Several years ago I visited a museum and saw the skeleton of a dinosaur. As I read the plaque, I learned only a handful of the bones were original, that the remainder had been fabricated based on a paleontologist's extrapolation from the authentic bones. The dinosaur was massive and I was mystified at how such a large creature could be produced from scraps of bone.
I've studied theology in some depth, not by watching Pat Robertson and reading books about how God wants to bless me financially, but by trotting off to college and earning degrees in it. So when I saw the dinosaur, my thoughts turned church-ward, as they invariably do. I thought how the church, like many of these dinosaur skeletons, is the product of extrapolation, of modest beginnings multiplied into vast enterprises.
Jesus, we are told by the church, emerged from his mother's virginal womb with a pencil behind his ear and a blueprint for the church well in hand. But there are only two passages in the Bible (Matthew 16:18 and 18:17) in which Jesus mentions the church, and those references have dubious origins. Many Bible scholars (the ones who don't watch Pat Robertson) suspect the Matthean verses were not original to Jesus, but were written back into the text by persons hoping to bolster their theological and ecclesial position by placing them in the mouth of Jesus. (There's no better guarantee of job security than convincing others Jesus appointed you to the task.) From those two verses, we have built a vast institution based on these "hints" Jesus gave us. But we should never delude ourselves into thinking that today's church sprung directly from the mind of Jesus. All we have is extrapolation, a few bones upon which have been erected a larger organism.
By way of disclosure, I should confess that I am involved in the church, having served as a Quaker pastor in Indiana for 25 years and counting. My brand of Quakerism is a good-humored one, and casts a jaundiced eye towards the Holy and Catholic Church Instituted By Christ, the Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity, and the Only Way By Which God Is Known and We Are Saved. We're more the working-for-peace, feeding-the-poor, knitting-afghans-for-Afghans kind of church.
This is all to say that some Christians believe in Biblical inerrancy or papal infallibility or that the Haitians made a pact with the devil that centuries later caused an earthquake, but I'm not one of them. I fall squarely in the nice camp of Christianity. Be nice to people. Be pleasant. What the heck, let's go out on a limb and do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
Large portions of religious folks have forgotten this, a fact that both annoys and inspires me. Annoys me because they've managed to convince so many people that theirs is the normative definition of faith, inspires me because I enjoy articulating an understanding of Christian faith that annoys them. Hence, my most recent book, If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus.
It is apparent, after several millennia of experimentation, that the Ten Commandments we Christians all know and love and want to hang in courtrooms haven't lived up to their billing. We're still coveting, fornicating, and stealing, and seeming to enjoy it more than ever. So I've suggested ten new standards around which we can orient our lives. They are as follows:
If the church were Christian, Jesus would be a model for living, not an object of worship.
If the church were Christian, affirming our potential would be more important than condemning our brokenness.
If the church were Christian, reconciliation would be valued over judgment.
If the church were Christian, gracious behavior would be more important than right belief.
If the church were Christian, inviting questions would be more important than supplying answers.
If the church were Christian, encouraging personal exploration would be more important than communal uniformity.
If the church were Christian, meeting needs would be more important than maintaining institutions.
If the church were Christian, peace would be more important than power.
If the church were Christian, it would care more about love and less about sex.
If the church were Christian, this life would be more important than the afterlife.
In the end, what I'm hoping for is a church a little less full of itself, and a little more full of love. It wouldn't take much, for love and grace and kindness have a way of multiplying. We can start with just a few bones of it, and watch it build into something so vast it boggles the mind -- a divine extrapolation, if you will.
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