Monday, March 21, 2011


The following article by Corey W. deVos was posted at Integral Life.  The website contains a wealth of articles, videos, and audios - some for free and some that can be accessed for a $10.00 monthly membership fee.  Good stuff!

Pronunciation: \ek-sə-ˈter-ik\
Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin & Greek; Latin exotericus, from Greek exōterikos, literally, external, from exōterō more outside, comparative of exō outside Date: 1660
1 a : suitable to be imparted to the public <the exoteric doctrine>
b : belonging to the outer or less initiate circle
2 : relating to the outside

Pronunciation: \ˌe-sə-ˈter-ik, -ˈte-rik\
Function: adjective Etymology: Late Latin esotericus, from Greek esōterikos, from esōterō, comparative of eisō, esō within, from eis into; akin to Greek en in Date: circa 1660
1 a : designed for or understood by the specially initiated alone <a body of esoteric legal doctrine — B. N. Cardozo>
b : requiring or exhibiting knowledge that is restricted to a small group <esoteric terminology>; broadly : difficult to understand <esoteric subjects>
2 a : limited to a small circle <engaging in esoteric pursuits>

It has often been said that there is a central paradox in the role of religion throughout history: on the one hand, religion has been the single greatest cause of war and suffering. On the other, religion has been the single greatest source of redemption, salvation, and liberation for humanity. How can we possibly make sense of this double-edged dagger? How can we reconcile the very best qualities of religion with the very worst?
Any meaningful discussion about religion must take at least two different dimensions of the religious experience into account. First, there is religion in its exoteric or "outer" form, largely consisting of the rituals, beliefs, and dogma of a particular tradition. This is what the majority of people think of when they hear the word "religion", often associating it with old myths, pre-rational thinking, and obsolete ideologies. Whenever you hear Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or any of the other "new atheists" railing against God and religion, it is always this mythic exoteric form that they are attacking.
There is another side to religion which, by definition, is very often overlooked: the esoteric or "inner" core that invites us to actually experience divinity for ourselves. This esoteric core is almost entirely composed of vivid (and occasionally enigmatic) descriptions of spiritual devotion, transcendent truths, and timeless realities. But there is so much more than just poetry at the heart of religion—esoteric spirituality represents a very real technology of transformation, offering profoundly enriching practices of meditation and prayer to help us all experience these things for ourselves, rather than just taking it as a matter of faith.
Every religion was founded by a mystic who had a direct experience of spiritual reality, whether we are talking about Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Sufism, or any other major spiritual tradition. And every religion has been populated by various saints and sages throughout the years, all of whom have helped to deepen and refine these teachings and practices, as well as re-translate them for new generations.
And yet, as prevalent as genuine mysticism is in all these traditions, many people in today's world go their entire lives without ever hearing about these aspects of religious experience. Oftentimes Western spiritual seekers look beyond the religion of their childhood, usually to exotic Eastern traditions like Zen Buddhism or Taoism, because they perceive these traditions as being steeped in the esoteric—not realizing that Eastern spirituality is just as bound to the ritualistic trappings of exoteric religion as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. They often do not even recognize the rich legacy of esoteric spirituality that exists in their own tradition, hiding right in plain sight—simply because we are too close to our own cultural preconceptions, too burnt out on the mythic dogma of our childhood, and too alone in the dark without anyone pointing us in the right direction.
In fact, once we have tasted the esoteric waters in another spiritual tradition, we usually intuit that this very same esoteric core is shared by all religions, that it is the cornerstone of spiritual experience for every mystic in history (though expressed very differently from culture to culture). We begin to recognize these timeless teachings in our own native tradition, allowing us to "come home" to the religion of our upbringing with open eyes, open hearts, and open minds. From exoteric to exotic to esoteric—this has been the path for a great many spiritual seekers in the 20th and 21st century.
When considering the relationship between the exoteric and esoteric aspects of religious life it is tempting to regard them as being pitted against one another, an antagonistic dyad of gnosis vs. faith, of experience vs. dogma, of mysticism vs. myth. But it is important to remember that both these dimensions of religion are crucial—after all, it is the institutional aspects of religion that make it possible to contain, codify, and perpetuate the esoteric teachings over multiple generations. If we did not have our exoteric forms of religion, the innermost contemplative teachings would have been lost hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.
The central problem of religion today is not the unavailability of esoteric teachings—they are just as accessible today as they have ever been, perhaps even more so—but that our exoteric religions have become damaged, painfully decoupled from history's ceaseless march toward more novelty and more complexity. Our religions are fully capable of keeping pace with our progress, growing from magic forms of religion to mythic forms, rational forms, pluralistic forms, integral forms, and beyond. And the esoteric teachings and practices are alive in all these forms, though will certainly be interpreted very differently at each level (e.g. Christ the magician, Christ the Lord of the Chosen, Christ the humanist, Christ the Lover of all sentient beings, and Christ the living embodiment of the intersection of humanity and divinity within each of us).
But for a number of historic reasons, the majority of today's religions have remained anchored in magic and myth, and have been largely unable to blossom into their rational and post-rational forms. Because of this failure to grow and adapt, a great disservice has been done to the modern and post-modern God, and a great many people have dug their trenches in a perceived war between science and religion—trenches that few will ever be able to climb out of. We are now caught in the crossfire between two very different kinds of fundamentalism—religious evangelicals vs. scientific materialists—in which the former believes all facts to be an affront to faith, while the latter believes that all conceptions of the spiritual life are just childish vestiges of a long-dead God. But it is an imaginary war, a frantic struggle of straw man vs. straw man, neither side willing (or capable) of any sort of integrative compromise.
As a result, too many people on the religious side are forced to suppress their own growth or compartmentalize their beliefs (otherwise rational people unable to apply the same reason they use in the rest of their lives to their religious convictions), while those on the scientific side tend to demonize spirituality altogether—throwing all of our accumulated conceptions of transcendence, liberation, and redemption out with the bathwater of myth and magic. The goal is not to supplant exoteric religion with the esoteric, but to create healthy exoteric institutions that can continue to carry and transmit the esoteric teachings into the modern and postmodern worlds.
These are arguably the two most important tasks of religion in the 21st-century. The first is to fix our broken religious institutions, creating genuine rational approaches to spirituality in all of our major traditions that can actually meet people where they are while nurturing their growth through magical, mythical, rational, postmodern, and integral stages of development. This alone would help relieve the incredible cultural tension that currently exists between religion and science, closing the massive gap that between faith and reason. The second is to revive the esoteric teachings at the core of every religion for an entirely new generation of spiritual seekers, practitioners, and church-goers. By bringing the transformative practices of contemplation, meditation, and prayer to the forefront of worship, we can begin tapping into a very real technology of liberation, offering an alternative to blind faith by allowing people to experience for themselves the effulgent divinity of the world, of our relationships, and of our own blessed hearts and minds.



In the beginning, there was One, and One was All that there was.  Out of this One that was All, there began to manifest matter…and stars…and planets…  On one planet that we know of, slowly soil…and water…and plants…and animals…began to appear…but still there was only One that was All.  Simple at first, the One began to manifest in more and more complex forms. The One was becoming the many, but the many were still the One.  And the One loved the many.  The forms would appear for a time and then return to the All – we have called this birth and death.  Some of the animal forms completely ceased to appear, returning back into the All (we have called this extinction) while ever new and growing forms emerged.   Still the One that is All remained, unchanged yet always changing – for God is One.  God saw that it was all good, and that nothing was ever really lost.

As one of the forms developed, it became aware of itself in distinction from the One – became “self-conscious.”  These first humans realized they were different and separate from all that surrounded them – they became aware of themselves as individuals.  They even gave all the other plants and animals names because they perceived everything as so different from themselves. Believing themselves to be “separate beings,” they had no sense of their connection with plants, animals, other humans, or with the One.  The One was still very much in the many and the many in the One, but self-conscious humans were not able to discern this.  This is the only thing that God said was NOT good – man's perception that he was alone!

One of the things newly self-conscious humans noticed was that something terrible happened to the other animals and humans around them: they ceased to be – they experienced Death.  And humanity began to understand that this was the horrible fate that awaited each person. In metaphorical language, humanity ate of the tree of knowledge (awareness), and as a result realized they would surely die.  Naturally, this caused great fear!  With no knowledge of the One in which they lived and moved and had their being, humanity felt alienated and alone, naked, exposed, vulnerable and without protection in a large and terrifying world. So began the conscious struggle for survival - the need to fend for and preserve themselves. Aware for the first time of the always impending threat of death, humans began to perceive circumstances in terms of whether they were advantageous to physical survival…or not.  Good…or evil....  Selfishness came into being.  Hot on the heels of (and driven by) selfishness, sinful behavior began to proliferate.

Death and sin are intrinsically connected, but we do not die because we have sinned.  Death, as far as can be ascertained scientifically, is natural and has always been a part of the cycle of life.  Instead, awareness of our own mortality creates a great fear which compels us to do whatever is necessary to survive.  Sin, then, is not the cause of death, but rather a result of the fear of death.  We sin because we're afraid of dyin'...

More later...

Monday, March 14, 2011


There seems to be an unspoken agreement in much of Christendom that certain topics are 'sacred cows' - not to be questioned.  One such topic that is garnering a lively discussion lately (thanks to the upcoming release of Rob Bell's new book Love Wins) is hell.  I, for one, believe an atmosphere in which questions and open discussions are repressed creates a recipe for stagnation, and so I am thankful that the book is providing an opportunity for questions and the discussion of new ideas and perspectives. 

I had already been musing on the topic of what happens after death before the present fire-storm (pun intended) erupted.  Universalism, while a step in the right direction, still seems to me to be bound to the traditional concepts of heaven or hell in an after-life rather than as present realities. I wrote about my thoughts on death in a post titled Overcoming the Sting of Death.   And Logan Geen, over at A Sect Unto Myself submitted an excellent post titled Universalist? in which the reader is invited to explore beyond Universalism as commonly thought of.

In this "Death & Spirituality" interview from 1990, Bro. David Steindl-Rast provides a fresh and multi-faith perspective on what may happen after the death of the physical body.   Food for for questions...and fodder for discussions...

What do you think?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


OR…maybe not…maybe just my take on hell.  I was taught all my life to believe in a literal hell and a literal devil, and I firmly believed it.  I was angry when I read that people like Brian Mclaren had begun to question the doctrine of hell.  I thought that he was a heretic who would…bad as I hated to think it…go there.  I was outraged at the newer Bible translations that were “taking hell out of the Bible.”  I was as far from accepting a universalist position as could possibly be imagined.

But then, somehow I found myself questioning this doctrine of hell.  And, to even have these questions scared me to death!  When I found myself wondering about it, I’d try my best to ignore those nagging thoughts.  I’d shove ‘em to the back of my mind and try to not think about them.  I was successful for some time, but finally I came to a place where there was just no other option – it was imperative that I examine my thoughts and questions surrounding hell.  

Once my resistance was slightly lowered (very slightly, mind you), my first reaction was “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it wasn’t true?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if nobody went to hell?”  Of course, I was still far from believing that, but still…what a joyful thought it was!

I began to tentatively read about the history of hell and the origin of the devil.  I read articles from Tentmaker and articles on the meanings of the different words used for hell and for everlasting/eternal here  and here.  I skimmed (didn't read the whole book!) The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment by Thayer. I read the argument that Universalism was the prevailing doctrine of early Christianity here. I watched a documentary video from the History channel on the origins of hell and a video by MSNBC that told of Carlton Pearson's journey To Hell and Back when he renounced the doctrine of hell.  But I remained far from convinced.  Sometimes when I’d come across something particularly convincing, it would scare me and I'd run back to the safety of majority opinion.  A person can't see something if they're not willing to see it, and at that time I was still not ready to be convinced! 

I'm still far from figuring it all out, and I certainly don't claim to have all the answers.  But one thing I can say is that, after much deliberation, I've come to a very different view of hell than I previously adhered to. 

The first thing that changed dramatically was my understanding of judgment.  I think there's Biblical room to see judgment as something that happens while we are in this life.   Jesus taught that we will reap the consequences of our own actions, and Paul said that we will be rewarded in this very body for the deeds we have done - good or bad (2 Corin. 5:10)!  I also believe that God's chastening is redemptive in nature. I like what Brian McLaren said here about the wrath and judgment of God:  
"...wrath means God's displeasure that allows people to experience the consequences of their negative actions....So if we neglect the poor, there will be crime and revolutionary movements ... If we neglect our children, they'll feel alienated from us, hurting themselves and us. If we neglect the environment, we'll suffer erosion and global warming....And judgment in the conventional narrative means God sending people to hell. But what if this is based on a mistaken understanding? What if judgment means "setting things right," or "restoring justice?" So for God to come as judge to bring judgment would mean God coming to stop the oppressors from oppressing, the polluters from polluting, the violent from plundering, the greedy from hoarding, etc."
I also began to see at a new level that heaven and hell are indeed very real; very literal.  But also that they are both here on this earth - present realities, ways of living we can enter into here and now, as Rob Bell said in Velvet Elvis (p. 147).   Paul taught that the Kingdom of God IS peace and joy, and Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of Heaven is at hand - so close we can reach out and touch it!   I think hell on earth is created when we are consumed by the flames of our own anger and hate, tortured by desires which are never satisfied, and tormented by never-ending fears (1 John 4:18).   In this manner, hell is created, chosen, and lived in.  In this hell of our own making, the smoke of our torment does ascend up forever and ever (continually!) and no rest can be found day or night.  Moreover, we live in this condition in the very presence of the Lamb (Rev. 14: 9-11) oblivious to the rest and peace presently available to us in the Kingdom of Heaven!  

Why do we cling so perniciously to the notion of eternal conscious torment?  I think we live in that fear because deep down we believe God's goodness and love for all creation is simply too good to be true. We just find it too difficult to believe that God could be that good, that evil could actually be overcome with good, and that the worst of us could be won over with Love.   Others have written much more eloquently than I ever could in favor of God's triumph and ultimate reconciliation of all things, so I won't say more on that front.  The above mentioned resources are excellent, Richard Beck wrote beautifully on the subject here and here, and entire lists of articles and books can be found here and here.

But I do believe that Scripture teaches that hell will not prevail, that all enemies will be defeated, and that ultimately all things in heaven and in earth will be gathered together in the Christ.  I believe "all" means "ALL," and I hope Rob Bell comes out in Love Wins with a strong elucidation that lives up to the book's title. 

Monday, March 7, 2011


This is a recently recorded talk on Emerging Christianity given by Richard Rohr.  It's over an hour long, but well worth your time.  The last half, in which he discusses non-duality as one of the pillars of Emerging Christianity, is especially good! (It may not seem as if it's working at first...give it a minute and it'll start.) Enjoy - I know I certainly did!

Emerging Christianity from Fuller Seminary on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Cartoon: Lost at Sea

Lately, I’ve been frequenting some blogs written by self-described Christians who are deep in the throes of doubt or ex-Christians who are now skeptics, agnostics, heretics, and/or atheists.  While some are quite comfortable in their present position, many tell heart-wrenching stories of doubt, inner turmoil, fear.  Why is this topic of interest to me?  Because for the past ten years or so, I have been going through a period where I have questioned everything. 

M. Scott Peck says that people entering Stage III in the spiritual journey begin to question the religious doctrines with which they were raised: 

Stage III Skeptic, Individual, questioner, including atheists, agnostics and those scientifically minded who demand a measurable, well researched and logical explanation. Although frequently "nonbelievers," people in Stage III are generally more spiritually developed than many content to remain in Stage II. Although individualistic, they are not the least bit antisocial. To the contrary, they are often deeply involved in and committed to social causes. They make up their own minds about things and are no more likely to believe everything they read in the papers than to believe it is necessary for someone to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior (as opposed to Buddha or Mao or Socrates) in order to be saved. They make loving, intensely dedicated parents. As skeptics they are often scientists, and as such they are again highly submitted to principle. Indeed, what we call the scientific method is a collection of conventions and procedures that have been designed to combat our extraordinary capacity to deceive ourselves in the interest of submission to something higher than our own immediate emotional or intellectual comfort--namely truth. Advanced Stage III men and women are active truth seekers.  (The entire article can be read here.)
This doesn’t sound like such a bad experience on paper.  But in the nuts and bolts and guts and gore of real life, the transition can be an earth-shattering experience that affects all aspects of our beings - emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual, and social.   And to make matters worse, many who enter this stage don’t know what’s happening to them.  I know I didn’t – for the first time since I became a Christian, I didn’t know where I was spiritually.  I had always been a person of great faith, what was happening to me?  I felt lost and alone in a great sea of questions.  I ran from the questions that kept arising, and tried to fight the questions that I was unable to suppress.  Adding to the difficulty, in my opinion, is that the majority of churches are at Stage II (Formal, Instutional, Fundamental, threatened by anyone who thinks differently from them), and so there is no place in these churches where people are allowed to ask questions.  So not only do we have all these questions, but there's no safe place to ask them - we have have people all around us who think we're falling into heresy.  In fact, I was actually "churched" as it's called here in the Bible belt.  It makes a scary place even scarier! 

 In my lonely “dark night,” I grasped at anything that might shed light and help to give me understanding about what I was going through.  I read Madame Guyon and Saint Teresa.  I read the writings of George Fox and Watchman Nee.  And while all these were helpful to some extent, they also seemed to be dark writings presented in antiquated language, difficult to understand from my 21st century perspective.   After that, I discovered the writings of contemporary mystics like Evelyn Underhill and Father Thomas Keating which explained a lot.  And thank God for the internet – I did find other crazies there, and that was of some comfort. 

I think one of the challenges is if we dare to question, if what we have previously known is NOT true, then what are we left with? Nothing? It sure feels that way… But there is a time for everything, even a time to tear down (Ecc. 3:3)…or, to use the contemporary term, deconstruct.  We must be willing to subject our adolescent faith to questions in order to make the transition into a more mature level of faith. I don’t claim to have all the answers; I’m still very much in transition myself. But I did come to a place where I stopped resisting the questions. I can remember thinking, “I’m just gooooing…” And everything as I had known it did crumble. (I won’t go into specifics – you might think me a heretic!)

I have been very fortunate that I came into what I can only term “a new place” in which I’ve found a greater faith; a greater certainty.  I like to think that at last I’m moving into Stage IV, into a more mature faith (I wrote about some of this here).  But I realize, as well, that even that is only the beginning.  And while I think I’ve been through the period of intense questioning that the skeptics describe on their blogs, I wonder.  My doubts may be as nothing compared to theirs!  In either case, I think Brian McLaren is correct in what he says in the trailer for his soon to be released book Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words: “After we complete the four stages once, we go through them again and again, each time at a higher or deeper level.”

Peck says "Knowledge of these stages is so important because it facilitates the acceptance of others even though they may be in different places spiritually." Doubt is natural; doubt can even be very good and necessary for growth.  There is a great need to make room in our diverse faith communities for people on all levels of the spiritual journey, even the skeptical level!  And I think that’s what the emergent church folk are doing – they don’t claim to have all the answers, but they ARE trying to make a place where people can feel free to ask some of their questions.  

Update!  This "late-breaking video" just in from Reflections blog.  I just had to borrow it and add it to this post.  I realize it's an extreme example, but it is a sad example of what happens when there is no room for questions..."Westboro Baptist Church Family Disowns Daughter"