Monday, May 11, 2009

Rules Schmooles, that's what I always say.

I've been a Republican all my life. All my life up until the last six or eight months, that is. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan was successful at building a coalition between the rich, the disenchanted, and the religious ranks to form a political party that seemed to encourage a strong national identity, a staunch moral compass, and a rising economic tide that would lift all boats. While I admire many things about Ronald Reagan, one of the negative outcomes of his coalition was a strong church.

While that might sound surprising that I think a strong church is a negative, let me explain what I mean. Churches should be strong in their teachings of personal accountability, perseverance after God, and love for one another. But all too often, we find that religious people that hold political power would rather play God than lead someone to him. The very people who should be modeling for us and teaching us about God's character are the ones who so often bend and twist his commands for their own personal benefit. God, having foreseen this, even made a commandment about it: "You shall not use the Lord's name in vain." (Scott's translation: Don't ascribe to God words or commands that are not from him) As plain as that is, even that very commandment morphed into a legalistic rule telling people not to "cuss". So God damn it became gosh darn it (as if the sentiment behind the words was really any different just because the words themselves changed).
This phenomenon of power corrupting religious authorities is certainly not unique to Christianity, as I have found it present in nearly every world religion. The devout Muslim seeks the Lord and attempts to honor God by the following of the teachings of the Qu'ran, while the corrupt Imam "interprets" those scriptures by imposing rules and restrictions that merely suppress the population and maintains his grasp of power. The devout Buddhist seeks revelation and to more fully understand the deep Truths of the Source of all life while the corrupt monk seeks to capitalize on others' lack of knowledge by exploiting them for power and monetary gain. Corrupt leadership needs to continually invent new rules in order to appear important.
In America, the religious right went astray by trying to legislate morality. But as Jesus said, "Those who live by the sword, die by the sword." It is now that very legislative process that is unraveling all the so-called accomplishments of that movement. The leaders could have been focusing on how to better equip people to know God on a personal level and to internalize his codes of moral conduct, but they were instead focused on requiring record companies to put warning labels on CDs that contained the word "fuck". They focused their efforts on the lwas of abortion rather than on modeling love by reaching out to the women who would have them. By sharing the gift of love and acceptance some of those women may never have gotten into the position of needing the abortion in the first place. Church leadership response to the homosexual was to shout "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" rather than trying to address the hurt and confusion in these people's lives. In so many instances, the Christian community used their power to coerce thru the force of law rather than to be a model of God's love.

Yes, God did give us a bunch of rules to live by. And yes, if we don't live by those rules, we are sinning. But to focus on the rules and rituals as a way to satisfy God is to TOTALLY miss the point. God is not some sadistic cosmic puppeteer that gets joy out of seeing us suffer. He gave us rules to HELP us - a safe passage map through a minefield, so to speak. Similar to a loving parent telling a child to be careful near the cliff or to avoid a rattlesnake, God gave us parameters to operate within to have a healthy and functioning society. In every single instance, his rules are not for his benefit, they are rather for our benefit as individuals or as a society because he loves us and does not want to see us hurt. Read some of his commands with that in mind and see if it doesn't make more sense.

  • Honor and love God above all else. In so doing, your own characteristics will reflect his and you will not be selfishly motivated or inclined to use people to achieve ugly end results.
  • Don't commit adultery...because if you do, the spouse might get real pissed and try to kill you!
  • Don't steal, kill, covet, or defame your neighbor's name. Most of these commandments promote social stability and a culture of mutual respect.
  • I've been particularly awestuck by the prescience of the kosher and halal laws of thousands of years ago. The command to not eat pigs because they are "unclean" takes on a different meaning when you consider that even today there are doctors who are finding worms living in people's brains because they ate - you guessed it - contaminated pork.
  • In my attempts to grow a garden I'm finding that the seventh year "rest" of the land is actually needed in order to maintain good soil health and replenish lost mineral content.

You probably get my point. God's law was made for us, not us for the law. But we instead believe our corrupt leaders who have taught us to see God as a domineering narcissist who needs to be pleased by our subservience to his commands. It misses the whole point of the law, which is to show us that we are not perfect and that we have strayed from God's intent for us.

Politically I now lean towards libertarianism, which focuses almost completely on personal accountability. I alone am responsible to my God for my actions and, for the most part, I don't need to be playing God to tell you what you should be doing. Similarly, I think our creator gives us a lot more freedom than most of us who run in religious circles would ever admit we have. It's time to recognize the rules for what they are - a path set by a kind and loving God - not for what they aren't - a means to obtain his love and acceptance.

Next post: Jesus didn't just die for you, he lived for you

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Is scripture infallible?

At 37 years old I find myself raising three daughters - one of whom is now a teenager - and as I walk with her through her adolescence, I am frequently taken back to the events of my own life and generation which were occurring when I was her age. Politically, it was the days of Ronald Reagan and the cold war. The so-called "moral majority" (spearheaded by televangelist Jerry Falwell) had risen up to be a significant political and social force to be reckoned with. "Prophets" and students of prophecy (both biblical prophecy and secular prophecies like that of Nostradamus) were springing up and holding conferences left and right proclaiming that the end of the world was neigh. Preachers were playing records backward to find the secret messages of the devil that were said to have been encoded subliminally in our music, pulling us closer and closer to Satan without our knowledge each time we listened to it. Something else "troubling" was occurring - publishers had begun printing bibles in modern English instead of King James Old English. So while we were burning all our records and decrying the spread of drums and electric guitars into Christian music, churches were also fighting one another over which translation was the acceptable and infallible scripture. Many churches, to stay true to form, made their prospective and current members make oaths to say that they believed that all scripture was the inerrant word of God. Some went so far as to say that only the King James version of the bible was the true word of God.

When we don't know the questions to ask, it's hard to get the answers to those questions. I had always assumed that the bible was kinda like God. It had always existed. It wasn't until I attended the Baptist seminary that I learned that the canonization of scripture - a fancy term for the compilation and formal recognition of the books that we currently know as the bible - actually didn't occur until the year 1546 as a result of the convening of the council of trent. The council of trent was comprised of powerful catholic church leaders of the day and one of their main reasons for convening was to fend off challenges to their power by the Martin Luther reformationists. They needed to act decisively and in one accord in order to make a statement and maintain their position of authority. One of the outcomes of the council, then, was to legitimize certain commonly accepted teachings of the church by giving them the weight of scripture. Along with the so-called "Old Testament" that the Jews had considered scripture for centuries, the council recognized many of Paul's letters to the early church and the gospel account of Jesus as written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There were many other outcomes and proclamations of the council during the 20 years that it regularly convened and most of them had to do with legitimizing certain religious teaching while condemning others. In short, the whole thing was part of a giant power play, including the formal proclamation of the New Testament as "Holy Scripture".

So does that mean that the bible isn't scripture? Does that mean it is flawed and irrelevant? I didn't say that, did I? But a careful read of the New Testament tells me that it is a collection of personal letters to specific people (2 Timothy 4:13 "When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.") Kinda like a private letter ruling with the IRS. Certainly applicable to the person it's being told to, and has broader meaning to the population at large, but not necessarily designed to set a precedent of law. Paul was a godly man who had some incredible experiences with God. As such, what he wrote has merit and should not be discounted. But Paul was a mere human like you and I and was not perfect. He was, however, a highly evolved soul and was a truth seeker with a devoted heart after the spirit of God. I give high weighting to the thoughts and observations of such a person. He's certainly an expert in his field. Similarly, though, any person of God, even today could have similar revelations and truths to share with others. The sharing of their learning and experiences can help bring others to a closer relationship with God. And share they should. But why would their godly words not carry the weight of scripture? Because the council of trent did not recognize them?

There were hundreds and hundreds of years where people who desired to lead godly lives simply had no access to the written word. They had to live their lives wholly by the spirit of God and his conviction of sin and righteousness. While the teachings of the scripture can certainly help to deepen that desire for God by teaching us about him, they are not necessary to have a love for and understanding of God. My answer to the question "Is scripture infallible" is really pretty simple.

"It doesn't matter."

The goal of godly teaching is not to indoctrinate, it's to guide a person in their own seeking after God. (Matthew 7:7) To claim inerrancy misses the point. It pits one's view of God over an other's and simply divides. It also takes the focus off of the one whom we are ostensibly seeking and puts the focus on how (the rules by which) we seek him. If we were a scientist seeking truth, how would we ever discover new things if we didn't challenge established fact from time to time. 2 Timothy 3:16 says "All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for teaching, for conviction of sin, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness." If you are seeking God and a godly person says something that resonates in your heart, then use those words to draw you closer to God. The bible says several times that the Holy Spirit will bear witness to the truth. If what they say is not inerrant, the Lord will show you what's to accept and what to ignore.

As an aside, the writers of the New Testament as well as Jesus himself, reference or quote "scripture" quite often. When they do, they are referring to the godly writings of the law and the prophets - otherwise known as the Old Testament.

Respect the writers of the New Testament and revere their experiences. Learn from what they taught. They were there during the time of Jesus himself and can therefore bring a perspective to the truth that no one else can. But if we are to believe that Jesus is in fact a risen saviour, let's not ascribe to these early writers the only opportunity to have had a personal encounter with God or Jesus. I can find similar wisdom and insights in many of the writings of the Qu'ran, by Buddha, or in the Hindu sacred writings. Scripture is anything that points you toward a relationship with God. Any writing that directs your devotion away from him is heresy.

Next Post: Legalism and Rules... working our way back to God.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Heaven and Hell

I grew up in a small mountain town in southern Colorado. When you spend every day of your life growing up in a town of 1500 people, it's quite a thrill to find out that your school or youth group is going to take a field trip to the big city of Denver. My favorite trip was going to Elich Gardens or Celebrity Sports Center, a couple of amusement parks that I was given the opportunity to attend every year or two. I used to look forward to taking those trips for months in advance. I would make sure that I was a good kid, and didn't get grounded so that there would be no reason why my mother wouldn't allow me to go. Of course, the trip wouldn't have been any fun if I were taking it by myself. The fact that I was going with my best friend made it all the more fun - to know I would not only have someone to experience the trip with, but also someone to talk about it with after the fact.

I suppose for most of my life I have considered heaven to be a somewhat similar experience. It was to be a fantastic and mystical place, streets of gold, big pillared buildings, and large mansions that you could live in with beautiful, well manicured hedges and lawns. It was to be a dignified place, very prim and proper - rather stuffy, actually. Most likely, there would be a lot of recreational joggers in heaven. The music would be symphonic. All in all, although it would be a "nice" place, heaven would be a place of hard work and sacrifice, and it really wouldn't be any fun.

Hell, on the other hand, would be a place where you got to indulge all your whims. All the "guilty pleasures" that were prohibited on earth would be allowed in hell. There would be spent beer bottles and cigarette butts on the floor, parties complete with cheap sex and big-busted, scantily clad floozies. The music would of course be rock music. Your parents wouldn't approve of hell, but it would be fun.

Some people believe that to get to heaven your good deeds are weighed against your bad deeds on some sort of a supernatural scale. If the good deeds outweigh the bad deeds then the pearly gates would open for you. If the reverse was true, the trap door would open up and the devil would be awaiting you in a fiery lake of sulphur and a pitchfork to your butt. Of course, with all my biblical training, I "knew" that the proper answer was that you also had to say those magic words when St. Peter greeted you. "I accept Jesus as my saviour." That way, even if your scale was tilted waaaaaaay too strongly to the bad deed side, the door to heaven would still open up and you would be granted entry. Many would say "by the skin of your teeth."

Recently, however, I have begun to question the whole concept of what heaven is and who God is. In my old way of thinking, God and the devil were both cosmic puppeteers who were fighting with each other, each wanting to control people and get them to behave certain ways. God, even though he created pleasure and laughter, wanted us to "sacrifice" these things to please him. Pleasure was a fleshly thing and experiencing it was not godly. In fact, the more of it that we would deny for him, the more spiritual he would consider us and the more proud of us he would be. In fact, if we did a lot of fun things, conventional religious wisdom said that we needed to make sure we prayed even more and had longer quiet times alone with him each day, I guess to balance everything out. We needed to hand out more tracts, knock on more doors, boycott more holidays, businesses or television shows, have religious conversations more often and convince more people to think the way that we thought so that they, too, could be "saved". There was always plenty of guilt to go around, and never much peace.

But my trek through the scriptures did not bear any of this out to be true. To get a complete understanding of heaven, I believe that one must have a more complete understanding of who God is. Scriptures explain him in a lot of ways, but his basic characteristics are found in Paul's letter to the Galatians. They are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. Furthermore, the prophet Micah said that God desires us to "act justly, to love mercy, and walk in humility". When I began meditating on these things, I came to the conclusion that THAT is what heaven is. An eternal life where these attributes would be fully present, all the time, with everyone. It really doesn't matter if heaven is a specific place in the clouds or if it merely encompasses the vast and expanding universe of planets, galaxies, and solar systems. The fact of the matter is that being in heaven will cause us to be in the very presence of God and all his characteristics. Hell, then, would be a place where none of these characteristics exist. There would be no joy, no peace, nobody would be patient or kind, everyone would act selfishly and would be easily prone to violence. No wonder there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth! What a horrible eternal existence coupled with no hope of it ever changing!

I was recently reading a Christian book whose author was exhorting his readers to love God above all other things. He used the following question to make his point:
"If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, all the food you ever liked, all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ wasn't there?"

My immediate response to this quote is that its very premise is a bunch of rubbish. It is nonsense and the author who penned it has a fundamental misunderstand of who God is. For if there can be all this "good" in the universe, even heaven itself, without God, then who is God? On the contrary, all of these good things are a PART of God, representations of his character! Scriptures tell us that ALL good things are from God and that the very magnificence of creation testifies to his presence. My question to this author, then, is "What God are you exhorting us to worship? And if he doesn't embody these good things, why should we worship him?"

If my previous post accurately portrays Jesus' message, and salvation is actually found by embracing the truth (having our eyes opened) and becoming Jesus - embodying his character and spirit, then is it possible for someone to embrace only a part of Jesus' message and still hold on to certain beliefs of the devil? Maybe they're a gentle and patient person, but have no self-control. Could there be a partial heaven, a level of heaven if you will, where certain people would experience an eternity filled with gentleness and patience, yet at the same time would be filled with totally self-absorbed people? I don't know the answer to that question. Dante pondered that possibility as he penned the inferno and many other scholarly people have suggested that there will be levels of severity of punishment in hell. Many scholars also believe there will be levels of heaven. Could this be the "levels" of heaven and hell?

I tend to believe that salvation is an "all or none" kind of deal. People who truly fall in love with part of who God is will most likely embrace all of who he is and vice versa. But I don't know that for sure. I am inclined to believe, however, that if there is a level of heaven or hell, it will be based upon a promise of an eternal existence completely without those aspects of God that one rejected while living. And in that way, hell is no punishment at all. It is simply a choice that one has had a lifetime to make. What will you embrace as truth and who will you become? If you choose to love, then love you shall have in return. If you choose self-indulgence in life, then self-indulgent people shall be your eternal prize. God's only punishment in hell, if you will call it punishment, is that he will completely remove himself and his character from those who choose not to embrace him. Conversely, however, God's reward in heaven is the complete and unfettered surrounding of all of his characteristics of love. And THAT's something to look forward to and live for.

Next Post: What is scripture? And is it infallible?