Greetings and Salutations;
As has been true for thousands of years, one of the hot topics for discussion is religion. There are a number of very active groups on Facebook and other Social Media where passionate arguments happen.
I decided, finally, to see if I could codify where my beliefs lie at this point in my life, and, some issues that support, or argue against the value of “Religion” as a force in today’s society. This is a complicated subject, so I will apologize in advance for the length of the post!
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, and thought as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things.
I grew up in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, which is one of the more Conservative branches of what Luther called “The Church of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession”. I was introduced to the stories of the Bible, and taught that we should respect others; that we should treat others as we would like to be treated; and, that Luther was a great man who had seen the best path to God. In this period, “God” was, in my mind, the more or less architypal image of this huge, Bearded Guy, sitting on an ornate throne, dispensing Wisdom and Justice. As often seems the case, the church, through the Sunday School teachers, passed along the message that anyone that was not Mo-Syn Lutheran was to be pitied, because they were doomed to end up in Hell, suffering Damnation and eternal torment. There was an odd ad-mixture of Law and Gospel in the teachings, too… While the lesson that Christ Died for us, to expiate our sins and allow us to enter Heaven was certainly an important part of that teaching, and, that works would do NOTHING to earn us a spot in Heaven, there was quite a burden of guilt laid upon us in the process. It was pointed out many times that every sin we participated in added to the Suffering of Christ. It was fairly simplistic, which is to be expected, when dealing with children.
Now, then, I do want to take a moment and say that it was not all Guilt, Gloom and Doom! The teachers did their best to make the stories in the Bible interesting, and engaging. They did this through getting us to talk about the challenges of herding ALL those animals onto the Ark; by imagining what it would be like to be stuck in the belly of a whale for days; challenging us to think about how WE would react if we found a guy, beaten up and laying beside the road, and the like. It was not deep, or reflective, examination of religion, but it was a decent introduction to basic concepts of how to treat each other and how to deal with the world.
It was as I approached the end of High School that the discussions started to become deeper and to wrestle with more complex aspects of religion. For example, it was in that time period that the whole issue of “Why do bad things happen to good people” came up. The flip answer, memorized by many charged with teaching us, and aiding our Spiritual Journey, was that “God allows bad things to happen to us because we need to learn a lesson”. It was a challenge to reconcile this with the concept of a God that loved us so much that He Sacrificed his only Son on our behalf. For some, this was the point that they turned away from God, and took another path. For others, it forced them to really wrestle with the concepts, and become stronger in faith. For many, alas, apathy took over, and they decided to ignore the Elephant In The Room.
Going to University was quite an experience for me, in a number of areas. As regards this essay, the important one was the fact that, for the first time, I met and spent time interacting with people who had significantly different faiths. Living in East Tennessee, the biggest issue I had faced up to that time was explaining to the Southern Baptists that “No, Lutheranism is NOT a cult….” The similarities in our belief systems far outweighed the differences. At the University, though, I had an “AH-Ha” moment, when I spoke to a Hindu, who, when I said I prayed regularly, said “Ah yes, I pray to my Gods TOO!” As time progressed, I interacted with and considered, the beliefs of folks ranging from atheists, who held a very strong faith that God did not exist, and anyone who believed in that nonsense was a fool; to Hindus, Followers of Islam, Jews, Buddhists, Mormons and a host of other views. It was that time period that really forced me to start looking, on a deep level, at what I believed, why I believed it, and what the positive and negative aspects of those beliefs were.
This period in University also rooted a strong desire to understand as much as I could, both about my own beliefs, and the philosophies of others. I continue to follow this path, through self-reflection, study, and discussion. One of the very positive aspects of Social Media is that it can provide a forum for people of various points of view and beliefs to meet, in a setting that is less prejudiced by “Social Norms” and engage in discourse about their beliefs and what they struggle with. I find it an interesting, stimulating, frustrating and insightful place to engage.
Now then…let me address the Bible for a moment. When I was a child, I believed that the Bible was a precise and accurate history of the world, and the events that happened in it. Now, though, not so much. After decades of wrestling with the issues, I have come to the conclusion that the Bible is an odd combination of fact and fiction. For examples of “facts”, I have no reason to believe that the Generations of Mankind, listed in the Old Testament, are not fairly accurate recordings of a family tree. I have dabbled in Genealogy, so, I have a fair understanding of both the accuracy of a family tree, and, how errors can creep into it. Since science has shown that in the history of Mankind on Earth, there have been some mighty floods, I accept that, in a general way, the story of Noah has some nuggets of truth in it. However, I have come to the belief that the Bible was not intended to be a collection of historical facts for our edification. Rather, it is mainly a collection of metaphors, allegories, and parables that focus on the important lessons of how we should or should NOT treat our fellow humans. It also provides some important lessons on types of societies that do not work.
Let us look at the last point for a moment. The Old Testament is a book of Laws, without Mercy. It has listing after listing of ways that people will transgress against Society, and details the rather draconian punishments for those transgressions. It was the Old Covenant between Man and God, and only by fulfilling the Laws in the Book would a person be pure enough to enter the Kingdom of God. Alas, since humans are far from pure, it was demonstrated that NO one could fulfill the Law sufficiently. We would ALL fall short of the standard set by God. This reminds me of a point of conflict that I had for decades with my father. I was always fascinated with making things; and taking things apart, to see how they worked. (And, I will say in passing that it was a great relief to my parents when I finally reached the stage where I could put things back together!) Well, this path always requires tools…and so, when I needed to do something, I would go grab a tool off Dad’s tool wall or his workbench in the shed, for the task. Alas, I was not particularly good at getting those tools back to their appointed place…so, until my early 20s, Dad only could see me as that little kid that always lost his tools. His Law was “use the tool, put it back where you got it”. However, at least from my point of view, being sent on a guilt trip for losing the tool was kind of draconian!
The New Testament is a book of Redemption, of understanding that Mercy is, in many cases, more important than Law. It was a New Covenant between God and mankind. It focuses not on the failure of people to live up to the Law, but, the Redemption, through Forgiveness, that helps us pick ourselves up, and with new understanding, move on to be better people.
Between these two types of Society…which seems the more productive and positive…and perhaps more importantly, which one would YOU like to live in?
In my view, much of the Old Testament is devoted to examples of how we should NOT treat our fellow humans…and the New Testament is a goal for us to aspire towards, and to work as hard as we can to achieve. The lessons in the Old Testament are important, but, should not be considered to be the controlling factor in the world of the Christian.
There are a fair number of folks who decry religion, saying that it is obsolete, or simply a tool to program the masses and control them. Sadly enough, there is some truth to this. I look at some of the groups that claim to be “Christian”, and I see a group of people who are perverting Religion and the Bible, to push their own agenda. They cherry-pick verses out of the Bible to support their point of view. They misinterpret or add meanings to the verses they extract, to ensure the words support their agenda. In doing so, they destroy the good that Religion can do, and amplify the Evil…causing more people to look upon the concept of Religion with suspicion. I often see their claims, and find them without merit, because one cannot base a valid argument on invalid premises…and that is exactly what they are doing.
There are far too many folks who firmly believe that their particular belief is the only “True Belief” and so they have a lock on God. Alas, this is extreme hubris. I came to the conclusion quite some decades ago that God was so far beyond our understanding that it was quite likely that there was more than one path to It. I have, in the past, compared the difference in understand between man and God with the comprehension that an ant would have of a human… I also rather enjoy pointing people at the old fable of the blind men, trying to understand what an Elephant looks like. Each of the men in this story is accurate in his observation, yet, totally out in left field about the whole. That having been said….do I believe that “All paths lead to God”? No, I do not. It is more like driving through hilly countryside, attempting to reach a mountain we can see in the distance. We cannot see the entire path, and, more often than not, without guidance, the road we are on may take us further away from our goal!
I am going to take a moment to talk about the issue of “Free Will” that mankind has. I alluded to it in the previous paragraph, and it is an important part of one’s spiritual journey, I believe. Wherever it came from, mankind as the right to choose one of two paths. We can choose a path of Life, and positive action, where we give and receive good things as we journey along. Alternatively, we can choose a path of Darkness…being greedy, unethical, and taking from others while never giving back anything. Either life choice has consequences, and, (assuming a Christian Point of view), neither will ensure our return to, and welcome by God. However, our choices DO reflect our character. In the book of James, it says “Faith, without works, is dead”. Some people interpret this to mean that by works we prove we have faith, and so get brownie points with God. We, Lutherans, in general, look at it differently. Luther made the point that it was our Faith that created a flow of energy that would demonstrate itself in the actions we involved ourselves in. If, for example, we were in a positive place, we would help others, take on tasks without complaint, etc. If we were in a negative place, as mentioned before, our actions would be darker.
In my spiritual journey and maturing, I have spent some time studying various religions and philosophies. I have yet to find one that does not, to some extent fit well into my world view. In general, they are a tool for humans to deal with reality in a more positive fashion; or, to come to a deeper understanding of their minds and beliefs. We are an imperfect creation, and so many of our paths are rather winding, and often end up in the weeds. Yet, the end goal – to be a “Better Person” is still there. I believe that is an important point that is sometimes buried in the complications and chaos of life these days. I, for one, would like to see a broader, and more inclusive view of all people, based on the NEW Testament principles, become the rule of thumb for Christians. As for other religions, who include similar beliefs, focus on the positive and inclusive lessons of YOUR belief system. Let us all strive to become more insightful about ourselves, and more mindful of others.