Week Twenty-One: Struggling with Christianity
Wednesday 25 May 2022 What Does It Mean to Be Black, Christian, and American?
Danté Stewart, a minister and writer, honors the central place the Bible held in his family:
There’s an old King James Version Bible sitting on my bookshelf. It is black, rugged; the gold lining on the pages shines as light hits it. The jacket is missing, and the threads have unloosened from one another over the years. It has been tried. It has traveled across the South, across time. Now it sits on a shelf where it keeps the company of books written by Black folk. Black folk who have read a similar Bible, who have wrestled with it, been confused by it. Black folk who have held it as tight as I do today.
When I open up this old Bible . . . I am suddenly surrounded by preachers and mothers and friends and saints and sinners who tried to love and live well—while failing, learning, and trying again. When I read these ancient scriptures, I hear the way they flowed from my momma’s lips. . . .
This was her language. It was the language of my grandmother, the language of her mother. . . .
After many years of worshipping and working in white church spaces, Stewart came to a crossroads in his faith:
As I live and move and have my being in this country, I wonder to myself: How do I be Black and Christian and American?
So I return to this old King James Bible, and our Black prayers, and Black sermons. . . .
I have learned that many of us have not given up on faith, just the way our faith has been used to oppress others. We have not given up on the Bible, just the way it has been used to marginalize others. We have not given up on Jesus . . . we’re not becoming less spiritual or religious. It’s just that we have learned to put up with less, much less. Today many people talk a lot about people leaving churches, giving up on Christianity, and rejecting Jesus. In reality, they have given up on the white supremacist brand of Christianity that cares more about power than Jesus, that does not care enough to take either our bodies or our futures seriously. Like James Baldwin, we are holding on to Jesus while also living with our fear, trauma, doubts, and hope. Our story and the story of Jesus are bound together in faith, hope, love, and community. . . .
Faith—honest, deep, vulnerable faith, as Baldwin writes—is about growing up, becoming more loving, more honest, and more vulnerable. It is facing ourselves and what we desire. It is finding a way to begin again each day. It is not that we have the right answer, or all the right solutions. It is that we have found deep meaning in the story of Jesus. We have learned, as James Cone writes, that “being black and Christian could be liberating.”
Danté Stewart, Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle (New York: Convergent Books, 2021), 3–4, 6, 123, 124.
Tuesday 24 May 2022 Staying Out Loud
Over the decades Brian McLaren has had many conversations with faithful Christians who are also disillusioned by church and religion. After one evening spent in the company of two Roman Catholic sisters who have stayed in service to the church for over fifty years, McLaren reflects:
“There are more than two options,” I thought. “I don’t have to choose between staying Christian compliantly or leaving Christianity defiantly. I can stay defiantly, like Sr. Ann and Sr. Jean [not their real names]. I can intentionally, consciously, resolutely refuse to leave . . . and with equal intention and resolution, I can refuse to comply with the status quo. I can occupy Christianity with a different way of being Christian.”
When I say stay defiantly, I don’t mean ungraciously. Srs. Ann and Jean radiate such gentleness and inner calm that accusations of being ungracious simply don’t stick. No, with firm yet gracious defiance, they will keep speaking their truths and will continue doing so from the inside as long as they can.
McLaren finds encouragement to remain a committed Christian in Jesus’ own decision to stay and wrestle with his Jewish faith even as he was rejected:
I can no longer put a naïve trust in the structures of the Christian religion, seeing and knowing what I see and know now. But instead of rejecting my religious community, I remain paradoxically present to it, neither minimizing its faults nor hating it for its faults. . . .
Jesus, of course, counted this cost. He stayed out loud. And it’s worth noting where his staying led him. Not to winning. Not to success. It led him to the utter defeat and humiliation of the cross.
Was he a fool to keep faith through his dying breath, to translate his feeling of forsakenness into a prayer? Was he a fool to think that the legacy of the prophets, the legacy of his cousin John, and the legacy of his mother, Mary, were worth staying for, to save that legacy from corruption by the religious gatekeepers of his day?
Was he a fool to stay in the fray with the religious company men of his day, naming their corruption and toxicity with carefully chosen words like “whitewashed sepulchers” and “brood of vipers” [Matthew 23:27, 33]? Would he have been wiser to leave quietly for India and become Hindu, or to go quietly to China and become Buddhist instead of challenging the status quo of his own religion?
Was he a fool to think that the tiny handful of people who got only a tiny sliver of his message and saw some faint glimmer of what he saw could outlive him and do greater things than he had done?
Are you willing to be that kind of fool? Am I?
Today, at least, inspired by the example of Sr. Jean and Sr. Ann, I am.
Brian D. McLaren, Do I Stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned (New York: St. Martin’s Essentials, 2022), 94, 96.
Monday 23 May 2022 Christianity’s Violence Problem
CAC teacher Brian McLaren has long asked questions out loud that many have often asked only to themselves. In his new book Do I Stay Christian?, Brian outlines compelling reasons both to leave and stay within Christianity. Today we share his critique of Christianity’s complicity with violence. Such truth-telling can be difficult to read. We invite you to practice the contemplative stance of “holding the tension of opposites”:
Echoing its founder’s nonviolence, the Christian faith initially grew as a nonviolent spiritual movement of counter-imperial values. It promoted love, not war. Its primal creed elevated solidarity, not oppression and exclusion [see Galatians 3:26–28]. . . . The early Christians elevated the equality of friendship rather than the supremacy of hierarchy (John 15:15; 3 John 14, 15).
This commitment to nonviolence rapidly eroded in the early fourth century when the emperor Constantine declared Christianity the religion of the empire. This led to an acceptance of violence and domination against the empire’s enemies, but also perceived “enemies” from within:
What the empire wanted to do, the church generally blessed. . . . This cozy relationship with empire continued long after the Roman Empire had fully collapsed. The church supported the empire’s many reincarnations in French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, British, Russian, German, and American imperial ventures. Each empire could count on the mainstream Christian church to bless its successes, pardon its failures, and pacify and unify its masses.
A community with a history of violence to Jews . . . does not sound like a safe place for non-Christians. But as a chaplain to empire, Christianity was not a particularly safe place for Christians either—at least not those who chose to differ from the authorities of the church or state. Choosing to differ, in fact, was the root meaning of the word heresy. . . .
Historians generally agree: while the records are unreliable and incomplete, at least tens of thousands of suspected nonconformists were prosecuted by church courts between 1180 and 1450; many thousands were tortured; over a thousand were executed by church authorities. . . . In a seventy-year period starting in 1560, 80,000 women were tried as witches and 40,000 were killed. . . .
Today, abuse of Christians by Christians tends to be more emotional and spiritual than physical. But shunning and disowning (forms of relational banishment), public shaming and character assassination, private humiliations, church trials of nonconformists, blacklisting, and other forms of Christian-on-Christian cruelty continue, and more and more traumatized people are coming forward with their stories. . . .
To state the obvious: Jesus never tortured or killed or ruined the life of anyone, but the same cannot be said for the religion that claims to follow him.
Knowing what I now know, if I were not already a Christian, I would hesitate in becoming one, at least until the religion in all its major forms offers a fearless, searching, public moral accounting for its past crimes . . . first, against Jews, and also against its own nonconformist members.
Brian D. McLaren, Do I Stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned (New York: St. Martin’s Essentials, 2022), 22–23, 24, 25, 28.
Sunday 22 May 2022 Rebuilding from the Bottom Up
For over fifty years as a Franciscan priest, Father Richard Rohr has worked to reawaken Christians to the radical and transformative message of Jesus. It’s a message that is often distorted by culture and even by the Christian tradition itself. Richard reflects:
Our religion is not working well: suffering, fear, violence, injustice, greed, and meaninglessness still abound. This is not even close to the reign of God that Jesus taught. And we must be frank: in their behavior and impact upon the world, Christians are not much different than other people.
Many Christians are not highly transformed people; instead, they tend to reflect their own culture more than they operate as any kind of leaven within it. I speak especially of American Christians, because I am one. But if you are from another country, look at the Christians where you live and see if the same is true there.
Let’s be honest: religion has probably never had such a bad name. Christianity is now seen as “irrelevant” by some, “toxic” by many, and often as a large part of the problem rather than any kind of solution. Some of us are almost embarrassed to say we are Christian because of the negative images that word conjures in others’ minds. Young people especially are turned off by how judgmental, exclusionary, impractical, and ineffective Christian culture seems to be.
Most Christians have not been taught how to plug into the “mind of Christ”; thus, they often reflect the common mind of power, greed, and war instead. The dualistic mind reads reality in simple binaries—good and bad, right and wrong—and thinks itself smart because it chooses one side. This is getting us nowhere.
Throughout the history of Christianity, it would seem Jesus’ teaching has had little impact, except among people who surrendered to great love and great suffering. Could this be the real core of the Gospel? Such people experience God rather than merely have disconnected ideas about God. We need to rely on the mind of mystics now to offer any kind of alternative—contemplative or nondual—consciousness. We need practice-based religion that teaches us how to connect with the Infinite in ways that actually change us from our finite perspectives.
We must rediscover what St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) called the “marrow of the Gospel.”  It’s time to rebuild from the bottom up. If the foundation is not solid and sure, everything we try to build on top of it is weak and ineffective. Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that so much is tumbling down around us. It’s time to begin again. In the year 1205, Jesus spoke to Francis through the San Damiano cross: “Francis, rebuild my church, for you see it is falling into ruin.” If Jesus himself says the church is falling into ruin, I guess we can admit it also without being accused of being negative or unbelieving. Maybe we have to admit it for anything new and good to happen.
 Thomas of Celano, The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, chapter 158. See Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, The Founder (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), 380.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, unpublished talk, December 3, 2016, at Canossian Spirituality Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Image credit: Chaokun Wang, 墙 wall (detail), 2020, photograph, China, Creative Commons. Yoichi R. Okamoto, Munich’s Large and Beautiful Fussgangerzone (detail), 1973, photograph, Munich, Public Domain. Chaokun Wang, 树 tree (detail), 2019, photograph, Qufu, Creative Commons. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge the image.
This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story.
Image inspiration: Sometimes the wall cracks or the tree dies. We ponder and question what we profess to believe. It’s a healthy practice that undergirds a maturing faith.
Explore Further. . .
Story From Our Community
As a young adult, I’ve shifted away from ideology and moved into free thought and expansiveness, while grounded in perennial truth. As contemplatives, we’re told to live on uncertainty, but I know that my transformation affects the lives of those around me positively. Here, I can hold my traditional Catholic upbringing and be a person of the modern-day, living amidst its many contradictions.
Share your own story with us.
Prayer For Our Community
God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough, because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Listen to Father Richard pray this prayer aloud.
Thank you for joining our We Conspire community!
April’s articles explore how seeking can lead us deeper into trusting that Love is at the heart of the great storyline connecting us all. Join us at the end of this email for a practice that invites us to apply this knowledge in our daily lives.
Seeking a More Loving Story
The alternative orthodoxy celebrates the path of questioning and seeking.
Have you ever asked yourself—why do I feel like I am constantly seeking?
Engaging with God’s Great Story
We are co-responsible for living inside the Great Story together.
“All healing depends on relationships—within, among, and beyond.” —Rev. SeiFu Anil Singh-Molares
We’re in the Pattern Together
The alternative orthodoxy invites us to trust in God’s promise of resurrection.
How is the mystery of The Cross revealed in your life? What resurrections follow the many “deaths” we experience daily?
An Invitation to Practice
“All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”
—Julian of Norwich, Showings, chapter 27
We invite you to join us in a journaling practice that encourages us to become life-long seekers of Divine Love:
- In what ways has your faith felt like a road map? How is the map helping or hurting you these days?
- Reflect on where you are in grief or uncertainty. How would you describe the differences among certainty, uncertainty, and faith?
- What insights about your own spiritual journey arise as you reflect on death and the promise of renewal?
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Embrace our Connections in Season 2 of The Cosmic We
The Cosmic We podcast goes beyond race and racism to consider relatedness as the organizing principle of the universe, exploring our shared cosmic origins through a cultural lens that fuses science, mysticism, spirituality, and the creative arts. Together with prominent cosmologists, shamans, biblical scholars, poets, and activists, CAC core teacher Barbara Holmes and co-host Donny Bryant unveil the “we” of us beyond color, continent, country, or kinship to conjure unseen futures in exploration of the mystery of Divine connection.
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Explore the Miracle of Divine Connection with Saint John of the Cross: Luminous Darkness
How do we navigate challenging and lonely times? Turn to the sacred wisdom of one of Christianity’s most illuminating mystics in Saint John of the Cross: Luminous Darkness, a compendium of new translations with commentary from CAC friend and inter-spiritual teacher Mirabai Starr.
Journey to union with Love as Mirabai reflects on the yearnings that drew her to the sublime poetry of this Spanish mystic.
Journey through The Cloud of Unknowing in Season 5 of Turning to the Mystics
What if we embraced spiritual practice as a path of surrender? Join CAC faculty member, James Finley for season 5 of Turning to the Mystics, a podcast that explores Christian mystical wisdom through conversation and reflection. This season unpacks The Cloud of Unknowing, a prolific mystical text written by an anonymous author. Guiding listeners through four stages of spiritual learning, this season encourages us to fearlessly deepen our intimacy with the Divine.
Turning to the Mystics is a podcast for people searching for something more meaningful, intimate, and richly present in the divine gift of their lives. James Finley, clinical psychologist and Living School faculty, offers a modern take on the contemplative practices of Christian mystics like Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Guigo II. Leaning into their experiences can become a gateway to hope, healing, and oneness.
Subscribe to Turning to the Mystics on your favorite podcast player or listen online.
Registration is Open for The Interior Castle
(Course runs May 25 – July 19)
Experience Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle as an embodied pathway to God’s love with James Finley and Mirabai Starr in this 8-week online course. Deepen your awareness of the “inner witness” and experience this profound mystical text as an embodied pathway of union with God.
- Experience Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle as an embodied pathway of union with God.
- Deepen awareness of the “inner witness” through life experiences and contemplative practice.
- Be inspired to see God in all things, to ﬁnd hope and love even amidst suffering.
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Now Open! Register for The Franciscan Way
(Course runs May 25 – July 12)
Study the path of simplicity and radical compassion with The Franciscan Way, an online course based on the teachings of St. Francis of Assisi featuring Fr. Richard Rohr.
In this 7-week online course on Franciscan thought and practice, participants will learn more about concepts like the Alternative Orthodoxy and how to cultivate Franciscan wisdom through reflection and engagement with the teaching.
- Cultivate Franciscan wisdom in your daily life through reflection and engagement with Fr. Richard’s teaching.
- Expand your awareness of the themes and founders of the Franciscan way, including the Alternative Orthodoxy, Univocity of Being, and the Great Chain of Being.
- Develop a contemplative practice to grow alternative consciousness, which provides the only freedom from the dominant ego self and from cultural falsities.
- Connect and learn with other spiritual seekers.
Click here to register for The Franciscan Way
Time Commitment: 4-6 hours of work each week
Apply for Financial Assistance by May 11.
Registration ends May 18 or when full.
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