Friday, April 17, 2009

What Christianity Means to Me, Part II

A continuation of the email discussion outlined in Part I.

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(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.
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(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.

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(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.
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(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.

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