Introduction to Sustainable Faith

What follows is the Introduction to a new book by Christopher L. Cudworth to be titled Sustainable Faith. 

What you are about to read is a wakeup call, a “connect-the-dots” moment in which Christianity is urged to take a fresh look at where it has been, and where it is going.

This book is necessary because some of the traditions Christianity has used to stake its cultural tent now hold it back from pulling up stakes and going where it is meant to go. Instead, there are many Christians hammering ever harder on the stakes of treasured convictions and timeworn traditions. 

You may recall that according to the Bible, many of the people chosen by God to carry forth his kingdom were either asked to uproot themselves or were taken by force out of their homes, even to the bonds of slavery.

Their circumstances were often dire as a result of these actions. Yet God kept watch on them and ultimately chose to lead these same people out of slavery or out of the wilderness. And that is where their faith in the sustaining power of God was put to the test.

Let us always remember that while people felt they were suffering and complained loudly about being left to fend for themselves in that wilderness, God reached out and gave them enough food to sustain them through days, months and years of exile. This was the original lesson in sustainability. Be grateful for what you have and use it well. 

These were the lessons in sustaining faith and trust that God wanted people to pass down through generations. But of course, people grumbled and rebelled, challenging their leaders to give them better food, better news and firmer directions than the mere sustenance of “Tomorrow is another day, live it well. God will come through.”

When the Promised Land was finally delivered, new problems of leadership and dissatisfaction arrived. God asked people to continue in trust and faith. Yet they begged and demanded God to give them kings to rule over them. God finally relented, and with that earthly concession came wars and dissolution. The kings always turned out to be selfish or overreaching, and the people followed their lead, always getting themselves into trouble.

So God sent prophets to tell the people there was hope if they repented of their selfishness.

Long periods of imbalance and divorce from God ensued, until finally a man arrived that had a simple message to convey. John the Baptist was a voice crying from the wilderness. This time, he bore good news for all the people. An entirely new kind of king was arriving.

John was no ordinary character. He wore wild-looking clothes crafted from camel’s hair, tied by a leather belt around his waist. He ate insects such as locusts, and dined on wild honey. In other words, he had a flair for strange sustenance and knew how to survive outside the realm of traditional society.

“Listen,” he shared in ministry with his people. “I have come to bring you the Kingdom of God,” he said. “But it is not I that brings you this gift.” Then John baptized none other than Jesus, who in turn spoke of John this way. “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John …”

It is clear that Jesus appreciated John’s unflinching approach. He also loved the wild strain of his faith, which bucked convention, challenged authority and depended not on temples or hierarchy for its strength, but sprung up from the earth itself, the very foundation of the Kingdom of God.

IMG_1870That Jesus understood the organic nature of John’s ministry is crucial to our understanding of the fulfillment of the entire Judeo-Christian narrative. Later when Jesus began his ministry in full, he kept with John’s example of calling people home to the earth, teaching through examples drawn from nature to illustrate spiritual principles. Jesus taught using parables that sprung from these eminently sustainable sources of wisdom. Nature is always there, he strove to tell us, and with it comes an appreciation for the creative power and sustenance of God.

In keeping with this approach to wisdom, he also warned that all people are but leaves of grass. Human beings come and go, and it is this ephemeral quality of life that you must recognize if you are to appreciate the unique and special place you occupy in the realm of creation. Life is precious, he encouraged us to understand, but not so precious that it cannot be lost for a million reasons. It happens every day, and none of us knows our time.

While this hardly seems like a sustaining piece of wisdom, in fact, it is the paradox you must grasp to appreciate the true nature of your circumstance here on earth.

To better comprehend our unique yet fragile relationship with the earth, we must return to the example of Jesus, who used parables formed from earth and water and light to communicate the vital connection between worldly experience and spiritual principles. This example of using natural symbols to teach about our spiritual nature is the prime paradox of scripture, yet also the most important to understand if we hope to achieve reconciliation with God.

From the opening passages of Genesis with its iconic description of creation to the fantastically imaginative brilliance of Revelation, we find scripture calling on examples of organic truths through metaphors to illuminate the power and wonder of God. If we limit ourselves to a literal interpretation of all this wonder and power, we risk driving yet another stake into the ground and tying people to it with a chain of ignorance. In so doing we imprison the beliefs of all those who seek but are not free to pursue these truths in full. 

It is time to wake up and understand the limits that literalism has so long placed on the faith through its traditions and its halting brand of theology. It is instead time to pull up these stakes and step over these stumbling blocks in order free our beliefs from idols of law and zealotry dragged along from the past.

We instead need to be free to embark on a walk with Jesus that allows God to enter our lives in every step along the way. No longer should we fear science, because Jesus did not fear knowledge or the use of organic symbolism to convey the nature of truth. Likewise, we should no longer choose to fear or discriminate each other based on reasons of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

These were conventions that cultures once knew as rules, but they no longer apply. The selective method of choosing which rules from the Bible to emphasize and obey must end.  And we should confront and hold to account all those who do these things in the names of other religions as well. Leave the tents of fundamentalism behind. Let them rot in the desert wind. Reach out to the people trying to free themselves from these prisons of perception, and help them yank up the stakes and uproot the horrid windrows planted to keep people from moving on. 

There is only one set of sustaining principles from the God asks of us, and always has. Love one another. Respect creation. Sustain each other in all things. 

Christianity and its close relatives in Jewish and Muslim faith can indeed embrace these healthy new realities and bring about a “new earth.” In fact, it is sitting outside our door if we go out with a sense of wonder and appreciation of creation in mind. The New World we are waiting for is both within us and outside of us. We must accept that paradox and get to work demanding that the church yank up the stakes of its false and harmful convictions. We must move the tent of where God wants us to go.

Yes, this is the hardest path to choose. But that is the path the Bible clearly asks us to consider. God sends people away from comfort to find themselves, and to call all those who would listen to follow. If those who are stuck in their ways want to stay behind, they should know clear and well why they are not right with God. It is our job to tell them. To offer for them to come along. To help them get right with God and the world. 

There’s a great tradition in this regard. We have John the Baptist, the man crying in the wilderness, from whence all truth and understanding ultimately comes. Then Jesus himself was sent to the wilderness to face down Satan through 40 days of temptation that included an offer to have and own all of creation for his own. But Jesus stood by the sustaining power of his faith through it all, and turned down the selfish offers of Satan for a faith sustained not by expression of power but by expression of trust in God. 

Matthew 4

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,

    and they will lift you up in their hands,

    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’ “

7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[e]”

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

How our desires and our differences dissolve in the face of such words. Behold the power of sustaining faith, which does not live on bread alone but feasts on every word that comes from the mouth of God! It also stands up to every test, and does not fear other forms of knowledge, but embraces them for the manner in which they expand upon our understanding of the world, just as Jesus taught us to do. And finally, a sustainable faith grows in the presence of all creation, and finds hope not in exploiting these resources, but by respecting the gift enough to restore whatever facets of creation we impact, and to act wisely for future generations.

Constellations and consternations

OrionDating back 6000 years to some of the earliest records of human civilization, cultures around the world gave name to constellations of stars in the sky. Many of these are still used by modern cultures to describe star patterns.

At one point these star patterns were considered truly divine representations of gods, goddesses or creatures that figured in the all-important mythology of people seeking cultural narrative.

Of all the constellations there is probably none more potentially significant, universal or transferable than that of Orion. The pattern of stars in the constellation Orion can be seen around the world. With its “belt” of stars across the center of the constellation, and arms and legs extended, Orion lends itself to all manner of interpretation.

For example, In ancient Egypt this constellation was known as Osiris, a character who upon being killed by an evil brother rose again to live immortal among the stars. That story hews closely to the character of Jesus Christ, who the Bible says was betrayed by one of his brother disciples only to rise again and live on it heaven.

Universal convergence

Sidney_Hall_-_Urania's_Mirror_-_Orion_(best_currently_available_version_-_2014)It is an interesting thing to consider that so many heritages seem to converge in symbolic ways. Yet there is also supposedly an advanced worldview that dismisses the constellations as having any real divine significance. Modern culture has largely dismissed the heritage of Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Asian or Scandinavian gods as “pagan” religions.

At least part of the reason we no longer abide by constellations as gods is that we recognize that constellations are not at all what they seem to the human eye. They do not exist on some flat or equal plane in space. They certainly don’t hang or conveniently travel across the so-called “dome” of heaven.

Bigger pictures

Space is an eternal, infinite place. The stars we see above our heads are literally billions of miles apart. They only appear to be fixed in space and time because our comprehension from this pinprick of a planet makes it hard if not  impossible to perceive constellations as anything other than an absolute truth. Of course many people like the predictability and familiarity of the Big Dipper hanging in the night sky. It is recognizable, constant and real.

Yet the Big Dipper is not a “thing”. It is nothing but our imaginations at work trying to find symbolism and constancy in the universe. Those stars in the Big Dipper are so far apart no human being could traverse them in a million lifetimes.

Human awareness

Orion_constelation_PP3_map_PLFor a long time in history the stars in the Big Dipper and Orion and Cygnus and hundreds of other constellations played an important role in human understanding of the universe. At the time when constellations such as Orion were recorded by early humans on rock face carvings 36 to 38,000 years ago, science was obviously not yet evolved enough to determine the real position of earth in time and space.

So we went with what we knew, and it served the human race well to establish guidelines for behavior based on ethical and moral parables in which the gods depicted in constellations sometimes played a part. They were there for everyone to see, after all. There was no escaping the gaze and wonder of gods staring down at us from above.

A single star

Eventually that notion of god above congealed into a singular deity called God or Yahweh or Jehovah. Even that singular god shares divinity with other religions such as the Muslim faith, whose early heroes include some of the same characters as the Bible. These were scriptural constellations of a sort. They share the same patterns and in some cases, the same values or attributes.

For some people, those scriptural constellations are quite literal in their conception and their place in history. For those believers, faith is fixed in the sky or the mind much like a constellation. It gives them assurance that their faith is anchored in the foundations of the universe. Their god still hangs above and their Bible or Koran is the constellation of wisdom. It shall not be moved. For those believers, accepting anything other than a literal interpretation of truth causes much consternation.

What good are they? 

It requires so much thinking to conceive the stars outside their constellations. They seem so unanchored and random in that mode. What good are stars to us if they just hang out there in the universe and do not reflect the patterns we impose on them to make ourselves feel relevant and fixed in the center of the universe?

There are people whose conception of the Bible is so literal they cannot accept what science has to say about the universe in contrast to what their religion tells them is true. They would rather believe in the fixed constellation of truth handed them by literalism than to contend with the messy, miraculous truth of life in a universe evolved from chaos and subject to laws of gravity, time and evolution that transcend the narrow worldview of constellations and consternations.

Fears and grace

Because what it all comes down to is the fear that God will not love us if we open our minds to the truth. But the gods of constellations seem to have departed once the real kingdom of God here on earth was revealed. The greatest constellation of all is love. It is what drives us to appreciate the grace of our existence in such a universe. We don’t need a pattern of stars in the sky or an outmoded take on the bible that contradicts itself in its supposed literalism and inerrancy.

You can feel free to live, to move around and find truth in the organic symbolism of scripture and not get tied into a harmful mythology that says outmoded laws and wrathful gods rule our world. We’re supposed to be brighter than that. Even Orion can tell you that.