In part one of this series I discussed the pathway by which I chose to leave behind the philosophy that I was my own god and that I knew right from wrong by the power of my own reason, and that I was qualified to hold myself to a standard that I deemed to be good. I showed that my self-appointed position as “god” only sanctioned a lifestyle which I chose in order to satisfy immediate personal desires and that many specific instances of dangerous and destructive behavior, harmful or potentially harmful to myself and people around me, both physically and emotionally, demonstrates that any notion of right and wrong which I might have held was ultimately an instrument for the gratification of immediate desires, as I mentioned above. In short, I didn’t turn out to be much of a god.
This led to the search for what would replace my nietzschean atheism. At the beginning of that search I adopted agnosticism. I simply did not know if there was anything or anyone “out there” or not. This phase lasted for a couple of years, and in that time I read Plato, Aristotle, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and various sources on Buddhism, Confucianism, the Tao and much else. All of them hold aspects which I find attractive, but none of them presented a core which would compel me to take the ‘leap of faith’. Could I really believe there is a guy named Vishnu, or Allah, or Yahweh? Is everything a void as Buddhists and Taoists would suggest? Are there archetypes – perfect representations of all of the natural things that we can see here in the material world – floating around in space, with us down here seeing only imperfect copies of them?
None of these were able to convince me absolutely, and so I went on in a continuing state of increasing angst between not believing in anything and yet believing that there was something worth believing to the point of describing it as ‘knowable’. I wanted to know something. It was not until at the height of my anxiety and, indeed, desperation, that God let me know simply by feeling His presence that He is real. I have written previously of this experience in my post “When God Comes Calling”, and will not burden you with a recapitulation here. But once I became a Christian I began the formative journey to what sort of a Christian I am today, which is something that contains the proper variations to annoy just about every other Christian and it is this which I will share at this time.
I am a Protestant. As much as I respect the Orthodox and Catholic branches of the church I am quite convinced that we are indeed saved by grace through faith, and not by works. I see no need of an intermediary priesthood between myself and God. I believe that the bread and wine are symbolic, that Mary was very cool, being Jesus’ mom and all, but certainly not a ‘Queen of Heaven’, and probably far too busy doing other things to be continually showing up in tree bark or tortillas or burn scars on body parts all over the globe. Others may believe otherwise and that is OK by me. I just don’t, and so I am Protestant.
Beyond that however, what have I come to believe? Am I the caricature that occupies the minds of many in America of an angry and fearful white guy closing the gates and manning the fortress walls to keep the forces of darkness at bay who would challenge my lofty position at the top of the material and spiritual heap in America? I am a person who believes that the Bible explains in pretty good depth who God is and how God wants me to be and it is nothing like that caricature. This is my attempt to explain in some detail what that means to me.
In the first place, I believe that I have been told that I am special, but am not special. God created me, loves me, and died for me. That makes me pretty special. God did the same thing for everyone else too, and that knocks some of the special off of me. God did those things for Gay people, Straight people, Black people, White people, Women people, Men people, Republican people, Democrat people, Hutu people, Tutsi people, Atheist people and Oakland Raiders and their fans. How any and all of those people respond to God is widely variable and another topic. The fact (and I believe that it IS an historical fact) is that God died for them all. That leads me to view my co-inhabitants of the Earth as pretty much equals, and greatly reduces my inclination to view myself and my religious associates as ‘us’ and everyone else as ‘them’.
Many people feel that many Christians believe that once a person falls into ‘us’ status they enjoy a free ride into heaven, while all of the ‘them’ people are on a one-way train ride into hell. This is reasonable, because a lot of my co-religionists really DO believe this to be true. I, on the other hand, do NOT believe that this is necessarily true. In fact, I believe that a fair reading of the Bible leaves open a huge window for people who would not be considered one of ‘us’ to be present at the party when God gets this earthly mess cleaned up and heaven reunited with earth.
I have always believed that it would be contrary to the nature of a loving God to create Native Americans who would sit by the banks of the Columbia River a thousand years ago. fishing for salmon and going blissfully about their lives, completely unaware that upon their death they would be sent to an underground barbecue pit because they hadn’t prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer”. Any such arrangement would blow the image of a loving and merciful God right out of the water. I reasoned, therefore, that there must be some other dynamic going on.
Many years of thinking about this and several very good books by people who love God and the Bible and have wrestled with the same issue have given me the information that I needed to get the pieces into place. Jesus says that we will be surprised by who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’, and that acts of kindness to the hurting and outcast mean something. The parable of the sheep and the goats makes this perfectly clear to me. The Buddhist who fights human trafficking of ten year old girls for the sex industry, the Muslim who shelters a Yazidi from the murderous clutches of ISIS, or the atheist lawyer who gives free representation to poor and homeless clients, are going to do better on judgement day than will the priest who has raped little boys or the big haired televangelist who’s been living large on dollars virtually swindled from an elderly, housebound viewer who found some faint hope in his silver-tongued sermon. Of course, there is also grace available for the latter two examples. My point is that their exterior association with ‘us’ does not give them any sort of pass. ‘In’ and ‘out’ will be a much more surprising affair than we think.
And what about hell anyway? I, for one, do not see it like something from the brush of Heironymus Bosch or the pen of Dante. Rather, hell as a prison locked from the inside, as described in C.S. Lewis’ marvelous little book “The Great Divorce”, seems to me to be much nearer to the truth. Hell is just a continuation of the ugliness and nastiness which we see here today without any of the mercy and love and patience and other softer gifts of the Spirit which make this existence bearable. There is little need for demons with pitchforks in a society populated by individuals committed solely to their own desires without any mitigating sentiments such as pity, sharing, sacrifice or mercy. A society of dog-eat-dog individuals who could lay down their self-worship and say to God “I’m ready to quit this stuff and play by Your rules”, but who will not because their self-worship will not permit it, sounds like hell to me. I don’t believe that God has any intention of sending 80% of humankind into an underground torture chamber for eternity, and I’m not sure of how I would feel about a god who did. A large number of people quite possibly may send themselves there however, and that would be another thing. Tragic, but another thing.
Another stumbling block for many people, and for me too, is the role of women in Christian life. We all know about the ‘submit’ stuff, the ‘cover your head when you’re at church’ stuff, and ‘be silent in church and ask questions of your husband when you get home’ stuff. Many people are put off by this disrespecting of women by the church. And in my opinion they should be.
Jesus is put off by it too, I believe. When He was on earth, Jesus spent much time with the women among His followers. Mary was at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching while Martha was busy preparing dinner. This was very not-cool in that culture. Martha complained but Jesus said “Mary has done the better thing”. Jesus also shared himself with a woman from Samaria. That is like a Grand Poobah of the Klan sharing saving information with a Black Panther. Another time a woman with a chronic vaginal bleeding problem (probably a world class uterine fibroid) touched Jesus and was healed. There could be no bigger no-no in the Jewish world. Such a person was considered unclean, and Jesus would then be unclean, and for a Jewish religious leader ‘unclean’ meant uber ‘uncool’. Jesus however did not rebuke her, but instead blessed her and sent her on her way healed.
One last example comes after Jesus’ death and resurrection. On the third day two women went to Jesus’ tomb to add more sweet spices to what they thought would have been His stinky dead body. What they found instead was Jesus, alive and kicking. Those two women hurried to where the despondent disciples were gathered in order to proclaim to them Jesus’ resurrection. In the Jewish culture the testimony of a woman was disregarded; it was inadmissible as evidence in court. Jesus knew this, as any good Jew would, and made it a point to show himself to these ladies first. Remember, this was after the resurrection. Jesus has left his earthly ministry behind and he is once again the third member of the Trinity. Nobody can say that it was OK for jesus to touch a woman before His resurrection because He had not yet returned to His total divinity, or some such argument. Jesus, post resurrection, has chosen to reveal Himself to two women. This act demonstrated that the word of a woman was equal to anybody else’s in the eyes of Jesus. That fact and everything that flows from it should be taken note of by us all.
So any repression or second class status for women in Christian or any other culture is, again in my opinion, a man made tradition and an affront to God. God made women the same as He made men. Yeah, He made men before women, but He made bugs before He made men. So what? My view of Christianity regarding women is that they have neither advantage nor disadvantage coming to them in any way because of their gender. OK, men and women are different. I don’t have to be a genius to know that! But neither one should be advanced or held back because of their chromosomes alone. That’s just my opinion.
From all of this one could surmise that I don’t like the established church very much; that their rules and traditions and sometimes bizarre variations and applications of God’s Word make me dislike and oppose it. Nothing could be further from the truth. God loves His church with all of its successes and failures, so why shouldn’t I? Just as the world has hundreds of nationalities and thousands of languages, so too does the church show many faces and personalities. Some of those variations are harmful to the body of believers and to the message of Christ, I think, and should be called into question. Others are only local variations and just harmless man made additions. If Adventists wish to avoid eating meat that is fine. Pity that they say it is more spiritual, but I’ll let that slide. And if Baptists wish to avoid alcoholic beverages it’s their loss, but no harm to anyone else. As for folks in Tennessee messing around with snakes, well, come on people! Use a little common sense here.
Joseph had a coat of many colors. The church too is like a coat of many colors. I will gently, I hope, try to convince my church family to moderate some of their ways and simply celebrate others’ eccentricities as I hope that they will celebrate my own. We all serve the same God after all, or we should at least.
I should wrap this up, so I shall. I believe that God is kind and loves us. I believe that many, perhaps even most, people have a skewed idea of what heaven and hell even are. I believe that God judges people His own way, with little help needed from ‘us’. I believe that God loves His church, and that the church is here to love God, God’s children and God’s world. And I believe that God will forgive me for where I’ve screwed things up in this post. It’s for your edification and His glory that I have written it