Minimalism and religion

I have been wrestling over whether or not to post this. I'm going to go for it and hope for the best. Couple of quick things up top: I'm a minimalist and it has very little to do with religion, but I can find examples of minimalism in religion.

My decisions are mine, your decisions are yours. Consider what I believe but ultimately make up your own mind. Know that my primary motivation and primary belief is love. Love at all costs. Love with abandon. Reckless love. Blind love.

I see only love all through the teachings of Jesus and I have chosen to follow Jesus, as a Christian, because of love. It says "his kindness leads men to repentance." I'd encourage you to read the book of Matthew in the Bible. It shows a clear picture that kindness and how Jesus' primary motivation throughout his life was love.

I was raised in the Baptist church, my dad is a Southern Baptist pastor and my grandfather was a Southern Baptist pastor. I guess I come from a long line of pastors, actually, my fifth great grandfather founded First Presbyterian in Manhattan. After high school I thought that I, too, wanted to be a pastor, so I went to a Bible college.

In Bible school, I was deeply hurt by a pack of wolves in sheep's clothing. So-called friends using religion to take advantage of others. The pain of those years caused me to question religion and wrestle with it for many more to come. In my wrestling, questioning, and endless reading, I came to what I now hold as my beliefs. My beliefs will evolve and change and I'm open-minded to that. I acknowledge that there are so many things that I just simply don't know and I acknowledge too, that I have a lot left to learn.

One thing I know is that Jesus' simple message changed the world. There's no denying the historical and sociocultural impact of Christianity from the first century to today. All of the advancements, all of the art contributed by Christians—by men and women whose work came from a curiosity about the world that God created and a desire to offer something of worth to their God—there's just so much that Christianity has given us.

Consider the Renaissance, consider medical and military advancements, consider the political implications of the Reformation, without which there would be no separation of church and state, no French Revolution (though the French Revolution was largely against religion it owed a lot to the reforming that had begun two centuries before). There'd be no idea of democracy, no America, on and on.

There's also no denying that Christianity has more documentation than any other belief or philosophy in antiquity—even atheists willingly acknowledge this. We have thousands more source manuscripts than any other famous work in antiquity. And we have early secular historians who have confirmed much of what the Bible says about Jesus.

Jesus' simple message, however, has been distorted by awful people time and time again (consider the Crusades, the oppressive Roman Catholic church, kings and queens using demonstrations of religion to cover their moral failures). Jesus' message was one of love and of peace—he never once preached violence. Only always love.

He said that the greatest commandment he could give to us is love. And all through the Gospels, he sides with the poor, needy, orphaned, widowed, anxious, ill, and oppressed. He feeds the hungry, heals the sick, and implores us to follow his lead in servanthood and humility.

My dad and mom raised me in a home that radiated that love, they model that love to everyone they meet, that love emanates through the wonderful people at their church—my home church. It was that love that drew me to my own church.

In that spirit of love, we feed hundreds of people each week, we come together to help people pay their bills, we travel to disaster areas—like Houston after Hurricane Harvey, I went to New Orleans following Katrina, we have people in Puerto Rico right now—to cook food and to set up trailers with laundry machines inside and to give out much needed household and hygiene items. My church loves people—no matter who.

My church is a Southern Baptist church and I'm the first to admit I have disagreements with much of what Southern Baptists believe. Especially in areas where I think we stray from the simple message of Jesus—again, just love. Just love.

Aside from the problematic reasons that the Southern Baptist church was founded, I think Southern Baptists have trouble engaging with culture: Either we try too hard to be cool and then cave on what we believe, or we get so legalistic and duty-bound that we force people to adopt our “inside baseball” language and to adopt our culture (the way we dress, Chick-fil-a, LifeWay, Christian radio) rather than allowing Christianity to be multi-cultural and diverse.

I think Southern Baptists consistently choose the wrong hills to die on in the public square. I think we've falsely equated Christianity with American nationalism, capitalism, or manifest destiny, and on that point I think we'd do well to stay out of partisan politics and turn off Fox News.

We often compromise the message of Jesus at the prospect of gaining political influence or alliances. Oh, how quick we were to excuse "Grab her by the pussy" when Donald Trump vowed to fight for the small business owner who doesn't want to bake a cake for a homosexual couple. Don't you see we're justifying one form of sexual immorality to fulfill our agenda on another?

Nevertheless we allow politicians to use us to garner favor come election-season and we're so easily fooled by anyone who uses the political rhetoric of Evangelicalism to convince the American people of things wholly unrelated to religion. There are so many silver-tongued serpents who use Bible-ish language to make just about anything sound like it's of God.

One example of this is how we've been convinced as Christians, by those on the right who've used our religion to curry favor with us, that climate change isn't real. Christians should be most concerned about taking care of the earth. After all, it's God's creation. Shouldn't we want to do anything in our power to preserve it?

Yet for some reason Christians have been hypnotized by climate change deniers who have nothing to support their arguments, not the Bible nor science. The Bible makes it clear that we ought to steward and protect our world.

I say 'hypnotized' because too often I think Southern Baptists turn off their brains. Sometimes I wonder if I'm reading the same Bible as some of the members of my church. I struggle to find biblical justification for many Southern Baptist practices.

Southern Baptists don't have a clear sense of ecclesiology—most of our churches are very weak in that area—it exposes us to scandal. We need to formulate biblical, somewhat agreed-upon methods of church governance, financial stewardship, and church discipline.

I think we squabble too much. Ecclesiology is something we squabble over a lot. I worry when I hear two Southern Baptists bicker because it becomes apparent early on that neither of them have read their Bibles. So many of our arguments start from a place of pride and self-justification rather than from a desire to honor what the Bible says.

I think that we could do so much more good in the world. I think some of the things we invest in constitute poor stewardship of the resources God has given us. And I think we need to more clearly define the role of the Holy Spirit in our worship services. I'm tired of hearing empty platitudes unfounded in Scripture during worship—I want to see the return of a more intentional sort of liturgy in our services.

I think we find it too easy to blame our misgivings on 'the Enemy'—on Satan—when the Bible says, “Each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed." The devil didn't make you do it, that was your own greed, lust, want, envy, evil desire—but we're so quick to shift blame.

I think more than anything, we need a return to Scripture. Scripture memorized, Scripture read in our services, Scripture honored from the preacher's preaching down to our daily conversations with other Christians. I’m tired of hearing sermons ripped from the pages of a best-selling self-help book.

I'm tired of hearing about counseling sessions where they’re just going through some laminated LifeWay guide together. I'm tired of attending small group sessions where we’re asked to buy a supplementary book by one of only three or four acceptable best-selling Christian authors. Further, if a Christian book makes the New York Times best-seller list, I am instantly suspicious of it, following the doctored sales of Mark Driscoll. Our indiscretions make Jesus look so bad.

Want to know a great book for Christians to read, that's been on the best-seller list for oh, about 100 years or so? It's called the Bible. Read it for God’s sake. No, read it for your sake because before you go saying you're a Christian and then making us look bad, you need to know what the Bible says.

You need to read the Bible to see that Jesus was not a white middle-class Republican with locks of flowing blonde hair. You need to smell the dirt on his feet. You need to feel the hot middle eastern sun beating down on you as you read the words, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that someone sowed in his field… the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of all shrubs.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is the greatest of all shrubs? Shrubs. It’s humble. It's honest. It spends its day in the sun and grows in the light. It doesn't shrivel when it's exposed. It shows its colors because it knows what it is, knows it’s purpose.

A shrub is simple. It is evergreen—tested and true. It sticks around, it survives on little, it takes from no one, and it benefits from a good pruning once in awhile. The Kingdom of Heaven looks nothing like the Church of today, really. But you'd only see that if you read your Bible.

So I go to a Southern Baptist church but I don't really consider myself a Southern Baptist. I consider myself a Jesus-obsessed Jesus-follower first: the teachings of Jesus mean everything to me, Matthew 5-7 means everything to me; I'm a Baptist second, and then out of love for the work my church is doing, I go to a Southern Baptist church.

Why call myself a Baptist if I have so many issues with the SBC? I studied Baptist history following the Reformation and the ideals of historical Baptists appeal to me above any other denomination within modern-day Christianity. I find historical Baptism to be most biblical, most true to the text.

The London Baptist Confession (the Baptists' first charter) makes it clear that Baptist belief was originally grounded in the elevation of the conscience. We can discern Scripture for ourselves, we don't need a priest to read it to us. Our faith is personal, we don't all have to agree on every little thing. That's why Baptists fight like cats and dogs—we are an independent, free-thinking people. Or at least we once were.

Listen to what the first Baptists wrote: "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his word, or not contained in it."

What's that mean? They're saying if it's not talked about in the Bible, it's up to you to decide what you think. And if someone says something that's contrary to what you've read in the Bible, feel free to ignore it. It's all about simple Bible and simple conscience—let God be your guide. I like that a lot.

One might think that the choice to become a minimalist would lead me to more ritualistic or to ascetic religious practices like that of a monk or a priest or a yogi. Minimalism doesn't draw me to those forms of religion, to Catholicism or to Buddhism where it is heavily displayed in the habit and in monastic practices. Instead, actually, minimalism is the reason that traditional Baptist beliefs appeal to me.

Long before the SBC, before teetotaling and the Prohibition, before the Second Great Awakening—Baptists used to be so cool. Worship as you see fit, they believed. Eat what you see fit. Wear what you see fit. Only, in your freedoms don't step on your brother's feet. Don't flaunt your freedoms to someone whose conscience won't permit them to worship as you do. You don't need a fancy cathedral to worship. You don't even need a building.

The London Baptists also said, "Popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection that they are superstitious and sinful snares." In other words, I don't have to be monkish about my minimalistic living and I shouldn't impose my minimalism on others with any kind of religious fervor.

I can let conscience be king, knowing that my conscience was given to me by a good God and has been confirmed by the Spirit of obedience living in me as someone who has accepted Jesus as "the way, the truth, and the life."

So for me Jesus is Lord, the Bible shows me who Jesus is, my God-given conscience is my guide in life, I submit to no authority but God and the ones he put over me—like the authority of the state. The demonstration of religion, all the ritual, the religiosity, any show of dutifulness to some religion—these things have little to no influence over me—I don't have to prove myself to anyone.

In fact, Jesus said that we should be wary of anyone who practices his religion publicly, so that all might see. Anyone who flaunts his or her religion uses it to oppress others. He criticized the religious establishment heavily and it was the religious establishment that had him killed. If Jesus was skeptical of the religious establishment, then I can be too.

Why did I decide to go into such detail about what I believe—why does it matter? Two reasons: Hashing this all out will help me explain my minimalist lifestyle more fully as it relates to my faith. Minimalism keeps me "empty"—read my post 'On equality.' In that post I outline how meditating on a feeling of emptiness can humble us.

And I think if an outsider saw the way I live, considering that I am a somewhat religious person, they'd think I've become a monk or something. I can point them to this post. I still have stuff, too much of it actually, but my vision of life is to live with only what I need and nothing more. And in so doing, perhaps I can discover the kind of spiritual poverty that will make me a good man.

I admire the devotion of those who take deep vows, the nuns and priests and monks and yogis as I said before, and I try to learn what I can from them. But ultimately I think true minimalism isn't sitting alone in a room and translating Scripture and taking a vow of silence; all those rules are the 'things' of religion, and when you start reading about them you realize that some religious people have more 'things' in their life than I have in mine… my religion is just Jesus' word and my conscience

That's the simplicity of my faith. Everything I believe about my world and my universe and how it all began and where it's all headed—at the end of the day it all submits to Jesus' word and my conscience. That's religious minimalism, if you ask me.

It's more minimalistic than vowing silence, donning a robe, living in an empty room, sleeping on a hard mat, stuffing pebbles into my shoes, and spending my day praying, going to LifeWay Christian Bookstore and buying up all the latest Christian books, listening only to Christian radio, wearing only certain clothes, going only to certain places, etc. But like the early Baptists said, I won't be entangled by vows like that. Simple Jesus, simple Bible, simple conscience. That's all.

Like the apostle Paul said, it's often easy for us to get entangled by discussions of what we eat, what we wear. Minimalists can become equally entangled in our practice of minimalism. Never let anyone make a religion out of the ideas of TheMinimalists or Joshua Becker or whoever. I want to encourage you that living intentionally and living according to your conscience—they're the same thing. In other words, you do you.