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.

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(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.
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(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.

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