by Peter Traben Haas
During the weeks between Easter and Pentecost, I’m starting a new series on this important subject.
I’m not against anyone or any kind of Christianity. I am for a deepening, growing faith relationship with God through Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit which at its heart is the goal of contemplative Christianity. These thoughts are in service to anyone who is seeking a way forward in their faith.
I’m also writing this because it feels to me that Christianity, and especially Evangelical Christianity, is reaching a tipping point. And I’d like to be a part of the conversation that helps folks find a way forward in faith and not suffer like I did.
Intellectually, much of Evangelical Christianity’s perspectives did not make sense to me. So I gave up trying to get the circle of faith to fit into the square of rationality. The more I surrendered trying to figure it all out, the more I was given help. In the process, I discovered an ancient alternative. It’s called the contemplative dimension of Christianity. I believe its wisdom can be very useful in this season of spiritual and cultural friction. It is for me.
I’m not trying to start a fight with anyone. People are free to have their perspectives. I am simply going to tell my story and share the steps along the way where I discern my own growth happened, and how my thinking, faith and growth unfolded.
Perhaps my journey exemplifies some of the inherent tensions and problems within the Evangelical level of consciousness (i.e. way of seeing things). My growth took time. It was a process, but eventually I discovered a different kind of Christianity, and as I have looked back upon my 25 year journey, I am grateful for the foundation I was given by the Evangelical perspective and community. I am also very grateful for the way out and the contemplative dimensions that helped me leave what I experienced as the limited purview of the Evangelical perspective.
This series is an attempt to share my story and seven of the important steps along the way of my faith formation. Here is an overview of the blog series:
As a part of this introduction to the series, let’s start with a presupposition and a claim, and then conclude with an analogy and my credentials.
A presupposition: Evangelical Christianity is an expression of one level of consciousness among many possible levels of consciousness. It is one way of seeing things. “Evangelical Christianity” is not the fourth member of the Holy Trinity. Nor is it the 67th book of the Holy Bible. Like anything else in the field of human culture and knowledge, it’s a manifestation of multiple human perceptions congealed into what we call a world-view, or meme, or level of consciousness.
A claim: No one is really designed to remain at the Evangelical level of consciousness. In my interactions with Evangelical Christians, including my own personal experience within the Evangelical mindset, I have discerned tacit internal dissonance about the Evangelical way of being Christian, whether we admitted it or even knew it or not. The question is how much and how long such feelings of dissonance are ignored, repressed or contorted into defensive behavior. Many people have a vested financial and personal interest in keeping the movement or institution strong, and so they do often place limitations on the extent they are willing to grow beyond their current level of perception. That is OK, but we need to put our preferences and agendas on the table.
An analogy. Please don’t take this personally or literally. It’s an analogy. Evangelical Christianity is a developmental stage of faith, like 6th grade is a stage of learning on the journey to post-graduate study. No one who wishes to grow stays in grade school. Everyone who wishes to grow graduates to higher/deeper levels of being and understanding. This is a fact. And I don’t assume I have reached the deepest level of learning either. That doesn’t happen in this lifetime. Everyone living is still on a journey of discovery. We are all open systems capable of further growth, development and indeed transformation. (If you doubt this read James Fowler’s helpful book Stages of Faith and notice which stage you become uncomfortable in the reading. The stage prior to where you became uncomfortable is probably a pretty good guide to where you are at developmentally and also an invitation to keep growing).
Here are a few of my credentials. I grew up a child of the Jesus’ People movement, with parents who were participants of several prominent evangelical Christian communities and bands (such as Rez Band and Servant). I grew up at Elmbrook Church under the tutelage of Stuart Briscoe’s profound biblical preaching. I graduated from the West Point Academy of Evangelical, Biblical Christianity: Moody Bible Institute. Not only that, during my senior year at Moody I was the student body president. In my junior year I founded the Student Academic Club. I also started a ministry to the homeless my freshman year. I’m now a 42-year-old Presbyterian pastor in the Midwest, a graduate of Princeton Seminary and an author. I’ve earned a Doctorate of Ministry. Perhaps I should also add, “and I was a pharisee of pharisees.”
But while at Moody, trying to be a good bible evangelical, I had a crisis of faith and intellect.
It was a slow process, like all healthy growth is. The process of my transformation and dare I say liberation began during my church history 101 class with the illuminating lectures of Dr. Greg Quiggle. It deepened in Philosophy 101 class with the brilliant Dr. Doug Kennard. And it came to full fruition the summer after graduating when I became an atheist for a day. But more on that in tomorrow’s post.
For two of the four years of my time at Moody in Chicago I worshiped at a conservative Presbyterian Church (PCA). But I couldn’t comprehend why there weren’t any women in leadership. So, one night, I took a courageous step and visited a magnificent church (I was nervous since folks at Moody referred to it as a liberal church). I went to the Sunday evening vespers service at the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue across the street from the John Hancock Building. As worship began, I was moved to tears by the beauty of the candle lit sanctuary. My heart was flooded with joy and awe as a woman pastor stood up in her black Geneva gown and white Geneva tabs and with outstretched arms said, “Welcome to the House of God to Worship our God of Love.” We served the homeless dinner after worship; that sealed it for me. I joined Fourth Pres a month later.
After Moody, I took a year off prior to going to seminary to work at an excellent Evangelical mega church in Brookfield, Wisconsin called Elmbrook. I worked there as a pastoral resident. The residency was designed to help me discern if I was called to the pastorate by getting broad pastoral experience. I also was using it as a test to explore if I could go the Evangelical route versus the denominational, Presbyterian route. It was 1995. During that year, watching the increasingly personality driven showmanship of mega churches nationwide, and seeing the worship trends changing more toward the theater experience, I decided that there was NO way I could continue down the Evangelical route. That way of doing and being church was not for me.
Sure enough, nearly 20 years since then much of Evangelical, nondenominational style of worship has been concertized and moodifed with dark rooms, stage lighting and expensive multi-media systems and imagery – essentially becoming multi-media production events. It’s game changing stuff – and most churches can’t keep up. It is as different as the cell phone is to the telegraph.
The same commercialized sub-culture also exists. It irked me at 20 years old. It irks me at 40 years old. Everything from the mega star “speaking” circuits, to the pre-packaged church products, and now the multi-site franchise “beam the pastor by satellite” mentality. The consumerism draped in spirituality turned me off at Moody in 1993. It still does. In fact, sadly, I think its worse today than ever. I call it the Walmartization of Christianity. Big box churches with even bigger parking lots with even bigger egos on the stage or screens, or so it seems to me.
That’s not to say the denominational world is any better. The last 20 years or so in Presbyterian PCUSA circles have had their own problems. The PCUSA is also not a shining example of spiritual fecundity or wise and humble leadership. My own life and ministry is lacking too, and were it not for my own breakdown I’m sure I’d still be inflated with my false self too trying to perform with “big screens” and keep up appearances. More on that in further posts.
All this to say, I have been so blessed to discover the contemplative dimension hiding in plain sight all along, moving beyond both denominationalism and evangelicalism. The contemplative dimension has helped me stay rooted in my own tradition and not leave the pastorate altogether. It also was the bridge I needed to leave the unworkable perspectives of my Evangelical Christian land of birth and lead me the promised land that was waiting for my inward attention all along.
That’s enough about me for now. I’ll share more of my story as we move through the steps. Beginning tomorrow, I’ll look at the important first step: It’s OK to see God differently.
© 2009 – 2017 ContemplativeChristians.com. All Rights Reserved.
Image artwork © “I am the Vine” by Tatiana Nikolova- Houston.