1. I’ve come to think about the Bible as symbolically dense stories about what it means to be one small, vulnerable human on this earth for a little while. It means that I am part of a larger story about what it is to live out the promise of the crucifixion and the cross. The promise is that one day the world will end, and we, and with it all our suffering and loss, will be redeemed (parousia). Trouble is, I’m not always sure what these words mean.
Albert Camus says that the absurd is born of the confrontation between human need and the “unreasonable silence of the world.” I would say that Christianity (indeed all religion) is a conversation to fill that silence, still our angst, and so create meaning for our lives. That we make the meaning we subsequently discover is fine, as long as we don’t think that it explains more than it does. It doesn’t explain the mystery and wonder that is every human life.
2. The ethics of Jesus Christ are the right ethics: love, humility, care for the widow, orphan, and stranger. These represent the downtrodden of today, such as the mother who can’t pay her rent and feed her children at the same time.
For forty years I taught ancient political theory, particularly Plato and Aristotle. I learned a lot, but I learned almost nothing about the ethics of love and care, the Judeo-Christian ethic. Love and care were simply not Greek and Roman virtues, though friendship was. Without the Judeo-Christian tradition, Western civilization would be bereft.
Jefferson’s Bible abstracts the ethical teachings of Jesus from its religious context. Trouble is, that leaves open the question of “why?”, as in “why should I care about anybody but myself and my family?” People don’t often say it so bluntly, but many people act as if this is what they believe. Christianity has a good answer. In loving others, we rehearse the love of God, who sacrificed his son so that we might live.
3. God is essential so that we do not become idolaters. It’s really that simple. The only alternative to God is idolatry: of money, sex, power, self, the great leader, or whatever. Václav Havel had it just right.
The relativization of all moral norms, the crisis of authority, the reduction of life to the pursuit of immediate material gain without regard for its general consequences . . . do not originate in democracy but in that which modern man has lost: his transcendental anchor, and along with it the only genuine source of his responsibility and self-respect . . . . Given its fatal incorrigibility, humanity probably will have to go through many more Rwandas and Chernobyls before it understands how unbelievably shortsighted a human being can be who has forgotten that he is not God.
4. Do I believe in God, or that God exists? I think that’s the wrong question. It’s not important what I believe. It’s more important to live as though God exists than to know that he does. And since no one can know for sure, the only really important question is whether you choose to live as though everything you do matters for all eternity.
5. Judaism is not so different from Christianity as many believe. The injunction to care for the widow, orphan and stranger (and their contemporary representatives), by which I define Christian ethics, occurs far more frequently in the Hebrew Bible (22 times) than the New Testament (2 times). Jesus Christ was a pious Jew. Of course, Christianity is different from Judaism, but it’s no accident that what Christians call the Old Testament is part of the Bible. Every Sunday my Episcopal church has a reading from the Old Testament, Psalms, and the New Testament. The Old Testament is integral to what it means to be a Christian.
Not one of my Jewish friends with whom I’ve talked about this agrees. All believe there is a decisive break between Judaism and Christianity. My view may be a Christian conceit, suggesting that somehow Christianity subsumes Judaism. But that’s not what I mean.
6. I’m not sure what I think about textual and historical criticism of the Bible, of which form criticism is an example. I think Rudolf Bultmann is right: the content of the Gospels has to do with the time and place they were written. As Bultmann puts it,
We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.
The truth of the Gospels is not only independent of its historical context, but it frees us from this world. The real world is not this world; eternity is the real world. The freedom this allows is probably the single most important thing about Christianity.
7. We know very few hard facts about Jesus. He was born, he preached, and he was crucified as some sort of rebel. Paul (the first to write about Jesus) actually says remarkably little about him. The life of Christ is known to us primarily through the gospels, with very little other evidence.
The gospels were written at the earliest about 40 years after the death of Christ, relying both on oral and written traditions, such as the hypothetical Gospel of Q. Belief in Christ is belief in the teachings of the gospels, inspired by the life of Christ.
In thinking about God in this way, faith becomes central, above all faith in the crucifixion and resurrection: that these are not only historical facts, but promises of God’s love. It’s all about faith. The best definition of faith is belief in things unseen.
8. Nevertheless, terms like faith and belief puzzle me. I’m not even sure what it means to believe in God. A better approach is to ask what it means to experience God. It means that God feels real. Feeling real is not the same as believing in. Feeling real is more like an emotion. “It is more like knowing that your mother loves you than believing that she is in the den,” as Tanya Luhrmann puts it.
Belief comes from practice. What you believe leads not to what you do. What you do leads to what you believe. When in doubt, it’s pointless to struggle at trying to believe. Practice Christianity as though you believe, and see what happens. You might be surprised.
9. One of the most important choices you can make as a Christian has to do with how you think the church should engage the world. Through Christian realism, as Reinhold Niebuhr puts it. Or as resident aliens, as Stanley Hauerwas puts it. Hauerwas worries that Christianity has been colonized and tamed by American society, so that it no longer stands for much of anything different or separate from the culture at large.
Christian realism says that while self-interest comes first (Niebuhr is thinking primarily about politics among nations), we can mitigate the most destructive elements in politics by never forgetting the ideals of faith, hope, and love. The atomic bombing of Japan during World War Two was a sin because it was unnecessary for national survival.
Hauerwas holds that pacifism is the implication of the cross. Christ willingly died so that man may live. To live out the implications of pacifism, Christians must be willing to practice their faith in communities which do not contest the world, but set an example of what it means to live out our belief in every aspect of life. Serious Christians must become a diaspora community, resident aliens.
10. What I’ve learned is that I have a lot more to learn.
* Many of my posts are about what well-known religious thinkers believe. I’m sure almost all of them would disagree with much of what I have to say here. I’ve learned more in disagreement than in agreement with them. Without them, I would hardly have learned anything.