Sunday, August 16, 2009
The Nature of Religion:
In my view Religion is an attempt to identify a human problematic, that is the basic problematic nature at the heart of being human. Having identified it, religious traditions seek to resolve the problematic nature of human life by offering a transformative experince which allows one to transcend the difficulty and to be fulfilled or feel more human or be "saved." Religious traditions also usually seek to mediate this transformation through ceremony or some sort of theological orientation. These three things make up the nature of religion:
(a) identification of the problematic
(b) Transformative power to overcome the nature of the problematic
(c) a means of mediating this transformative power.
All religions offer these things, weather the problematic be seen as seperation from nature, or imbalance with cosmic forces, re-birth through desire which leads to suffering, or moral sin in rebellion agasint God.
Transformations come in all sorts of packes too, they can be the big experince of bron agian Christianity (mediated through the "sinners prayer") or they can be the mystical experince, mediated thorugh the mass, or enlightenment, mediated through mediation, mandala, mantra and other mediation aids, or what have you.
The reason for identifying with a particular religious tradition is because one feels that this particular tradition identities the problematic better than others, and offers mediation in a more sure or certain or complete way. One must go with the tradition with which one feels the strongest connection.
For me that is the Christian Tradition, primarily because I feel that the historical connection to Jesus of Nazareth, and the unique concept of Grace mark the Christian tradition as the best mediation of the Ultimate Transformative Experience. But more on that latter.
We can draw conclusions in these matters of God's nature and that of the universe, and the relation between the two, through logic and other means. But we cannot turely know the reality of God other than or apart form mystical experience. That is to say, we experience God as the deepest level beyond words, thoughts, or images. This is because God transcends our understanding. We cannot say what God is, we can only make the most rudimentary guesses, which is all this stuff is. We cannot truly know, but we can experince. We do experince God this way; mystical experince is at the heart of all organized religion.
Mystical Theology and Religious Traditions
We seek to talk about our experiences because we are social creatures. We have to talk about our experiences of God, even though they are not in words and we even understand them ourselves. Thus we must encode them into language and for that we must masks these deeply contradictory feelings with cultural symbols from our symbolic universe. Thus all religious traditions are different, because they all involve their own cultures and are made out of their own cultural constructs; yet they all represent the same reality which stands behind them all. The details just don't' matter. One faith calls its' God "wooden" and thinks he wants virgin sacrifice hung on a tree. Another faith calls its God "Demeter" and thinks this God a she and that she wants a sacrifice of Grain from every harvest. None of this matters. the gender doesn't matter, the sacrifice doesn't' matter, not the names, not the countries, all are just meaningless details constructed out of the constructs of each naion, the symbols that are meaningful to each group. But they all represent one true reality standing behind them all. Like a prism they break down the true white light into colored details and each one fixates upon each detail; one is a "red" tradition, red is the truth. Anther is a "blue" tradition, only blue is true, but in reality, they are all just reflections of one reality which only makes real sense when it's all together and shining naturally upon the eye.
This is what I mean by the slogan I use a lot, "all gods point to 'God.'" One cannot paly the various religious traditions off against each other. The atheist who constantly harps "how do you know which God is true" doesn't know what he's asking. Because none of them are, and all of them are, because they all reflect the same reality behind all religious traditions, but a reality we can only understand in metaphor.
II. Is Belief in Salvation Unfair to Those of Other faiths?
1) Well meaning people will not be saved?
Many good and well meaning people do not feel the need to be saved. Some wonder why is it not enough to jut be good and well meaning. Surely God knows that we are well meaning, if God looks upon the heart, so why do we need to conform to the ideological strictures of a particular religious view? Wouldn't God be extremely unjust to condemn someone who was well meaning? And aren't Christians really unfair to assume that all but those who follow their views are not well meaning?2) Unfair because believers in other religious traditions will not be saved?This is an often heard objection and it is not without merit. Why should God send someone to hell for all eternity, simply because he/she was born in a culture that is not open to Christianity, perhaps has not herd of Jesus, and perhaps even at a time before there was any possibility of hearing (say before Christ came to earth). Such a person would have no chance of being saved. Closer to home, a person in another culture who is very committed to the religious tradition he/she was brought up in, why should such a person suffer eternally just for being who they are? That is basically what it amounts to, everyone is proud of their own culture, and everyone identifies with his/her own religious tradition in a very personal way. Why should someone be condemned just for being who they are, being born and raised in the culture they were born into?
B. Unjust because it implies an unjust alternative?
Since hell is eternal, and sin is finite, it seems unjust to punish someone in a manor that far exceeds the crime. Moreover, isn't the punishment unfair in the first place? Just to go to hell simply for not being a Christian, this is very unjust because it means that who the person is and what they live for, and the nature of their intension's aren't even considered. To just whisk people off to hell forever, where there is no learning process so no chance to correct mistakes, is unjust.
C.Popular misconceptions of the nature of the Gospel.
"Gospel" means "Good News." The Good News is not that people are going to hell. The Good News is that God cares and provides a way to orient our lives toward him so that we can know him in this life, and in the world to come.
1) Are there really well meaning people?
"All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God." From a human perspective, relatively speaking from one human to another there are, of course, well meaning people. There are good people all around us, from a human perspective. Relative to the Divine however, no one is good, no one is capable of meriting salvation. We all have our sins, we all have our human frailties. We are all caught up in "height" (our ability through the image of God in which we were created to move beyond our human finitude and seek the good) and "depth" (our nature burdened in the sinful wickedness to human deceit).
These are Augustinian terms and they basically mean that we are both, good and bad, saint and sinner. God knows the heart, He Knows what we truly seek. God is merciful and is able to forgive our trespasses. But, if we are really well meaning toward God we will seek the truth. If we are seeking the truth than God will make it plan to us.
2) Other Religions
Paul said "To those who through persistence seek glory, honor and immortality he will give eternal life.But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the good and follow evil there will be wrath and anger...first for the Jew and then for the gentile; but glory honor and peace for everyone who does good. For God does not show favoritism. All who sin apart from the law will perish apart form the law and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.
Indeed when Gentiles who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirement of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences bearing witness and their hearts now accusing, now even defending them..." (Romans 2:7-15). New American Standard and other translations say "their hearts accusing, now excusing them..." Most Christians are afraid of this conclusion and they down play this verse. Often Evangelicals will come back and say "he makes it clear in the next passage that no one can really follow the law on their hearts." Well, if they can't, than they can't. But if they can, and do, than God will excuse them. God knows the heart, we do not. The verse clearly opens the door to the possibility of salvation (although by Jesus) through a de facto arrangement in which one is seeking the good without knowing the object one is seeking (Jesus). In other words, it is possible that people in other cultures who follow the moral law written on the heart know Jesus de facto even if they don't know him overtly. Paul backs up this conclusion in Acts 17:22 Paul goes to Athens as is asked by the Athenian philosophers to explain his ideas to them.
These were pagan followers of another religion. Paul stood up and said to them, "Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious for as I walked around and observed your objects of worship I even found an alter with this inscription 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD' Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you."He basically says that they are worshiping God, they just don't know who he is. That's why he says "I will make it known to you." He doesn't say "you have the wrong idea completely." Most Evangelicals dismiss this as a neat rhetorical trick. But if we assume that Paul would not lie or distort his beliefs for the sake of cheap tricks, we must consider that he did not say "you are all a bunch of pagans and you are going to hell!" He essentially told them, "God is working in your culture, you do know God, but you don't know who God is. You seek him, without knowing the one you seek. He goes on,(v27)"God did this [created humanity and scattered them into different cultures] so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out and find him though he is not far form each one of us." This implies that God not only wants to work in other cultures, but that it is actually his plan to do things in this way. Perhaps through a diversity of insights we might come to know God better. Perhaps it means that through spreading the Gospel people would come to contemplate better the meaning of God's love.
In any case, it does mean that God is working in other cultures, and that God is in the hearts of all people drawing them to himself. Of their worship of idols, Paul said "in past times God overlooked such ignorance but now he commands all people everywhere to repent" (v30). Now what can this mean? God never overlooks idolatry or paganism, in the OT he's always commanding the Israelites to wipe them out and expressly forbidding idolatry. It means that on an individual basis when God judges the hearts of people, he looks at their desire to seek him, to seek the good. That their status as individuals in a pagan culture does not negate the good they have done, and their ignorance of idolatry does not discount their desire to seek the good or the truth. IT means that they are following Jesus if they live in the moral life, even though they follow him as something unknown to them. IT also means that all of us should come into the truth, we should seek to know God fully, and when we do that we find that it is Jesus all along.
3) Justice of Punishment.
Jesus himself never speaks directly of hell, but always in parables. The other statements of Hell are mainly in euphemistic passages or in apocalyptic passages such as the book of Revelation. But I suggest that for some crimes hell is deserved. The slaughter of innocent people, the disruption of thousands of lives, the Hitlers of the world, and those who rationalize the deeds through "following orders" deserve to suffer the consequences of their actions. Evil has consequences, and those who commit evil should suffer the consequences, and they will.I have no direct knowledges of what hell is. It is based upon the Greek mythological concept of Tartarus which got into Hebrew thinking through Hellenization. There is no "hell" in the Tennach or the Pentateuch ("OT"). In the Hebrew scriptures there is only mention of Sheol, or the "the grave" to which everyone goes. But in the books of Revelation it does speak of those who work inequity being "outside the Kingdom of God." I don't' believe that hell is litteral fire and brimstone, I do believe it is some state of anxiety or separation from God.
C. Knowing God.
Heb. 8:10-12 "...I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts I will be their God and they will be my people. No longer will a man say to his neighbor 'know the Lord' for they will all know me from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more." This passage promises a "personal religion ship with God."The word for "to Know" is the Greek Term Ginosko, which means personal expirential knowledge. To give one's life to Jesus means to develop a personal relationship with Jesus. Jesus said (John) "My sheep know my voice..." Personal relationship means that it is more than a set of rules, more than an ideology or a belief system, but a matter of the heart, the emotions, religious affections. IT may not be through dramatic miraculous effects (although I do believe that that is open to all Christians) but it is deeper than mere rule keeping, and does make for a satisfaction nothing else can match.God acts upon the heart. Salvation is a matter of "knowing God" not of mere intellectual asscent. What does it mean to know God? It means that being a Christian is a matter of experiencing God's love in the heart and of loving God and others. It is also a matter of being "led" by God through impressions upon the heart, and not merely a set of rules or a list of beliefs that one must check off. IT is the development of "religious affections."The excitement of knowing God is unequalized by anything else in this life.
III. Developing Personsonal Relationship with God.
A. Getting Saved.
This is very simple. God keeps it simple so all of us can do it. John tells us "...that whosoever believes on him shall be saved." (3:16). Belief is the first step. But believe doesn't just mean intellectual ascent, it means to place our faith in him, to trust him, as said above to place ourselves into his death, to express our solidarity with him.
Paul says "...That if you confess with your mouth 'Jesus is Lord' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the Dead, you will be saved, for it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved....everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Romas 10:9-12).
Note that the resurrection is stipulated as a criterion of belief, and notice that it also says believe in your heart. Belief is not mere intellectual ascent but is a decision of the will to trust in God. Does this mean we must believe in the resurrection to be saved? It at least means we must believe in the thing the resurrection points to, the new life in Christ, that we trust God to give us this new life and that such life is found in him. Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. What does it mean to call upon the name of the Lord? It means, to place our trust in God and in Jesus as God's Son, as our savior.
B. The Name of Jesus
The name of Jesus then becomes our expression of solidarity with God, that we state clearly that we choose God's way, we want to change our lives and we are ready to accept God's terms for life; that we respond to the solidarity he shows us by committing to solidarity with him.In Acts 2: 38 the mob asks Peter what they must do, in response to the miracles of Pentecost and Peter's sermon on Jesus being raised form the dead. Peter tells them "Repent, and be baptized everyone one of you in the name of Jesus Christ that your sins may be forgiven." Does this mean that baptism is a pre-requiset for salvation? I don't believe so. They were really asking a more general question than "how do I get saved." IN response to Peter's sermon they were asking in a general way "well, we curcified the Messiah, what can we do about it."
Peter tells them two things, repent (change your mind, express sorrow for sin and determine not to sin any longer) AND be baptized as an expression of surrender to God (in keeping with the Jewish custom). The key here is to repent, turn from the present course of life and follow Jesus. Baptism is something we should do. It is an expression of our faith, and a symbol that we palce our hope in God, die to the old way, it is an outward symbol of placing ourselves in solidarity with God and in Jesus death. But the important thing here is to repent. And, "you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."Latter in Acts when Peter takes the Gospel to the gentiles for the first time, the house of Cornelius. He tells them (Acts 10:43)"... everyone who believes in him recieves forgiveness of sins through his name." With that the Holy Spirit comes upon them while Peter is still talking. He does not tell them to be baptized, nor does God wait for that to give the gift of the Holy Spirit (which is the renewing of the spirit, the "born again" experience and empowering for service to God). So here again the common link is belief, which implies a commitment of trust.Eph 1: 13 "Having believed you were marked in him with a seal the promised Holy Spirit who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance unto redemption of those who are God's possession."Romans 5 "since we have been justified through faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have gained access into this grace..."Therefore, "getting saved" is very simple, although it may be the hardest thing you will ever do. Just place our trust in Jesus and give your life to God. Actively determine to believe (place trust) in Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross, God's expression of solidarity with humanity.