American Christianity’s Elephant in the Room

Since the very beginning of the nation, Christianity has been the dominant cultural narrative of the United States.  Or, more accurately, the narrative of American Christianity has been the dominant narrative, and it reads something like this:

  1. Jesus, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, was different from you and me. He was truly God’s child, the first and last God incarnate.  We are not.
  2. Jesus loves you and wants to live in your heart.
  3. Jesus looked pretty much like a white middle-American, except he wore a robe.
  4. Jesus plays good cop to God’s bad cop. We sit in the chair of interrogation.  In the end, if we don’t answer right, we’re going to get it.
  5. Jesus said a lot of wonderful things and performed a bunch of miracles, but what really matters is that he died on the cross to save you from your sins. Jesus saves.
  6. Everyone is welcome in heaven, so long as they believe Jesus died for their sins and they praise his name on a regular basis.
  7. Jesus is coming again to get those who qualify under number 6 and to leave the rest behind, gnashing their teeth as the world goes down to hell. One of my favorite bumper stickers, in fact, reads, “Jesus is coming soon, and is he pissed!”

I would argue that this is not at all what Jesus was about.  But that is for another day.  Today, the message is that Christianity, at least in this cultural narrative, is dying in America.  And for the most part, the Christian church does not begin to comprehend the reason why.  Look around carefully, there is an elephant in the room.

Church attendance has indeed declined steadily for at least the past two generations.  Catholics have been hit hardest, followed by mainline Protestant congregations.  Large evangelical churches have been more likely to hold on, but even these are now seeing some decline.  In every research result, the “nones” and their “spiritual but not religious” cohort (all unaffiliated with any church) are steadily rising, especially in the emerging dominant millennial generation, but even among boomers and the silent generation that preceded them.

The evangelical mega-churches which had their hay day in the last twenty-five years are not immune.  Their marketing strategies and strategic plans implicitly acknowledge the consumer mentality of their, should we even use the label, parishioners.  Entertainment is not true religion.  Run the country out of fossil fuels or put on a better show down the street and watch what becomes of the theater seats, big screens and easy faith.

Some pollsters say the numbers lie, that what is happening is that people just go to church less often.  Others say that people are expressing their faith in house churches and other nontraditional gatherings.  There is no doubt a level of truth in both of these observations.

But no one is identifying or addressing the elephant in the room.  The American Christian church is dying.  It is dying not because of Jesus, but because American Christianity’s dominant story line, its basic value proposition, is bankrupt, with fewer and fewer willing to consider it credible enough to buy.  Fewer and fewer give any credence to the narrative that we are at core defective, not made just the way Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source (C/S/M/S) intended, and that America’s Christian God requires blood sacrifice – specialized human/deity blood, at that – to keep from damning us to hell.

And nowhere in the church is that being acknowledged or addressed straight out.  In my review of religious demographic surveys I could not find even one that asked Christians or anyone else whether they truly believed that God required the blood sacrifice of a human incarnation to redeem them from their fallen nature.  Why is that?

I suspect at least three problems.  First, American Christian leaders are scared to hell of the likely results, which is why they persist in speculations and surveys about every other possible reason for their steady and imminent demise.  Further, it is possibly beyond the realm of imagination for these bearers of Christian angst to conceive of this issue at all.  It is literally unthinkable.  Finally, the elephant is both so large and so preposterous that people in general find it simply easier to dismiss it quietly and not to talk about it.  Who wants to disturb a holy elephant, dead or alive?  The result is that hot air is steadily cooling in this once dominant balloon.  And the poor wizard, while nervous, convinces himself that the curtain still hides him and the illusion holds sway.

Spirituality in America needs a new value proposition.  There were two special metaphorical trees in the Garden of Eden, both intended for us in the mind of C/S/M/S.  We ate from the first, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  We did not fall, we just thought we did.  We simply woke to all the splendor and terror of human awareness.  C/S/M/S never wanted us to kill anyone or anything to get free of that tree.  That was our idea.  The call in all times and places has been to grow up, to make good choices in the context of who we are and to move on to the tree of life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

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The World We Dream

In his book, Mending the Past and Healing the Future with Soul Retrieval, medical anthropologist Alberto Villoldo describes the shamanic/spiritual practices of the Laika, an indigenous community of the Peruvian Amazon:

The Laika believe that everything is imaginal.  Whatever we perceive is a projection of our inner world, and the world perfectly mirrors the condition of our soul.

“The world perfectly mirrors the condition of our soul.”  I believe that to be true, individually and collectively.

So what does that mean?  Does that mean I can imagine great wealth and it will happen to me?  Maybe.  The prophets of positive thinking would say so, and Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates certainly imagined something.  I have actually heard people say that the entire universe is constructed, at root, to conspire for our greater good.

But there is something about this glib thinking that is potentially shallow and backwards.  This thinking tempts us to focus on changing the reflected image – the world we create or manifest – rather than the underlying reality, the condition of our soul.  We act out, we manifest, what we have allowed ourselves to become.  And the work for a better world is done not by sitting around and imagining a better world, but by working on the condition of our souls.

If I focus chiefly on the universe conspiring for my greater good, I will get a world that looks like my soul – a manipulative and selfish world with relationships and outcomes to match.  When I move my focus to outcomes, I lose track of who I am and I become, perhaps unintentionally, but truly, the picture of my neglected soul.

This is true collectively as well as individually.  The United States has begun air strikes in Iraq to counter forcefully the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.  Our focus is on outcomes.  But the real world, the world that is, reflects the condition of a collective soul that wanted wealth and oil at any cost.  The condition of our soul manifested a world that supported oppressors like Saddam Hussein – or the Shah, or Somoza or any number of puppet regimes – in the oppression and pillage of people to yield the comfort we thought was our greater good.  And the perpetual wars that result, whether the violence in the Middle East or the violence in Central America beneath the current child refugee crisis, truly mirror and are an accurate manifestation of the condition of our soul.  When our soul, anyone’s soul, is sick with greed, we manifest a world of oppression and violence.

I remember bumper stickers that said “Visualize World Peace,” as though sitting still and picturing a peaceful world in our mind would make it happen.  But that is magical thinking, no better or more effective than the satirical bumper sticker retort, “Visualize Whirled Peas.”

“The world perfectly mirrors the condition of our soul.”  Mirrors can be useful.  Any one of us can look in the mirror and learn something about reality.  I might learn I am aging and wrinkling.  I might learn that I am contorted with anxiety, or that I am satisfied and radiant.  Certainly I can paste on a different face if I want to imagine something different than what I see.  I have manipulated the outcome of an image.  I have not changed the underlying reality.

There were two metaphorical trees planted at the center of the Garden of Eden:  the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and, beside it, the Tree of Life.  We ate from the first and were given the gift of conscious awareness.  We could see the mirror image of all that we had manifested.  It was frightening and disconcerting.

Our reaction was to try to manipulate outcomes, to make the picture we saw safe and comforting.  Seeing only ourselves, we resorted to fear and greed.  We created religions in an attempt to get the gods to conspire for us, to cooperate with us, or at least not to work against us.

But there were – and are – those who grew up, who awoke to a different truth.  These prophets, saints and mystics realized that the world was just a reflection of something deeper, of the condition of our true spiritual selves.

Their call in all times has been to turn from the mirror, to embrace and nurture the reality.  The reality is the quality of our soul.  If we cultivate peace and harmony in our spirit, the mirror reflects it.  It’s not that we changed the picture.  It is that we changed our being.  We made the choice to grow up.  We nurtured the condition of our soul.  And the picture around us – the manifested world of relationships – reflects our nurture.

The two metaphorical trees in the garden, as I have noted before, are really only one.  When we focus on the mirror, we see only the image of the tree.  That image is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and we bang into the mirror, over and over, trying to get what we want, what we think we need from that picture.  And the picture only gets worse, because it reflects our frustration and unhappiness.

When we turn away from the mirror of our manifested world, and cultivate the quality of our soul, we find that we are living in true reality, under the Tree of Life.  We manifest peace.  We manifest kindness and compassion.  We manifest abundance – the power of enough for all – because we have cultivated those things at the root of our being.

Turn inward.  Cultivate your soul.  Live in reality under the Tree of Life.  You won’t need the mirror to know the outcome.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

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Let it Flow

We all experience pain in our lives.   And it never really quite goes away.  Damage we received from our collisions with others.  Losses.  Memories of actions we unleashed and wish we could retrieve.  The memories can crush us as much or more than the true moment of the event.

We wonder why we harbor these things.  Didn’t we work at forgiveness, truly forgive the other, truly forgive ourselves?  Must we do this work again?  How long, and how many times must we suffer this brokenness?  Why can’t we heal the one we know is hurt?  Will we ever move on?

Sometimes it’s a dream where we rework the encounters, striving again with the feelings and remembered truth.  We fail still once more to change the situation, to win or to make it right.

The landscape of creation aches along the broken faults of our lives.  Sometimes a rift is torn.  Sometimes a range heaves up.  We moan audibly in an exhalation of the memory, a sound and a breath completely irrelevant to the air and the time and place that receive it.  But we know what it is.

We cannot uncreate.  We cannot undo the past, make it disappear, remove its effect from our lives.  But we can, today and always, let it flow, let it move and twist and turn.  Let it become the new thing that it will.

Breathe, moan, let it flow.  Sometimes the hot lava of the volcano, sometimes the blue water of the fountain.  It’s the flow that creates, whether it’s a glaring red-yellow stream that cools to the dark rock of a new mountain, or the water that carves a canyon in its flank on the return ride to the ocean.

Let it flow.  A good river never quits.  Water pushes up from the source.  It picks up streams and sediments on its way.  It spreads out and drops its dirt in the rich delta, only to rest in the sea, where the vast surface yields to the sun and air that return it once again to its beginning.

It’s the flow of life, the non-judging and continual cycle of movement and rest.  When we try to step out of it, to stop it or avoid it instead of riding it, we are out of touch, we lose our connection, we become the dam that only temporarily, despite our struggle, stands in the way.

There is a river that flows beside the Tree of Life.  It cleanses.  It heals.  It keeps moving, never fighting what it is.  Drink the water.  Ride the stream.  Let it flow.

Scripture today from my friend, singer/songrwriter JD Martin:

Hear me, rock of ages
Let me hide myself in thee
Touch me, living waters
Let me drink from your flowing stream

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

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