by Maarten van den Driest
Editor's Note: Unlike most Meditations, this one expresses an aspect of religious faith. Some may question why it is published here rather than in Talk Back. As I suggested in Meditation 338, there is less difference in viewpoint between us and Christian rationalists (or liberal Christians) than there is between the fundamentalists and the liberals within Christianity. Maarten has on several occasions argued very persuasively against many of the less-than-rational arguments presented by some believers in Talk Back and in Debate and Discourse. He is in many ways in tune with our thinking. And yet he has faith. I think it useful to consider his personal view on his religious belief. And this is in Meditations rather than Talk Back because Maarten is explaining his faith, not trying to convert us to it.
On this website, I have written about my faith a couple of times, primarily because I found that discussions were muddled by a flawed idea of what Christianity is. Explaining what science is comes quite naturally to most agnostics on this site but Christianity is another matter entirely. As non-adherents to the religion, I suppose it's not surprising agnostics don't know everything there is to know but, shockingly, many of those who claim to be Christians show staggering gaps in their knowledge.
To be honest, there has been a discussion going on for a long time within the faith itself on how much knowledge or intellectual prowess is needed. Most Christians would agree that you can't just feel your way through everything. Certain concepts need to be grasped.
Just as a child grows up and lets go of ideas that it has outgrown, belief has grown through time. The time span is measured in hundreds or even thousands of years but the analogy is quite close. Monotheism was a considerable step forwards. Instead of explaining nothing whatsoever by suggesting that things happened because a whole bunch of gods squabbled all the time, only one god as all-powerful ruler became the sole explanation. You only needed to get to know that god and, lo and behold, he actually gave out a whole series of orders, so that was that.
A couple of thousands of years later, young Christianity was born and immediately ran into trouble, right after its shaky start, when people tried to define their own concepts. Solutions where eventually found which basically required that people just had to go and believe firmly that certain concepts were true whether they made any real sense or not. On a positive note: these concepts were extensively discussed and leading theologians did a lot of hard work in an honest attempt to capture divine concepts in material words.
And so it went. Eventually, we found ourselves in the 21st century, with a religion to match. The multiplex of thought and hope that is Christianity functions quite well with the new ideas that science has brought us (historical criticism, for example). The secret is that Christianity has never really done any science, it just happened so that monks were almost the only people who could read. Even when that changed and, eventually, proper science made its entrance, the clerics were so used to having the last word in basically everything that it had become a habit that was hard to shrug off.
Not everyone agrees, obviously. Fundamentalists of various degrees do exist (thrive, actually) but they only survive by closing their eyes to reality or by ad hoc explanations. These can go quite far. There is a story in the Bible, in 2 Kings 23-24, in which a couple of youths insult the prophet Elisha for being bald. He doesn't hesitate for a second, curses them and two she-bears maul them to death.
This an excessively violent story, in modern eyes. Obviously God condones this because Elisha gets his powers from Him anyway. So how to explain this? A fundamentalist website once wrote that the kids must have been so wicked that they deserved death and that the Hebrew word for youths could perhaps better be translated with 'hoodlums'. This is no way to explain and certainly not a Christian sentiment.
I don't know how to explain the story myself but I merely give the above example to illustrate how far people will go sometimes to uphold their beliefs. How much more honest to admit that you don't actually know! How accurate it would be to note that the story is extremely old and from a totally different culture. In my view, forcing the Bible to behave as if it were a historically accurate literally true book is a form of abuse. It is also usually tantamount to idol worship. As Christians, we are supposed to worship God, not the Bible.
Of course one could counter that the Bible is God's word. Granted that, we should explain the words ‘God’, ‘Bible’ and ‘word’. Before I forget, we should explain 'is' as well. What does the sentence "God is merciful." actually mean?
A further problem, that complicates matters extremely, is the question whether or not God is a person. Only a person can meaningfully said to be merciful, or angry or loving. Then again, God is certainly not a person(1) because the mere notion gets us into conceptual horror. Does God hear our prayers? I say yes, but not through human ears. Does God exist? I say yes but not as a rock exists nor as we exist.
The exact meaning of what we say is paramount when talking about religious concepts. The ongoing discussion between believers, agnostics and atheists isn't worth the air expelled unless the participants can be clear about what they say.
Whole bookshelves can be filled with what has already been written about this. That is not needed here. I do not aim to convert anyone but merely attempt to show that a grown-up Christianity can be a valid and worthwhile alternative to the other choices around.
A modern, grown-up faith should be able to answer the questions of today. In giving a few of these answers(2), I will try to sketch a picture of what Christianity can be according to myself. I guess most liberal Christians will agree with me on the whole, though maybe not on the finer points. Still, I can ultimately only speak for myself. Please note that as a Christian I am well versed in the Christian language and so sometimes use terms that might sound strange or surreal to others. Read those words as poetic language, I am sure you will catch the drift.
Further questions are welcome, as is critique. I will try to edit in any good suggestions.
DOES GOD EXIST?
Yes, He does. However, we must ask ourselves the question how God exists. No one will disagree when we assert that love exists, that compassion has a reality. These concepts aren't tangible but still we have no trouble believing they exist. The wind is tangible but is not a thing at all, more a process. A rock is a solid thing, at least on our time scale. Note how the exact meaning of 'to exist' shifts each time. To say that God exists doesn't really mean that we'd find someone at home if only we could visit heaven. That would be childish and it is good to understand that. What it does mean is quite complicated.
I find it is often more useful to ask 'When is God?' This can be far more easily answered: when we choose to live with Him. I don't think there is a choice for or against God. No believer would ever choose against an almighty deity; that is absurd. We can choose to ignore the silent voice and hear only the clutter of every-day life or we can choose to pay attention. It is then that God is in the world. This isn't really the place to further develop this notion; it would need an entire article on its own.
IS JESUS GOD'S SON?
Yes. The Bible says so by the way but not with big emphasis. Then again, God is not Jesus' daddy. Even if we grant the miraculous Immaculate Conception, where the Holy Spirit impregnates Mary, God is still not like a human father.
The most strictly honest answer would be to say we will never know how Jesus was conceived. However, when we say He is the Son of God we mean much more than that. We actually mean to say the Jesus was an extremely special person whose thoughts and deeds resonate so deeply with us that we want Him to be our guide in life. Also note that 'son of god' isn't a unique title. It was used for other very special people as well and can be seen as a honorific. More importantly, nothing in Jesus' teachings changes if we give up the idea of a semi-biological kinship between Jesus and the Almighty.
IS CHRISTIANITY THE ULTIMATE TRUTH?
'Ultimate' is a big word. As Christians we find ourselves sharing the world with a big number of other faiths. It would be easy to condemn them all but that wouldn't be honest. We'd have to decide which varieties of Christianity to condone (our own, often) and which to condemn (all others) as well.
There is scriptural support for believing the Jesus is the only gate to heaven but I wonder about all those people who grow up in Muslim countries, for example, and never get to know Jesus. I wonder further if you actually need the trappings and the name or just the ideas. You don't actually have to believe in Newtonian physics or understand it. You still fall back when you jump into the air. The most central ideas of Christianity are shared by nearly all religions.
It is my belief that these are in some way built into the universe, or emergent from our society. Some things are true, whether we agree or not. The government can't decide that car exhaust is actually very good for the environment, nor is it true that we will not all eventually die. These truths are simply not up for discussion.
It is undeniably true, in the same way, that every action we take strengthens repetition of that action. You steal once; it becomes easier to do so again. You decide not to take that cookie; it becomes a bit easier to keep up. You might call this effect God's punishment or reward, you might refrain from that. It is still true.
In this sense, Christianity has some ultimate truths in the offering. Not because the concepts are Christian but because Christianity adheres to reality. An important part of my faith is that some things are, inherently, good and some things are bad. There are all sorts of grey areas imaginable in a complicated world like ours, but still.
DOES GOD PUNISH (REWARD)?
The Bible is extremely clear on this: yes. However, it is hard to understand this in today's terms. The Bible also claims Noah's Flood really happened and that the world was Created in six days. Obviously, interpretation is necessary.
It is important to distinguish between punishment and result. Assume a mother forbids her child to play with matches. Further assume he does it, regardless. If he then burns his fingers, this is a result. If the mother takes the matches away and slaps his hand, this is punishment. It is important to keep our concepts clear and separate.
We could still see unpleasant things happening to us and (usually) others as God’s will but that is problematic. I believe it is wrong to automatically call everything that happens God's will. Remember that God cannot be seen as a human person. He can be talked about as if He has a will but we must always realise this is a difficult concept.
It is wonderfully easy to see God as punishing us because it explains all the bad stuff happening to people so neatly. However, this would mean God’s direct will is behind it all. What, then, about a child who plays in the street, even though his parents have forbidden that, and gets killed by a car? This child learns nothing. What is the function of the punishment? It is all very well to claim that God’s reasons are above us all but that is a cop-out clause that creates more problems than it solves. It robs us of all moral understanding. I do not agree with those who think gods are somehow exempt from ethical rules we humans keep.
Realise the parents are also hit hard. What is the reason for their punishment? Another factor is that it is very dangerous for a parent to equate his will with God's will. Using God as an extension of your own authority is not exactly good parenting. A Christian parent should, in my view, feel him or herself closer to the child, in relation to God, than to God Himself.
I have already said that actions strengthen themselves. In that way, bad deeds and thoughts punish themselves. While a criminal may never be caught by the police, he can never escape what he did. Being untrustworthy, he will lose his trust in others. There will always be a chance that, some day, he will be caught. In that sense, he is punished.
Is it God punishing? Well, yes and no. An agnostic or atheist will have no need to invoke a divine entity at all but will probably still agree with me. As a Christian, I stand in a long tradition and with that comes a special language. I do use the concept of God in my life. Notice that, on a fundamental level, no one really disagrees.
Reward is even more complicated. When you work really hard on a project and your boss gives you a big compliment I'd say that is a result. Can we honestly say we believe God rewards us, in a case like this? Moreover, most Christians will readily claim the credit for what they did if it all turns out well.
A variety on the above question could be: Does it matter what we do and don't do? The answer is the same.
I would like to stress that this is not a radical new concept I am describing here. I know that there are churches that claim my ideas are heretical and not biblical but I would counter that these churches are themselves a modern phenomenon and most of the things I say were at some point written down by someone in the Middle Ages or before. In my own way I preserve the sanctity of the old Christian ideas, not by changing them to fit the modern world but by understanding them better, knowing more than people before us did. If you live in a small village in the year 1346 then it might be quite easy to believe that God gives each what he deserves. Some people die horribly for no apparent reason but you can always suppose they must have done something bad. We no longer have that luxury.
DOES GOD HEAR OUR PRAYERS?
In short: Yes, but not with ears. It is written that any honest prayer by a believer is answered but there is some small print. Firstly, we shouldn't ask for un-Christian things(3). Secondly, we cannot ask for God to turn back what already happened. It is, for example, stupid to pray for God to make that you have passed an exam. You have already submitted your work: it is done. It might be a good idea to pray for strength and perseverance as you study for the exam.
Will God then infuse you with these characteristics? I don't think it works like that. Prayer, people have found a long time ago, is not the same as handing in your Christmas wish list. Will praying for strength and perseverance have a positive effect, perhaps even the one desired? Quite possibly, yes.
One big problem is that sometimes our wishes are not fulfilled. We discover this pretty early in life; for example, when a prayed-for bike doesn't materialize on our birthday. All the same, a child's prayer is probably the most honest and genuine type of prayer possible. Family members die or don't recover, even if we pray for their survival or recovery.
So, does prayer have any effect at all? Yes, I think so and it comes in two parts. Firstly, prayer is a very Christian way of meditation. It can help calm and focus the mind. Through honest well-thought prayer, we can learn to curb our immediate desires and, realising we are talking to God, cannot really ask for selfish or impossible things. Combined with confessing our sins(4), this can help us a lot in life. Asking God for forgiveness - and knowing you will get it - is a marvellous way of turning your back on certain wrongful doings and start afresh.
Secondly, the people you pray for may hear of it. It must be wonderful to be in hospital and knowing an entire congregation thinks of you and wishes you well. Will it help? Maybe it won’t in the sense that you survive but it will have a healing effect. Also, remember prayer is not only about asking. We should also express our thanks that a whole bunch of doctors and nurses work tirelessly for our loved one. This cannot be taken for granted! We can further be thankful for the times we had together and ask that we may be able to accept whatever will come.
It is in this way that prayer works. The rest is magic, a decidedly un-Christian concept, or allegory.
IS THE BIBLE LITERALLY TRUE?
Readers who didn't start with this question will know my answer already: no. The mere notion is nonsensical.
A more important question is: why do some people try to force the Bible to be read as if it was a literally true historical account? First of all, there are some historical parts but other sections are plainly not even meant to be history. Secondly, there are too many contradictions with established history and even within the Bible itself. It is actually possible to explain away all these problems but you get into the decidedly muddy waters if you really want to pull this off. Complicated arguments are made up, using all kinds of additional extra-biblical information, sometimes mere fabrication. Staunch fundamentalists often don't try to solve any problems at all since the problems don't exist for them. They are already sure of their holy facts.
But why do they do this? I have no simple answer. It might be that they have a strong desire for easy answers to complicated questions. I see this in a lot of people. I can only say that not thinking for yourself saves you a whole lot of trouble, at least for now.
Again, we must ask ourselves what a word means, in this case 'true'. Does it mean 'accurate'? A painting might not be an exact likeness but it could capture the essence of a person so well it could be said to be truer than any old photograph. The correct question to ask ourselves is not 'Is the Bible true?' but 'Does the Bible ring true?'. The answer to that question is a Christian problem and will not be dealt with here.
IS THERE MORALITY WITHOUT THE BIBLE?
Yes, of course. We need only look at our non-Christian neighbours to see that. They are not entirely without morals; sometimes they may have a very highly developed morality. Christians, conversely, are not without their faults. Apparently, the Bible doesn't shield them from everything.
We could claim that these Christians obviously aren't true believers or aren't reading their Bible correctly. This is a great way of explaining everything away and the point is made often enough. It is, of course, fallacious.
There was a time before the Bible and, although it could be claimed that people were less developed than they are now, it is hard to imagine people were then without morals. Significant parts of the world are Islamic and certainly don't have a lot of Bibles. Still, the inhabitants seem to do very well without them and have morals and ethics, whether we like that or not. The Middle East is a decidedly dangerous region at this point in time but the same point could be made about some Christian countries.
Furthermore, Biblical morality has changed many times over. Church leaders have never really felt any qualms about claiming some things to be Christian and others not, most of the time using scriptural evidence.(5) The Crusades were extremely Christian of course and so were slavery and segregation, as well as the burning of witches. Most ministers would now claim these practices as very un-Christian, using the same Bible to support their views. Several churches have even made some apologies, which was nice of them.
What really happens is that the churches find an established moral statement and slam an 'OK' stamp on it. When Jesus preached about compassion, this wasn't a new concept. If it were, the listeners wouldn't have understood. God introduced Himself to the Israelites as a faithful, loyal god, who would keep His side of the covenant with them. Obviously, they already knew what loyalty was. He also introduced Himself as a jealous, vengeful god and, presumably, the Israelites knew exactly what He meant.
This is all very well and good but it must be clear that Christianity didn't come up with moral standards itself. It can be an extremely powerful force for morality(6) if it does its job well. This function should be recognised and appreciated but it is certainly not unique.
WHAT DOES CHRISTIANITY DO?
As we have found, it does a whole lot of things that other philosophies and religions do about just as well. Is there something unique to Christianity, then? That is hard to say, as the religion comes in so many flavours.
People have abused their religion through all of history and done many horrible things, using God as their cover. This, also, is not unique to Christianity but it had a particularly bad case. Again, we find ourselves grappling for the right question and the right words.
Only logic gives us the power to say something applicable to more than just our self. As soon as we go into personal spiritual and religious experience, it becomes extremely hard to generalize. However, there are some observations that can be made.
It is nowadays evident that believers of other religions are not necessarily barbarians, devil worshippers and inferior overall to Christians. Although practically all Christians will agree that this is so, a surprisingly large part of the same will still somehow persist in the belief that at least our religion is superior to all others. Moreover, Christianity is supposed to be the only real religion anyway and worse still, people who believe this usually only see their own variety, sometimes only a few churches, as really true.
This brings us nowhere. A better question to ask is what Christianity means to Christians. Speaking within the confines of my faith tradition, I can safely claim that Jesus Christ is the only way to life and mean it as well. Speaking from the Muslim tradition, one could say that there is only one God and that Muhammad (peace be unto him) is His prophet. It is in this way that we can meaningfully speak with agnostics and atheists and, without having to convert them, convey our deepest feelings and convictions. Others may even understand us, if we choose our words wisely.
It takes a lot of time to work your way through the morass of Christian writings, thoughts, movements, theories, and dogmas. It is a lot of hard work. After a time, we find that the internal code language starts to speak to us meaningfully, that we understand what the stories have to say. We will find that the Bible speaks to us personally, resonating with our psyche, our soul if you will.
It is in this way that Christianity works. Yes, other religions work as well but that is not the point here. Christianity teaches us that there are real moral absolutes. We may not always know exactly which or what but it does matter what we do. Right and wrong have a very real presence in our lives. There is forgiveness readily available for all who genuinely turn their back on their wrongdoings. We can, when we work valiantly for it and work together, do amazing things. We can this is very important to me personally really improve on ourselves and we will eventually reach the goal of a planet in harmony with itself. This is belief against all odds, hope against hope but without that, we might as well give in and rest our heads.
There you have it, what my faith means to me. As I have said before, it is a deeply personal testimony but I believe that I have quite accurately described the feelings of the left wing of Christianity.
If we think of God and religious matters in a grown-up, responsible way, we will never have to close our eyes to reality and never have to fight with scientists. Our children will not have the 'Santa-problem', when they suddenly understand that God is not really a bearded old man on a golden throne on the clouds. Of course they will not understand the subtle points we make here right away but they can learn on their own speed. This means that raising Christian children will mean that we not only tell them things but also have to prune old, overly simple concepts and replace them with newer, more complicated ones. This is no problem in itself, it is inherent in raising a child.
We also establish a firm base for discussion with non-believers, without having to convert them necessarily. We recognise that, although they speak another spiritual language, they are equal partners in discussion. At the very least, we can learn from them that man isn't dependent on external influences for his morality and ethics.
There is therefore no need to convert. I would heartily recommend anyone to visit a neighbourhood church, assuming that church is not too dogmatic or unfriendly to outsiders, basically because meeting others is always a good idea. If you find that you feel at home in that particular part of the Christian tradition, then, by all means, become a member. Otherwise, don't.
Of importance in the quest for answers is the right question. Members of all faith traditions and philosophies should begin with examining what they exactly want to know and formulate their questions well. After that, the answers sometimes come quickly enough. Questions like 'How many angels can dance on a pinhead?' or 'Can God create a stone so big He cannot lift it Himself?' are really rather childish and based on inappropriate assumptions. An examination of the underlying concepts should make this clear.
- Danger! Danger! Heretical modern lies with a devilish agenda and possibly promoting homosexuality as well! Ahem, cough cough. Seriously, now. God as a person is a big thing in orthodox and not-so-orthodox churches. I reject the notion but lots of Christians will disagree. They will have to explain away a lot of silly questions no one really needs but that is their lookout.
- Some people will recognise the work of rabbi Kushner, who has written 'When Children ask about God'. He has influenced me insofar that I felt compelled to structure my thoughts further than I had done. I have also felt free to use, at times, his examples and arguments. My thanks to him.
- What is Christian and what is not? I will leave that question as an exercise for the reader. ;-)
- Code word, an example of Christian language. It means something like 'the wrong we did in doing or not doing particular things'. Some might claim even thoughts can be sinful. I'd say that could be so for negative thoughts can poison the mind but we can safely ignore involuntary flashes of emotion.
- For evidence, read 'support'. Support for basically anything can be found in the hundreds of pages of the Bible.
- I realise 'morality' may be a dangerous word to use these days, especially among Americans. Let me make it clear that I use the word in the neutral dictionary sense.