Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thoughts on Christianity

Recently, I have found that a central part of my life up until now has come into personal doubt, probably more than any other time in my life.  I had grown up identifying as a Christian, mostly because my father is a pastor and church-life and community have been central parts of my life, more than most.

On top of this unique upbringing, I also was privileged to grow up in diverse, upper middle-class neighborhoods with good schools.  I think I have always struggled with some of the fundamental beliefs that are associated with Christianity, and also with perceived hypocrisy of many of the belief systems and cross culture.

A glaring example of this was the countless number of Christian denominations.  As a kid I couldn't understand the necessity for so many different churches.  They all claimed to be Christian places of worship, after all, however not all "Christians" are welcome in all "churches".

The other day, I realized that I do not readily share the fact that I am Christian, even when in company of other people who do identify readily as such.  I had been hiding for quite some time and I realized it was for a few reasons.
  • As learned in high school debate, religion is seldom a good topic to bring up in conversation, someone is going to get angry
  • I am not always good at articulating my personal belief system without sounding crass.  
  • lately, the term Christian has become synonymous with the American religious right, pro-life, the Bible Belt, the subjugation of women, and Creationists; all of which I would rather not be confused with
I do realize that hiding as a Christian, or at the very least some sort of intellectual Christian hybrid, is antithetical to being a Christian. As is stated in the gospels, specifically in Matthew 4:13-16, one shouldn't hide their light, but put it on a stand for all to see. Or, if that is too difficult to understand, -- stop hiding who you are. This is considerably more difficult recently due to what I'd like to call a hijacking of the religion by politically motivated zealots, and intellectually stunted fundamentalists.

I looked up fundamentalism earlier. Usually I only trust the Oxford English Dictionary to give me the best unaltered definition for a term. Most other commercial dictionaries (mirriam/webster) like to change things to be trendy... this is a subject for another post. The OED gives the definition of fundamentalism as follows:
  1. a strict adherence to ancient or fundamental doctrines, with no concessions to modern developments in thought or customs. 

  2. (specifically for Christianity) A religious movement,
    active among Protestant bodies in the United States after the war of 1914-1918, based on strict adherence to certain tenets (e.g. the literal inerrancy of scripture) held to be fundamental to the Christian faith.  
Just to be clear, inerrancy means it is never in error, and is assumed to be truth.  The biggest issue with fundamentalism I have is the inability for flexibility.  Peter J Gomes, the late Harvard professor/theologian stated:

"One of the many things one can say about this country is that we dislike complexity, so we make simple solutions to everything that we possibly can, even when the complex answer is obviously the correct answer or the more intriguing answer. We want a simple yes or no or flat out this or absolute that. And the notion that God can have two thoughts simultaneously, and that people didn't or don't think and talk like us is hard for us to believe."

Gomes was talking specifically about American Christians, and I think this holds true for the most part.  However, to be fair, this has more to do with fundamentalists in general.

I found this on the interwebs today.  It basically outlines Christian Fundamentalists mainline belief system very neatly, and highlights the problems involved with this kind of thought.  I can sum it up here pretty quick, although, I urge people to read it themselves.
  1. Inerrancy is based on the King James Bible of 1611, and that is the only true text
  2. the idea of belief in faith alone as preached by Augustine, and borrowed by Luther and Calvin, see all humans as depraved, born of sin, and also creates an idea of elitism.  Special chosen people are placed above normal mainline believers, much like Nietzche and Hegel's Superman theory.  
  3. there is a conscience effort to react back to a time when Christianity was simple and basic.  Puritan American has become the ideal, even though it is somewhat of a myth.  
  4. Democracy and Equality can not coexist in a Christian environment.  
  5. the reaction to modernism has opened Fundamentalism up to occultist, racist, hate-filled and paranoid beliefs and practices.  
There are several things I have issue with concerning these doctrines.  The biggest one is that after reading it all, it does seem like rules were made specifically to keep anyone from having to face newly discovered facts and have to restructure their belief system.  No one has to be reactionary if you don't believe in progress to start with.  Let's go over these points, starting with...

#1.  First of all the King James Bible was published in 1611.  That's 1578 years (nearly) since the death of Jesus.  Pretty sure we can find an earlier more reliable text, preferably one translated unbiased from Aramaic and Greek.  It was also translated by 6 groups of 10 people...  Christians are pretty trusting of nearly 60 Anglicans to not mess up the Word of God.  I suppose Christians ought to find one universal text to use, but why pick the one known to have the most errors?

#2 This pessimistic, self loathing idea of humanity leaves a sense of hopelessness to life in general.  Hope is a central theme in Christianity.  Not only does this destroy hope, but it also points fingers.  Also, the idea of Faith Alone allows people to ignore common sense, like snake handlers, and faith healers.  No matter how much one prays, broken bones and snake bites wont heal themselves.

On top of that, elevating some people to positions of impunity could lead to those positions taking advantage of others...  much like Catholic Priests take advantage of children.  That's right, I went there.

#3 Puritans were not really Americans anyway.  by 1776 the Puritan Ideal was mostly extinct.  Opposition to oppression of non-Puritans, the Salem witch trials, and Unitarianism led to a Puritan decline in the 1690s. The United States was founded in 1776... 80 years in the future, most of these Puritans would be dead.

#4 The United States is a democracy of sorts, and equality does pretty well here for the most part. There are a few Christian denominations that govern themselves democratically. This basically means statement 4 is false.
#5 The Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis, the Orange Volunteers, the MNCA, the Iron Guard, Army of God, Lambs of Christ, Westboro Baptist, and several Christian militia groups (think Timothy McVeigh) are all examples of groups that identify with Christian beliefs, just to give a few examples or extremist groups that promote occult, hateful, paranoid delusion.

One might question how groups like this can exist and call themselves Christian. As the very nature of hate seems impossible to exist in the same teachings as Christ. This is a valid question. But, remember, fundamentalists promote elitism. Most Christians, instead of talk about this issue, push it aside and refuse to acknowledge these groups as Christian, or that they even truly exist at all, or even worse, secretly sympathize. But no matter how much one denies them, these groups still think of themselves as Christian and self identify that way, doing the things they do in the name of God and Christ.

For me, being a Christian means a few basic things that ought to be foremost in the thinking and ideology of all Christians. These are things that I find essential to all Christians. These are as follows:
  • Golden Rule. I shouldn't have to explain this, since it is pretty universal. According to the Mahabharata 5, 1517 it is expressed as "do not unto others as you would not have them do unto you". In the Udana Varga it appears as "hurt not others in ways you yourself would find hurtful". The Talmud puts it best I believe when it states "What is hateful to you do not do unto your fellow man. This is the entire Law, the rest is just commentary" (Talmud, Shabat, 3id). This, as good Christians ought to know is the basis for Jesus's teaching of the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:1. Not only that, but it has its own parable as expressed by the Good Samaritan, which basically explains that no matter who the person is, they should be respected as a human being. This rule also pops up in Islam, Confucianism, the Tao, and even Zoroastrianism. Knowing this really gives no one an excuse to use any religion as a tool to do evil.  
  • Jesus Christ is the spiritual guide for the entire religion. He is the reason for the faith. Therefore I would think whatever Jesus is credited with saying in the gospels would be the ultimate fundamental building blocks. Not Paul and his letters, not Augustine, not Luther, just Jesus. Pretty sure this would clear up some theology that seems to be based on hate and oppression. What would Jesus do indeed?  
  • We know, from reading both the Old and New testaments, that Jesus (see above bullet) took old scripture and adapted it for his time and place and people. Therefore (I am going out on a limb here) Christianity must have been meant to be able to change. And since Jesus stated the two most important commandments of all are to A: love god above all else, and B: Golden Rule (see first bullet) one can assume that anything else that subjugates, oppresses, bullies, or murders human beings especially in the name of Christ would be antithetical.
This brings me to the real reason I'm writing about religion on my otherwise spiritual-less blog.  Christian-Americans. It is impossible to watch, or read the news without running into religiously motivated political rhetoric. I would like to clear things up, perhaps someone ought to comment to set me straight with good supporting evidence if I am wrong. I am pretty sure this country is a secular nation.

The Constitution in this country was in fact written by a bunch of dudes who lived their lives by Christian values, I suppose. But those values in 1776 did not match Puritan ethics from 1620. Most of the founding fathers one may want to name drop were truly Deists. A deist, according to the OED, is someone who believes that reason and observation of nature can prove that the universe has a creator and that this creator does not intervene in human affairs or change the natural laws of the universe. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Cornelius Harnett, Gouverneur Morris, Hugh Williamson, Thomas Paine, and possibly Alexander Hamilton and Ethan Allen were all Deist thinkers.
On top of that, the first Amendment to the Constitution, made law on December 15, 1791, makes it very clear in the Establishment Clause that Federal, State, or Municipal (means local government), establishment of a preferred religion is prohibited. This was originally written specifically for laws enacted by Congress, but Giltow vs New York in 1925 ruled that it (and the rest of the First Amendment) applies to all states as well.

Some would argue that this doesn't state separation of Church and State and that the Founding Fathers still meant to have a place for God in matters of state. However, Thomas Jefferson (writer of the Declaration, signer of the Constitution, Third president) confided in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (Connecticut) that separation of church and state is important for the safety of liberties both public and private. This would lead one to believe that the founding fathers did indeed intend for church and state to remain separate. On top of all of that, churches are exempt from taxes. It is my belief that if one doesn't contribute to the government, one should have no part of the governing affairs.

I have no problem with individuals using their faith to make good decisions, however. Moral and ethical codes are often linked to religious teachings (see golden rule stuff above). Even having officials in office use religious background to make policy, interpret rulings, and govern their actions is definitely acceptable to me.

However, religion is not the beginning and ending of decision making. Everyone should make informed opinions based on multiple sources for fact and truth, not just personal interpretations of the Bible alone. The idea of inerrant biblical truth as a tool to govern is silly and dangerous, especially in a nation where all of the constituents represented are not Christian from the same theological school. This is sloppy, irresponsible, and immature representation and should not be tolerated by any patriotic American.

An example of leading a nation using only inerrant biblical theology would be people who call themselves Christian referring to the Torah (first part of the Tenakh, first five books of the Old Testament) as a basis for arguments supporting anti-homosexual rhetoric. The idea behind this, is that combining ancient Jewish law with selections from Paul's letters (not Jesus's teachings) proves God condemns homosexuality, and therefore United States law should follow suit. I already established the need for separation of church and state earlier, but one cannot control another's bias. Also, the Torah is Jewish Law...  not necessarily Christian.  Plus, it leaves no flexibility for modernity. The Torah also bans pork, ham, bacon, pigskin, shellfish, blended fabrics, working on the Sabbath (Saturday or Sunday, take your pick), as well as a host of other rules concerning farming, marriage, food, etc.  Enacting law based purely on the Torah in America would not only drastically change the economy, but also change sports, and notions of family. Also public stoning for a variety of misdemeanors would be entirely acceptable. If you truly want to go by Talmudic Law, then become a Hasidic Jew. If you just want to pick which rules to follow, like some sort of religious buffet, then be open about it. Take pride in the fact that you are searching for biblical reasons to support your hate. Otherwise, let this one go.

In short, in this country, there is no us and them. Everyone is an American regardless of religion. The laws that govern the country, and the building blocks of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, are for everyone, not just Christians. Christians should be the first in line to defend and protect the rights of all Americans to free speech, free assemblage, and free worship. I am sick of hateful comments directed at other minority religions in this country by "Christians" which are based and fed by fear and misunderstanding.

Lastly, and possibly the thing that angers me the most is this desire to "save" people. Fundamentalist Christians have this arrogant view that if another person doesn't confess their undying devotion to Christ they must be sinners by default and have to "come to Christ". A good Christian is one who can share his faith with others. Remember the scripture from Matthew, don't hide yourself.  This of course leads eager Christians to proselytize to others, proclaiming Christ, elevating stories of people who have turned their life around, and shaming the ones that are more reluctant. Sounds a little misguided.

I do not mind the sharing of belief systems with others. Do not misconstrue. Methods used, such as inviting neighbors and friends to come with you to church, doing mission work in the name of Christ, etc, are all fantastic. The agendas behind some missions, though, bother me, especially when homosexuality is involved.

This is a touchy subject for Christians. There are passages from scripture that may be interpreted as expressing homosexuality as a sin. These are often lifted up by fundamentalists to denounce homosexuals and justify hateful protests, condemnation, and omittance. Most of the time when I broach this subject with Christian conservatives, they first of course deny that they hate anyone, but affirm that they believe homosexuality is a sin. They also deny that homosexuals are not encouraged to come to church, a practice pretty well documented. However, although they welcome homosexuals to come to church with them, the true reason behind it is the hope that the homosexual guest will begin to renounce "the lifestyle" and be "saved" (read no longer gay). It is this hidden agenda that angers and disappoints me the most.

I hope this "welcome under one condition" policy, and misguided, backhanded Christian sentiment changes. According to Tony Campolo, professor at Eastern University at St David's, this has already begun. "Jesus", he states, "never mentioned homosexuality. It just wasn't on his Top Ten list of sins. Number one on that list, however, are judgmental religious people who look for sins in the lives of others without dealing with the sin in their own lives".

Campolo goes on to talk about Lewis Smedes, a professor at Fuller Seminary. Smedes decided that although he did not believe that homosexuality was something that God has originally intended, it was something that does exist now, and as such, it is something we must handle. Lifelong committed relationships, Smede said, between homosexuals are indeed the "circumstantial will of God" and should be honored and protected by the Church. This is a HUGE step for Christians, as both of these men were upstanding evangelical preachers with much influence with the religious right in this country.

One can only hope things move along in a direction that can eventually see all people treated as human beings.

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