Exploring Spirituality: We need to have a conversation

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Last weekend I had the chance to visit my brother in Omaha. While we come from the same womb, in some ways we couldn’t be more different. For the past few years, politics and spirituality were things we just pretended didn’t exist. I can’t speak for him, but for me the primary thing that maintained the silence was fear. I didn’t want to drive unnecessary wedges between us, so we talked about his latest hunting trip, my favorite soccer team, what our favorite beer was that week, etc.

Something really cool happened during my recent visit. We talked. I mean, we actually talked. We covered spirituality, politics, and obviously still beer. We didn’t try to convert each other as much as we simply opened up about our own convictions. I feel like I have seen my brother, and that he has seen me, with a new level of raw honesty. It was great and I really believe that it has pushed us deeper into our appreciation and love for one another.

It feels like we restarted the conversation. I have been thinking a lot about this idea of conversation lately. I listened to a podcast recently where Krista Tippett interviewed the philosopher and poet, David Whyte. Whyte sees conversation happening all around us–the conversation between the sea and the shore, between the sun and the moon, etc. I love that imagery. Everything in conversation.

But this also brings up a great tragedy for me. In the Christian household, the conversation has been feared for quite some time. It has been feared so much that in many instances, it has even been forcefully ended by silencing the “other side”. This has happened a number of times, but two specific examples come to mind.

1. Christianity got into bed with the Empire.

When the Christian Church was “Early”, there were many voices in the conversation. The voices ranged wildly and offered different perspectives, asked different questions, and forced the Church to constantly evaluate its beliefs and commitments in an effort to be sure that they were following Christ as closely as possible. Now I don’t want to romanticize this period. People were called “Heretics”. They were passionately argued against. They were told that they were wrong. But…they weren’t silenced. The early church didn’t have the power to silence teachers who challenged their interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. They simply had the power of argument and reason. Essentially, the conversation was lively!

Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, (4th Century) that little problem of not having the power to silence the “other side” was solved. It was during this period of the Christian story that Pelagius was excommunicated and branded a Heretic. He was forced to finish his days in exile away from Rome. It wasn’t the Church that eventually made sure of this, but Rome itself through the tireless effort of Augustine of Hippo. His was only one of several voices that were seen as problematic. And so, the inconvenient voices were no longer present. The conversation was silenced.

2. The Celts were finally tamed.

There was one stream of Christianity that had somehow managed to exist just outside of the Empire’s reach. That was the Christianity practiced in the Celtic world. Largely inspired by voices that were no longer allowed in Rome, like Pelagius, the Celts were off-beat compared to the Roman Mission of Christianity. They held women in high esteem, they saw the essential goodness of all created things, and they had no interest in conforming their way of spiritual practice to the demands of Rome.

In 664, Rome had finally had enough and the head on collision between the Celtic Mission and the Roman Mission occurred. It is no surprise that the Roman Mission was victorious and the Celtic Mission was ordered to conform to the Roman practice of Christianity, including the silencing of the voices deemed “Heretic”.

The tragedy of this moment is not simply that the Roman Mission won and the Celtic Mission lost. The tragedy was that the two could not find a way to engage in conversation, but instead engaged in war–the fruitless fight to prove that I am right and you are wrong. Once again, the inconvenient voices were no longer present. The conversation again was silenced.

We live in an age where many of us are tired of this dualistic mindset. We are a people who don’t buy into the lie that if you are not Republican then you absolutely must be Democrat. We are a people that don’t buy into the idea that wisdom does not exist in the tradition and perspective of “the other”. We are a people who are tired of the silencing of the conversation. So, let’s reclaim it!

Let’s not be afraid to read the Heretics. Let’s not be too proud to embrace our friends with whom we disagree. Let’s listen to one another. Let’s hold our convictions with deep commitment and also deep humility. Let’s reclaim the conversation!

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Daring to celebrate Pelagius

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Today is the day that many who find themselves in the Celtic stream of Christianity will celebrate the life of Pelagius. I wanted to share a brief piece about this man and his confusing–some would even say tragic–life experience as a spiritual teacher and contemporary of Augustine of Hippo. The following comes from “Celtic Daily Prayer”, a book of prayers and readings from within the Northumbria Community.

Pelagius (C. 350-418): August 28

We have chosen to mark Pelagius’ memory on the feast day normally assigned to Augustine of Hippo, who did so much to malign Pelagius and who is the source of many erroneous teachings and emphases that still dog Christian thinking today!

Pelagius was a British theologian, teacher, writer, and soul-friend who settled in Rome. He was highly spoken of at first–even by Augustine. He taught about the value of soul-friendship. He celebrated the fact that the goodness of God cries out through all of creation, for ‘narrow shafts of divine light pierce the veil that separates heaven from earth.’

But soon he was criticized for teaching women to read Scripture, and for believing that the image of God is present in every new-born child, and that sex is a God-given aspect of our essential creation. He did not deny the reality of evil or its assault on the human soul, or the habitual nature of sin. Augustine’s own peculiar ideas were in stark contrast, seeing humanity as essentially evil, and polluted by the sexual activity which causes conception to occur.

Augustine tried twice in 415 to have him convicted of heresy–on both occasions Pelagius was exonerated in Palestine. In 416 Augustine and the African bishops convened two diocesan councils to condemn him and Celestius, another Celt. In 417 the Bishop of Rome called a synod to consider the conflict, and declared Pelagius’ teaching entirely true, and urged the African bishops to love peace, prize love, and seek after harmony. They ignored this, and in 418 they persuaded the State to intervene and banish Pelagius from Rome for disturbing the peace. The Church then was obliged to uphold the Emperor’s judgment and excommunicated and banished him, though no reasons were made clear. He returned to Wales, probably to the monastery of Bangor.

Two centuries later all the same ideas were still to be found in Celtic Christianity. History is written by the victors, so most reports of what Pelagius said are given from Augustine’s view point, not in his own balanced and sensible words. He was also criticized for being a big, enthusiastic man, stupid from eating porridge and over-confident in his own strength, and for wearing his hair in an inappropriate style!