On Christian Life & Discipleship

I often find it challenging to know how to describe myself as a christian. On many occasions I have struggled to simply know where to begin. Many of the common labels are so loaded with stereotypes and stigmas that I wonder sometimes if it would be best to just replace them with new ones. Words like “christian,” “evangelical,” “catholic,” “spiritual,” “religious,” “mystic,” and so on have been heavily weighed down with all kinds of religious and cultural and even pejorative meanings that I wonder if using them creates more confusion than clarity.

And yet, I find that the simple and often original meanings of many of these labels do describe my own spiritual views and life quite well. But in order not to be misunderstood and wrongly pigeonholed, I often need to define what these labels mean to me. That said, I would currently describe myself as an evangelical-catholic-contemplative-christian-humanist. And here is my attempt to briefly explain what this somewhat ridiculous jumble of words actually means to me.

As an evangelical, my faith and hope are centred on the simple yet radical gospel (meaning “evangel”) message that Jesus Christ is Lord. I have therefore devoted myself to practically working out the personal, social, and political implications of this good news.

As a catholic, I have great appreciation for the ecumenical diversity that exists within the universal christian church, and my theology and ethics have been influenced by multiple christian traditions. I find being a member of the universal church provides significant breadth to my spiritual life.

As a contemplative, I have a special appreciation for the historic theology, practices, and traditions of christian mystics. I find contemplative teachings and resources provide significant depth to my spiritual life.

As a christian, I have chosen to be a disciple (meaning “student”) of Jesus’ teachings and example. I view this commitment as a lifelong apprenticeship that involves learning to embody his attitudes, behaviours, and character.

As a humanist, I believe that every person, by virtue of being made in the likeness of God, has inherent dignity and worth, and accordingly deserves to live with liberty and mutual-respect alongside their fellow human beings. Furthermore, I believe that Divinity and humanity are meant to coexist in profound integration, as modelled by the God-man, Jesus Christ.

Even though these brief explanations describe some of who I am, my christian spirituality is certainly not limited to these distinctives. For me these are more like significant starting points than hard boundary lines. These distinctives also overlap and interdepend as an integrated whole.  Moreover, in the words of Clark Pinnock, “I do not apologize for admitting to being on a pilgrimage in [life and] theology, as if it were in itself some kind of weakness of intelligence or character.” I am grateful that my views and life have changed over the years as I have gradually grown up. And I look forward to continued change as I move along in my pilgrimage.

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On Christianity

One common mistake made by some Christians is to turn physical icons into idols.  Another common mistake made by some Christians is to turn abstract ideas into idols.  In both instances, limited, human-made objects are held to be more sacred than they actually are.  Yet neither physical icons or abstract ideas can fully contain God, for God is infinite and incommensurable.  Both can still serve as helpful means to God—as signs that symbolically point towards a greater reality that exists beyond themselves.  Hence, both can have a meaningful purpose and place in the spiritual life when they are recognized as means and not ends.  But whenever we make icons or ideas an end, they inevitably stunt spiritual growth due to their inherent limitations.

Letting go of limited childhood images and concepts as we mature is a very healthy and normal thing to do in life, including the spiritual life.  Meister Eckhart wisely noted that the “highest and loftiest thing that one can let go of is to let go of God for the sake of God.”  One of the greatest ironies of the spiritual life is that often it is our inadequate ideas about God that prevent us from encountering the real God.  Indeed, Eckhart’s paradoxical remark brings many important truths to the surface: Our theological concepts are not God.  Our religious traditions are not God.  Our sacred icons are not God.  Our holy Bibles are not God.  Good and helpful as all of these things may be, none of them are God.

Some people reject God altogether when what they’re really rejecting is some false god that should be let go of.  Indeed, some individuals become atheists because they rightly see the inadequacy of certain idols that have been peddled as God.  Atheists sometimes even offer perceptive theological critiques that deserve serious attention from Christians.  If only Christians would have the courage to honestly listen to such prophetic voices, they may learn that there are some unsettling but valuable truths contained in their criticisms.

Keeping the ever-present risk of idolatry in perspective is crucial.  Often we think we are defending God when what we are actually defending are our own little images and ideas of God.  When we do this, we have over-identified such objects with God to the point that they become indistinguishable from God in our hearts and minds.  A common consequence that often accompanies this unfortunate confusion is we end up thinking we are defending God against the criticisms of others when we are actually just defending ourselves.