Zach Van Houten

Decolonizing Our Spiritual Life

By Zach Van Houten

Society gives us ideas to believe in before we are old enough to question them. All of us are to a large extent brainwashed from birth; although not necessarily in a malicious sense. We are taught how to behave as a child, and how to act responsibly as an adult. By the time our brains are fully formed we have already ingested an incredible amount of information telling us who we are and what we should be doing with our lives.

As we become adults we may believe we are acting rationally and that our ideas are solid. Yet society has really only given us a point of reference; a set of presuppositions to adhere to. A catalogue of rules of thumb that help us navigate life.

Sometimes a person runs into a situation which requires them to question the ideas they were taught, and to form deeper, more nuanced understanding of the problem. This is a way many of us gain our own wisdom and knowledge. Not by sticking with the old ideas, but by voyaging into the unknown. When the old stops working, the new must be born.

In spirituality and philosophy we are experiencing such a crossroad. Christian religion for the West is struggling to maintain its dominance. And materialist philosophy is found to be unable to explain the very physics it is supposed to be grounded on.

Our minds have been shaped by colonialism. The belief that our way of life is superior to the rest of the world is still embedded in our society. We are starting to see that while we have wonderful contributions to make globally, we also need to sit at the feet of global wisdomkeepers in order to learn lessons a young nation such as ours is clearly missing.

One such lesson is the universality of Spirit. God is in all things; that is a message that echoes through world religions and philosophies older than ours. The wisdom of Oneness is ancient, and there are many teachers today who have been reaching a hand out to the West in hope that we would sit and listen.

Will we listen? Hard to say. Some will. Some already have. And others will never give up the narrowness of what they were taught. For them, it is our way versus the world. A battle that must be won, rather than a riddle which must be solved. The great sages and yogis see existence more as a riddle to solve than a war to be won. Once you have solved the riddle everything else falls into place. That is the magic of deep spirituality.

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Photo: Magnifier and white puzzle on hundred dollars banknotes by Marco Verch under Creative Commons 2.0

Zach Van Houten

The Tao of Christ

By Zach Van Houten

This year I stumbled upon a Christian version of the ancient Chinese contemplative work the Tao Te Ching. What made me excited about this is that it does what I feel is often missing in our dialogues with other faith traditions: translate religious texts from one spiritual language into another.

Many westerners struggle to relate with foreign concepts such as the Tao, since the word is entirely new to us. To add new words to the Christian vocabulary may not be very helpful. But if we look closely we can easily see that Tao is simply a Chinese word that can be translated as God or Spirit, or even Christ. And this is done here by baptist minister Marshall Davis in The Tao of Christ: A Christian Version of the Tao Te Ching.

The Tao Te Ching tackles many topics in a very subtle and paradoxical way. It isn’t an easy read if you approach it with a analytical mind, but if you let the words hit you, and allow space for the paradoxical style, it reveals wonderfully beautiful nuances of contemplative life that can barely be put into words. Thankfully Marshall simplifies it even further here for readers who may find the original Taoist text daunting.

There are many great passages, and I will share one here that hit me this morning. It speaks to the way Christ lived in the gospels, and how He works in Creation:

Associate with the righteous and the unrighteous.

Accept people as they are without judging them.

If you love the world unconditionally, it will be like returning to Eden before the knowledge of good and evil.

The world is formed from nothing,

like a bowl formed from a block of wood.

The bowl is made of wood, yet it is the empty space that makes it useful.

So does God make and use all things.

If you try to fix the world, you will fail miserably.

The world is God’s to fix.

Can you do better than God?

In trying to make things better,

You will only mess things up.

That doesn’t mean you should do nothing.

You should act according to your nature.

Some are meant to lead, others to follow.

Some struggle, others take things easy.

Some are strong, and others weak.

Some play it safe, others take risks.

Christ sees everything as it is.

He sees God at work in all events, and does not usurp control.

Keeping in the center of the Divine will, he accomplishes all things.

The Tao of Christ, verses 28-29

I encourage everyone to order the book/buy the ebook, since it is a wonderful addition to anyone interested in, or familiar with Christianity who also wants a fresh perspective on the spiritual world. Paperback version can be purchased here. Marshall also has a wonderful podcast by the same name which can be found here.

For those who want to experience the full force of the original Tao Te Ching translated into English, I would recommend this audio version on YouTube since it is such a beautiful reading and translation. For those interested in a more introductory version using Christian terminology, I recommend The Tao of Christ.

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this, subscribe to my feed or bookmark this site for more posts like this.

Zach Van Houten

Grace Here and Now

By Zach Van Houten

I have been absent for a while now on social media. I deactivated my Facebook account and cut ties with a few different groups due to a growing feeling of claustrophobia and self-consciousness. Election cycles tend to do that to me. I feel more hesitant than ever to share my thoughts and feelings when I know tensions are high.

During this hiatus, I have spent time digging into my inner world, and uncovering wounds and neuroses that are difficult to see when actively engaging in social life. The smaller my world, the better, at times. That is at least one way I find solace.

I can’t say I am at peace, but I do have more clarity than I have had in a while. It has been easier to see patterns of self-deception and self-aggrandizement when offline. These two tend to occur when I want purpose and meaning in life, and feel I have to create it. Christianity in particular has left a void in my life that is hard to explain.

I didn’t just grow up in the church. It was my social life, and my home life. My experience of being homeschooled in a evangelical family meant that I ate, slept and breathed my religion. I wanted to be a pastor, and/or worship leader. I wanted to save souls. I studied the Bible and prayed daily. It wasn’t just a part of my life, it was central to it.

So when I broke ties with the church I tried to act as if I had moved on to something better. It is true that I had moved on to something more authentic for where I was at, but not necessarily more grounding or comforting.

The comfort of the church had begun to wear off before I left. It wasn’t all roses. I had been privately suffering from intense loneliness, insecurity, and depression. This made it hard for me to ever sink fully into grace. Although when I had, it had been a wonderful and liberating experience.

The parable of the prodigal son is a story that represents the heart of God for me. In the story the obedient son, while never leaving the Father’s side, did not experience the love of the Father in the same way the wayward one did. The reason being that the prodigal son knew his imperfection, while the obedient son who never left the Father was full of pride and was unforgiving to the son who had left.

Grace can grow in us as we experience our shadow selves, and find that we are more imperfect than we had imagined ourselves to be. In fact, being an individual is to be vastly imperfect, since we are by definition considering our small sense of self as if we were separate from the entire universe.

Being human carries a sense of constant inferiority and urge towards growth. While life teaches us to evolve, the desire to transcend ourselves cannot ever be accomplished by improving the separate self. It is only when we are liberated from this small egocentric view that we can have peace.

Christ teaches me to humble myself, and relate to the mystery in a way that allows me to be me, rather than feeling I have to carry myself up some mountain of purity. I can allow myself the space for failing and know that God can still use me anyway. In fact, opening to grace helps me to be more patient with the faults of others. We are all works-in-progress.

While the idea of God is not something everyone is comfortable with, I have found great solace in making peace with my old faith through prayer and seeking the true heart of the gospel.

Prayer for me is an act of humble opening to the mystery, and to the intelligence beyond myself. I can ask and trust, and in this simple gesture I feel more connected and attuned.

I don’t feel it needs to be much more complicated than that. Christ is an example of this simple trust and active spirituality. He inspires me to see that my life here is not in vain, and that I am meant to follow this path. I am still as much a Christ follower now as I ever was. All the twists and turns only deepen my relationship with Him, and help me to see the great mystery in new ways.

I think we need more authentic disciples of Christ in the world now than ever before. Not Bible thumping or tribal exclusivism, but real deep communion with the heart of the gospel. If we get in touch with that, what a difference it would make.

Thanks for reading.

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Image credit: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christ_in_the_Land_Bountiful.jpg