Hello Pastor Bob,
I come to you here for two reasons: one, you seemed to invite this feedback and I do not want to ignore your call; and two, your review was very powerful to me.
First though, I want to thank you for the time you devoted to reading, considering and writing such a thoughtful review of A View from the Back Pew. Yours is among the most intelligent and meaningful commentary on the book to date; comments that have me thinking a great deal to be sure.
But while I'm here now I want to acknowledge a few of your very insightful and illuminating points.
First, I thank you for being big enough to get past critiquing my (lack of) formal theological training. You'd whip my butt in that arena; you know it and I do to. It takes a very secure and intelligent person to elevate the discussion to where I hoped to take it to begin with. A debate can become circular if it's simply tit-for-tat. You say you didn't want to appear defensive - I doubt you would have but you gain much respect from me for seeing bigger issues to take me to task on - good for you! And, I think good for the discussion.
Your criticism is fair that after my conclusions about Catholicism were drawn, I might have investigated Protestantism more intensely. I didn't get much into this in the book - true, but in reality, had I written more about this, the book would have gone in another direction entirely and frankly, there are many books examining the schism and narrating conversions one way or the other; I would probably not add to the discussion. In retrospect, I at times grouped "Christianity" and "Catholicism" in the same big box and to a learned theologian such as you, I see how it might have aggravated you. But still, I detect patience on your part - maybe because you understood this, maybe you're just giving me a pass or maybe you still had your eye on a bigger fish to fry. (I suspect the latter and again, you demonstrate tremendous patience and insight)
Now - Gnosticism. I state in the book "I'm not a modern day Gnostic or anything like that". You suggest otherwise and I accept your point as valid. Although I wouldn't describe myself as such, that doesn't mean I'm necessarily right. In layman's terms gnosis is knowledge from within - agreed? And, I do think certain spiritual truth is found within us all if we're open to finding it - so, guilty as charged. However, the reason I do not ascribe the label of "Gnostic" to myself is because I believe every human has the capacity to discover this knowledge through the individual connection we all have to God. I do not think there is a "select" and special elite group who possess such knowledge as the ancient Gnostics believed.
I take Jesus at his word when he claims the "kingdom of heaven is within" and I believe he invited us all on a journey inside to find our own divine connection. One other point I'll make on this topic is that the Gnostic Gospels did not influence me. Although I read them and quote them in the book, my contention that we can find truth from within is very organic. As you'll recall, I began to move in this personal, internal direction long before I ever encountered the Gnostic Gospels. They did serve to confirm some of my organic belief about gnosis, but I reject Gnosticism based on its elitist tendency, as I believe Jesus to be the ultimate egalitarian. However, your point is well taken.
As you know, my thesis is that Jesus preaches heaven as a "state of being" and not a "place of being". But, you're not the only person to accuse me of being a Gnostic so I must consider the implication of the charge. (Here again, we get into labels and languages, which you also know, are problems and limitations I point out in the book.) At any rate, I accept your criticism as honest and without malice. You've made me think.
I think your larger commentary is about the "spiritual but not religious 'movement'" of which you sort of make me an ad hoc or default leader of. Again, you make me think. Although this is not what I set out to become, if it places me in a discussion with intelligent, open minded leaders of institutional belief systems like you, I'd be privileged to carry that torch.
I assume you understand that the evolution of divine and/or spiritual articulation is what I believe modern man craves and I can only (at least in my first book) point to the lack of overall theological evolution as the culprit. Simply put, I think we have the capacity to comprehend deeper theology than that represented in two thousand year old doctrine (and dogma). I'm not suggesting God evolves (or that truth is relative) - only that we are evolving and our theology should be too.
(I understand too, that you might say, "Protestantism reflects evolution of Christian theology" and offer examples of differences; I might then say, "yeah, but not enough" and offer examples of lack of differences and we'd be on that circular path that leads nowhere. This is why I appreciate your decision to not nit-pic. Your angle keeps the dialogue intellectually straightforward - the only direction that offers progress. There are certain points along the way to a bigger understanding that we can agree that we disagree.)
I'm honored, touched and impressed by the last two paragraphs of your review. The maturity you display about actually looking at why people might "strike out on their own" is the type of enlightened leadership that gives me hope that it isn't too late. If I were speaking for this "movement" I'd say "Hooray for Pastor Bob! We need to include him in our discussion!"
(The reality though Bob is that it is unlikely that any "movement" is afoot as yet. Why? Paradoxically, lack of an organization! Yes, I see the irony. This is great fun - no?)
If what you say is true about someone like me pushing the pendulum too far, I'd respond by saying real change never seems to happen in the middle of the road - especially with large, ancient institutions. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor but you've got me excited!)
Lastly, the biggest reason for hope is another point you bring up - community. Nobody really wants to strike out on his or her own - not totally. But those with integrity and the courage of their conviction (read stubborn) will sacrifice community for a stronger connection to God. To some, probably as you point out, an increasing number, the overpowering desire for a direct connection to God feels ultimately more imperative than the very natural human need for community. Community can be found in other parts of society. God can't. To those who believe God resides within, the institution as intercessor can be seen as an unnatural impediment to this personal relationship -especially if the doctrine of that institution rings ancient and not fully developed.
This opens up a whole other line of discussion that I'll save for another time. Plus, I think this is what your most interested in discussing so I'll leave it in your capable hands to move this part of the discussion forward if you choose.
I've taken up too much of your space here but it would be remiss of me not to respond to such an intelligent, thoughtful leader such as yourself. I hope your congregation feels lucky to have you leading them.
Thanks again for reviewing A View from the Back Pew - I'm truly proud to have you among the growing body of readers. This little book is striking a nerve - I (and the book) have been called many things in the month since it came out - some wonderful acclaim I do not deserve and some demonization I suspect I don't either. I'll gladly accept both if it makes people think and then begin a dialogue.
You represent equanimity and fairness that actually makes me think it could make a difference - I sincerely thank you for that. You are one of the good guys! I hope to keep our dialogue alive.
Tim O'Donnell, Author