Sunday, December 11, 2016

Bible Based, Christ Centered, and Interfaith Christianity

Joel Osteen closes his radio sermon with the recommendation, “get into a Bible Based Church.” There’s more to what he says but this phrase “Bible Based Church” is one that rings out.  I like listening to Joel Osteen driving to work.  He’s one of the greatest pastors of our day sharing the message of Jesus Christ in such a way as to reach out to a large swath of people.  Often his message touches me deeply.  His inspiration has helped me drive to work and start my day positively.
I belong to the Christian Medical and Dental Association. EMAS Canada is a “Christ Centred” medical organization that provides international medical services to under serviced areas.  It is inter denominational with doctors coming from Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox faiths.  I look forward to one day serving in a medical mission capacity.
Before the Roman Catholic Church there was nearly 300 years of Christian ministry,churches and persecution.  I first learned of this era  from reading Dr. Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity.  The Bible itself ends not with the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross or with his Resurrection and the witnesses who saw him but rather with the evangelism of the apostles going out to spread the story along with the newly converted Christian persecuter, Saul, who came to be known as  St. Paul.
The Roman Catholic Church began after Constantine had his Christian vision in 312 AD before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine became the Emperor of the Roman Empire, convening the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325 AD.  Constantine made Christianity,  the State Religion of the Roman Empire, having not that long before fed them to the lions in their Coliseum games.  It is said that Constantine had less interest in the church than the unification of the Empire.  The concept of “Orthodoxy” followed because there was from that point a ‘Consensus’ teaching in the church influenced by the authoritarinism of the Emperor.
The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in eleven of the Quamram caves between 1946 and 1956, some 981 texts dating from the three centuries BCE to the first century AD.  These were mostly Hebrew and Aramic texts of the Jewish bible extending knowledge of the historical teachings of Jerusalem.  The Nag Hammadi library was a collection of 54 ancient texts found sealed in a jar in Upper Egypt in 1945. They have been called the Gnostic Gospels representing the teaching of various spiritual leaders between 2nd and 4th century AD. Gnostic Gospels was the first of several of Elaine Pagels books I would go on to read.  Elaine Pagels, a religious historian,  is the Princeton Professor of Religion,
 There are many writings and bibles through history, our present Holy Bible (I prefer the NIV) is a product of scholarship and censorship and selection.  I was blessed to see the Book of Kells in Trinity College, Dublin a couple of years ago. The Book of Kells is the 9th century medieval manuscript of the Gospels.  I had been so impressed by the Thomas Cahill’s series including  How the Irish Saved Civilization talking of the monks travelling back across Europe carrying with them little hand printed gospels. We saw that day, part of  the Book of Kells  exhibition, these little hand printed gospels the monks carried.
I’ve read the Bible through several times having first studied it with Dr. Carl Ridd at University of Winnipeg, which began as a United Church seminary.  I actually found the Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda in their library having been given a copy to read by my first mother in law, Maija, a nurse midwife.  Paramahansa taught that one must develop a “Christ Consciousness” within.  Paramahansa Yogananda had been India’s representative to the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston in 1920.
The International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) is the world’s first international inter religious organization founded in 1900 in the UK.  A quote from Vaclav Havel is “Seek the company of those who are searching for the truth and avoid those who have found it.” The purpose of the IARF is "to work for freedom of religion and belief because it is a precious human right that enables the best within our religious lives, or our search for truth or enlightenment, to flourish."
Evelyn Underhill wrote “Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness.” in 1911. Underhilll laid out the foundation of what today would be called “spirituality’. I studied "Christian spirituality”, once called Christian mysticism,  with Dr. James Houston at Regent College.  His book called " Transforming Power of Prayer”  is now a classic.  After much blessed learning from this great and humble man, and discussions with my most enlightened colleague and friend Dr. John Christianson , a catholic often guided most by the teachings of St. Francis,  I gathered  insights into the depth of their faith,
I’ve recently began studying St. Thomas, the ‘doubting Thomas’ of the Bible.  One of the 12 Disciples, he travelled through the East sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.  The Eastern church was much larger than the western church.  I had been to Cappadocia visitting the monastery of St. Gregory of Cappadocia so I knew something of the importance of the eastern church. But the extent to which it had spread and how many Christians had been there was not apparent to me till I studied the conquests of Mohammed and his followers seeing just how many Christians and churches they had destroyed.  They forced conversion to Islam on all.  They really were conquerers in the modern ISIS tradition.   Those who resisted were still persecuted but a  remainder survived as a strictly restricted minority.  Yet once the whole region of what is now known as Islam had been thriving with Christians.  The Crusaders only stopped the conquest of Islam at Venice Italy, and later pushed the Muslims out of Spain.
St. Thomas himself was crucified but his church lives on in Kerala India.  I am reading St. Thomas, the Divine Light of India and enjoying it thoroughly.
Christianity's major early divisions had been Rome and Constantine as the Roman Empire moved it’s centred  the church followed.  The Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox divisions followed along with the  Orthodox Christian which spread to St. Petersburg and Moscow regions.  Each of these three divisions of Christianity in their own right claim to be the direct descendent  of the Rock of St. Peter.  As well there was this Eastern spread of the church and another southern  major division of the church represented by Alexandria, Egypt and the Coptic Church .  I have yet to explore the teachings of this division having just read the extraordinary tale of the eastern Armenian Church which survived such persecution under the Muslims.  I visitted Armenian churches when I was in Istanbul a couple of years ago visitting the centre of the Greek Orthodox church which still resides in Constantine despite the Muslim invasion and conquest in 1453.
Personally I understand  Christianity as a religion to have three foundations. I sometimes think of them as compass points of reference .  These can be considered the pillars of the religion.  Obviously there is Jesus and the Gospels, his life and teachings as recorded by Mathew, Mark, Luke and John.  Further there is the New Testament of the Holy Bible which includes these Gospels but also the work and teachings of Jesus’ immediate apostles and St. Paul.  These are the written works and there is much commentary and interpretation of them over the years by various leaders and teachers of the church.  This is the intellectual, philosophical, theological, historical, book learned, academic basis of Christianity. It really is an immense and  rich study. I am thankful mostly to Dr. James Houston for his Regent College course on the fathers of the church and the basis of Christian Spirituality as well as  the courses at St. Mark’s Catholic College with UBC Professor Emerita of Classics, Shirley Sullivan.
The second pillar is the church itself. It’s this congregation of people and teachers and fellowship of followers and students of those teachings, central to which is the “Holy Bible”.  The Holy Bible is a combination of the New Testament and the Old Testament. The Old Testament is the Jewish Bible, or it’s collection of works including the Torah and prophets and selected historical teachings and the psalms or songs that the Jewish people sung up to and including the time of Jesus on to today.  Jesus was a Jew and a Rabbi of the Jewish religion and Jews for Jesus today see Christianity as the extension of Jewish teaching. Indeed this was the way St. Mathew principally saw it but it was mostly Paul that saw Christianity as more of a new ‘world religion’.
Today the Church is the place of worship and fellowship and discussion and where one works out ones own Christian behaviour in an "adopted family” so to speak.  We call ourselves Brothers and Sisters in Christ in this community.  One is baptized into the church as John the Baptist baptized Jesus.  Some ancient rituals are a part of the worship and prayer and despite variations there is a commonality that is comforting as in the  sense of coming home. It has indeed been said that there are two things one definitely can’t do alone, be ‘married’ and ‘be a Christian’.
(My own churches have included Dufferin Street Baptist in Toronto, Trinity Baptist in Winnipeg, Fort Garry United, and later St. John’s Anglican Chilliwack, Christ Church Cathedral Vancouver. In Saipan I attended the Methodist Church and the Pentecostal Church.  In Vancouver in recent years I have been a member of Christ Church Cathedral and St. James Anglican.  With the departure of Farther Mark and his family from St. James I’ve been looking about again for a church family falling back on Christ Church where I was baptized some 15 years ago. As a baptist I was Christened in the Baptist Church but as an adult was baptized Anglican. To complicate things I was further baptized in the Jordan River in Israel.  One baptism is considered sufficient but some of us are more unwashed than others it could be argued.
The third basis of Christianity is a personal experience of Jesus Christ, which some call ‘conversion’.  C.S. Lewis described this as ‘surprised by joy’.  Dr. Houston calls this the personal relationship one has with the trinitarian God, three gods in one, God the Father , in relationship with God the Son, Jesus Christ, and in relationship with the Holy Spirit.   Christianity is monotheistic.  But Dr. Houston makes clear that  its a personhood religion, God is three person’s and it is in our personhood, in relation we meet. This is where the whole idea of mysticism, prayer, meditation and spirituality are central.  Central to all major religions there is this ecstatic or meditative direct conscious with God experience which is the nectar of spiritual life. Dr. Houston states that one needs a spiritual director to guide this aspect of the development of Christian awareness.Certainly St. John of the Cross, the great Christian mystic was the spiritual director for St. Theresa of Avila the other greater Christian mystic who began the Catholic Carmelite order  of monks and nuns noted for their deep meditative practices.
When neuroscientist Mario de Beuregard wanted to study the meditative state with neuroimaging and PET Scans he did research on Carmelite nuns and showed that their whole brains literally lit up in the ecstasy of their inner peace. His book Spiritual Brain discusses his studies and work. St. Theresa described the experience of mystical communion with Jesus as the Inner Castle.
Thomas Merton the Trappist Monk and mystic studied and meditated with the Buddhist monks describing their relationships at variance with the often erroneous idea of the drug induced mystical experience of the psychedelic era,  Alone  kids ‘tripped out’ with often quite negative experiences of grandiose delusions or  ‘bad trips’.  The Lazy’s Man’s Guide to Enlightenment by Thaddeus Golas charted the positive discovery of those years. William James classic, Varieties of Religion Experience, a Study in Human Nature would document man’s religious search.
In the mystical practices of  aboriginal experiences  the various tribal groups using hallucinogens and other sometimes painful means would induce altered consciousness which would then be guided bymedicine men,  myths and stories. The point is, these experiences were not in isolation but  guided and part of the community.   Tantric Yoga, a form of Kundalina Yoga using various consciousness altering and centering techniques  accepted the use of hallucinogens but only under the guidance of   masters as alone the practices even in ancient times were considered dangerous.  .
Having learned the practices of meditation with the Self Realization Fellowship as taught by Paramahansa Yogananda I found these same teachings in those of the Desert Fathers and specifically in St. Gregory’s writings.  The Mind Body study at Harvard University with Herbert Benson MD looked at the physiological health benefits of meditation using techniques I’d learned in my 20’s taught by the Desert Fathers and by HIndus and Buddhists. I meditated with a Benedictine monk using the same practices as the Indians.  Most recently I was studying “Mindfulness Meditation” a psychiatric variation on a Buddhist based form of meditation which I’d found a variation of in the works of St. John of the Cross.
I have been interested as a martial artist and hunter in the hunter warrior training of meditation and peace which has always made Christianity attractive to the greatest of military leaders.  A Constantine scholar actually argued that Constantine converted because the best fighters of the day were  Christian Centurions. It’s not surprising that a Centurion of faith is featured so prominently in the Gospels.  Mere Christianity is the book that followed the radio talks C. S. Lewis gave to the soldiers and beleaguered England in the Battle of Britain.  St. Joan d'Arc and the Crusader Saints had no difficulty with the discipline of Christian religious study. Equally interesting is the Quaker and Mennonite pacifist sects of today’s Christianity where so many heros of war come from.   These men commonly serve as stretcher bearers in the heat of combat but will not kill.
In Cappadocia I was able to watch a group of Sufis, the mystical Muslims Sufi,  dance together into a state of bliss.  As a professionally trained dancer, having known the mystical state that can come with the highest levels of physical training,  I had no doubt that they had reached the state of bliss, that entering place that is indescribable to those who having experienced it ,nonetheless often  attempt to describe it.  One of my personal favourite descriptions of this was the Cloud of Unknowing, described in a book written by a medieval monk. The Inter Faith community and ecumenical movements have sought to find common cores of experience and teaching.  In the mystical experiences there is commonality commonly but the differences arise in the interpretation and meaning ascribed to the experience.
Together these pillars of experience and revelation are to me like compass points which I use to guide my own course of spiritual development.  As a Ships Captain and Ocean Navigator I need points of reference to plot my course.  I can use points along the land when I am sailing along the coast or can take lines of reference from sun, moon and stars  to see where they cross as I do in Celestial Navigation.  So in traditional or orthodox Christianity a Christian uses these pints of reference.
Martin Luther, the priest who broke from the Roman Catholic Church to begin the Lutheran Church and the Protestant Christian revolt felt that the Catholics were depending too much on the fellowship of the church and not paying attention to the teachings of the Jesus as taught in the Gospel. St. Francis felt the same.  Commonly there is a course correction in religion at different times and in Christianity this usually results in a more Bible Based Christianity.
In each case of revolt people have looked back to the Bible or the Book to restore the direction they feel they or the church should be heading.
In Celtic Christianity there is said to be another pillar or point of reference and that is Nature.  Creation Christianity has picked up on this same point. God first created the heavens and the earth and the Garden of Eden.  It is in this creation that one can see the hand of God.  To the Celtic Christian one could see God’s meanings and teachings in the laws of nature and in the glory of nature. So as a scientist and Celtic Christian I am also seeing the teaching of God in the laws of science.  I don’t see a division between science and religion as that which caused the Coppernican conflict.  Einstein believed in God as did Newton and Pascal. Most of the greatest scientists of all time have been the most godly of men.  Most recently I enjoyed reading Proof of Heaven by neurosurgeon  Eben Alexander.
So my personal journey is to seek the truth and  Iam very thankful to follow in the footsteps of greats.  I am so thankful to have the likes of Dr. Carl Ridd, Dr. Lam, Dr. Willi Gutowski,  Dr. John Christiensen, Dr. Phillip Ney, , and my various pastors and priests, Father John, Father Mark, Dean Peter, to guide me. Those who I have turned to for guidance have always been the kindest and finest of souls who have encouraged both love and truth.  Indeed the two are not separate. One can be said to be more of the mind and the other more of the heart.  My spiritual adviser Dr. Bernie liked to pray,  Come Holy Spirit Come,for Jesus said that he would leave the Holy Spirit to guide us.  It is in prayer that I know God and St. Paul taught us to pray unceasingly.
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