, I discovered that they were actually happy in their faith. They weren’t the bit interested in my more enlightened way…my truer path to God. They seemed quite content with the path they were following. Furthermore, when I learned some of them had been sitting in meditation for days without food or water, I remember thinking, “When have I ever seen that degree of discipline or dedication even among the most dedicated Christians I’ve known?”
I had not. Why? Because most Christians are not that dedicated. Nor are they that sincere. This is no judgment. It’s just a fact.
The really big question came to me after having made friends with some of them. That question was, “If I’m going to heaven because I believe in Jesus but they’re going to hell because they don’t, how am I going to be happy in heaven knowing these happy monks are suffering in the flames of hell?”
My narrow, fundamentalist theology of exclusivity was falling apart even at that very young age. Yet, like many Christians then and many Christians still now, including many ministers who draw their livelihood from fundamentalist Christian congregations, I learned to stay quiet about what I was really thinking…what I was really believing…even through my own seminary days where I earned a doctorate in theology and went from there to serve as a Baptist pastor…I kept quite about what was going on inside my truer self, my higher self, because, to admit publicly the questions I had would have been tantamount to career suicide.
This is why I receive almost daily today emails from Christians ministers, priests, pastors, from virtually every denomination across America – Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, notwithstanding – and, they all say virtually the same thing. “I believe much of what you write about Steve but, if I were to admit this from my pulpit, my ministry would be over.”
I learned the hard way, my friends, you cannot live a lie and pretend to be a happy Christian or believe things you really do not believe. Oh, I suppose you can and many do. Sooner or later, however, and, for me, it came sooner than later, the curtain will drop on your theological charade…you phony belief system. If salvation, as Christians call it, or enlightenment as Zen Buddhists call it, is anything at all, it is inner wholeness…integrity…peace inside, even within paradox and contradiction. If you’re trying to make yourself believe something that, “just ain’t so,” as Mark Twain would put it, or preaching one thing but, in your heart, believing something else, just know that you’re likely on board an emotional and spiritual train wreck that’s just waiting to happen.
And, guess what?
Life will find a way of bringing your duplicitous journey to a screeching halt.
It did me. I’ve written about that in The Enoch Factor: The Sacred Art of Knowing God.
On this day, at fourteen, in Kathmandu, Nepal, we visited the famous Swayambunath Temple, known to most tourists as the “Monkey Temple” because monkeys actually live there.
When our tour group was ready to return to the bus, I was still standing near the Zen monks, transfixed as I watched them sitting motionless in meditation. I thought, “It’s just a show…surely, at any moment, one of them will twitch with discomfort or peek to see who was watching.”
They never did.
Fearing I might be more impressed than I should be by their devotion…their discipline, detachment, dedication…or, worse, their happiness and contentment, one of the little Baptist ladies in our tour group came over and stood by me. Presently, she whispered in my ear, “Look at those poor monks praying to a God they do not know.”
Then, she picked up the familiar, fundamentalist refrain: “Why, if only they knew our sweet Jesus”…it came out like – ‘schweet Jesus’ – the way some southerns ask for ‘schweet’ tea in small town cafes’ – “why,” she said with such certainty…”I know but those poor souls do not”…”why,” she continued, “if they just knew our sweet Jesus, they would go to heaven when they die…instead of that other terrible awful place.”
My Christian friends, this is the madness that must end.
I was just fourteen years old that day outside the Monkey Temple in Kathmandu. No kid could have been more self-centered, more self-absorbed, or more pretentious than I. Yet, I can distinctly remember feeling offended by the sincere but sincerely wrong old Baptist lady. I wanted to look up at her and say…
“What makes you so certain you’re right and they’re wrong?”
“What if they’re right, and you’re wrong?”
What is it in you and me that wants to make God into a manageable deity?
The psalmist said, “The fool says ‘No god’!” (Ps.14:1).
I think the psalmist today might say, “The fools say, ‘We KNOW God’!”
No God. Know God. I’m not sure which fool is the bigger.