Daniel A. Helminiak has done it again. He's written another brilliant book on Christianity/Spirituality; giving us who have "outgrown" the faith of our fathers something to cling to. The Transcended Christian (Spiritual Lessons for the Twenty-First Century) is the third of his books that I have read, the other two being Meditation Without Myth and What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality. Meditation Without Myth was reviewed here earlier. I only have a two minor criticisms to make about his book, the first of which is I wish it had been called the "Transcending Christian". As I've outgrown the simple label "Christian" and struggled to redefine myself, I've toyed with emergent Christian, Zen Christian, dropping labels all together and a number of other things. I really like Transcended Christian, except it makes it sound as if I've already completed the process. Nothing could be further from the truth. But, Transcending Christian- that works. The book opens with this:
What do you do when you've outgrown your religion? When your life experience exceeds that of your clergy? When the learning that life forced on you challenges your religious beliefs? When you can no longer deny that something new is afoot and your church is out of touch?
In the first chapter, Daniel gives some examples of life experiences that force some of us to become Transcended Christians. The experiences can be as varied as there are people to have them. But, the results are the same. As life unfolds and we come up against reality and compare it to what we've been taught, at some point, the old time religion no longer fits. The following sentence really caught my attention. "This book is about this combination of staying rooted in one's Christianity while also growing beyond it." I have come to realize that I will always retain my Christian roots, in some way, shape or form. I have considered trying to jettison them. However, I have come to accept they will (and must) always be there. Even with these roots, I have to be free to grow beyond those roots and to embrace new truth wherever they may be found, in other religions or even from secular sources. Christianity doesn't contain all the truth in the world, doesn't have an exclusive hold on truth and isn't inerrant. That is a lesson that life has taught me and which forces me to become a Transcend(ing) Christian.
The book is a series of essays or sermons Daniel has given over the years. The author has done a good job of arranging the essays and in providing opening and closing chapters making this into a coherent work. Father Helminiak has spent a lot of time speaking to gays and lesbians, so the essays are directed at outcasts and are full of references to homosexuality. As an openly gay, semi-retired Catholic priest, Daniel Helminiak is at the fringes of the church himself. I describe him as semi-retired because even though he submitted his letter of resignation, the Vatican never accepted it. He still considers himself as officially representing the Catholic church and has by no means left the church (nor does it sound like he intends to).
One point he makes early in the book concerns Eastern religions. It was a wake up call for me. I, along with many Westerners, have been infatuated with Eastern religions/philosophies thinking of them as pure and seemingly unburdened by all the baggage of Christianity. He points out that what we get is the best of Eastern philosophy, distilled and packaged for our consumption. Only the best gets translated. And we don't see all of dirty detail we know so well about our religion. He points out that Christianity is actually a very down-to-earth tradition concerned with life in this world, justice, love, peace and other matters concerning the global community. He gives reference to many historical Christian giants to back up this claim. Bravo for him for defending the honor of our tradition which so many of us (and I include myself in this number) are so quick to trash. He is proposing a revitalizing of our religion, not throwing it off.
I'm not going to outline each essay. But I do want to cover some overall themes. Daniel Helminiak does a great job of translating common secular language into religious language and vice versa. So often, he'll say something and then turn around and say "In religious language this means." For example when he describes the religious (Christian) concept of God's work among us, he says "And what we would really be trying to say is that the ultimate power of the universe is on our side. Life is okay, just as it is unfolding, and you are okay, just as you are currently growing Best to trust life and flow with it." Just last night I was speaking with a neighbor who is going through a bit of a rough time. She said that she thinks God is bringing these experiences into her and her family's life for a reason. Put that way, I can't exactly agree with her. I don't see G-d as a puppet-master controlling the movement of every atom in the universe. In Daniel Helminiak's categorization of indistinguishables, indeterminables and inconsqeuentials (see below), that would be an indeterminable. I don't see G-d's hand (directly) in the things that happen to me. But, translated into the language used above for G-d's work I could agree with her wholeheartedly. Daniel also gives language to describe "God" that even most atheists could agree with. If you want to read it though, you'll have to buy the book. :D
Translation is an issue though for many of us who are transcending yet stuck in traditional churches. Daniel talks about having to translate our Sunday morning experiences and I know exactly what he means. It's a lot of work and I'm got pretty tired of it. For years, I'd have to translate sermons, hymns, prayers into language I could agree with. It's so nice to finally have found a place where less translation is necessary. Songs about the "Blood of the Lamb" and what a wretched sinner I am are just too much work to translate anymore. I need to be around Transcend(ing) Christians who speak the same language. Speaking of this, he says that some Bible stories are too complex to be taught on Sunday mornings or (heaven forbid) in Sunday school. The lessons in stories like Abraham and Isaac are often lost, at best, or grossly twisted into meaning their exact opposite. He mentions specifically that Christians are taught that the ultimate act of faith is blind obedience to G-d and that Abraham's big claim to fame is he was willing to kill his own son. Funny, Jews see the story as an illustration that child sacrifice was never to be allowed or required by G-d. He mentions a young man who was proud of the fact he would kill for G-d. C'mon! This is the same mentality the men who flew the planes into the building had. If you hear G-d telling you to kill one of your children, tell G-d to to it Himself and check yourself into the nearest mental facility. G-d does not require or want blind obedience to things that are harmful, wrong, evil, murderous or that are not for human good.
The second minor criticism I have of the book is its emphasis on homosexuality and the treatment of homosexuals. As a homosexual himself, I'm sure this is a subject near and dear to Daniel's heart. But, as a recovering homophobe, I found it a little distracting. I'm not sure how the average reader will deal with it. At times I wanted to say "Enough already about the homosexuals." But, his points are all valid and this is a very serious issue in Christian churches (as I've address in this blog). So, I don't criticize him too harshly for bring it up repeatedly. I don't want to give the impression the book is all about homosexuality though. Far from it. When Father Helminiak is giving examples of oppressed, marginalized people, who would he know more about than homosexuals? If I were writing, I'd probably give a love of examples of black people's experience. I hope my comment doesn't keep ANYONE from reading the book. I'd hate to have that happen.
The last chapter was particularly good. One of the things I enjoy about the proposed spirituality that Daniel has envisioned is the pragmatic nature of it. He goes into what he calls the religious indispensables (values we must live by), indeterminables (things like the Trinity and even the existence of G-d) and the inconsequentials (things like dietary restrictions, holy days, etc.). Basically he says we must all agree on the indispensables and live our lives based on these values. We have to stop trying to shove the indeterminables down each others' throats. And, we should minimize spending time on the inconsequentials. He envisions a worldwide, humanistic spirituality that all ethical and caring people can embrace, but not the abolition of our individual religions which are our individual expressions of these common values. Christians can still keep our doctrines of the Trinity and our Holy Days. He's not proposing a new world order where all religions are stomped out or even made to be all the same- just an underlying spirituality we can all agree on.
There's a lot of good stuff in the book I missed in this quick overview. Oh yeah, like how we should determine what we are going to believe, not relying solely on scripture, tradition or "authority" but also not falling in the other ditch and going it alone just "listening to our own hearts". We need to be in a community of people committed to discerning spiritual truth and, as my friend Karl put it "collectively exploring".
I suggest picking up the book and reading it for yourself. I think it's well worth the time and the money.