by Greg Prout
By Greg Prout, January 8, 2014
It's funny how song lyrics can sleep in one’s brain for years and then suddenly reappear demanding another look. Almost as if the lyrics had a life of their own, waiting patiently in your mental library, and when they feel the time is ripe, they check themselves out. John Lennon's “Imagine” (1971) is like that. The lyrics:
Imagine there's no heaven, it’s easy if you try/ No hell below us, Above us only sky/ Imagine all the people, Living for today… Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too/ Imagine all the people living life in peace… You may say I’m a dreamer, But I’m not the only one/I hope someday you’ll join us, And the world will be as one. Imagine no possession. I wonder if you can/ No need for greed or hunger, A brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people Sharing all the world… You may say I’m a dreamer, But I’m not the only one/I hope someday you’ll join us, And the world will live as one.
I have always loved this song, but dismissed the lyrics as politically whimsical and possibly detrimental, as he suggested we do away with religion. I disagreed, believing religion, like a bus, was the vehicle God drove as He came to visit us. Now I have a different view. Religion is a body of beliefs that identify one group while excluding another, and that is precisely what's wrong with “religion.” I suspect that was Lennon’s point. Such segregation is very human but not very divine. Sure, religion has beneficial qualities, like a sense of belonging, but fundamentally, I believe religion by its exclusion misses the embrace of God, who “will draw all men to Himself (Myself)” John 12: 32.i Diana Butler Bass, a leading authority on American religion, gives a good definition of the religion of which I speak: “In modern times, religion became indistinguishable from systematizing ideas about God, religious institutions, and human beings; it categorized, organized, objectified, and divided people into exclusive worlds of right versus wrong, true versus false, ‘us’ versus ‘them.'”ii
There are 40 million people in America today who refer to themselves as “Nones,” denying religious affiliation and opting for their own blend of spirituality. The Nones, also called the “Prodigals” by Kinnaman,iii claim religion has failed, authoritarian churches and doctrines have been weighed and found wanting.iv Perhaps the traditionalist dismisses this horde as simply evidence of unbelievers being shaken from “the Church,” a faithless rabble persistent in rebellion. For others like myself, I see this as an indictment against strict church dogma that excludes via elitist piety; that falsely believes their Truth sets them apart from errant masses as they sit in arrogant citadels of religious self-importance. Religion fosters this perception, false or not. People nowadays want more than to know about God via doctrines and creeds; they want an encounter with God without jumping through hoops of church dogma.
Experience over knowledge is the new reality. Again, Diana Butler Bass writes, “We need religion imbued with the spirit of shared humanity and hope, not religions that divide and further fracture the future.”v For millions it is more popular to refer to one’s self as “spiritual,” as opposed to “religious”; impugning the word “religion.” “Spiritual” expresses the experience of God over the religion about God.vi
Though I am bedrock Christian, I understand why myriads today are turning from the Christian religion to find spiritual satisfaction elsewhere. Unfortunately, like George Costanza (dramatized) turning his girlfriend Susan into a lesbian,vii the action and history of authoritarian religion has turned many into non-believers.
Harvey Cox describes our times as the “Age of the Spirit” where the “experience of Jesus” is paramount and where people seek “nondogmatic, nondenominational, and non-hierarchical Christianity, based on a person’s connection to the ‘volatile expression’ of God’s Spirit through mystery, wonder, and awe…. A religion based on subscribing to mandatory beliefs is no longer viable.”viii We can dismiss his observations, but he is not alone. A plethora of literature, researchers and studies, scholars and theologians across the spectrum of Christianity are making similar observations.
What is happening? I have observed in my own religio-social circle a common theme of grown children of pastors and conference personnel, of family and friends, of fellow believers, exhibiting a diminished fervor for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, many no longer attending. My guess is you have as well. Like society at large, there is a great divide in the Church with an alarming number finding their answers outside Adventism while simultaneously there is resurgence and re-trenching of traditional Adventism symbolized by our current World Leader.
Something is definitely brewing. Clearly there are rumblings of a significant number wanting more than what is traditionally offered. We can ignore it or dismiss it, but if we’re serious about the love of Jesus, we must address it. I see no North American trends of masses running to embrace our historical-religious platform. Our club-footed reluctance to ordain women is further evidence of authoritarian religion practicing exclusion thus turning off and turning away many hungry for spiritual community. Apparently our leadership views their long-held position against ordination of women as an indication of their careful regard for God’s holiness, as if segregation reflects God’s heart.
Perhaps a review of God’s holiness is required to underscore the church’s need for more focus on compassion and community. Adventists historically have viewed God’s holiness as autoclaved, gloriously uncontaminated, hyper-sensitive to humanity’s bacterial nature, requiring a buffer between us and Him to save us from instant extinction. His honor is petulant and ready to strike with consuming fire anyone foolish enough to consider approaching. Thank God for Jesus! He saves us from the Father’s holy, obsessively moral, surgically clean and wholly unrelational character. The violated Law dictates God kill somebody to satisfy its need for justice, thus setting Him free to forgive offensive humanity. Jesus says, “Kill me.” The Father agrees. “I will kill my Son and the Law will be placated, and I can forgive-love humanity.” Holiness in this case fixated on “legal perfection” and “moral rectitude” as if this was the driving force about God. Jesus, therefore, is our Savior from the Father’s justice.
But switch gears and take another look. View God’s holiness as the perfect love and community that exists between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; witness their pure unalloyed relationship. This is His character which sets Him apart from our selfish fallen nature: His unspoiled selfless sharing, communing and compassion.ix Jesus didn’t come to save us from the Father’s consuming fire of holiness, or deliver us from His cold forensic justice, but instead He arrived to “explain the Father” (John 1: 18); the Father is just like the Son (John 14: 7, 9); Jesus sent from the Father manifests His name (John 17:6, 26). In other words, the Father is no different than Jesus in His adoration of us. He sent Jesus from His bosom (heart)–John 1: 18–to demonstrate His embrace and inclusion of you and me. Again, Holiness is God’s perfect love as seen in His flawless relationship and community displayed in the fellowship of the Trinity, the holiness for which the world is starving. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6: 36). Immanuel.
While we’re examining our self-righteous navel, the recipients of our message are going elsewhere. We are engaging in inbreeding by preaching to a choir that is leaving the building. In place of such septic theology, we need to throw open the doors of our church and show the world that Adventism is about a compassionate God eagerly seeking to welcome and accept; a church of which John Lennon might sing.
Lennon’s lyrics are a chorus of love to me now. Imagine is about ridding things that divide us. Things like politics (countries), religion, and material things; things like identities that alienate and separate; things and ideas that exclude rather than gather; and he dreams of a world no longer a place of divide, but of oneness and inclusion. He sings about togetherness and peace here and now. Yes, a dream, but he touches a rich spirit that transcends the physicality of things and the tenets of dogma, a spirit that calls us to a higher place. Perhaps Lennon represents the man or woman who stands outside the walls of the Church, a child of God who by the Church’s ecclesiastical standards has an unwashed view of truth; nevertheless he longs for a place stuffed in his heart by his Creator, an environment of peace and belonging, a place we call “heaven.” Lennon here is prophetic.
Could it be that our esoteric view of truth, our arcane understanding of our place and purpose needs some serious tweaking? If truth is so dynamic that only eternity can address it, could it be our 19th century religion needs a new face, like remodeling an old house of great value? What keeps the organized church from such dreams? Why do we fumble intensely with issues of women’s ordination or aggressively resist the inclusion of gays? Why do we fight so fiercely to protect our name and identity, our golden calf, as if that was our mission on earth? Why are we so impervious to the radical idea that “Love changes everything”? Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Sent from the Father, He came instructing us to love and bless, not judge and condemn. Could it be fear, (and not love) which underlies our exclusive behavior, that breeds the view our image will be tainted by the addition of Samaritans we believe unacceptable? Are we afraid of loving others unlike us, frightened to include them in our church families; fearful that by acceptance we enable them in their sin? We therefore condemn and judge and feel safe separating ourselves from their unholy behavior. We walk by as they lay dying in the road.
Too often we embody the “prodigal’s son’s” older brother. Our holiness is offended at God’s extravagant treatment of those we have judged as pigs. We are proud of our faithful service, our years of obedience, our Sabbath, our Prophet, our striving to protect God’s holy honor, and we’re indignant that God has not thrown us a party. We know Samaritans are lost. Our younger brother (gays, women, secularists, atheists, etc.) don’t deserve such celebratory love, and we are not pleased to embrace them, let alone attend a party thrown for them by God Himself. We are afraid to love as God does.
God never treats us that way nor did He give us such a commission. “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Why can’t we extend charity without agenda in the way God loves us? It is the “ultimate reality” Rob Bell describes in Velvet Elvis, the life of the Kingdom: the God of love, the ultimate truth. 1 John 4:8. It is what Lennon longed for.
Across America millions are waking up to the short-comings of authoritative religion. In our world beyond modernism, where expansive narratives about authoritative truth no longer prove persuasive, people are looking for beliefs that include and accept; they hunger for the Gospel the organized church has failed. Religion can no longer afford to say: “Believe like us and you’re in; if you don’t, there’s the door.”
There's a better way. I have discovered amidst the evolving religious experiences in North America, love seems to be what interests people most; it defies all objections and questions. It’s the stuff I think of Lennon's lyrics for “Imagine.” The church must re-invent its current image and find a way to reach out and embrace humanity in spite of its unique doctrines. If dogma cannot celebrate and lift up unreserved compassion for the Other, then its value is dubious. Love cuts across all authoritarian labels as well as all “spiritual pursuits”; compassion is the common denominator that binds and heals, and the greatest of the Spirit’s gifts (1 Cor. 13). Even atheists respond to benevolence. In Joan Baez's “God is God,” she sings about believing in miracles, and the miracle I believe in most is the possibility to love others simply because they exist. It is an ideal of compassion and generosity that soars above the boundary of country, possessions, and even standard-riddled religion. It's a love so unlike me and yet so inspiring. I can only imagine…
i All Scriptural references are the New American Standard Bible (Illinois: Creation House, Inc., 1972).
ii Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2012), p. 97.
iii Kinnaman, David. You Lost Me. Why Young Christians leaving the Church…and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, Michigan: BakerBooks, 2011), p. 66.
iv Ibid, pp. 68-71.
v Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 96.
vi Ibid, pp. 68, 110.
vii Seinfeld TV Show, Episode 61 (April 15, 1993).
viii Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith: The Rise and Fall of Beliefs and the Coming Age of the Spirit (San Francisco: Harper One, 2009), pp. 213, 221.
ix For an insightful presentation on God’s loving nature, see C. Baxter Kruger’s The Great Dance: The Christian Vision Revisited (Jackson, Mississippi: Perichoresis Press, 2000).