Friday, April 17, 2009

What Christianity Means to Me, Part II

A continuation of the email discussion outlined in Part I.

(His response to me)

Hello Scott. Thanks for your excellent threshing out of your "Here and now" gospel. Your insight on living life right now rather than hoping in the afterlife has several parts that make a lot of sense. Jesus indeed said in Jn ch. 10 that he came to give abundant life now. The details you give regarding living like Christ on earth are excellent.

For me life goes beyond this earth age, as there is much written in the New Testament that does speak of eternity and the afterlife (as well as in the O.T if you care to look.) Since you don't seen to believe those words to be true, though, I see that we have to differ.
(My response to this portion)

Well, I do, actually, believe that Jesus would have talked about an afterlife. 1st century Jews believed in an afterlife, and I don't doubt that Jesus was any different.

Now, as for the Old Testament, there's actually not anything in the Old Testament about eternal life in heaven for believers in God (that I'm aware of, anyway). The ancient Hebrews believed that heaven was where God and his angels lived, and only a select few special prophets (Elijah, for instance) ever went to heaven - and that's because the Jews didn't believe those men had been real humans in the first place - they had been sent by God, and God had taken them back, as it were. But as for normal, everyday people, all that awaited them was the grave - Sheol in Hebrew.

Belief in an afterlife did not enter the Jewish world until just a hundred years or so before the time of Jesus - long after the last Old Testament document was penned.

Now, as for believing that the Bible's words about the afterlife are true - that's where I get a lot of cognitive dissonance. I have a hard time reconciling the eternity of my consciousness with the knowledge that my consciousness is just a function of my brain, and once my brain is dead and decayed, the consciousness must by definition be gone too. How can consciousness survive brain death? Some will speak of a soul, of course, but I think that "soul" is just a way that ancient people referred to the mystery of self-awareness - which, of course, we now know is also tied to our brains. Even if we do have an actual soul that is separate from our earthly body, will our soul still be "us" after we die, since our self-awareness/consciousness is tied to our brain, which must decay?

Again, cognitive dissonance for me on this point, which is why it has become less and less important to my Christian faith.

Now, I will say that *if* there is a heaven/afterlife, I *don't* believe that it is reserved solely for those who have professed faith in Jesus. I believe there are many pathways to God, and Christianity simply happens to be mine. Whether Jesus ever made divine proclamations for himself, or whether he ever made claims of exclusivity for belief in his name - I personally don't think those passages from the Gospels are historically accurate. I don't believe Jesus ever claimed to be anything other than a Jewish rabbi teaching his own interpretation of how to live in communion with God. I've reached that decision not because that's what I want to be true, or because that's what fits best with my own beliefs. Rather, its the other way around. After studying the scriptures historically and contextually, I was forced to change my opinion about who Jesus probably was, what he probably taught, and the sorts of things he most probably said.

I use the word "probably" there because it is vitally important to me to make it clear that neither I nor anyone else can know with certainty what the "facts" actually are. Maybe Jesus really was who the Church says he was. Maybe Jesus really was the self-centered jerk that some atheists like to imagine he was. The point is, we can't know because none of us was there, and we don't have pictures, movies, or transcripts of his life. The best we can do is attempt to investigate Jesus through the available sources. And my investigation in that regard has forced me to come to different conclusions about who Jesus was, and the kinds of things he might have said, than what the Church generally teaches. So I will say that I don't think Jesus ever claimed to be God. I believe he understood himself to be working within Judaism, not creating a whole new religion outside of Judaism.

(More of his response)

Your view on the profession of faith being worthless, however, is something I truly disagree with you on. You obviously haven't met me. When I professed my faith in Jesus Christ in 1989, it was just the beginning of my walk of faith in Christ. It hasn't always gone well, and it hasn't been smooth (translation: I've sinned greatly along the way), But my heart has been set on God. That's part of my story. I can relay more to you later.

But you are right about professions of faith which are done for no reason--culturual Christianity as I called it previously.
(The remainder of my response)

I think it's important here to clarify my words about professions of faith. When I say that a profession of faith is meaningless, I am trying to state forcefully my views about the primacy of action over faith. Obviously, it requires "faith" of some type to give any credence to the Bible at all. For instance, I have "faith" that the things Jesus taught are wothwhile ways to live and are ways to commune with the mystery of God. Without that faith, I wouldn't even bother. So obviously faith has to exist, and in that sense its not meaningless.

But by saying that professions of faith are meaningless, I'm simply pointing out that without living the life Christ taught us to live, our profession of faith doesn't mean anything.

If I say that I believe this chair will hold me, but I never actually sit in the chair because secretly I don't want to take the risk, then I don't actually have any faith. My faith in the chair is meaningless.

Similarly, if I say I have faith in Jesus, but don't actually do what Jesus taught us to do because secretly it's too much trouble and too inconvenient, then I don't really have any faith in Jesus.

And that's what I see in so many modern Christians. The life of Christ is decidedly inconvenient to our self-centered, materialistic modern way of life. If we're not willing to actually follow Jesus into the life he taught us to live, then it doesn't matter one iota whether we claim to have faith in him or not.

That's why I say that professions of faith are meaningless. It's the changed life that matters.

And this also, of course, ties into my belief that Christianity is not the exclusive pathway to God. I believe one can still be living the life of Christ without ever picking up a Bible or having the first clue who Jesus was. I believe one can still be living the life of Christ through other religious traditions, because the things Jesus taught exist across the religious spectrum. I describe those things - selflessness, compassion, kindness, rejection of materialism, etc. - as the "life of Christ," but that's only because I'm a Christian. I could just as easily call those things the life of Buddha, or the life of David, or the life of Ghandi, or even the life of secular humanism, etc., etc.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What Christianity Means to Me

This is from an email conversation I have been having with an acquaintence of mine from the Rush Messageboard. This person is a Christian that I frequently debate religion and belief with. I thought my response to him was informative and might give a good summation of my beliefs to the readers of my blog.

(His email to me)

Hello Scott. One of my best times to write is on my "lunch" break--I work the overnight shift.

You speak of traditional Christianity when referring to what I believe about Jesus. I don't think that you say this in a derogatory way, but I believe that the word "traditional" is interpreted differently by each of us. Since I'm not completely sure of what you mean, I'd like to tell you what I think it is.

I don't like traditional Christianity. I perceive it to be the same exact thing as "cultural Christianity." This is generally what goes on at many of the mainline denomination churches. Everyone puts on their best clothes (Sunday Best). They go to their church, and sit in there for what is an excrucitating period, wondering why they are there in the first place. The music isn't exciting, and the message from the preacher is usually negative, something like "don't do this/that" or "pleasure is evil/sinful." Sure, Jesus Christ is proclaimed somewhere in this mix, but that Jesus has no appeal to me."

The Bible reveals God to me much differently. It does declare sin, righteousness and judgement, as the above mentioned churches do, but those mean nothing unless I get the whole picture of God as revealed in the Old and New Testaments.

Just some thoughts.
(My email to him)

Well, I suppose that what you call "traditional" Christianity is the same thing that I might refer to as "mainstream Christian practice," or something similar. I think we both agree that what you describe is all to common among Christians.

But what I am talking about when I say "traditional Christianity" is more theologically-based. That is, belief-based. Jesus was born of a virgin. Jesus performed divine miracles. Jesus was physically raised from the dead back into human life and later ascended into heaven. Paul and the other NT writers were inspired directly by God, and everything in the Bible is literally true and historically accurate, etc., etc.

In that sense, I do not identify at all with "traditional Christianity." In fact, I firmly believe that it is demonstrably untrue (particularly the part about the Bible's infallibility - it is my opinion that only those who haven't read much of the Bible would ever claim that it is infallible). Of course, I don't identify with the scenario you described either!

For me, Christianity is about life in the here and now, not about life in the hereafter. While we can never know with absolute certainty what Jesus actually said, did, and preached, I believe we move closer to the truth when we understand Jesus' message as being primarily about how to live and act in the world, rather than about whether we get to live eternally in a blissful afterlife following our deaths presuming we made the right profession of faith.

I'm sure Jesus talked about the afterlife - he was a 1st century practicing Jew, after all, and most Jews in that time period did believe in life after death and a general resurrection. But I don't believe that life after death was the crux of Jesus' message. I think it only became the crux of Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and beyond. Paul's writings, I believe, were instrumental in this gradual change from a religion of "life" to a religion of "afterlife."

For this reason, I am a Christian who attempts to live the way Jesus taught. Who attempts to understand Christianity as a religion of life, not a religion of afterlife. A Christian who believes that the Christian life is about how we live, act, behave, and treat ourselves and others, not so much about what happens after death. I believe Christianity is meaningless as a profession of faith. I do not believe any Christian is "saved" (however one defines that term) unless they are living the life Jesus taught us to live, not just professing faith in Jesus' death and resurrection. (As a side, I do not believe one has to be a "Christian" to be living the life Jesus taught. Jesus' teachings weren't exclusive - the main points exist across the religious and secular spectrum, so my comments here are not meant as a claim of exclusivity for Christianity.) It saddens me that it seems that so many Christians live like this - they have their profession of faith, their get-out-of-death-free card, and that's all that matters. I don't believe those people are "Christians" in any sense of the word.

None of this means that I don't have hope of an afterlife. I certainly do. I love the idea of heaven and living eternally in communion with God and never being separated from my loved ones. I hope desperately for such a scenario, or any sort of pleasant afterlife scenario.

But I also realize that it is rationally fanciful, and in any case it is not what drives my Christian faith. In fact, it is almost irrelevant to my Christian faith. This is why I argue that whether you accept the resurrection as literal or metaphorical does not really matter. J.D. Crossan defines this as the difference between "mode" and "meaning." Mode refers to the how the story is told - is it literal or metaphorical, for instance. Meaning, on the other hand, refers to the ultimate meaning of the story - which doesn't change regardless of your personal take on the mode of the story. So whether you think the resurrection is literal or physical (the mode), in my opinion the meaning of the resurrection stories is the same - that is, that a profound God-presence was met in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and we too can take part in the eternity and timelessness of God if we live the way Jesus taught us to live.