Study Guide: You Are Not The Tree

Sunday March 15, 2015 | Greg Boyd

Focus Scripture:

Brief Summary:

In this fifth installment of Mixed Signals, we explore the Gnostics belief of the church in Colossae and how those relate to the New Spirituality movements rooted in Eastern thought of our day. We explore the biblical perspectives on pantheism, interacting with spirits and reincarnation and ultimately see how finding enlightenment in anything or anyone other than Jesus is deceptive and misses out on the loving character of God.

Extended Summary:

This week we continue on the journey through our Mixed Signals series, exploring how the Gnostic beliefs Paul is confronting in Colossae still rear their head in our present day culture.

In Colossians 2:2-5 Paul is writing to address Gnostic beliefs. The essence of what Paul is addressing in these beliefs is based on the desire to have a supernatural experience with God and would often include an obsession with angels and other spirits. Gnostics would also include Jesus with these angels, but would not emphasize any singularity to the revelation revealed in Jesus. In the midst of this cultural landscape, Paul emphasizes over and over in Colossians (none more profoundly than Colossians 1:15-20) the particularity of Jesus over and against any other competing philosophies or deities the Gnostic philosophers would espouse.

The present day equivalent of Gnosticism can be seen in the new spirituality movements rooted in eastern philosophy and spiritualism. The influx of these beliefs is rooted in transcendentalism and grew dramatically in its following in the 1960’s and 1970’s (a time when the West turned East for spiritual and philosophical influences).

Greg then went on to describe some his attempts at enlightenment during this time period marked by drug-induced attempts at reaching a higher state of consciousness. One specific example is given from Christmas in 1973 when, in a drug-induced state, Greg stood up in the midst of a group of people and proudly proclaimed “I am the Christmas tree”. When the sun rose on the day following his overwhelming experience of “enlightenment” there was a deceptive nature of euphoria and he noticed something profoundly evil about the experience. The dissatisfaction of this experience became a catalyst to pursuing Christianity and Jesus.

Given the importance of engaging in dialogue rooted in love it is essential that one makes a distinction between the Practices that are often associated with Eastern thought (which are not necessarily evil or wrong; i.e. acupuncture, yoga, oils, etc.) and ones reasoning behind WHY these Practices work. Christians have a history of throwing out the beneficial baby with the theory/reasoning bathwater. It is also essential that we not turn our specific calling from God into a universal denouncement or approval.

That being said there are three primary areas of concern related to Eastern thought.

  1. Pantheism: This belief espouses that everything is God and that our true goal is to escape the illusionary life (Maya) and that we are all the consciousness of the earth (Gaia). This is fundamentally contrary to the biblical witness that states that God created ALL and that we are NOT God. The biblical witness is emphatic that humanity and creation always remain distinct from God (critically important as love requires an emphasis in this distinctness from God and the potential for relationship as opposed to the Eastern focus on oneness).
  2. Interacting with Spirits: This point dealt with the recent growth and curiosity related to spirit guides, mediums, psychics and others to serve as a high priest of spirituality to guide us to angels, gods and ancestral spirits. The biblical view (particularly seen in the Paul’s letter to the Colossians) is that there IS a spiritual world surrounding us, but that the only person we need to contact is Jesus. Ultimately this Eastern focus is another instance of the first sin in the Garden of Eden (seeking out hidden knowledge).
  3. Reincarnation: This belief argues that we are reborn billions of times with the goal of improving and eventually losing our individuality in a movement towards Brahman. Reincarnation has become good news in the West (as opposed to the negative perception in the East) and recent surveys show that 20% of westerners believe in reincarnation. The Bible consistently argues against reincarnation (specifically in Hebrews 9:27). Beyond that, reincarnation and karma negate the work of Jesus in fighting against disease and hatred and disarm the beauty of compassion in a world desperately needing restoration. Reincarnation also takes away the urgency of this life.

Finally, in broaching conversations with others following these ideas, it is essential to follow the example of Paul in Acts 17 who found the positives in the beliefs of others (spiritual hunger, existence of the spiritual world, etc.) and used it as a jumping off point to introduce others to the beauty and singularity of Jesus in love (1 Corinthians 16:14). Ultimately, we need to remember that we are loved with an everlasting love from God and we are NOT God and we are NOT the Christmas tree.

Reflection Questions:

  1. How are Gnostic beliefs related to Eastern spirituality and philosophy? Do you see evidence of this from the book of Colossians?
  2. Re-read Colossians 2:2-5. What are the most prominent “fine-sounding arguments” that you experience in your life?
  3. Read Colossians 1:15-20 and discuss how this passage and others in Colossians seem to be addressing the need to emphasize the particularity of Jesus.
  4. How would you approach evangelism with someone holding to beliefs similar to New Spirituality and Eastern thought? What common ground can you find (similar to Paul in Acts 17)?
  5. Read Hebrews 9:27 and discuss its relevance to the topic of reincarnation. How would a belief in reincarnation stifle your compassion towards others?
  6. Eastern thought emphasizes the primacy of oneness while Christianity emphasizes love. What is more compelling to you? How would you explain this to someone who has questions about your faith?