What Is The Role Of Religion
Addressing change in a changing world
Human Condition series
Copyright © 2003 Dorian Scott Cole
About this series - Popup on mouseover.
This article is a reference for various articles on this Web site, such as the sexuality series. It is a work in progress.
A new perspective on theology for change
The purpose of religion
Liberation Theology - Liberating minds, not governments
Rules versus responsibility - the situation versus the goal
The ontology of God (Ontological Construct Approach to Theology)
What comes next after our tour here?
Darkness and judgment
Sexuality, for Example
Future articles in this series
For decades, I have used the standard "God is love" as a fire in which to test other claims made by religions. "Love" is a vast word that the more you study it the more you understand that it takes enormous experience to understand, but it is a compass that prevents people from losing their direction. What is love? It isn't said by religions to "be in love" but to "love others," not a static state of affection, but an ongoing action. More on love later.
This comparison of the "basic nature," as shown in relationships, to other claims is an ontological approach to understanding God and religion. Within this article, I add several more statements and ideas to this approach, to explore it (not define it). This article features a new approach to theology, an "Ontological Construct Approach to Theology." (This is not to be confused with "ontological arguments" for the existence of God, which is a very different idea.) Ontology means the "basic nature" of something, and I use the word to mean the relationships between things.
Change. Implicit to the thought in this article is the idea that religion can change its perspective on various issues, despite the rigidness seen in many beliefs. The strains within the religious community that demand change are currently enormous, dividing groups and even promoting violent action. Violence is not uncommon to believers in most religions, and while it can sometimes be justified, violence against other religions strikes me as being against the basic nature of God. Change always comes. Change never comes easy, and it shouldn't. We have to work through issues with experience. But by understanding the basic nature of God better, change can come more easily.
Also implicit to the thought in this article is the idea of plurality. I see nothing that indicates to me that God works with all people in the same way. We are not all uniform robots, but individuals who have different needs. Demographically we are different peoples, and not everything works with different cultures, or even groups within cultures. I have no expectation of there being one unified religion. I do expect that people can live with each other with respect, tolerance, and with peace that comes from having effective ways to resolve differences.
Religion is the most transforming force in world history, surpassing government, money, education, and psychology. Religion takes people who are suffering and gives them hope. It unburdens people from a life of guilt, mistakes, and endless suffering, and sets them free and on a road to improved lives. It sets standards by which people should live, making the world a better place. It helps people to find peaceful solutions. It transforms desire and personality characteristics into constructive and fulfilling purposes. By transforming one person at a time, religion transforms the world. Psychology and education are mere shadows compared to the power of religion, although religion doesn't work for all people, and both education and psychology are important components in attitude change.
I often talk about religion as part of the Human Condition series on this Web site. For those who are interested, this is my long-standing frame of reference, my "theology," a lot of which I haven't set down in writing before. This article is intended as a reference for future articles on this site.
Religion finds itself very resistant to change, since many individual religions tend to construct their beliefs as the "unerring and unchallengeable" position of God. This puts religion in a very uncomfortable position in a changing world. Religious leaders often point to the passage in the Old Testament (OT), the Bible of Ancient Israel: "There is nothing new under the sun." The passage was certainly true when it was written. Progress moved so slowly that no one could see it. The daily lives of people rarely changed from generation to generation, even over a thousand years. In contrast, today's world is one of constant change, "newness," and progress. However, what is still true, and proven on a daily basis, is that human nature doesn't change over the eons, nor the problems that human nature brings. However, the nature of problems does change.
Change is a constant in religion, but religion has difficulty changing. When people have differences of opinion, what often happens is that instead of changing, the groups divide and go their separate ways. For example, in Christianity the Pope makes changes in Catholicism over long periods of time, and Catholicism has adapted by adopting things like "charismatic" groups. However, many adherents simply disagree with church policy and beliefs, and leave, either remaining away from the church or going to other denominations.
Similarly, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and others do change their perspectives on things from time to time as they confront today's issues. Recently in one Presbyterian denomination, the more conservative minded are threatening to split with the rest of the denomination over various issues, such as Biblical authority, interpretation, and homosexuals in church leadership. This happens in all of the denominations. Religion can't be seen as a constantly changing authority - that would be a wishy-washy situation that would be intolerable to all, and religion would lose all credibility. So as a result, religion loses adherents to other religious groups, or the people disassociate from religion altogether.
I often speak about, or quote from, various religions. I won't speak in this article for all religions - I don't understand them all to that depth. I don't pretend to speak for God or Christ, or even the Bible. I can only interpret from what I read and from my own experience. I don't consider myself to be a great example, either, having too many faults and shortcomings. The reader will have to judge. Christ said that there will be many who speak in his name and do all kinds of wonderful things - yet he will not recognize them because they aren't doing as God wants, but are acting out of their own motives. What does God want? Christ said many things, but in this same time period he said to all, "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them..." and he said about those who serve God, "You will know them by their fruits [results]." Of course, my opinion of what Christ expressed will differ from others' opinion.
What is the purpose of religion? First, even though some religions may disagree, religion and spirituality are two different things.
Spirituality involves the individual's relationship with God and the world of spiritually oriented ideas. Spirituality includes faith. Religions don't have faith, the individuals who adhere to them do. Each individual is ultimately responsible for his own welfare and for following the dictates of his own beliefs and conscience. This responsibility can't be assigned to some outside authority. If this responsibility could be assigned, then we would become robots, following blindly the dictates of some organization, and we could never be held responsible for anything that we did. I believe that this would be the opposite of what religion teaches. People look to religion as a guide, but should not abdicate their responsibility.
My definition of religion is that it is a set of beliefs and a way of living that are prescriptive for transforming individuals; and for encouraging peaceful and beneficial interactions between people; and for building and sustaining the religious movement, and collective encouragement and action. Most of the world's religions have these goals. Religions are typically supported by history and tradition, but this isn't always true.
Regarding the purpose of religion, speaking about the Christian religion, I believe that its basic concerns are in four areas: 1) Subscription of individuals to religious authority (God, scripture [religious writing], and to the organization with its traditional and unique beliefs, and the organization's leaders). 2) Guidance in transforming the individual into better (stronger, wiser, more socially beneficial) people through religious principles. 3) Improving interactions between people for the peace and welfare of all. 4) Building and maintaining the organization.
There is wide latitude within religions about the specifics of any of these areas of concern. For example, many Muslim groups place more influence on government that is founded on religious principles that are believed to be beneficial to all (Islam). But most world religions, including the Muslim, subscribe to the idea of love as a guiding and transforming principal that represents God.
Organization is power. When religious groups organize, they become bureaucracies, and their power becomes bureaucratic. Other power groups begin to seek their support and opinion, and religious leaders become influential in many arenas. The Catholic Church is the epitome of this. Even those denominations with more democratic and representative structures (for example, the Presbyterian denomination) achieve some level of bureaucracy and influence. I'm not convinced that this should ever be the intent of religion, but even churches that have been born out of the desire to be completely independent and loosely organized, such as the Disciples of Christ denomination, inevitably become organized with somewhat bureaucratic power structures. More on organization later. (The denominations noted are not singled out for criticism - they are representative and I support their organizations and work.)
When religions step outside of their areas of concern, then their motives and purview (sphere of authority) become suspect, to me. This happens when religions attempt to force their beliefs on others, interfering with other's spirituality and right to choose. Suspect motives and purview occur when a religion begins to take an enforcement role, becoming the law and government of the land, or they unduly influence legislative and court action. Suspect motives and purview occur when religions become neurotic in their attempt to enforce their beliefs, such as during the Inquisition, which sought out practices like witchcraft and then forced confessions, and then punished (publicly killed) those they suspected of these practices. This article questions where the line should appropriately be drawn, both internally within the religion, and by society.
There is another purpose of Christian religion. "Salvation" of the individual is another stated goal of most Christian denominations. This idea drives many Christians to proactively "share" their faith, and even attempt to convert those from other religions. Many (or most) believe that their examples of kindness to others, and public knowledge of their beliefs, attracts others to them and their faith.
What salvation is, is a matter of interpretation. It is an idea that is directed toward the soul, the ongoing part of an individual. It might mean that the soul is preserved in a continuing sense, to go on indefinitely. It might mean that the soul is preserved from sin and the resulting suffering, freed to continue a fuller life. It might mean both. All religions, not just Christian, understand that suffering in life is central to human motivation for change, and wanting to end suffering moves people toward religion and change.
How salvation happens is another multifaceted group of beliefs. At one extreme, some believe that salvation is a process in which a person is simply baptized, possibly as an infant, and their parents raise them in Christian principles, which preserves them. This belief, which has support from statements in the Bible, emphasizes the role of the family, especially the head of the household, as well as that of being raised in the church.
Some believe that salvation is the result of adult choice, the choice being signified by baptism which symbolizes the change and the washing away of sin and guilt. Once having made that choice, Heaven and eternal life is theirs regardless of their future actions. This belief emphasizes the responsibility for individual choice, as well as the role of the organization and family, and the tolerance of God and his ability to persevere. Most beliefs about salvation fall somewhere in the middle of these beliefs, typically emphasizing the role of family, the role of God, and the responsibility of the individual to embrace constructive change.
To accomplish its task of improving both individuals and humanity, the church finds far ranging purpose in its mission. It is, I believe, the example of Christ that should help the church remain within the scope of its mission, and not overreach, and remain flexible enough to change with the times.
Liberation Theology is an example of change of perspective within the church. Religion doesn't just transform the world through transforming individuals. Religious leaders see the needs of the people and speak out or take direct action. Religious leaders often find ways to be directly influential in government and economic functioning when it negatively affects the people. Mahatma Ghandi, a Hindu, in the 1920s criticized the British for their treatment of the peasants in India, and formed a "struggle." He quickly learned that violence brought death upon them, and by necessity he had to find better means.
Later Ghandi led his movement in nonviolent non-cooperation (civil disobedience), which temporarily united Hindus and Muslims against British oppression. Ghandi used nonviolent non-cooperation not as a political expedient, but as a fundamental creed for living to create change. When the British tried to segregate the "Untouchable class," (those at poverty level, and often stricken with disease), Ghandi again began an action aimed at transformation of the society. He brought these people the means for making a living, and brought useful education to them, transforming a class of people. Martin Luther King similarly used civil disobedience to bring social reform for black people. Passive resistance and targeting reform, are voices and efforts that work.
People in need unfortunately are fertile ground for radical reformers. Communism and Nazism found fertile ground in Eastern Europe, China, and numerous other third world countries. The wealth producing elements of society frequently ignore the poor. The Church in Germany prior to Hitler was criticized for supporting the status quo, and the "proletariat" ignored the masses. The leaders, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Castro, were partially the result of ignoring human need so that people listened to the voice of any reformer. Religious people often become so preoccupied with spirituality that they ignore other's needs. As James, a Christian writer in the Bible asked, if you see someone is hungry and you only pray for him, what good are you? Give him some food. Faith without works (action) is dead.
Your deeds for others are the fruit of your faith, and proof that you have faith. In the late 1950s, the church ceased ignoring the cries of the oppressed and poor, and a new movement began, Liberation Theology.
Liberation Theology found its voice in the historical prophetic tradition of evangelists and missionaries, those who looked at the bureaucratic, and non-practical, presence of the church and the way people, especially indigenous people, minorities, and the poor were treated, and did something practical about it. People began to take their social mission seriously. People committed themselves to work among the poor, and leaders supported the people in calling for economic improvement. Religion began to target the improvement of living conditions. The church reformed its mission in spirituality, study of Christ, and the function of the church. Leaders became aggressive agents of inspiration for the church and society.
Liberation Theology is just one way in which religion began to address concerns that are humanitarian concerns - the very practical "how people are treated by their fellow man." It was not without controversy - some believed that the church's mission was strictly to spread the Good News and evangelize (seek converts), and there was fear that church leaders would stir up Third World leaders, who would see them as political and terrorist agents, and who wouldn't hesitate to kill them and the people. It happens, but it is a limp excuse.
Liberation Theology is an example of one way in which the church saw its "new" responsibility that developed in occupied nations, and changed its role. People and leaders saw that the church was not addressing the needs of people, and without a powerful voice speaking out, these needs would continue forever. The practical immediacy of feeding the hungry today, joined hands with transforming people for a better tomorrow.
Rules versus Responsibility - the situation versus the goal
Christ's path in the world is very telling about the concepts of rules and responsibilities. He came into the world as a Jew in a land where women were stoned to death for adultery. Life expectancy was very short and parents often had one or more children die before they died. They married in their early teens and died poor. Religious rules, (the Law) that had been implemented over centuries, were often oppressive and unproductive. Roman occupation and government was hated, and people had long awaited a military king to free them from their occupiers. The Ancient Israelites had more than once been taken captive into other lands and treated as slaves. Expectations were that Christ would become the long awaited liberator and king.
How did Christ address these things when they came up? Did he say, "You know, we're going to have to overthrow these stinking Romans so we can get control of our lives. And you know what else, slavery is a bad thing, we need to fix that. Stoning? Yeah, adultery is against the Law - go ahead, line up the adulterers and throw the stones."
Christ could have taken legitimate positions on all of these things, including making the statements in the preceding paragraph. But taking action on any or all of these items would have only started a war against him by both the Jewish leaders and the Romans. A religious King? The Romans would have simply executed him and his followers. So Christ never said one word about slavery. As the people in the world were transformed, most slavery eventually disappeared in all of its forms. What about judging and stoning people? He invited, "Let those without sin, throw the first stone." Everyone walked away, conscious of their own offences.*
(* The word sin is an ill-defined word that has too often been attached to any practice that someone didn't like, such as dancing, rock-and-roll music, all music, not measuring up, wearing a dress above the knees, drinking alcohol, etc. The word "offence" has a clearer meaning. We all do things that are wrong, and I don't believe that dwelling on this topic has much practical value for most people - it is counterproductive and demotivating.)
What about laws that oppressed the people, such as not working on the Sabbath? Christ's healing on the Sabbath was called into question - healing is work. We can hear the leadership outcry, "That's the Law we've used for centuries!" Christ claimed that he came not to change the Law, but to fulfill it. He changed their perspective from one of blind obedience to one of taking responsibility, saying for example, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." Becoming a military king and liberating them? He declined their invitation, liberating their minds, souls, and lives instead. And then he asked them to love their enemies.
If you were a rule follower and thought that absolute compliance would bring you favor with God, Christ simply pointed out that the list of rules could be endless and very difficult to perform. "Go and sell all that you have and give to the poor," he directed one man who thought he had followed every rule. Christ probably knew that giving up everything was not something that person, nor most other people, would do. Getting to Heaven by following rules would be more difficult than getting a camel through the eye of a needle, especially for a wealthy man. What God really required was for people to love one another. After the Ancient Jews, with their endless list of rules, had rejected him, Christ began telling his message to Jew and non-Jew alike.
The Jewish Sadducee sect of the time believed in rigid adherence to the Law, and the Pharisee sect tried to reinterpret the Law so that it served the people. Despite their different perspectives, their entire emphasis was on the Law. Had this continued, there would be several hundred volumes of religious Law (conflicting between sects) that we all should know if we tried to have rules for everything, or we would have to consult a religious lawyer about every move we made. And these rules would have so many exceptions that several hundred additional volumes would be required. Rules simply don't work. With rules, all of one's time, attention, and effort would go into knowing and following the rules.
Christ never said that any particular rule was bad or defunct. By his example, Christ pointed beyond the rules to their purpose. If there are bad things in the world, like slavery, we will transform them as we are transformed. The world will reflect us. "What is the Sabbath here for?" he seemed to ask. The Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath. By knowing this, we understand its relationship to us, and know how to treat it. What about reasons for divorce? Christ challenged the very idea of divorce, and directed them not to divorce. Why is the rule against adultery here? Should we judge others? Should we rule this world and force our beliefs and rules on others? How should we treat others? Christ understood the Israelite idea of kindness toward others, and fulfilled it in the idea of love for others.
The paradigm (example) shift brought by Christ was enormous. Christ reflected the ontology (basic nature of God) more so than any person, or human experience with God, had in the past. This ontology differed from both the Jewish (Israelite) and Greko-Roman ideas of God. The popular Jewish ideas about God were closely tied to nationalism, military power, and obedience to the Law (they believed obedience to the Law demonstrated and built up their piety and devotion to God). The Greko-Roman empire was more in a "spread the culture through ruling" mentality, seeking what was "noble," which saturates their literature, and aspiring to power, as shown in their empire building. Their leaders were believed to become gods.
Christ presented very different ways of thinking that were in stark contrast not only to the Greek POV, but also to the Judaic POV and their traditional views of God and his expectations. Christ's pronouncements were to Love your neighbor and your enemy, throw the first stone only if you have no sin (don't throw), judge others only when you have cleaned up your own act (don't judge), Forgive 70 x 7 (forgive always), the rules that you set God honors (as in judgment and forgiveness), and remember that just strictly following rules won't get you anything from God.
The ontology of God - Ontological Construct Approach to Theology
The ontology of God. Ontology? Basic nature. What is the basic nature of God? What is God all about? What is the connecting element that unites all aspects of God, and is central to them? The answer to that is probably beyond the ability of us to comprehend, but there are clues in scripture. The first ancient ontological clue about God was simply the statement, "I am." People have puzzled over that statement ever since. Ancient Judaism believed that God was encountered in human events. That means that God is known by participating in and experiencing history. Just as faith is demonstrated by what people do for others, so is God demonstrated by his influence on history and the affairs of people.
An ontology might be known through both stated and demonstrated characteristics. Stated characteristics are those that are native to the being, such as the statement, "I am." Demonstrated characteristics are those that are experienced. For example, we consider a person to be kind when he does kind things for other people. The person's behavior reveals the person's characteristics, his basic nature. The Ancient Israelites had experienced God in many ways, and had names for God that reflected these experiences. For example, Jehovah-jireh, means God will provide. Jehovah-nissi means God is my banner. Jehovah-shalom means God is peace.
The resulting construct of hundreds of years of people's experience with God, was summarized by the OT prophet, Micah, as God's expectation of man: "...to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God."
The Apostle John wrote the ontology that Christ delivered as, "God is love," and began his account of Christ with the statement, "In the beginning was the word, and the word was God, and the word was with God." The word of God is Christ among us, and God is love. Christ is the message. The message is love. The words of John are ontological statements about the nature of God that I don't think reflects any idea existing within the Jewish nation of people or the Roman Empire at that time. Christ gave us an ontology of God (what God is about), and indicated a way (love) of viewing the Bible and its Laws. The new ontology doesn't negate the OT, but puts it into a wider context.
This new construct moved thought about God from a very objective "strict and foreboding God who passed out strict rules and expected blind obedience, to a compassionate God who expects people to act from a higher moral principal, understanding and determining for themselves what is right and wrong.
Whatever people's new understanding of God might be, the Roman Empire placed a large dent in it. The citizens of the Roman Empire were converting to Christianity. The Roman Emperor, converted to Christianity. The Roman Emperor then insisted that the entire empire convert, probably for political reasons. The empire then continued in the direction that it knew. The Roman Empire did what Christ would not: it made Christianity a major unifying element of its political and military power. Christianity's misadventures and disrepute grew from there. Additionally, under the Roman influence, the Christian religion became canonized into books and codified into creeds, as if these would make the religion more rote and comprehensible. The actions of the Christianized Roman Empire, and the nations which followed, don't characterize Christian beliefs.
There are two major directions that people and religion can take today. We can try to nail down objective things about God, trying to codify the word "love," into laws, and things to obey unquestioningly, as if doing so would make following God more rote and comprehensible. This idea shifts the burden of responsibility to others, away from the individual. Or we can cope with the idea of personal responsibility and trying to understand and carry out the concept of love.
Love, a small word, symbolizes an infinite God, and will take us all a lifetime of experience to even begin to comprehend. Symbols are signs that represent other things, and can be packed with meaning. I regard symbols as not simply signs that point, but as things that participate in our experience, both informing us and acquiring more meaning as we experience. The concept of love has two distinct aspects. There is the "feeling" aspect. But more importantly from a theological perspective, love is a verb, an action word, that describes behavior. I'm sure the ancient Greeks and Jews didn't run down the streets shouting, "Love is a verb! Love is a verb!" Various words were used in the Greek to express different facets of the idea of love, but in the Bible all of those words are translated "love." The word love in a theological sense is strongly associated with doing for others, or "charity." It is a way of treating others.
Christ's trek through humanity bore many messages that explained in more practical terms what he meant by love. One of them, known as the Golden Rule, summed it up in a neat package and connected it with what came before in Judaism. "Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them, for this is the law (foundations of Judaism) and the prophets (those who were messengers for God in the OT Bible)." Christ gave love a very practical emphasis, saying of those who serve God, "You will know them by their fruits." Love is not a list of impersonal rules, but a prescription for our daily lives regarding how we treat others.
How we should view the idea of judgment is particularly telling within the idea of love. In OT days, people were judged harshly for their misdeeds and punished harshly. This in the face of writings (scripture) about "the God who loves to forgive." Judaism became so bound with rules, that it could not see its way to forgiveness. In one famous New Testament passage, when an adulteress was about to be stoned, Christ said, "Let those who have no sin cast the first stone." No one threw one.
Christ explained this concept about judgment in other passages, saying, "If you forgive others their offences, God also will forgive you." Forgive 70 times 7, he told them, emphasizing both the Law and love. "But if you don't forgive others, neither will God forgive you." And, "Judge not that you be not judged. For with the judgment that you pronounce, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get." And paraphrasing, "You look at a little blemish in your brothers behavior, and you have this giant stain on your own behavior." None of us is so free of offences that we can judge other's conduct. If we do, we will be judged and punished by our own standards.
How people should reach out to others was another very telling idea. The OT prophets had frequently called for the Ancient Israelites to open up their religion to others. The prophets often went to cities in other lands, delivering messages to reform. Judaism was so wounded by the damage inflicted on it by outsiders, that it could not even tolerate the idea of outsiders. Ignoring the prophet's messages and activity, Judaism could not see beyond creating security for its own people and its religion and religious facilities, so outsiders were shunned. Even other local people (Samaritans) were shunned. Some of these shunned people were the original followers of Abraham. After the Temple was rebuilt, signs were even posted at the Temple gates to keep non-Jews out. Judaism was preoccupied with overthrowing the Roman occupation, which provided government regulation and protected them from invasions and captivity by others. They looked more and more to their rules and rituals.
Christ said to them, "If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.... Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
Coping with responsibility has not been an easy course. In the Old Testament, people refused to go on the mountain and meet with God, so God had Moses carve Laws (Ten Commandments) into stone for them. The awesome requirements of God were simply too much for them. Today people still abdicate their personal responsibility for themselves, preferring to have rules carved in stone to mindlessly follow.
Christ did not come to judge. He accepted all people. He spoke to women, which was a no-no in Ancient Israel, about spiritual things - things typically left up to the father of the family. Even today, in many Middle- and Near-Eastern countries, men are not allowed to talk to women. Christ was visited by wise men from other countries at his birth. Christ sat down to eat with tax collectors (known as corrupt thieves), and he protected adulterers from being stoned. Lepers, who had a horrible and socially isolating disease that was communicable, were welcome to come to him and be healed. People of other nationalities were welcome to come to him. The Roman leaders, who were despised by the Jews, were also welcome to come to him and make their requests. Even as he hung on the cross, he responded to the thief next to him, saying, "...today you will be with me in Paradise." Regardless of who people were in life, or what they had done, they were welcome to come to him - he was not exclusive in any way.
Christ also described his purpose as, "I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly. He also said, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him." These statements are also part of the ontology of God, and these talk about the inclusiveness of his nature. The idea of exclusiveness is not a good fit. God is not judging, that is, he is not separating people into acceptable and not acceptable. It doesn't make any difference how poorly or how well people have done. It is purely up to people to accept him or not - they do the choosing. The path is open to everyone, and so is abundant life.
Note the universal inclusiveness of Christ in the previous paragraphs - his acceptance of everyone. Exclusiveness was not part of his nature, and if it wasn't in his nature, how would the idea of exclusiveness fit in his message?
Scholars and theologians recognize that there are two very different messages in the words of Christ. The message depended very much on context, and in this context, to whom Christ was talking. Many of the Jews that Christ talked to could only see the Law as their guide. To those who looked to following rules (the Law) as the basis of their religion, Christ told them about love, but he emphasized the implications of "The Law" so that they could see how futile were there efforts, despite the well-meaning piety of many of them. For example, he said to them, "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect." And, "For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few." Unlike the God who loved mercy and forgiveness, this image of God demanded perfection, a state of conduct which no one could attain. It was easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, than to follow this image of God. This image of God demands rigid adherence to rules - demands perfection - is simply unattainable.
So Christ also brought a message that fulfilled the Law. This image of God, the God of love, leads people by using kindness to help them become better people by following the path of Christ, the path of love. In contrast to the Ancient Jews who rejected him, Christ's words to those who were known as "sinners," to non-Jews, and to those Jews who would listen, had a very different emphasis: "...learn from me... I am gentle... you will find rest for your souls... my burden (for you) is light."
Christ came first to the Jews. He fulfilled (completed) the Law and the prophets. He brought a message that would be the capstone of their religion: love. And then he turned his attention to the rest of the world. He invited all to follow his path. Was this a new religion? No. He offered no new name for it. But neither was calling it Judaism practical since the Jewish leaders of the time, and many of the people, rejected all outsiders. So then, how would this new path be identified? Followers of Christ, Christians, led to the name of the movement, Christianity. The path came to be identified with the name of Christ.
The name, and the idea of exclusiveness: Jesus Christ
There was high interest in the idea of eternal life in Christ's day. The average (not the mean) life expectancy was around 32 years, infant and child mortality rates were very high, dread diseases surrounded them, people married in their early teens, and people were typically very poor. No one wants their children to die, nor to die young, with their lives grievously lacking in fulfillment. People hungered for spiritual knowledge that would bring them favor with God, a fulfilling life, and a promise of eternal life.
The Ancient Jews had a path to eternal life that Christ tried to show was pointless - endless laws, and debates over endless laws. Their government, the Romans, had a very different view. The Romans, the governmental and cultural overseers for the entire region, believed that their leaders literally became gods. To many in the Ancient Greek world, there were an endless variety of gods and beliefs about spiritual life. People went in all directions seeking a full life and an eternal life, some denying their bodies any pleasure, and some believing only in pleasure. A clear and dependable path was desperately needed. Christ provided that path. The path was called, "Good News." In the Great Commission, Christ asked his disciples to take the Good News to the entire world.
Was it the name or the person? The question is probably moot. Christ's actual name was Jesus, a popular name at that time. The name, Jesus, means, "God saves." The people of Ancient Israel had many names for God that were descriptive of various attributes of God, and this name was one. This was also the same name given the OT prophet, Joshua, who took the Ancient Israelites into the land of Israel, conquering the land through military campaigns. This name, Jesus, was associated with a very nationalistic and militaristic concept of God, and had to do with nationalism and conquering others for land. Christ was also called "The Messiah," which means liberator or savior. The Jews had long expected a messiah to come and liberate them from the Romans and reestablish their dominion. But Jesus rejected the meanings associated with these names, and gave them another meaning. "He will save his people from their sins." His kingdom was not an earthly kingdom where armies captured and men ruled, but the Kingdom of Heaven, which is a kingdom on earth where spiritual ideas rule as a way to improved life.
The other name given to Jesus, "Christ," also emphasizes an idea. The word Christ, means "anointed." Anointing is traditionally done during a religious ceremony, and anointing is usually signified by pouring oil onto the person's head. The significance of anointing is to "set apart" (distinguish) the person for a religious purpose. Jesus "Christ" is Jesus "anointed." So Christ's name means the one set apart so God can save people from their sins.
What would the followers of Christ be called? Jews? No, too many Jews of that day expected a nationalistic and militaristic person who would deliver them to total freedom. Those who followed Christ, as a group were called "Christians," which means followers of Christ. They follow the one who is "anointed," or set apart for God's purpose of saving. All parts of the name, Jesus Christ, or Jesus the Messiah, point beyond themselves and the person, to an idea: rescue and deliverance.
The name, although attached to a real person, is very symbolic of something else. The name points to a path that leads the person to a fuller life and to eternal life. The name points to a path that "saves" them.
But God came to us in human form through the person of Christ. This "human" aspect of God emphasizes God's willingness to reach out to us as imperfect human beings, to identify with our difficult experiences, and to show compassion through a human form. He also reaches out to us through his spirit, in the spiritual realm, indicating his willingness to continue communicating with us. These are the acts of a loving God.
"He will save His people from their sins," adds to the ontological statement about God. Christ is the message, the message is love, and Christ provides the path to give people fuller life by saving them from their offences. Where does that path begin? "You shall love the Lord God with all of your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." and then, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
There are various statements by Christ about "saving" people that have an "exclusive" ring to them. Did Christ try to position himself as the only "person" through which an afterlife was available for the entire world? That is very questionable. In 2000 years, Christianity has remained a large and significant, but minority, religion in the world. If the "person" is the exclusive way, then for 2000 years most of the world has missed the boat. Either I completely misunderstand the intent of love, or this circumstance does not fit with the actions of a "God of love." What do the passages mean that seem to indicate exclusivity?
In the book of John, Christ said, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God." In context, this is an excerpt from a passage about 4 times as long, but I won't put the entire thing here.
On the surface, these statements can be interpreted as very exclusionary. In context with the larger passage, though, their meaning becomes clearer. Christ is talking to one of the Jewish leaders who believes that Jesus is a teacher sent from God, and this time it isn't someone who wants to trick him or talk about the Law - he seems sincere. The leader is puzzled over Christ's statement that you must be "born anew," before you can see the Kingdom of God (a kingdom which begins on earth). By the term "born anew," Christ is talking about the beginning of the spiritual transformation of the person, which begins with a change in behavioral direction, and is typically symbolized by water (ritual cleansing common at the time and today, known as baptism) and by newness of spirit.
Christ said to the man, you are a teacher of Israel, how can you not understand this? He meant, if the teacher and his students were sincere followers of God, they should have seen the transformation, this newness of spirit, in their lives. If not, as he explains in the passage in the last paragraph, then they are simply serving themselves, not God, and remain in darkness. God's purpose is to save all men, while their purpose is simply to benefit themselves. Christ is the true path sent by God. The true path is not going to change regardless of whom you are or what religion you belong to. You can call yourself a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Jew, a Buddhist, a powerful leader... God still expects the same transformation in all people and all religions from following the true path. The path is independent of the messenger, but the message is the path. Love.
What is it that Jesus meant when he said in another passage, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me?" You could isolate the individual words and let them speak for themselves. But I believe that word meanings are determined by context, that is, in relation to the rest of the other words in a sentence, in context of the conversation or passage, and relate to meaning within the speaker. I don't believe that words can stand alone with absolute meanings since society gives few words absolute meanings, and even these tend to change. In that passage in the book of John, the context is, Christ is preparing his disciples for his departure, and they want to follow him. He says to them that they can't come right now, but he will prepare a place for them, and they know the way to get there. "Doubting" Thomas, who saw things in only a concrete way, replied, "We don't know where you are going, how can we know the way?" Jesus replied that "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me."
This passage is cited by some to justify an exclusionary POV - only those who follow (or possibly "accept") Christ can go to Heaven. What is the passage about? The passage is very much about a path (or way). Thomas and Jesus are talking about an unknown path. Jesus is talking about Himself being a "true and dependable path," and there is nothing mysterious about the Greek word for truth (in the Greek, "aletheia" distinguishes true from false).
The end of the sentence, "except through me," can be looked at two ways. It could be interpreted very literally as an absolutist position. On the other hand, in context, Christ is talking about himself being a path - referring to a dependable (true, not false) way of getting to your ultimate destination. To get to your destination, you need to follow a true path, and Christ is a true path, and through that true path you will find life. Christ goes on to say about God that he is in the Father, and the Father is in him, and because of him (the true way) that other's will do even greater works than Christ. Since Christ often spoke in parables and allegories, using symbolism, it fits that Christ is a symbol of the true way.
Does this fit with the intention of the Good News? Earlier in that same passage, Christ delivered a new imperative, "Love one another as I have loved you, and by this all men will know that you are my disciples." Notice the thrust of this passage then. In this very intimate conversation with his disciples about how they can follow him, Christ didn't command them to go out and divide the world into those for Christ and those not. But several times Christ asks them to love him and keep his sayings, and he made sure that they understood that his path is a true way, and others will be able to know because of their example of love. This is how I see the meaning in this passage, and see the rest of the New Testament Bible in relation to Christ's basic meaning.
Peter, an Apostle who traveled with Christ, spoke to the Jews after Christ's death. He set the record straight regarding their idea of being "saved," and Christ's idea of being saved. He spoke in words and ideas that they were familiar with, saying, "This is the stone rejected by you builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation (rescue and deliverance) in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (rescued, delivered, viewed favorably by God)."
A considerable amount of implicit meaning is read into Peter's statement in the preceding paragraph, by many who see Christianity as the exclusive path to heaven, making all others in the entire world of other religions, hopelessly lost - a point of view that fights against the message of love that is both implicit in the ontology of God, and explicit in humanities' history of experience with God. My point of view is that the message that Christ represented, rejected the historical Ancient Jewish position of exclusiveness and a misdirected path of endless rules, and reached out in love to a Greek world floundering in conflicting religious ideas and to any who needed to find the effective path to becoming a better person and having a more fulfilling and eternal life.
The teachings of Christ are extended to the entire world. They will help any person who is not on a true path. Other world religions also teach the preeminence of God and love. I don't believe that Christ's teachings are intended to displace other major religions.
The path: In my view, the path that is available to all, starts with loving God (the preeminent guide who first loved you); forgiveness of offences against others and the resulting guilt that are an obstacle to living a full life; and continues with a steady transformation in desire and conduct, away from destructive impulses, and toward love that leads to a more fulfilling and eternal life. That path is symbolized fully by Jesus Christ, and may be represented in many religious institutions. In contemporary images, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and those who accept God's leadership will have a more fulfilling life and ultimately stand in that accepting and loving light with fewer regrets.
The ontology of God: God is. He is real and is experienced by us in history through human experience. He is multifaceted, and has had human representation and continues communication. God is love. God is a message that is our path to full and abundant life, and to eternal life. Following his path takes us away from our destructive tendencies, provides forgiveness and eliminates guilt, and takes us to a better place in our lives. As we transform into better people, God expects us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with him. He expects that whatever we wish that men would do to us, we would do so to them, and we should not judge others, but forgive them of their offences if we expect to be forgiven for ours. We should love our neighbors as ourselves, and even love our enemies. Just as God is known to us by his fruits (historical experience), followers of the path will be known by their fruits. God's path is open to everyone - it is not exclusive, but is all inclusive. Judgment and selection of people by God is not a factor - people do the choosing, either accepting or rejecting God.
You can say that the ontology and the path that God and his followers have or strive for the following characteristics:
- Loves all others(concern and action for their well-being; charity)
- Behavior follows the guidance of love, not the pursuit of endless rules, or harming others
- Less suffering - less burden (regarding offences, guilt, and attitude)
- Acceptance of all people, tolerance, plurality, individuality
- Avoids judgment, and forgiving
- More likely to find a fulfilling life, and feel assured of eternal life
- Deeds identify them (such as kind acts toward others, speak against repression, promote peace)
- Has a line of demarcation on destructive conduct, also pointing to ultimate judgment and consequences, (such as against tyrants, sociopathic behavior, murder, repression, lawless societies, etc.)
I don't know of any religion that differs in important ways from the preceding list. When I see religious movements that are at odds with these characteristics, I question if they represent anything to do with God, but are simply people's attempts to further their own agenda.
Decisions are not easy when the rules are not carved in stone. Situations and issues aren't black and white. For example, the Apostles found that you couldn't just take Judaism and force it on others - other people saw no reason for many of the rules that those in Ancient Judaism followed. Following are some examples of areas that we know from history and experience that we require multiple responses for.
World hunger requires both a long and short term response. For the long term, you can teach people how to fish, and give them tools to grow their own food. But in the short term, you have to give them food so that they live long enough to become self supporting.
Treatment of others. Love can be taught as a long term cure that transforms individuals into responsible and charitable people. But in the short term, we have to prevent chaos and destruction to preserve our world and give people the time to learn to love. That necessarily means some laws and rules. But an unending complexity of laws has little value.
Love conquers all. You can attract more people with the honey of good treatment. But there are those in the world who are not attracted by anything good, have no respect for good, are resilient in the face of mistreatment, and are very attracted to a path that is ultimately very destructive. Sometimes it takes scaring the hell out of them to get them to see any value in goodness - and sometimes a little scare is a loving thing to do.
Improving the lives of the poor or repressed. Being poor or repressed robs people of opportunity, life, and of happiness - not that money automatically means happiness. While religion transforms the world one person at a time until it is a reflection of good, during this time, millions of people suffer needlessly. In the short term, it is necessary to give for their welfare and to collectively speak out for their welfare.
Children. We try to raise children in a way so that in the long term they can make good decisions. But in the short term, they don't have enough life experience to appreciate the consequences of bad decisions, so more protection and rules are necessary (declining over time) until they are mature in their ability to make decisions.
Religious organization. On the one hand, religion is much more effective if it can organize and have a strong activist voice against economic and political repression in local and world affairs. On the other hand, bureaucracy can lead to the decline of individual responsibility and accountability, and to organizational excesses which can lead to actions by leaders like the Inquisition, the Crusades, support of terrorists, and the sexual misuse of children by religious leaders in any religious organization. Religion should not be responsible for governing and enforcing. Governing and enforcing are functions that are basic to civilization, and should reflect the citizens. We are all responsible, always.
There were many different beliefs about the afterlife in Christ's time. Some felt that once you died, the grave (sheol) was the end. Others believed that your soul rested while you were in the grave, and one day you would be resurrected. Some believed that if your body was not buried, your soul would wander the earth and never find peace. Abraham was the patriarchal father of the nation of Israel. Although we don't know exactly what he believed about the afterlife, we do know that he and his family came from the city of Ur, which was under the influence of the culture of Sumer. That culture believed that when the person died, the soul went below ground to another world. Not that much is known about it, but the literature that the Sumer culture left indicates that it was not a very pleasant place, and there was some suffering that apparently was due to the remorse of individuals, not imposed as a judgment. There was no escape - those who died were captives there. By Christ's time, many believed that this underworld was divided into two sections, the better section, and a place of suffering or punishment.
In various ways, Christ seemed to address these various beliefs, without going into specifics about what comes next - the veil remains. To the Sadducee sect who did not believe there was an afterlife, he said that God is God of the living, not the dead (meaning there are no "dead"), and in heaven there is no marriage. There is immediacy in those statements. To the thief on the cross, Christ said that "today" you will be with me in Paradise. The notion of paradise is a pleasant place. "Today" indicates that there is no resting in the ground - the transition is immediate. This corresponds favorably with today's contemporary near death experiences of a rapid transition and being with God and relatives. For those who believed that the dead went to an unpleasant underground world, Christ reportedly descended from the cross to the underworld and "led captivity" to heaven. However, I have it on good authority that Catholics and Baptists have their own individual places in Heaven with walls around them so that they can continue believing the illusion that they are the only ones there. (Just joking!)
Darkness and judgment
Christ also addressed the dark side of human nature. This is an area that I dwell the least on regarding religion in articles on this Web site. The Old Testament contains many references to a day of judgment, and Christ also pointed to that day. I don't believe that most of humanity is expected to live in fear of judgment and hell as we search and struggle through our lives. Whatever our shortcomings and offences, our accepting and forgiving God loves us and is very tolerant of us. But there are those who care only about themselves, and who are always willing to harm others for their own gain. There are also those tyrants who wreak havoc on humanity, murdering, plundering, and oppressing for their own gain. They respond only to force. There are those who slyly try to even use theology and religion for their own gain, or as a blanket to continuously cover their offences. Christ always recognized those who tried to trick him so that they could discredit or capture him - they always failed.
Christ used various motifs to try and steer these people in a better direction. For those who thought that they could mislead children about religion, Christ said it would be better for them if a millstone was placed around there neck and they were thrown in the sea. For others, he used the motif of Gahenna, the place of the skull, where the Romans threw those they killed, and let their bodies rot and be eaten by animals and birds. Their bones were soon all that was left of them, and I'm sure that they capitalized on the belief of many that without a proper burial, their souls would wander the earth forever and never find peace.
For still others he referred to a lake of fire where their souls would probably perish forever. He also referred to souls being thrown into outer darkness, forever isolated from the love of God, and probably from anyone.
Whether these are real places, or Christ was describing the self-inflicted misery that comes from bad deeds is not something we can know. I rather think the latter. Either way, he described real suffering, and consequences that should not be hidden from perpetrators who are bent on destructive ways. For more information on judgment, refer to my article, Prophecy: Hysteria or Certain Doom?
This article is about theology, and about change. We live in a changing world with new challenges developing every day. Human nature doesn't change - all people are tempted to get on the wrong path, no matter how well raised and informed, and all need guidance. Necessary change comes, and will come, to religion, and will do so slowly, as religion responds to new challenges and recognizes new areas of responsibility. I recommend recognizing the need for change, and being less resistive to it.
I take the responsibility for change very seriously. The inability to change creates tension that destroys religious organizations and shoves people away from religion, and shoves frustrated religious fanatics toward violence. Yet religion is not a willy-nilly institution that changes with every change in the breeze. Religions are instruments for introducing people to God, are typically based on ages of wisdom and experience, and are for helping people become better people so that they treat others better. It should not be the unworthy desires of immature people that instigates change. Change should be accomplished by those who are well experienced and mature within and outside the organization, having experience with the changes and new problems in the world around them, and include the voice of the entire organization.
Should religion have a voice in the relationships that people have with each other? Religion has two major responsibilities. One is to point people toward God and religion as the preeminent guides. (There are other worthwhile guides as well, such as government laws, psychology, humanitarian approaches, and education, but these are more specialized.) The second major responsibility of religion is as a voice in man's relationship with his fellow man. Religion helps people differentiate between behavior that is harmful to others or beneficial to others, and helps us understand what it means to love each other.
There has to be minimum rules of conduct, but instead of creating more rules or positions, it is often more helpful for religion simply to educate and guide. People are responsible for their own behavior and need to understand what is good, not good, and why, so that they can choose for themselves in a responsible way. Otherwise people rebel, or think rules have insignificant bases for being. Laws are often necessary, especially for the very immature who tend to see things as "yes or no." Where there must be law, we need to evaluate conduct through the lens of the spirit of the law. There will always be those who try to use trickery to get around the letter of the law, and there just isn't enough paper available to paint enough laws into yes and no for every situation to control their destructive ways.
To quote the Apostle Paul on the importance of love: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends... So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."
This article is presented so that people can explore some of the practical issues within religion, such as sexuality, with some thoughts of my own (preceding) on perspective. In the series of articles on human sexuality, I pose some difficult questions that are worthy of more thought and exploration through writing in journalistic and fiction stories. Those questions dance around the role of religion in setting morals. Sexual morals are a good example of how religion comes under stress and is sometimes called upon to change, but may remain mired in the past, believing that it is inflexible. This article indicates that religion is indeed flexible and change in perspective happens in virtually every religion and religious group. Just as the Apostle Paul had to view the Jewish customs about eating certain kinds of meat, through a new perspective, to avoid creating an obstacle for non-Jews, so do we need to use different perspectives.
Change was difficult for the Apostles to accept, and is difficult for us. Paul addressed change again in a letter to the Corinthians about eating food that had been offered to idols, which would have been considered an abomination by the Jews. He struggled through the subject logically, and then explained to them, you can eat the food because of..., but had to add, in your newfound freedom, don't let your behavior become a stumbling block for those who believe differently or who are less mature.
Freedom of conduct doesn't necessarily mean doing everything. Parents are often caught in the difficult circumstance of allowing one child to view certain movies or play videogames that are appropriate for one age group, but the younger brothers and sisters are often on the scene either in their home or in other homes. Situations sometimes have to be eliminated or controlled. On the other hand, people often see their conduct with another as simply "right between them and God." Christ gave us a new perspective, that is viewing through the lens of love. Following are various questions about some questions.
"Be fruitful and multiply" was an injunction given to Adam. It is about populating the earth. Now that we have population problems in various parts of the world, and are having difficulty controlling population caused problems like pollution, how should we view this imperative? What implications does this have for birth control and large families? What would be the responsible approach?
Adultery (sex with another outside of your marriage) was an action for which people in OT days were stoned to death. Adultery was the single reason that Christ sifted out of Jewish Law as an acceptable reason for divorce. Sex with others brought unwanted children into the family, or extended the family boundaries into other families. Intimate bonds were made that challenged the marriage bond, economic hardships were created, and patriarchal land and wealth succession was challenged. Unfaithfulness to your mate created enormous problems. How should we judge this activity in today's world, in which divorce creates many single parent homes (with low income), creates many remarriages with stepparents who don't like and mistreat their newly inherited children, creates separation and custody problems, and creates many families with multiple parental rights and complex visitation issues? What are the consequences of adultery today? Should it demand divorce? Is divorce worse? What are the real consequences of divorce?
Various sexual practices were spoken against in OT scripture. These were typically associated with homosexual activity and prostitution, and the consequences were the spread of disease and the slower growth of civilization. Prostitution was another stoning offence in the OT days. Why? How should we view the consequences of prostitution today? Has anything changed in today's world? What are the consequences of homosexual activity, and how should we view this activity today? I know of one outspoken government critic of homosexuality, who used it as a campaign issue, and while being outspoken he learned that his own daughter was a homosexual. It put things in a different perspective, and it was a learning and growing experience.
In the story Fiddler On The Roof, Tevya, a Jewish man in post-Tsarist Russia, confronts change. He has three daughters who bring him the challenge of breaking various marriage traditions. Viewing his daughters through the eyes of love, he manages to let them go their way against tradition. But when Tevya learns that his last daughter is not only going to choose her own mate, she is going to marry a man in the very military that is oppressing them, and she is going to marry outside the Jewish faith, suddenly he confronts a tradition that is a matter of principle and religion - he cannot accept the marriage and disowns his daughter. With a heavy heart, he is not only forced to leave his home, but his daughter. But through his wife, the door is left open for future contact. Love changes things, and over time changes mountains. Love is a lens that changes our perspective on those things that we believe are very rigid. Principle is important, but I don't remember a statement in the Bible saying that God is principle. God is love. Love conquers all.
Sex before marriage, or sex between consenting adults, in ancient times created patriarchal lineage problems, created unwanted and unsupported children, spread disease, and created emotional bonds that got in the way of marriage. People often married sometime between puberty and early teen years. Childbirth was often fatal to the mother. Infant and child mortality rates were very high. The average adult life expectancy was 32 years. Are patriarchy issues important in today's world? What are the consequences of this kind of sexual activity today, and how should we view these?
For more on the pressure to change within Christianity and religion in general, see the Atlantic Online articles The Next Christianity by Philip Jenkins; and Oh, Gods! by Toby Lester. For information on modern day Christian inquisitions that slay witches, see the news article, Frenzied mob hacks 300 'witches' to death.
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