This post’s topic is another deep one and full of pitfalls. I’ve been mulling this topic for a while, and, to be honest, didn’t think I had a lot to say on this yet, but when I sat down to outline the post, I discovered that I have enough for at least
two three(!) posts, and will probably develop even more in the future.
I’ll start by telling you that I am a Christian. I was raised in a mainstream religion whose approach and (many of their beliefs) I find compatible with my understanding of God. I am blessed with parents who nurtured my spiritual development in an environment where questions are fine and I was encouraged to use my brain. In other words, I wasn’t told *how* to believe, or told that my worth as a Christian was contingent upon toeing the line on some list of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots”. Suffice to say, my denomination is not “fundamentalist” or “evangelical”.
What do I believe?
That’s a bigger question than I can cover in this post, so I’ll try to summarize so you can get a flavor: I believe in God. I believe that He put Jesus on Earth to die for everyone’s sins. I believe that there is a Heaven, but I’m not so sure about Hell (more on that in a bit). I wrestle with the ideas of predestiny and free-will. I believe that the Bible is not meant to be taken literally, but we are to extract the messages and lessons from it. I believe that the Old Testament informs our past and has lessons for us, but the New Testament is where the real action is. I believe that the overall message of the New Testament is love, not hate; forgiveness, not punishment; redemption, not punishment; and above all, grace.
Let’s work backwards. Grace as I understand it, is that we are not worthy of God’s love and forgiveness, but He offers it anyways, with no conditions. We are born into His grace, and receive it without even having to ask for it. Humans are imperfect, and so destined (there’s that word) to sin. But we have the ability to make choices (hence, free-will) and therefore choose how we behave. The Bible was written by humans (inspired by God), and as humans are imperfect, the telling of God’s Word is also imperfect. That’s not to say that the Bible is flawed, but the storytellers who put it on paper were unable to write perfectly. This allows me to reconcile contradictions within the Bible by working to understand the divine *message* in the words.
What about Hell?
Ok, follow my logic here. Humans get God’s grace – no questions asked, no matter what. Jesus died for *everyone’s* sins. He didn’t die only for certain people’s sins; that suggests a conditional grace – a conditional love – which by definition is an imperfect love. This belief allows me to reconcile the deaths of those who are unable to make decisions for themselves – babies, mentally incapacitated, etc – that these people are able to go to Heaven. But here’s the catch (or perhaps the lack thereof): since Jesus died for each person’s sins, everyone has been forgiven and will go to Heaven. And if there’s nobody to go to Hell, how can Hell exist?
But Hell must exist, right? I’ve been there. It’s a place on Grand Cayman island. They have a post office and everything! Ok, seriously though, I’m working through a theory on that – that perhaps we are already in hell (how else do you explain the last election?), and that life is actually a journey to discover and experience God’s grace as we prepare to leave hell and go to Heaven. Or maybe not everyone gets into Heaven upon their human death, but must reach a level of understanding in order to get there; if we are not prepared to go to Heaven, perhaps our souls are recycled and we are reincarnated (more on that in a bit, too) to live another life and try again. Sound familiar? Maybe the Hindus and Buddhists are on to something.
I’m no Biblical scholar, and have no authority on such matters (beyond what I choose to believe for myself). But I have a hard time believing in a God who condemns for eternity – that just doesn’t fit with Jesus’ message of forgiveness and His sacrifice.
So what about religions?
Danger, Will Robinson!
As you can probably guess, I’m not too fond of religions which prescribe beliefs with no room for questioning, and I especially don’t care for those which use the threat of Hell to scare people into belief and good behavior. I think organized religion (Christianity especially) has done a poor job of meeting people where they are, and instead tells people how they should be and berates them for not measuring up. I don’t think that my denomination “has it right”, but I do think that it does a better job of allowing for doubt and questioning. After all, if a belief cannot stand up to scrutiny, then perhaps it isn’t true after all!
That said, my denomination is actively being challenged to love unconditionally, and it going through some growing pains trying to meet that challenge. I hope it emerges from this struggle stronger for having faced this head-on.
What is sin?
There might be enough on this topic for a whole separate blog, not just a post! Often, sin is considered to be the breaking of a rule or law. The dictionary even invokes divine law in its definition:
an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law.
It’s right or wrong, true or false, black or white – binary (oh, how many things we think are binary!).
But I think it’s not really about rules or laws. A longtime friend who is a pastor gave a definition along the lines of “Sin is anything which separates us from God’s will.” I agree. The Ten Commandments tell us “thou shalt not murder.”, yet in other parts of the Bible, tells stories of people smiting each other. Heck, it even gives instructions to kill people if they do certain things! But by defining sin as separation from God’s will, it allows for killing, for the advancement of God’s will (for the Israelites to claim the promised land, for instance).
The problem comes when we try to determine “what is God’s will?”.
I found a good article about the question “What is Sin” here.
So I guess I had a bit more to say than I expected. I have another set of questions for Part 2 which deal with my journey as it relates to my faith – coming next week.
Until then, Love thy Neighbor,