Warning:: There is no science whatsoever in this post. If that’s going to annoy you, give this one a pass.
In a previous post, I said what role I thought religion and spirituality still could play in the modern, scientific world. All of that applied to any sort of religion or spirituality, and was not specific. However, I have claimed to be a Christian. A lot of people have been asking for me to explain just what I mean by that, since the things I have said seem to contradict most peoples’ notions (Christians and non-Christians alike) of what it means to be Christian.
So why do I say that, and why do I not think I’m the dishonest liar I’m accused of being for saying that, given that I personally don’t really see God as God the Creator? Indeed, if you look at my blog’s former site, you can find a post where I say that I tend not to believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ. How can I call myself a Christian after saying those things????
(By the way, if you’re one of those who thought that my previous post on religion was silly, vacuous pablum, you aren’t going to be any happier with this one. Save yourself a few minutes and skip it. Honestly, I’ll be writing about astronomers’ time machine shortly, so we’ll be back to the hardcore science. Save your reading time for that if you’re just going to think that this is a waste of time.)
The first, and most honest answer is, “because I was raised that way.” I grew up in a liberal protestant denomination. This was in the days when the Moral Majority was neither– certainly not a majority. This was before the Bush-electing fundie crowd turned the popular conception of Christianity into “all extremism, all the time.” This was the time when there was such a thing as the “mainline protestant churches,” and that was a place where you could go and be Christian, while still fully accepting things like evolution.
There’s a lot of great stuff in the Christian tradition. You don’t have to be religious at all to be moved by Bach’s or Mozart’s sacred music, for example; as a musician, it’s the music I really like. The popular conception of the sermon is the fire-and-brimstone, all-sinners-are-damned sorts of things, but that is not the kind of sermon one heard in the churches I went to. Indeed, one minister would talk about Stephen Hawking every other month. Yes, it’s about God, yes, it’s about Jesus, yes, it’s about faith, but it was an intellectual, thinking, probing, discussing sort of sermon. I’ve known some who go to church for the music, some for the sermons, some for the community, some for all of it. I personally lean a bit towards the music, although in the past the community may have been #1. (Indeed, it’s significant that I met my wife at church.) But it’s all important.
None of which has anything to do with theology. The question that gets asked is, “couldn’t you find a way to build community of like-minded individuals without all that religious baggage attached to it? Yeah, probably, but church works real well because it’s a long established institution in our society, despite how amazingly diverse it is.
So I’m a Christian because I’ve been raised that way, and I like the traditions. Had I been raised Hindu, I’d give you strong odds I’d still be a Hindu today.
Presumably, however, now that I’m an adult, I have had the time to think about my religion, and I’ve made the conscious decision to remain a Christian. Not just a “church-attending agnostic” (who exist — I’ve even known atheistic Jews who attend temple and teach Sunday School, but who disbelieve in God), but somebody who really professes himself to be a Christian. So what is it about the Christian faith specifically that makes me want to stick with it rather than drifting off to some sort of personally defined vague deist spiritualism, getting my community from a Unitarian church?
There are really two answers to that. The first is that “Jesus is a cool dude whose message I like.” The second is what I, personally, see as the core of the Christian faith. Let me start with the second.
In a previous post, I noted that in Christianity, God is often referred to as “Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer.” In that post, I noted that I personally don’t really see “Creator’” as an important role. If there is a role, it’s not in a “In The Beginning” sort of way, but in an ongoing and complicated sort of way that I probably am not capable of adequately putting into words. (Not, at least, without opening myself up to the usual sort of ridicule.) In the previous post, I also gave some idea what I see the “Sustainer” role as being.)
The “Redeemer” role is not specific to Christianity — although I don’t know a lot about Hinduism, I know that Krishna is called the Redeemer — it is one of the things that has kept me a Christian. To me, the role of God and Jesus as Redeemer is the essential core of the Christian faith. The idea is as follows. Humans are not perfect. We make mistakes. We “sin” — and by that I don’t just mean the Big Stuff like murder and theft, but also the little stuff like participating in flamewars and saying ill-advised things, ignoring the plight of the homeless while buying the latest hot comsumer good, turning the blind eye to the horribly sexist comment your colleague made, etc. We’re not perfect; we’re always doing things that, if pointed out, we probably shouldn’t have done, or that we might regret later. The core message of Christianity, however, is that Christ died for our sins; that, in the end, none of us really are “worthy” in an absolute sense, none of us are perfect, but thanks to “grace,” we will be forgiven. Nobody can ever really be righteous, but we don’t have to, because there is a Redeemer there to help us along.
Now, yes, those who don’t understand this, to whom this is a new concept. or who deliberately want to belittle what I’ve just written will say “it sounds like your religion is a free pass; you can do whatever the hell you want because somebody is going to forgive you.” That’s an interpretation some may take, but that’s absolutely as extreme an interpretation as the interpretation that all atheists are amoral because they have no afterlife to fear. So, please, think a bit before you insist that logically that’s what I’ve just claimed.
Of course we try to do good. Insofar as Jesus was fully and unmitigatedly righteous– which, by the way, he wasn’t, not according to the accounts in the Christian tradition (and I will get back to that)– we should all strive to be as good as him; but we recognize that that is an unattainable goal. Unlike the examples that are set forward to pre-tenure facult as the levels of excellence that we are all supposed to exceed in order not to get fired, in Christianity we have a standard, a goal, that presumably we are all supposed to strive for, but also the message that God loves us and that God and/or Jesus the Redeemer will still accept us as OK even if we don’t attain it.
This is part of what I find appealing about the Christian religion. And, yes, there have been versions of Christianity that don’t seem to accept that it all– the “hellfire and brimstone for anybody who isn’t perfect” versions that seem to be ever more popular. To my mind, they’re all missing the very core of the religion.
Notice that this core of the religion doesn’t require anything about virgin births, bodily resurrection, God the Creator, etc. This is why I still think it’s valid for me to call myself Christian despite not necessarily subscribing to all of those doctrines.
What about the other part? The “Jesus was a cool dude?” part?
In my previous post, I talked about how I was unhappy with replacing “God the Father” with “God the Creator” in the push to remove patriarchal language from the church service. Not because I think that God has a… um, Y-chromosome… but because “Creator” doesn’t capture all of it. Similarly, I have seen some Christmas carols that seem to replace language about Jesus with gender-inspecific language, and that really offends me. Yeah, I guess I can see why they want to get rid of “King,” since that’s very medieval and authoritarian, and really misses the point (as I’ll explain in a moment), but sheesh, can’t we accept a little metaphor? But there are also the rewrites that take out reference to Jesus having had gender. I guess we’re embarrassed that the core figure in our religion was male, now that we’re trying to deny the patriarchy. But, to me, a big point of the Christian religion is that Jesus was human, and for the vast majority of us, to be human means to have one gender or the other. Second, there’s the fact that Jesus is a historical figure, a person who really was, and trying to turn him into some sort of arbitrary “Christ” without any real human identity depersonalizes the religion and drains part of its most important core.
Jesus — the son of God, an aspect of God, the Word Made Flesh, all of that– was human, a person, just like the rest of us. Although Hamlet wasn’t really talking about theology, allow me to interject this excerpt:
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals!
In my previous post, I danced around the notion that God is a human creation. One sentence I like to use is that “God is an integral property of sentient existence.” If humans are made in God’s image, it misses the point to insist that God is a humanoid; “in God’s image” to me is like what Hamlet is talking about: capable of self-reflection, sentience, whatever you want to call it– human consciousness, that not perfectly well understood thing we know that we have but that at least the lower animals do not. (Go talk to Shelley or Greta & Dave; it may well be that some apes and grey parrots are also made in God’s image!)
And Jesus was flawed. According to the stories, he never gave into the temptations of Satan– and, no, I personally don’t view that as a historical account, but as a story that tells us something about who Jesus was. But what were his last words? “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Some Christian traditions hold that the only deadly sin is not having faith in God and faith in Jesus as Savior. And, yet, we have Jesus here saying the words of despair. Jesus, clearly, was human, flawed and all, even according to the stories and traditions of the religion that worships him.
So God as Human is important to me, and that’s part of the core of the Christian religion. What about Jesus specifically? Let’s look at another aspect of Christianity. Jesus was to come as the King to bring about God’s reign on earth, etc. etc. etc. And, yet, what happened? Jesus was born to an unremarkable family. According to tradition, he was born in a stable. He never became a great leader, even in the way that Moses did. Yes, he preached to many. But he lived an errant life, eschewing the temporal power that monarchs would later claim was justified by the “divine right of kings,” even eschewing extreme temporal influence. He preached the opposite of a lot of medieval social philosophy: the poor are not lesser humans and thus worthy of their lot, but if anything exalted. (Blessed are the poor, and all of that.) He spent his life tearing down traditional authority figures, and giving attention to those whom many thought beneath attention. He lived a live of service, of humility. And then he died.
Yes, you can find stuff that’s not consistent with the above. Yes, you can find Bible quotes that are easily (and often) interpreted as Jesus’ threats that you will be damned if you don’t worship him. Accept, however, that the four gospels were written by four different people, and are not consistent. We don’t have a perfect record of Jesus’ life or of his character. But if you look at his life as a whole, the “king” of Christianity is one who, overall, lived a life of humility and service.
That’s also powerful to me. We don’t worship the exalted. We exalt the humble.
Incidentally, this is why a big chunk of Revelation is so awful. To me, that book reads like a bunch of Christians sitting around disappointed with the fact that when Jesus came, he wasn’t the conquering hero who marched across the land, spreading our One True Religion with the sword, smiting the unbelievers and casting them all into utter torment as punishment for being different. So what do they do? Write a book that says, “Ah! But next time, Jesus WILL come with a sword, and then you’d better watch out!” Mind you, I really like Revelation in the same way I like Schwarzenegger movies. It’s the most fun book of the Bible when it comes to colorful characters useful in subsequent fiction. But the whole Jesus as scouring, conquering, sword-bearing, flame-wielding image that shows up in there is completely at odds with the core message of Christianity evidenced by the stories of Jesus’ actual life that have been passed down in our tradition.
To summarize, why am I a Christian? Mostly because it’s how I was raised, and I’m happy and comfortable in that tradition. But why does the theology of Christianity still appeal to me as I’ve had some time to reflect upon it? Because what I see as the two core messages of Christianity really appeal to me. First, redemption; we don’t have to be perfect, but there is somebody out there– Jesus– who has taken our punishment for us, who has the grace to help and forgive us despite our flaws. Second, Jesus was a cool dude. Not only is the core divine figure in the Christian religion fully human, but he is also a human who wasn’t a conquering, ruling figure, but rather a figure who lived a live of service, and who preached acceptance and exalting those on the fringes of society.
Let me end with a few brass tacks. Most people seem to read “being Christian” as accepting some laundry list of doctrines. I’ve already explained that to me, there are just two core elements of the theology, and hopefully my verbiage has made clear that I don’t see them as things that can meaningfully be expressed in a short list, but as things that require some thought and reflection to understand. Of the laundry list of “Christian litmus” tests, where do I stand on all of them?
God the Creator: been there. As I said, I’m not sure I even see that as a role (or at least an important role) of my conception of God.
The Virgin Birth: sorry, no. Yes, many of you Christian and non-Christian alike will claim that this invalidates my claim of being Christian, but read everything above.
Bodily Resurrection: I think I’ll stay with probably not. I wrote about this at length earlier, as I’ve already referenced.
Afterlife: solid dunno here. It seems kind of implausible, but I really want it to be true. Mostly because I want to see what happens! I like the idea that after I die, I’ll have the chance to learn all the things about fundamental physics that we haven’t figured out during my lifetime.
Burning in Hell: literally in the afterlife, no. Jesus has enough grace to forgive anybody, even the worst criminals. Most days I don’t believe that, but I strive to believe that. To me, “Burning in Hell” is best viewed similarly to those who interpret Revelation as an allegory of the early Christian church. We create hell on earth often enough, and sadly a lot of people burn in it. And, indeed, few of them deserve it.
The divinity of Christ: yes. (OMG! Magical thinking! He’s an anti-scientist! the militant atheists now get to cry.) To some extent, I believe in the divinity of all of us. And by divinity, I mean something in that layer of reality that is orthogonal to the physical world. Some of us are more divine than others, none of us more so than Jesus. But it’s a continuum, and for my version of Christianity to maintain what I see as it’s power personally for me, Jesus needs to remain fully human.
Exclusivity: absolutely not. Yes, many Christians, even Christians who accept evolution and think that atheists are capable of moral behavior, believe that you are damned unless you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior– but I do not. We’ve got John 3:18 that says:
which to many people is pretty clear. But I’ve already made clear that I don’t believe that a literal reading of the Bible is reasonable or wise, and to anybody who’s willing to be open to the concept it’s bloody obvious that the Bible is self-contradictory in many places. So I reject this verse from John in light of the message of Jesus’ entire life.
Of course, it’s more than that. As I’ve said before, I don’t even think that Hindus, Wiccans, Jews, etc., are wrong in their concept of God. Many just don’t get this, since that way of thinking is inconsistent with a scientific way of thinking. Well, religion isn’t science. But if you want an analogy, there are times when a photon is unambiguously a wave, there are times when a photon is unambiguously a particle, and it depends on how you look at it how much of which aspect you see. Religion, a search for God, is similar. Christianity has power for me, but I don’t expect or demand it has power for everybody. Yes, I will say that Jesus has enough grace to forgive and accept everybody regardless of what they think about him, but I don’t demand that you believe that, and what’s more I will agree to the possibility that you can be just as right as I am if your view of the nature of the divine differs from mine. Or, if you’re an atheist — well, this thing I call the divine I’m always saying is orthogonal to physical reality. Anything that happens as real “miracle,” as real divine intervention, happens through human agency, so there’s no need to invoke the divine if you want to explain the mechanics of it, which is after all what science is all about. But the meaning of it — well, that’s not even a valid question often in science, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid question to people, and that’s why we have humanities and theology and other forms of intellectual endeavors that aren’t science.
(Note: I will respond to questions, but not to insults or flamebait.)