Nov 15, 2009

Faith in Jesus, interrupted

I have always been interested in Christianity. More specifically, I have always been interested in the answer to this question: Does Jesus save?

I have always struggled with having a faith in Jesus. My own family is made up of theists, but nobody ever bothered with the traditional religions. Grandma couldn't understand why anybody wanted a faith where you looked up at a bloody, half-naked man every Sunday (good ol' Catholics), and I couldn't understand how anybody could put their faith in a man who looked like a hippie (good ol' Protestants). So while Grandma and I both ended up deists (that's not a typo), we found our spiritual sustenance outside the mainstream.

Still, I've always had the question. Norway has a state religion. It allows for freedom of religion for everyone - except the nation itself and its monarch. The reigning monarch of Norway must be - according to the country's constitution - an Evangelical Lutheran, since the Evangelical Lutheran church is the offical church of Norway. (Denmark has a similar law, while Sweden voted a few years ago to separate state and church.) What this meant when I was a kid was that Christianity and church history were school subjects (nowadays, they teach about all religions). It's not as indoctrinating as it sounds; we were simply taught when our viking kings converted and killed any one who disagreed, how the church was organized and what it believed and why. (Good ol' Marin Luther.) We never prayed in school and nobody ever asked us if we believed in Jesus.

That question would come up when we turned 14, the age of confirmation. After many summers of Bible summer camp[1], many Sundays of Sunday school because what else was there to do in the country, plus the aforementioned classes in school, I knew a lot about Christianity, but not much about faith. I was still baffled about how Jesus could save my soul and life, and knew of only one person in my tiny village who was so Christian she wore a cross but I never dared ask her anything. My whole approach to the matter was not aided by the language of the Bible (I still don't care for that whole the Lord this, the Lord that wording) nor by the rather unfortunate view I had of God Himself (strict, unforgiving). An episode when I was 10 (and I may have told this story before) shut the door on the church itself: School kids attend a Christmas mass before the school holiday starts, and at ours, a junior high choir sang some absolutely beautiful songs. You could hear the congregation sigh with pleasure. What we could not do, was applaud in the Lord's church, said our minister. Right then, I wanted nothing of a god who wouldn't let people show appreciation for each other, no matter where it was.

The church back then was pretty strict, still steeped in piety and stoicism. Nowadays, people do applaud at church concerts, whether the music is religious or secular. But it doesn't matter, because I still haven't figured out the whole Jesus thing. All my classmates and my best friend and my second cousin, were all confirmed. I remember asking my best friend about her motives for her confirmation. She said it was because she believed in God, but I saw the reaction she had to all the money and presents she got, and thought she had lied to me.

There are those who have said to me not to take it all so seriously. I do take it seriously, though, because faith matters to me. And, apparently, so does having the right faith. I'm not terribly worried about my soul; what I'm trying to work out is who's right. Do we die once and live forever as souls? Do we die once and that's it? Do we die many times and are reborn many times? Do we even have a soul?

The whole religious stuff aside, understanding Christianity as a major player in the development of Europe and western civilization helps understand other parts of western history. The reason there was still some order and cohesiveness in the former Roman empire after it fell, was the church. The church unified people, educated people, and helped form our modern justice system. However silly you think believing in a man in the sky is, you should nevertheless be aware of the role and history of the church as institution and governing body.

There is another question: How did an illiterate Jewish carpenter end up being the inspiration for today's western democracies? I have just finished reading Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman, and although Ehrman doesn't address my question, he does explore rather thoroughly what original Christians and Christianity was like, and how we've got the Bible all wrong. Ehrman focuses on the New Testament in this book, and all its discrepancies - some so irreconcilable that to acknowledge them would upset the church. Ehrman says this isn't necessarily the case; no matter who the historical Jesus was, it has no bearing on the faith itself. You can understand that there are huge contradictions between each of the gospels, and you can even know that several of the letters attributed to the apostles and to Paul were forgeries, and it won't matter to your actual faith in God or to the inspiration you can get from the Bible. Ehrman himself said studying the Bible from a historical point of view only made him no longer believe the Bible was inspired by God; it didn't make him lose faith. As a book inspired by people, the Bible has had incredible influence and staying power. And it has that right. It contains every human condition under the sun.

And I now know that I can choose whether or not to believe Jesus is the Son of God, or just another prophet, like the Muslims claim. The New Testament supports both views. There is no historical reason to believe that I must believe in this Jesus fellow to save my soul. I now know where (and when) the Catholic church got some of its theology from, so I won't sweat that particular question any more.

But I needed to get it answered. I have grown up surrounded by Christianity my whole life; it is the only mainstream religion I am in any way familiar with. So of course I have to ask myself, are the Christians right? Must I follow Jesus to be well not only now, but forever? I think the answer is "no", but the Bible does offer universal truths that people should follow (like the golden rule). However, being good to others doesn't depend on a faith in Jesus or in any theism.

Still, there is one question Ehrman raises, not as a main part of his book, but in his closing chapter, by way of explaining how he also ended up agnostic and no longer a practicing Christian (assuming I've understood him correctly): He couldn't work out the suffering part. No matter what he read, or what he was told, nothing could answer the question: Why does a benevolent god allow suffering? Upon hearing that (I have the audiobook version), it occurred to me that that was the question Buddha asked, too, and set about trying to answer.

So I find that although one question has been put to rest, I still have more exploring to do: Is there a god? What exactly is faith, anyway? Is it all really a delusion? Because I'm not entirely sure anymore. And it excites me.

––

[1]Funny story: We were unpacking upon arrival at a one-week Bible camp. A couple of loudmouths had already unpacked when I and a quiet, shy girl took our beds in the four-bed room. Nobody paid any attention to me, but the loudmouths noticed a lack with the fourth girl's packing. I thought it was the fact that there wasn't a single change of underwear in the girl's suitcase, but no. She was reamed into for forgetting her New Testament. As I recall, I never needed to use mine.

16 comments:

alice said...

I think the god of the bible is a sociopath. I've read the book, and he's incoherent, inconsistent, and self-obsessed. Ick. No thanks.

Jesus may or may not have really existed, but his followers are definitely a bunch of greedy opportunists. Ick again. No thanks.

As far as what happens when we die, I don't care. I'll be dead. Either that's it -- light's out -- or there's something else, in which case, I think I have lived well, with an appreciation and respect for creation and my fellow creatures. If that's not enough to get me an invitation to whatever happy clubs might be out there, then I can probably get along OK on my own.

(And my word verification is "theist!" Heh!!)

alice said...

I just ran across this: which religion should you follow? Silly, but apropos!

Tom said...

I really enjoyed reading that, Keera, thank you!

It was only a couple of years ago that my mum realised (after I told her) that I had never been confirmed. She was quite upset about it which was hard to watch but I tried to assure her I wasn't in the least bit upset about it myself! I don't think it helped...

I was brought up as a strict catholic until I'd had enough of the whole misery and suffering thing.

Tom

SolSionnach said...

Thanks for this, Keera.
FWIW, I quite liked this post: http://egregores.blogspot.com/2009/11/essence-of-religion-four-theories.html

It helped me sort some stuff out. Perhaps you'll like it too! :)

alice said...

Hi, Tom! I was also brought up catholic (on Saturday nights, anyway -- on Sunday mornings, I was usually presbyterian). For the record, I went as far as confirmation before I walked away from the misery and suffering (and incoherence, paternalism, authoritarianism and all the rest of it)...

The Weather Alternative said...

Keera,

Great post! I was brought up Catholic but around the age of 16 I left the church. I began searching for truth through drug use. Although using drugs seemed to open me up to the spiritual world, I didn't find what I was looking for.

My sister had become a Christian and was trying to explain her faith to me. I eventually began reading the Bible. I started with Genesis and made it as far as Exodus. At that point I was turned off to the whole thing and put the Bible away.

After awhile, my interested was renewed once again by a movie I saw that used Bible verses throughout it. My own spiritual hunger at the time also came into play because I was dissatisfied with that aspect of my life. My drug use had not filled that space inside of me.

This time I stared reading the New Testament. Some of the things Jesus said really hit home with me. I saw that the love he talked about was so much more than humans could ever come close to. I wanted what he had to offer so I prayed. Basically, my prayer to Jesus was, "If you really exist, prove yourself to me, show me."

It wasn't long afterwards, maybe about 2 weeks or so, that I felt a very deep happiness inside. It impressed me so much that I knew it was an answer to my prayer. I had found the spiritual satisfaction that I had been seeking. My life really began to change, and my friends could tell. I eventually gave up my drug use because I was more flipped out reading the Bible and communing with Jesus than I was when I smoked or did other drugs.

The whole Jesus question, in my opinion, should not be figured out in relation to established religions. Even Jesus was persecuted by the established religion of his day. Jesus himself was not hung up on church building or all that formalism as is evident from various things he said.

The whole issue hinges on a personal relationship with him. If he is what the Bible says he is--the Son of God who rose from the dead and whose spirit is with us today--then you can put him to the test and let him show you if he is real. This is what He referred to when he said a man must be born again in order to understand or enter the Kingdom of God. In another place he likens it to him knocking at the door of your heart. If you open to him, He'll come in. At least you can try it. You have nothing to loose.

Ken Paone

Keera Ann Fox said...

Alice, I like your take on death. Wish I had that relaxed a view of it, but I seem to be too curious to let it rest.

Tom, tell your mother that if the creator really cannot be separated from the created, then you're not lost. :-)

SunFox, I already belong to a religion that thinks everything pretty much comes from the same source. :-)

Ken, I once met a drug addict with the scars on his wrists to show how bad it once had been for him - before Jesus. Me, I just don't get Jesus (though I do believe in God, and God has given me the warm fuzzies a number of times). BTW, only the Gospel of John says Jesus is divine. But it doesn't matter. What I am now curious about is faith because religion obviously has saved some lives over the years and that is a matter of faith, not the religion.

The Weather Alternative said...

To me, all the gosples show Jesus' divinity in that they all tell the story of his death for mankind's sins and his resurrection from the dead. Of course, in John and in Mark he actually says he's the Son of God.

The way I look at it is that faith is like another sense that we use to know and understand things that can't be understood by our regular five senses. So as you say--you just don't get Jesus--well, you probably won't "get it" on just an intellectual level because as he said--in order to understand or "see" what he was talking about you must be born again. The only reason I beleive it, is because I had this experience with him that was on this spiritual level or faith level.

I think it goes without saying that you're not going to find that by reading books by agnostics. You're probably not going to find that analyzing a bunch of formal religions either that are so far removed from Jesus' real teachings as night is from day. The only way you're going to get it, I think, is by testing the Bible for what it says without any of man's interference.

That's why you have to meet him on a spiritual level. If he says that he stands at your heart's door and knocks and wants you to let him in (Rev 3:20), just try it. Either he is there and he'll come in and you'll make a connection or he's not there and nothing will happen, and it's all just made up. In my case, and that of a lot of others, it was life changing and faith building.

Keera Ann Fox said...

Ken, I'm getting the impression that you haven't read my blog post at all. I spent my childhood trying to figure out how to be Christian only to end up being guided away from it. So I've read some books attempting to find the point to Christianity (versus other choices), without finding it. And that's how it is for _me_. I know you are very happy with your faith, and I am happy for you. I ask only that you realize what works for you doesn't work for me.

The Weather Alternative said...

Oops! Sorry Keera. I defintely don't want to offend you. I was under the impression that you were interested in Christianity and you were trying to figure out the answer to the question; Does Jesus save? So that's why I was emphazing the "forget all the other stuff and connect with Jesus directly approach."

Once again please forgive me as I was only trying to be helpful in what now appears to be an offensive and misguided way.

Ken

Keera Ann Fox said...

Ken, I can see that since I never actually wrote "Therefore I now no longer believe Jesus is the son of God", you may have thought the door was still open, so that's on me.

As for the intellectual understanding, I look at it more as being practical: One thing that turned me away from the church was that I couldn't see anybody using its teachings in everyday life. People thought about God only on Sundays, it seemed to me. That had no appeal for me. If God can't be used in regular life, what's the point? I did eventually find a faith (non-Christian but acknowledging it) that I could use in everyday life, that actually helps me when and where I need the help. Yours includes Jesus, mine doesn't, but I do believe the divineness of it is the same.

Tom said...

Just to lighten the mood a little, if there was ever a religion I'd subscribe to, it would be this one!

Tom

The Weather Alternative said...

Keera,

I think you're 100 percent right about the church people not really using the teachings of the Bible on a daily basis. I was also turned off to the churches (and still am). It reminds me of that verse in the Bible where God says something like "My people have forgotten me days without number."

I'm glad you have a faith that works for you. My opinion, unlike many narrow minded Christians, is that each belief system has its truths, and we can all learn from each one. Truth is not just confined to one belief system or religion.

Keera Ann Fox said...

Tom, I subscribe to duhism, myself. ;-)

Ken, I totally agree. Truth is universal.

Beep said...

Jesus is probably something like an imaginary friend for me. OTOH those are the friends who don't get sick of me, who don't criticize me into a limp lifeless ball of nothing, and who don't abandon me when I need them, so AFAIK, bring 'em on. Reality is so highly overrated.

Keera Ann Fox said...

Beep, I like your description of Jesus - and the effect he has on you (which is what is good about faith). As for reality being highly overrated, you're playing right into the hands of the Buddhists. ;-)