By: Richard Hooper

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Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 1:01am

Religion on Life Support

Column: A Heretic in Babylon
Religion on Life Support

Richard Hooper
Sedona, Arizona

When I was twenty years old I had a “peak” experience—some might call it mystical—that led me to believe that God wanted me to become a minister. This was during the middle of college, so I transferred to a college that offered ancient Greek (a prerequisite for seminary), and a department in the philosophy of religions, which is where I was introduced to Eastern philosophy for the first time. I found the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism particularly interesting, with its belief that there is only one reality in the Universe—God—and we are all part of that reality. Still, I could not wholly embrace this philosophy because it conflicted with my Christian beliefs. Still, I did look into Christian mysticism and saw many parallels.

Upon graduating from college and entering seminary two years later, I was shocked to discover that Christian academia had, in large, determined that the Christian message about Jesus in the Gospels was primarily myth, not actual history. To me, this meant that Christianity itself was a lie. I was so depressed about what I heard and read during the next four years of graduate work, that I started to believe that I had become an atheist. And the very least, I knew that I could no longer call myself a Christian with a clear conscience, and I wondered how my professors, who were all ordained, could remain in the Church, knowing what they did.

Apparently the myth of Christianity itself was enough for these men, but it wasn’t enough for me. If Jesus wasn’t the only begotten son of God, hadn’t actually performed miracles, and didn’t really rise from the dead, what was the point of continuing the Christian Church? Why not just lock the doors and walk away?

But the Church was my home, and even though I ceased to believe in the various Christian creeds I still wanted to become ordained, so I stuck it out in seminary. Spiritual meaning finally began to come back into my life, not by reinterpreting Christian dogma, but by returning to the teachings of Eastern philosophy, which now had much greater meaning to me without my dogmatic Christian blinders.

I went to seminary in Berkeley during the later part of the 1960s, so it’s not surprising that I also experienced psychedelic drugs for the first time during that period, and I recognized that many of the insights I had under the influence of marijuana and LSD supported my new, mystical, understanding of the Universe. I hoped that the Church would ultimately see the light as well. To begin that task, Christians just needed to come to the realization that Judeo-Christian dualism no longer represented the reality of the Universe. So, I was at least a little upbeat about the future of the Church when, in my fourth year of seminary, I did my year of internship in a parish church.

I was intelligent enough to realize that I couldn’t say much about what Christian academia had discovered about the Gospels, and I also knew I couldn’t promote mysticism from the pulpit. But this was during the Viet Nam war era, so I thought I could, at least, preach love and peace, and Christian responsibility to end the war. I also hoped that I could get parishioners to take Jesus more seriously when it came to social responsibilities. As it turned out, I could not have been more wrong. Half the congregation loved me, and the other half did everything they could possibly do to silence me. Had it not been for the love and support of my supervising pastor, I don’t think I wouldn’t have survived that year. At the very least, I would have been far less despondent than I was.

After surviving that year, I graduated from seminary and received my Masters of Divinity. But I had no clue what I was going to do with it. I didn’t put my name into the hopper to receive a call from a Lutheran parish, because I didn’t think I could make it in a parish church. I was far too outspoken and not nearly patient enough. I wanted the Church to change, and I wanted it to change now.

I had, by this point, become a card-carrying member of the Counter Culture, and I looked the part of a hippie. I couldn’t get a full time job at anything since I refused to cut my hair, so I became something of a lost soul for the next year. One day, out of the blue, I received a surprise call from the Director of American Missions of The American Lutheran Church. He told me that the Church had decided that it ought to reach out to the Counter Culture, and asked if I’d be interested in designing a ministry to this end—me being the one and only hippie seminary graduate in the country. I said I most certainly would be interested, and my life took a decidedly new turn.

After presenting the Church with a six week study for the viability of such a ministry in the Big Sur/Monterey Peninsula area of California, the study was accepted, and I was ordained in a ceremony which hundreds attended—followed by a party that lasted three days (church people went home after the first two hours.) So now I was a pastor, and a very unique one at that—leading life on my terms. Imagine getting paid (ok, it wasn’t all that much) to be a hippie!

To show my appreciation, I would attend Church conventions and pastor’s retreats with bells on—literally. I wore beads, bells and leather bell bottoms. I wore a clerical collar, but walked in bare feet, and my hair was halfway down to my waist. Naturally, I rode a motorcycle. I was quite a sight, and the Church didn’t know what to make of me. Most church people figured that I looked and acted the way I did so that I could better relate to long haired youth—so that worked out rather nicely. Little did they know this was the real me.

I had no desire to convert Counter Culture youth to Luthernism, however. Instead, I taught a mystical Jesus and the relationship of his teachings to Eastern philosophy. Fortunately for me, I had no immediate oversight because my boss was in Minnesota, I was in California.

It took six years before the powers that were realized that I was never going to save anyone for Christ. One day, the regular pastors in my conference (who I ignored for the most part) got their hands on some of my printed literature and didn’t like what they read. They especially took offense at a single sentence that read: “All spiritual paths meet at the top of the same mountain.”

This sentence made perfect sense to me, but not to them, so they put a call in to the Bishop and asked him to have a little chat with me. This led to a meeting between the Bishop and I, along with the Director of American Mission and the chairman of my board of directors—a renegade Catholic priest who had been defrocked. He had a few things to say to the Bishop, and so did I. I only wish what I have always called my little heresy trial had been recorded. It would still be good for laughs.

I was quite honest with the Bishop. I bore my spiritual soul and held nothing back. While the Bishop was understandably taken aback, for some reason I was not defrocked, excommunicated or burned at the stake. But six months later I received word that funding for my ministry was going to end, ostensibly because the Counter Culture had kind of disappeared. I was informed that I could take another job or put my name in for a parish. I chose to do neither. I thought I had been a kept man long enough. It was finally time for a clean divorce—time for Christianity and me to go our separate ways.

I made that decision more than thirty years ago, and although I don’t regret it, my preference would have been that, if the Church could not change itself, at least it could be inclusive enough to allow mystics within its theological ranks. But I knew this was not going to happen any time soon.

All these years later, I am now discovering one Christian scholar after another calling for the Church to take an entirely new theological direction. Christian academia is now coming out of the closet as budding mystics. These people believe that if the Church is to survive (and also become harmonious with the discoveries of modern science) it needs to adopt a monistic world-view, and leave Judeo-Christian dualism behind.

But I have to ask, why does Christianity need to survive? Part of me applauds efforts to broaden the scope of Christian theology, and Lord knows that if it did I would come running back. After all, I didn’t give up the ministry because I didn’t like the job description, and I still miss the “family.” As it is, I am without a spiritual home because I accept the highest teachings of all religions, and can no longer confine myself to any one doctrine or dogma. Still, if Christianity could embrace all religions as Hinduism does, I’d make peace and return.

Other clergy who believe as I do have remained in the Church like these scholars, even though they largely remain silent about their true beliefs. I don’t judge them for holding on—gotta feed the family—but I still wonder if there is any point in trying to change an institution that hasn’t changed in two thousand years—and shows no signs of doing so even today. Why not let the dead bury the dead, as Jesus suggested? When someone can no longer repeat ancient Christian creeds without entirely re-interpreting them, isn’t it time to move on?

As for myself, I’m tired of reinterpreting the Bible and trying to bring it into harmony with modern times. I’m tired of reinterpreting Christian doctrine. Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, are ancient religions with ancient world-views. These world-views are entirely out of sync with modern science and, in my opinion, irrelevant to the modern world. They do not reflect Reality as we are coming to understand it through scientific observation, so why not let these religions die a natural death like other ancient religions before them?

When its sky-god died, and when the New Testament was demythologized, Christianity effectively became comatose—brain dead, if you will. The Church continues to exist, but is only kept alive by artificial means. Wouldn’t it be more compassionate to just pull the plug?