Wednesday, March 07, 2007

religious identity

I've been involved in some interesting discussions recently over that whole James Cameron documentary.

I'm really struck by how much emotion that topic brings up. But my point isn't to rehash that debate here.

What I'm struck by is how very different my view of Christianity, of religion is from some of those with whom I discussed the topic. Like the fact that I don't believe in hell, and thus don't see Jesus' role as having to save us from such a place. Or the fact that I don't believe doctrinal beliefs have much to do with salvation. Or even that I don't think our lives should be based on an assumption of future judgment after we die.

I also don't think that Christianity can reasonably claim to be the sole route to what we call salvation, that attempts to interpret the Bible "literally" (i.e., without the benefits of historical criticism) are foolhardy, and that arguments over arcane theological topics (e.g., the precise nature of the trinity, say, or the extent to which God's will can be found in "natural law") are misguided.

Perhaps what gets me in trouble with some of this is that it is mostly a list of what I do not accept, what I no longer believe.

What I do believe is that the purpose of our lives (and God's purpose for our lives) is to grow in love, happiness, peace, and compassion. I believe that we can find meaning in our times of suffering, but that most efforts to seek out suffering are often misguided and counterproductive to emotional and spiritual growth. (There is enough pain in the world. We needn't add more to it.) I believe that pain and despair are destructive and corrosive, often spreading and creating more suffering, violence, and anger. I believe that happiness is greatly undervalued by the Christian tradition, and that truly happy individuals seek to spread happiness and joy to those around them. I believe that the creation of such a phenomenon on a widespread level is part of what Christ meant when he discussed establishing the "kingdom of heaven" on earth.

I believe that Jesus was a profound teacher and examplar of these ideas. I do not question his divinity, but the question of whether he was divine or not is not what is of central importance to to me. I believe that there is much to be learned about spirituality and salvation from other religious traditions, and that if Jesus were here today he would say exactly the same thing. I believe that we can become deeper Christians from learning and practicing aspects of other religious and spiritual traditions, that whatever promotes true happiness, joy, compassion, and love makes us better Christians.

I believe that what is of most importance to God isn't what we believe, but the kind of person we are. I believe that there is no doctrinal litmus test for entry into heaven.

I believe that we should never cling onto a belief (any belief) so strongly that it prevents us from feeling compassion or love for someone. I believe that our beliefs should be understood as a "finger pointing to the moon," and that we are misguided if we focus so much on the finger that we lose sight of what it was trying to point us towards.

I believe that God's revelation continued past the time of Jesus, that it is all around us and in every corner of the world. I believe that God's revelation can be found in the smile of a child, an act of compassion, even in a moment of compassionate limit setting -- in any act that causes us to grow in our capacity for joy, understanding, compassion, wonder, and love.

I believe that people are essentially good, though life can produce patterns that hide or damage that essential goodness. I do not believe in the notion of original sin. I believe that accepting and growing our essential goodness is part of God's plan for us.

I'm not sure just what heresies this qualifies me as having, what people would say it means about the nature of my religious identity. Frankly, I'm not sure if that matters to me right now.

I believe that the greatest gift I can give the world is to raise sons who spread joy rather than hate, hope rather than despair, love rather than apathy. I pray that I may do so.


Cecilia said...

I believe that we should never cling onto a belief (any belief) so strongly that it prevents us from feeling compassion or love for someone. I believe that our beliefs should be understood as a "finger pointing to the moon," and that we are misguided if we focus so much on the finger that we lose sight of what it was trying to point us towards.

I resonate strongly with these words. I think the "belief trumping love" is at the heart, not only of most intra-church conflict, but also much of the strike we see around the world.

Pax, C.

Cecilia said...

That is, "strife."


more cows than people said...

thanks for taking the time to articulate a credo. having served on the committee on preparation for ministry in my presbytery for awhile i read faith statements and immediately my brain seeks out questions about them. i think that, when we state our faith, its an opportunity for deep conversation. so can i ask you a few questions?

first about your set up- could you say more about how reactions to the James Cameron documentary are revealing the manifestation of Christianity that you reject at the outset of your credo? A story or two perhaps... I'm wondering how you see the questioning of Jesus' divinity (which I think is thrust of the documentary though I've heard very little about it) tied in to salvation questions, hell questions, final judgment questions. I can see connections; i'm just wondering what connections you perceive.

I'm also a little puzzled by the bit in your creed on suffering, I believe that we can find meaning in our times of suffering, but that most efforts to seek out suffering are often misguided and counterproductive to emotional and spiritual growth. By our efforts to seek out suffering are you referring to self-martyrdom impulses so easily induced by the cross of Christ? Our are you talking about seeking out the suffering of others? And what of those who do not seek out suffering, but suffer, due to no fault of their own, from birth to death? What do you believe about this suffering? (Perhaps this is what you suggest with your parenthetical aside.) I know you face great suffering all the time, some chosen, some not, and I'd love to hear more about where your faith intersects with these encounters.

So you don't believe in original sin, but do you believe in sin? Say more...


You, of course, don't have to respond to any of this, thank you for sharing. And for giving me much about which to think.

steve said...

Hello more cows!

I'm delighted to have the opportunity to dialogue with you on this stuff.

I actually haven't even seen the Cameron documentary. My reflections stemmed from some discussions about it on another blog. In particular, from what I saw as a problematic attempt to demonize "hollywood," to see Christianity as "under attack" by broader society, and a kind of doctrinal rigidity. One individual in particular stated: "The resurrection of Jesus Christ is absolutely the most crucial, literal, historical fact in the Christian belief system. If Christ was not raised, Christianity dissolves. There is no reason to look to God for salvation, nor believe in a single NT book."

I simply disagree with that outlook on religion, with that inflexible holding to one particular belief, with the notion that historical inquiries are threats to our faith. I have a problem not with the notion that Jesus was resurrected, but with the idea that Christianity as a whole falls apart if the truth about this turns out to have been different from what we currently believe.

As for how I see the issue of Jesus' divinity tied into salvation questions, hell questions, judgment views are a bit complex. I see Jesus' life and mission as a valid way to "salvation" (though I believe everyone ultimately ends up in communion with the Creator, so I don't see "salvation" purely through the lens of an eternal judgment where your eternal fate is decided upon at the moment of your death). I tend to see "salvation" instead as a path towards unity with God and God's plan -- for a life (both now and eternally) filled with joy, peace, happiness, compassion, and justice.

I would add my sense of a broader ecumenism that I feel there are many valid paths to "salvation" as I understand it, and that any path which promotes goodness, mercy, love, compassion, etc. is a valid path to "salvation."

I tend to think that the very notion of an eternal judgment is a bit self-important, actually, and assumes that God's notion of justice is the same as our own. In any case, I don't think it could possibly be just for someone to be sent to an eternity of suffering -- even if they somehow spent an entire lifetime in sin. As such, I no longer believe in hell. In my view, everyone goes to a state of communion with God at some point after their death (though I don't discount the possibility that some could continue to not choose God -- and perhaps that is "hell" in some sense).

As for the suffering bit, yes, I was referring to the tendency for self-martyrdom. Like people who think that by going through suffering they are spiritually cleansed. The difficult issue for me is about things like moderate fasting. I think it can be helpful if it is understood properly -- not as a desire to seek out suffering, but an effort to focus one's life more fully on God, on what really matters, etc. As such, moderate fasting (if, in my view, properly practiced) is not a desire to seek out suffering but a desire to seek out joy.

As for those who suffer, I don't see suffering itself as sinful, of course. But I do see suffering as contrary to God's plan for us, as something that we are called to alleviate -- both in ourselves, in our families, in our society, and in the world.

I think we both come across great suffering in our jobs. I see part of my job (and part of what God calls me to do) as helping people overcome suffering in their lives, although I have to be careful about this. I cannot be responsible for their progress -- that leaves me powerless. Most commonly, I see people facing great pain, trying to understand it, deal with it, heal it. I can hopefully be their guide in this process. Often I see their ideas of God shift as they make that journey, away from a God of criticism and judgment to a God of love.

As for the idea of original sin, what I disagree with is the notion that people are born with some innate flaw that would prevent entry into heaven unless baptism occurs. I believe that people are basically good, that children are born innocent into the world. That there is sin in the world, I do not question. But I do not believe that the sins of our ancestors stain us spiritually -- rather, I think that our exposure to sin in the world is what causes us difficulty.

I hope that makes sense. Take care, friend.