Saturday, April 3, 2010

Religion is Hard, Faith is Easy (Part II)

Part I of this post gives a basic rundown of my religious upbringing and experiences, and the lessons they taught me.  This post exists as an exploration of my current ideas and beliefs, and exactly what I meant when I said I do not ascribe to some of the basic assumptions and tenants of Christianity.

To sum up from the last post, the lessons I have learned that currently shape my views on religion and faith: 
1)the Bible is a product of a different time and culture2)other religions offer valuable insights to faith and God, and some of them make more sense to me than some Christian viewpoints
3)one can still belong to a religion while disagreeing with different aspects of it
4)I have a very hard time seeing in black and white, or believing in that manner
5)it does no good to let the opinions and beliefs of others, or their disapproval, determine what I believe or how I think about faith and religion
6)I LOVE discussions about religion and such--they help me articulate my thoughts--but I don't like arguments about religion and such

Concerning the Bible, many Christians believe that it is a Holy book, either literally written by God, or "God-breathed"--that is, directly inspired by God.  Specifically, they believe this most strongly about the New Testament.  I don't agree.

Through my fascination with historical context, as well as my Religious Studies classes, I have learned quite a bit about the history of the Bible.  The Old Testament is a product of the Jewish religion and culture.  The Jewish Torah--which most Christians know as the Pentateuch--makes up the first 5 books of the Old Testament.  The rest is combination of writings and stories that were extremely important in Jewish culture--prophecies, poetry, stories of cultural happenings and leaders, and Jehovah moving through all of it.  Obviously, these writings were written and accumulated by individuals over centuries, not by God himself.

In regards to the New Testament, there is no difference in the origin and manner of compilation of these books in my mind.  They were written by individuals, and as such were the product of individual points of view, backgrounds and agendas, and had specific purposes.  This point of view gets me in trouble with the Christians who believe God wrote the Bible.  Others who believe that the Bible was God-inspired might be willing to consider these assertions, but then, I am not done.  This group of Christians still believe in the general infallibility of the Bible, and of the books therein.  Again, I disagree.

Without going into too much detail, which would take entirely too much space, I have read several books dealing with scribal error and textual reconstruction in regards to the Bible.  The current book I'm reading on the subject--Misquoting Jesus--talks about these issues in a very clear and concise manner.  Suffice it to say, as with all works from antiquity, scribal errors and additions and removals were made as the letters and written stories that were to eventually form the Bible traveled through the centuries.  In regards to the compilation of the books we currently know as the Bible, the Council at Nicea worked to make a uniform orthodoxy out of all the various versions of Christianity that existed at the time (this is where the Nicene Creed comes from) and as part of this effort they determined which religious writings would be cannon and which would not.  This council was a group of individuals, again with their own agendas and points of view, and so I cannot believe in the infallibility of their decisions.

All this said, I still think the Bible is an amazing book, and think that the fact that all of those writings survived long enough to be compiled (regardless of their closeness to the original writings) is incredible.  I do think what I call the "red lettered" parts--or the sayings of Jesus--probably came from one source, potentially a record of Jesus' actual sayings written down from oral tradition.  Because these were the words of the prophet/messiah himself, they might have made it down the years with less alteration, but there is no way to know that for sure.  Also, I think that the Bible still describes a pretty good way to live your life, regardless of the "truth" of its holiness (the stance on the matter taken by my DeeDee).

Also, I do not agree with Christianity's blanket condemnation of those who do not adhere to its beliefs, nor do I agree with the condemnation of people who have never even heard of Jesus.  In regards to the other religions in the world, I can no longer bring myself to believe that they are ALL wrong.  Granted, they cannot all be right, but I do not see how one can have the claim to the "Truth" over all others.  This obviously gets my into trouble with traditional Christians.  It has been my experience that at this point in my discussion many Christians try to affirm the truth of Christianity by pointing to the Bible (which, as discussed above, I don't see the same way they do) or by pointing out unique aspects of their religion.  Some point this out calmly and we continue on with our discussion; others get upset and point this out vociferously and get either 1)angry or 2)fearful for my soul lol.  For example, one point they try to bring forward is the resurrection of Jesus.  They, and myself back in the day, have been told and taught that no other religion has an "empty tomb".  This is just flat out false.  There are many older religions with resurrection stories that actually predate or are contemporaries of Christianity--for example, the Egyptian god Osiris.  Christian morality is also very similar to the morality of most major religions, and many minor religions as well, so any claims of moral uniqueness fall flat with me too.

To speak against the condemnation of the ignorant, I use one of Christianity's own definitions.  God is defined as perfectly just.  It is not just to hold people accountable for a decision that they have never had the opportunity to make.  Thus, God would not condemn those who have never heard of Him/Her/Itself or of Jesus.  At this point someone tries to argue that either A) we cannot truly understand the justness of God or how it operates or B) since God sacrificed His/Her/Its son, he can judge people however He/She/It wants.  In regards to A) if you are going to define something as perfectly just, you cannot turn around and logically argue that you cannot understand your own definition.  In regards to B), that's just silly.  If God is perfectly just, then He/She/It must ALWAYS be just--and I don't believe that God would be petty enough to rescind justice just because of a personal sacrifice.   

Now that I've more or less expressed my disagreement with two of the most fundamental aspects of Christianity--the Bible and that Christianity is the one "True" religion--some might wonder why I still consider myself a Christian.  A great deal of the reason is that I do agree with the moral teachings of Christianity, and I do agree with the methods by which they are delivered--in a community of fellow believers.  It goes without saying that it is also the parents' job to deliver moral instruction to their children, but I also agree with Christianity's emphasis on family and community.  Some Christians denounce the idea that community and social interaction could be just as important as the spiritual aspect of their religion, but I hold that very view.  While one can observe the spiritual aspects of Christianity in solitude--prayer, meditation, reading from the Bible, etc.--one cannot employ the morals of interpersonal interaction without having a community with which to interact.  I in no way mean to imply that other religions do not also posses this characteristic, but Christianity is the one with which I was raised, and the one that I best understand.  Just because I do not agree with all of the Christian religion does not mean I'm willing to toss the whole thing.  So, while I could research and learn and convert to another religion, my familiarity and familial connection with Christianity is another big reason why I remain tied to the Christian faith.

Some would say that this is not good enough, that I must be spiritually committed to my religion.  I understand their position.  Personally though, I am spiritually committed to my FAITH.  Religion is a man-made thing and I do not wish to spiritually adhere to such a construct.  Faith however is a much easier thing to ascribe to.  I have faith in God, and have faith the He/She/It has an overarching plan.  I believe we have to do our own part, though, and that "God helps those who help themselves".  I believe that Jesus was a remarkable man of faith, and hey, if we was the Son of God who died for our sins, awesome (there was much debate about this fact even among Christians immediately after his crucifition.  Today's Christianity won out at the Council at Nicea.).  Deep in my heart, I believe that's who he was and what he did, but I do not believe that he is the only way to God.  I believe in questioning my faith and adding and subtracting to it as my explorations continue and my understanding increases--be these additions and subtractions from the Christian religion or other religions.  And I have faith that God loves me, and has created me to be the person I am--seeking, questioning, exploring.  All of these things I have faith in. 

For me, religion a man-made construct set up to express faith.  As such, it is hard for me to find a religion with which I entirely agree.  Since I cannot entirely agree with religion, I take it much less seriously than I once did.  Eventually we'll find a church we can stand, but I know that I will never truly be at peace with religion. 

Defining my religious views--that's hard. 

Faith though--a faith that stands as an ever-changing compendium of beliefs and thoughts that is always open to adjustment and change--for me, that's the easy part.            


  1. Good posts! Have you done much reading about Catholic theology? From what I've learned, it covers a lot of the disagreements you have with mainstream Protestant/Evangelical churches. Since the church originally compiled the current cannon of scripture, it has a much less rigid view of the Bible, as well as not following Sola Scriptura and allowing for the wisdom/truth of writings outside the Bible.

    Also, we don't believe in condemnation due to ignorance (any more, at least, I'm not sure when the doctrine was officially changed, but I imagine it must have been at some point, considering the big missionary push). And I'm pretty sure that the phrase "one true religion" isn't required either. Other religions have to have some truth in them, there's too much agreement on various points to be otherwise.

    I know Catholicism is in many ways the opposite of the faith > religion view, but it seems like the more I learn about the church, the more sense it makes. This blog has a lot of good stuff on that topic, if you're interested:

    Have you read much of C.S. Lewis' stuff? Your point about the different 'dying gods' of ancient religion reminds me of him, he's got some really interesting views on that point.

    Sorry if this sounds like a giant plug :-p but I haven't had a good religious discussion in ages, beware of giving me openings!

  2. That was a great post! Thanks for the recommend--I completely identified with her grandfather's point of view on the existence of God. It was interesting to read a bit about her journey from non-belief to belief.

    Honestly, I have not delved all that deeply into Catholic theology. Most of my conversations about it came from our roommate days back in CS, and from talks with one of my friends who is considering converting here in the next few years. I would definitely be interested in learning more.

    And I have read some C.S. Lewis and come across some of his commentary on dying gods, but its been a while. I need to go revisit that--it sounds as if it would be very interesting.

    Good point about the cross-religion agreement. That is one of the points in favor of the Ba'hai faith--that all religions are unified as one religion progressively revealed by God, and so all are true. As mentioned, I don't ascribe to that belief system, but it is interesting to study!

    I guess the difference between acknowledging the truth within religions and one claiming to be "the way, the truth, and the life" is where I diverge from traditional Christianity. I just can't bring myself to believe that just because someone doesn't adhere to the same religious beliefs that I've grown up with and which I choose to believe, that they automatically lose out on salvation/eternity with God/whatever pleasant version of the afterlife exists.

    And as far as openings for religious discussions, I'm always open to have them ;-). Hope all is going well with y'all!

  3. This is a great post. I can't tell you how much I agree with you on so much of it. I'm too tired right now to say too much, but I've always had a problem with how the Old Testament God seems so different from Jesus, that things are condoned in the Old Testament or even commanded by God that today we would consider to be morally wrong, such as genocide, kidnapping and rape, polygamy, etc. I have a lot I could discuss, but like I said, I'm tired at the moment. My dad actually is a Christian Universalist. He believes that Christ was the son of God and that his sacrifice paved the way for EVERYONE's salvation. There's a few Christian thinkers today who agree with that, and quite a few early Christian leaders as well. ANyways, that's all for now. :)

  4. Yeah, Old Testament God is very difficult to reconcile with Jesus in the New Testament. The way I've come to understand it (and I realize it's not a perfect explanation) is that it's all based on covenants. In the OT, God made covenants with Abraham and Moses; he agreed to protect them and their descendants, to make of them a mighty people if they followed his ways and remained faithful to him. Well, protecting one tribe of people and keeping them faithful is not an easy task, and I see many of the horrible things that happen in the OT as his way of keeping the covenant, of providing for and protecting his chosen people above all others who were not part of the covenant. (I can't use this for all of the evil events though >_< I assume that over the thousands of intervening years, the Israelites tended to gloss over some of the messy stuff by claiming holy justification where there was none. I like the gloss, but there's too much violence in the OT to use this as a blanket explanation for *all* the bad stuff, I think)

    Luckily for us, the new covenant (or new testament) that Jesus forged between God and all people means that he has the same responsibility to all of us that he once had towards only the Israelites. No more holy wars, no more smiting, just salvation.

    I've heard the universal salvation idea before, and I think it's beautiful but I have one problem with it. If everyone is guaranteed salvation, regardless of the choices we make or the lives we lead, then where does free will come into the equation? (I'm assuming that's what you meant, correct me if I'm wrong) If we're all bound to the same fate, do we have free will at all, for the things that really matter?

  5. The covenant theory is very interesting, and in many ways does reconcile the portrayal of God in the Old Testament with His portrayal in the New Testament.

    That said, there doesn't seem to me to be all that big a difference between the fundamental characteristics of the two covenants, at least if you go with the traditional interpretation of the New Covenant. The Mosaic covenant was very legalistic, and like any legal system, there were consequences when the laws were broken. The Messianic covenant was much less legalistic, though, if you go with the traditional interpretation, just as black and white--i.e., you don't accept Christ as Lord and Savior, you go to hell. Just a thought.

    I do completely agree with Jackie--I think the Israelite nation used "we are the chosen people of God" to get away with murder, literally and figuratively. I do NOT think that the Mosaic covenant had anything to do with the violations committed by the Israelite nation. Now and back then, a group of worshipers claiming "God's will" to justify atrocious actions and attitudes is not new.

    Is this God's fault? Nope. It's just human nature, and the nature of interacting cultures and people groups, unfortunately.

    I did look up the Christian Universalism website to see a statement of beliefs:

    Very interesting reading. A couple of things I noticed--nowhere do they make reference to the divinity of fact they label him the "Perfect Human." They acknowledge him to be the Son of God, but also hold all people as "divine offspring." An interesting point of view, and definitely not inconsistent with the beliefs of many early Christian groups, who did not hold Jesus to truly be divine.

    As far as the CU view that everyone goes through a "benevolent plan of learning and growth for all souls to attain salvation, reconciliation, restoration, and reunion with the Source of All Being, in the fullness of the ages"....I'm not quite sold. If you throw in reincarnation of the soul through various lives, as is found in (for example) Hinduism, then I might be willing to talk. Otherwise, I don't think that EVERYONE can go through this process in one lifetime.

    Also, the idea of reincarnation (where the actions of your current life affect your next reincarnation) would help mitigate the dilemma of no free will. You would still be able to make your choices, and have consequences to those choices, but you would still be on a path towards reunion with God. You just might make that path a hell of a lot longer! Lol.

    That said, I've read interpretations of purgatory that go along with the above point of view, but as previously mentioned, I am not as well-versed in Catholic theology as I would like. Jackie? Any thoughts on that?

    This is so much fun! Yay religious discussions!

  6. Sorry I haven't responded for a bit, crazy weekend making me go do things!

    Your point about the two covenants being similar, with the new one being just as black and white as the old, only really applies for certain branches of Protestant/Evangelical teaching. (when you say 'traditional', I assume that's what you mean) The Catholic view is not quite as black and white; we believe that the state of the soul at death, either in friendship with God and Christ or in rebellion, determines the soul's final destination. (That's a lot of theology to fit into one sentence, I hope I got it right!)

    The fate of a soul is also where Purgatory comes into play. The basic doctrine of Purgatory, as I understand it, is that sin, even sin that has been forgiven, leaves a stain on the soul. Purgatory is Christ's gift to us: the soul's chance to clean and perfect itself in preparation for the final union with God. Doesn't necessarily mean Dante's vision, doesn't mean there is any time frame that corresponds to the material world, just means a cleansing and purification. It may be a little weird to say, but this is one of my favorite Catholic teachings, to me it reconciles many of the problems I have with other salvation teachings. However, Purgatory is only available to those who are 'in friendship' at the time of death, we do still believe in damnation for those who are 'in rebellion' (this is not the same as simply belonging to another religion or living in ignorance of Christian teachings)

    CS Lewis gives a beautiful concept of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory in his book "The Great Divorce"--I think you'd really like it.

    Guh, so much to talk about! I'd better go for now though, before I fall asleep at the keyboard ^_^

  7. Interesting points Jackie. I agree wholeheartedly that the idea of Purgatory does reconcile certain aspects of salvation teachings.

    I have been doing a bit of reading up on Catholic theology, and I agree that it is much less black-and-white than most Protestant denominations.

    That said, I'm under the impression that Catholicism, or at least traditional Catholicism, still does condemn those of other religions, if not explicitly, then through it's other tenants.

    From what I understand, certain actions are required for the soul to be "not in rebellion" towards God and Christ--the Eucharist and Confession to name two. I understand that these can be administered/partaken of immediately before death, but from my readings it does seem as if they are prerequisites to salvation, along with acknowledging God as the One God and Jesus as the Savior.

    To my thinking, most people of other religions are condemned automatically by this theology since most of them will never acknowledge the above things, nor ever confess or partake of the Eucharist. Please correct me if I'm wrong...I'm still reading up :-).

    All that aside, Catholicism is very interesting. My friend Victoria (do you remember her?) will probably be converting here in a year or two--she's marrying into a very Catholic family and has been attending Mass for some time. She really enjoys it and agrees with much of it.

    Anyway, if my above statements are misinformed, please let me know! Hope all is well!

  8. Sorry it took so long to get back to you! I was trying to find a couple of places where I thought I'd read about this particular topic, but couldn't find either and it takes forever for me to give up on something like that :-p But anyway, I finally tried a new source and I think I found the answer.

    The short version of the Catholic view on the matter is pretty similar to the Protestant version: all salvation is through Christ, and Christ alone. So while the Eucharist, Confession and the other sacraments are very important and required for Catholics to be saved, the Church recognizes a state they call "invincible ignorance". If a person, through no fault of his/her own, is ignorant of the knowledge of Christ and the Church, then salvation is still possible for those who sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. And God isn't picky about the words people use, either. So they don't necessarily have to have the Christian God in mind, or even any god at all, to do what is right and good in His eyes. However, because it's so difficult to find the right way and the path to salvation without a guide, the Church puts a huge emphasis on evangelization.

    Here's the two posts I finally found, if you're interested in the nitty-gritty:

    I'd love to go further into the topic, but I always start on my replies too late in the evening, and its time for boring old peoples to go to bed :-p

  9. Lol I think we're more boring than you...we're normally in bed by 10 PM at the latest on week nights!

    I like the point of view of "invincible ignorance". I think I tend to take it one step further and extend it even to people who are not, by definition, ignorant of the Christian God and Christ.

    I'm a big fan of the idea that, to quote The Horse and His Boy, "bad done in the name of Aslan is actually service to Tash" and "good done in the name of Tash is actually service to Aslan."

    Of course, I don't mean to imply that Tash--who C.S. Lewis presents as a god created to serve the needs of a corrupt society in standing equal to Aslan and in controlling the populace--stands for the gods of other religions.

    Rather, I agree with the idea that, regardless of the name used, good belongs to God. And if someone is serving God, even if they call that entity by another name (or even several other names), then I don't agree with condemning then simply because they do not, or choose not, to believe in the same manifestation of God (ie Jesus Christ) that I do.

    All that said, I do agree with the idea that finding the right path is hard, and so I can see why mission work is held up as so important. However, I do think that people can find the good path through either cultural influences, or through other religions.

    So, while I see mission work as having value to spread the Christian religion, it does seem to shoot invincible ignorance in the foot. To clarify with an example: assume you have someone who was serving and seeking God before hearing of the Christian Church and Christ. Upon hearing of them, this person says "well, that's nice, but I think what I'm doing is right" and continues on seeking God in their accustomed manner. Except now, according to both Catholic and Protestant Christianity, he has been exposed to and rejected the doctrine of salvation through Christ. Now he stands condemned, though beforehand he was saved.

    Quite the conundrum. What are your thoughts?

    I am so enjoying our discussions Jackie! And thanks for the information on is making for interesting reading :-).

  10. That's one of my favorite lines from the entire Narnia series! And possibly one of the most important lessons Lewis was trying to teach. ^_^

    As to the conundrum, the first answer would be that 'invincible ignorance' is not as simple as merely never hearing the Christian message. If it is introduced badly, by inept or evil men, then the doctrine allows that the hearer is still ignorant of the true message. In order for 'ignorance' as used in this particular term to be broken, the person must have a chance to really understand the Christian/Catholic message and have some realization of its truth.

    And the second answer is that if someone, upon meeting a missionary and learning enough about the faith to understand it and realize its truth, walks away unconcerned and untouched, how likely is it that they would have found the narrow, difficult path to salvation on their own if the missionary had never come? I suppose there might be an exception for someone so far advanced in spiritual truth that the missionary would not be able to meet them as either a spiritual superior or an equal. (I'm thinking of Ghandi here, who I know was friends with at least one Catholic priest)

    I think the reasoning goes something like this: The Catholic faith, although allowing that they do not have a monopoly on truth, do not by any means equate all faiths as equal, and considers that if one is capable of reaching salvation outside of the Catholic faith they are equally capable of realizing the truth of the faith and turning to it once their ignorance is cured.

    Guh, that's some heavy stuff, hope I got it right! :-p

    Also, congratulations Victoria! That's awesome! ^_^


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