Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Panentheism & Interspirituality--What's Jesus Got to do With It?

I recently read a posting on TheOoze that provoked the below ponderings, posted there as well as here. You may need to read their lengthy April 18, 2006 post, Panentheism & Interspirituality--What's Jesus Got to do With It? before being able to follow my response...

Wow. I started smiling as I read this. You see, many years ago (like 1980!!) I wrote, along with Eric Pement, a treatment of Norman Grubb's "Union Life" group for our Cornerstone magazine ( -- now only archival, alas). It was that article that introduced me to panENtheism, Alfred North Whitehead (who came up with the term, I believe), and so on.

If you were to talk to the 1980 version of me vs. the 2006 version, well, I know a lot less now than I did then. For instance, the words "heresy" and even "cult" were far easier to use back then. Nowadays, I hate the last term -- living communally may explain why in part -- and use the other term only with many caveats and in the (to me) right context.

But Union Life, alas, was a mess. They were, for lack of a better term, antinomian to an extreme. That is, they thought that God saw them as sinless no matter what (this from their own mouths in interviews we did with their leadership). They were literally, again in their words, "Jesus in Dan or Norman form." High-flying concepts of panentheism aside, what ended up happening was sadly predictable. Their leaders fell into immorality and the movement foundered. Soon after, Grubb died.

I tell this story -- a very truncated form of it -- in order to raise some questions for myself and others here. I admire emergent folk, as I've been a bit of an alien among evangelicals for years now. The 2000 and 2004 elections frosted the cake for me, but it had been baking for many years before that. My fervent admiration for Christian (and many non-christian) feminists led to me becoming involved with Christians for Biblical Equality ( ), a move which further revealed that mainstream evangelicalism is hostile to women.

The 'pomo' proposition that words are often about power-mongering seemed to have abundant real-life evidence among evangelicals. A movement led mostly by white, conservative, middle-class American males, I didn't as much leave evangelicalism as it seems to be leaving me.

So all that as background...

Here are my questions. Sorta.

I recall reading Walker Percy's "Second Coming" -- fabulous novel by this ironical soul who happened to believe. And in it he has a character deeply existential, deeply yearning for belief yet unable to find it anywhere. And he offers to me a warning there. The character looks around him, around the "new south", and finds rather than Flannery O'Connor's Christ-haunted souls a people who "believe everything, and so believe nothing at all." That is, belief becomes merely a set of clothes we put on and perhaps take off again.

Christ is the burning heart of Christian faith. But what Christ? The non-historical Cosmic Christ of old-school liberal Christianity? The muscular he-man republican Christ of evangelicalism? Some sort of mash-Christ, blended in with New Age, eastern, and maybe a little positive confession thought and so rendered harmless because he demands nothing of us except that we smile alot and speak in gentle, tolerant tones of voice?

I personally struggle very much with feeling that emergent / pomo folk are so involved with the inclusive project (my term) that they forget to include some biblical warnings that are non-inclusive. I almost hate to say it, because the evangelical project (at least in its more fundie forms) has been about little else than warning, condemning, and such.

But I remember Norman Grubb's Union Life. And it really was bad doctrine, bad teaching, and led to bad consequences on any number of levels even while we watched. I am "judging" I realize even by saying such things. But I don't know what else I can do. This life is real, has real ramifications. And what we believe really, truly, does matter.

If Jesus, for instance, did not historically rise from the dead, then Christianity is a pile of dog poop. I was raised in a "liberal" Methodist Church where such discussions were regularly indulged in from the pulpit. And I -- a non-believer at the time -- shook my head in complete amazement. The only hope for Christians is that Jesus is / was God's Son, Divine and sinless, and that he really was crucified and really did rise from the grave.

Bonhoeffer said it best: "Christ is the only significance." While I do indeed believe that all spiritualities can lead to Jesus, I also believe (speaking for myself) that all spiritualities can lead away from Jesus, away from truth, away from love. There is a radical surrender to Christ that is alien to us utterly, yet must occur in order for the frontier between true belief and lip-service to be breached.

Well, this is all quite inarticulate, for which I apologize. I enjoy The Ooze, and appreciate deeply what you are doing for the Body of Christ and the world.


Gordon said...

There is a bent among men (even that word is loaded) to divide, to ascend to higher moral ground, to draw distinction for the sake of self. I believe we do well to always come back to simplicity and not to nullify grace, but to embrace the costly grace that Bonhoeffer speaks of. Thank you for continuing to do that.
Gordon Stephan

nosirraekim said...

I am sorry that Grubb's entourage fell into disarray after he went home. His message however is true. Concerning pantheism, the term describes those who believe that God is in everything. Grubb's view however is that everything is in God. There is a difference. Grubb was only saying that He is Lord – meaning that He is absolute! All is subject to Him. There is nothing that is not, and if one is trusting in Him in this way, they will find Him to be all sufficient. Amen! Thanks. Michael Harrison seeme at discussion board.

Jon Trott said...

I wish it were true, what you say re Norman Grubb. But as we ascertained, they were in fact teaching things that -- among other theological novelties -- led to Christians being sinless no matter what they did. As I said, "extreme antinomianism." I wish I were wrong, and if it turns out I am, I certainly won't mind. But we investigated the Union Life folk exhastively by most standards, including interviews with most of their major leaders and studying their writings and attending Union Life functions. On that basis, I feel a fair certainty that what I've written here and in longer treatments in the no-longer extant Cornerstone magazine were accurate.