“So what exactly do you believe?”
“Do you really think Jesus was the son of God?”
“What the heck is a Jistian anyway?”
Over the years, as I’ve told people my story, these questions have come up on a regular basis. While I’ve certainly used this blog to discuss aspects of what I believe, I’ve never taken the time to develop a more thorough written response.
I will note that what follows simply reflects my current views. It’s been about seven years since I got baptized, and I’ve spent that time doing a lot of reading and thinking. But I have not yet had a chance to engage in any formal studies (something I’m hoping to start in the spring). There’s a good chance that my beliefs will change as a result of these studies, or based on constructive feedback from some of you.
In the meantime, I am writing this as a sort of benchmark of where my faith is at this time. I also hope that it may be helpful to the many people I have encountered who, like me, are looking for some middle path between complete atheism and swallowing traditional Christian doctrine whole. If nothing else, it shows the process I’ve used to forge that path.
So here’s what I believe:
1. I believe that there is some ultimate meaning and purpose to the universe and our place in it.
This is my initial, and in some ways most important leap of faith. I am not talking here about how the universe or humanity came to exist. Those ‘how’ questions are firmly in the realm of science, and I am in complete awe of how much hard-working scientists have discovered to help answer these questions.
What I’m talking about is why any of this exists. Is there an underlying purpose and meaning to our lives and to the universe? And it is in this normative realm that I find the answers from science to be woefully inadequate. As far as I can tell from my reading of atheist/scientist authors such as Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking, all that science can say is that existence is random – the result of dice being rolled enough times for our universe, planet and species to come into being. Some scientists such as Dawkins argue that we can still give meaning to our lives, but that any meaning we give is personal – just what we decide to create. As Dawkins puts it: “…our life is as meaningful, as full and as wonderful as we choose to make it.” While this is beautifully put, such an approach is essentially relativistic: it does not offer any foundation for a more universal meaning that would apply to all of our lives.
Others such as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt try to split the question into two parts. As he puts it in The Happiness Hypothesis, the Holy Question – ‘what is the meaning of life’ – should actually be broken down into two sub-questions:
- What is the purpose for which human beings were placed on Earth? Why are we here?
- How ought I to live? What should I do to have a good, happy, fulfilling and meaningful life?
Haidt argues that the two questions can be separated, and one can choose to answer the second question based on scientific evidence (what we can learn based on analyzing human psychology and neurology), while leaving the answer to the first question up for discussion among scientists and theologians. He does acknowledge that religion keeps these two questions together – with the answers to the first question guiding the answers to the second.
While this is a marginally better solution than what Dawkins offers (and I think it is actually closer to what Sam Harris is trying to get at in The Moral Landscape – namely that science can give us some compelling answers to what will lead to human flourishing), it still is to my mind something of an intellectual dodge – it still leaves the fundamental question of why we are here either unanswered, or answered with a deeply unsatisfying “just because”.
For some folks, that “just because” answer may be sufficient (Haidt relays his own process of struggling and overcoming just this sort of existential angst in his senior year of high school). But for others, it’s simply not enough. Folks like me keep pushing, wanting answers to the fundamental question. It’s kind of like the difference between a good rock climber and a bad one. A good rock climber never looks down. A bad rock climber can’t help herself – she knows that she shouldn’t because she needs to just focus on the path above if she’s ever going to make it to the top, but before she can stop herself she looks down anyway and sees this:
I’m a bad rock climber and I need an answer to that fundamental question, because otherwise I have this overwhelming urge to just let go of the rope.
With that in mind, I will share my next belief:
2. I believe that this ultimate meaning is God
This meaning/purpose – God -can never be fully grasped, but we can get glimmers of it now and then (what we tend to describe as experiencing the divine). The foundation of my faith is that there is something ‘more’ to existence than what science can or ever will prove. Paul Tillich’s concept of the Ground of Being is pretty much in line with how I think about God – in that it is not a Supreme Being, not some guy in the sky with a white flowing beard. Rather, it is that which suffuses our existence with significance and purpose. And yes, I know one could argue that if God is still ultimately a mystery, how is that any better than folks who just say there’s no meaning at all? But there’s actually a huge difference between believing that there’s no ultimate meaning to existence vs. believing that there is but having the humility not think you have all the answers. In the first scenario, you just give up looking for answers because you think there’s nothing to find. In the second scenario, you commit yourself to continuously searching for enlightenment. To my mind, that continuous searching for enlightenment describes what religion should be (although I fully acknowledge that often it is not).
3. I believe God is good
When I say that ‘God is good’, I mean that God affirms being as opposed to nothingness, meaning and purpose rather than chaos and meaninglessness. I don’t think this goodness means that life is necessarily always beneficial for any one individual or group at a particular point in time. Rather this goodness is about the universal big picture – that there is some ultimate plan and we all have a role that we can choose to play in it that leads towards affirming life and existence.
4. I am not so sure about many of the other claims made about God
Because I don’t think of God as a being, but rather as something more abstract and foundational to existence, I tend not to think about God’s omnipotence or omniscience, etc. I also find that these claims about God create a host of logical problems (see for example this poem by Karen Owen quoted by Richard Dawkins in the The God Delusion):
Can omniscient God, who
Knows the future, find
The omnipotence to
Change his Future mind?
As I wrote about in my last post, thinking about God as omnipotent can also conflict with any meaningful conception of free will (if everything is part of God’s plan, and God is in control of everything, then in what sense do we have real choice in what we do?). Furthermore, based on my reading of books such as Karen Armstrong’s History of God or Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, I now understand that the current conception of God (supreme being, omniscient, omnipotent, etc) has developed over time (the earliest Jews were not even truly monotheistic, but saw Yahweh as the top God over the other deities of the time). Bottom line – it seems to me that too often we turn our particular conception of God into a sort of idol – saying that if you don’t believe X or Y about God then you are a non-believer. But how do any of us know for sure what God is like?
5. The Bible is one very important source of insight about God, but is not the infallible, literal word of God.
For many people of faith, the answer to my question above is “Well, we know exactly what God is like because the Bible tells us, and God gave us the Bible!” Um, yeah, right. As I’ve covered in these posts, the Bible was written by humans over a period of roughly a millennium, recording oral traditions that had already often been passed on for many generations. Even the New Testament is in no way an ‘eye-witness’ account of Jesus’ life: the earliest parts of the New Testament are Paul’s letters – written in roughly 50 C.E. – 20 years after Christ’s death (and Paul never met the pre-Easter Jesus). The four gospels were written after that time – with the Gospel of John written at the end of the 1st century. Yes, the gospels (particularly the synoptic gospels) are based on earlier traditions, but Biblical scholars have identified many areas where insertions and modifications have been made. Not to mention that when we read the Bible today, we are reading it from a completely different perspective than that of ancient writers, and often develop incorrect interpretations as a result. For example, I am currently reading E.P. Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism, and he writes how people have misunderstood Jesus’ act of overturning the money changers’ tables in the Temple. In contemporary society we assume this is some sort of condemnation of commercial activity in the Temple, but in Jesus’ time, those tables were an integral part of worship – one had to purchase specific animals to sacrifice to God (based on rules about sacrifice outlined in Scripture). So Jesus’ action had nothing to do with condemning money changing or commercial activity, and most likely had something to do with his eschatological expectations that the end times were near and the Temple would soon be destroyed. Just this one example shows how much modern scholarship (in Biblical exegesis, Biblical archeology, ancient history, etc) has uncovered about the Bible. Given this, I don’t understand how anyone can simultaneously claim that the Bible is, in its entirety, the literal Word of God and also claim that they are in any way deploying their God-given minds.
What I do strongly believe is that the Bible (or at least many parts of it) is full of tremendous wisdom, poetry and insight, and that it does bear witness to the Jewish and early Christian people’s experience of the Divine. I see the Bible as one crucially important source for identifying those ‘glimmers of ultimate meaning’. For me, the most important glimmer has to do with the story of Jesus.
6. I believe that Jesus – his life, his teachings, and his entire story – shows us the purpose of human existence
As I wrote in this post, I see Jesus as the ultimate manifestation of what God envisions for humanity – what we should strive to be, and how we should view our lives. The description of Jesus as ‘The Word’ (John 1:1) seems spot on – because it emphasizes that Jesus’ life is a message to all of us. This is more than just saying ‘Jesus was a great teacher’ or a remarkable healer, although he was those things too. I believe that the entire narrative of his life – including his humble origins, his inexhaustible love towards others, the way he emphasized that all of us have the potential for redemption no matter how horrible our sin, his willingness to sacrifice his life, and the way that his spirit touched people after his death – all help us see what we should strive for in our own lives. I feel this way about Jesus in part because of the impact that studying Him has had on my own life (as I explained in my story) but also because I find Christ’s core message in all the major faith traditions, as well as many of the major secular philosophical traditions (see for example Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, which shows how loving they neighbor is a core to all the major faiths). This leads to my next belief:
7. I reject the claim that only people who ‘believe’ in Jesus are ‘saved’
Because Christ’s message is found in all the major faith traditions, and within secular traditions as well, I can not comprehend how people can claim that only those who make explicit belief statements about Jesus are ‘saved’. As I will discuss below, I also am pretty unsure about this whole ‘salvation’ business anyway – but even if I fully embraced the concept of an afterlife – I find this strand in Christianity deeply offensive to anyone who is trying to live a Christ-like life but just happens not to be a conservative Christian. I can’t see how Jesus would want us to live in a world where his existence led some people to consider themselves superior solely based on a belief, rather than on how they lived their lives.
8. I don’t believe Jesus was literally the Son of God, and I don’t believe most of the supernatural aspects of his story
I think Jesus was born the way we all were (note that the birth story doesn’t even appear in Mark, the oldest gospel, and that many Christian scholars agree the birth story was concocted later to bolster the claims that Jesus was the Messiah). I think he was a human being, not God. I can not accept that any human being – even Jesus – was somehow also divine. As someone raised Jewish, that just feels idolatrous. It also just doesn’t seem consistent with how Jesus even thought of himself: claiming to be the Messiah is NOT the same thing as claiming to be divine. The Messiah was supposed to be a divinely chosen human being who would usher in the end times in which Israel would be redeemed. It is because Israel did not experience any kind of political redemption at the time that most Jews then, and now, believe Jesus was not the Messiah. But to me I think perhaps the problem is that we were expecting the wrong kind of redemption. As a result of Jesus’ life and death, the ethical and theological core of Judaism ended up spreading around the globe in a way that it probably never could have otherwise (at least as long as they required all male adherents to practice circumcision!). The Jewish light did spread to all the nations, thanks to Jesus (and, quite frankly, thanks to the way his spirit touched the Apostle Paul). Which brings me to the next point:
9. I do think something happened after Jesus’ death that can’t be fully and rationally explained
I don’t know if there was a physical resurrection, or whether people literally saw Jesus or just felt his presence, but I think something inexplicable happened in which his spirit touched some of his followers. I can’t explain otherwise why his movement survived his crucifixion. Why in the world would Christ’s followers risk their lives and the threat of suffering the same torturous death as Jesus, unless they had experienced something that renewed their faith and gave them the desire to forge on? I particularly feel this given that Jesus was actually not the only one going around making Messianic claims at the time. There were several others (Simon of Peraea, Athronges, Judas the Galilean, etc) who all garnered a following and purportedly made Messianic claims. But none of them retained a following after their deaths. Why did Jesus’ legacy survive? I’m at least open to the possibility that there was something about Jesus that persisted after his physical demise.
10. I am agnostic about the afterlife
Although I think in some way that Jesus ‘conquered’ death, I am less certain about what that means for the rest of us. As the Coldplay song goes “Where do we go? Nobody knows”. Because there’s no way for us to know what happens after we die, I am not comfortable making this a major part of my belief system. It seems to me that believing or acting in certain ways based exclusively on the expectation of reward in the afterlife is problematic – because there’s no way to confirm whether you made a good bet. There’s no feedback loop. In contrast, if your faith is based on what works in this life, there’s some data to help you evaluate whether your faith leads to greater human flourishing. And I have found that a faith that embraces the existence of some ultimate purpose to the universe, a faith that is modeled on Christ, a faith that acknowledges that I am deeply imperfect but never gives up on my potential to be better – that faith leads to my personal flourishing and can work well for others too. So I don’t really focus on whether my actions in this life will lead me to be saved or damned in the life to come. I just try to be as good a person as I can, so that I can leave this world a little better than when I came, and a little closer to having God’s Kingdom come to us (rather than us go to it).
I should note that this last belief is unlikely to change as I age. My mother died of breast-cancer when she was 56. Since her untimely death, I have fully recognized that the end can come at any time, and I try to savor each day as the precious gift it is.
11. Most other aspects of orthodox Christian theology are not core to my beliefs
While I find it interesting to study the historical development and symbolism of such doctrines as the trinity, original sin, substitutionary atonement, etc, ) ultimately I tend to find them overly complicated, and the result of either taking the Bible too literally or political dynamics within the historical church leading to the need to establish an official position and label all those that did not adhere to that position as heretics. We live in very different times now (thank God), where folks like me can question these orthodoxies and determine for ourselves what makes sense.
12. A belief system is NOT the most valuable part of religion
Yep, that’s right. I just talked your ear off about all of my beliefs, but actually that’s not where I (or most other people of faith) get their real benefit from religion. Rather, the real benefits of religious affiliation come from being part of a community, participating in communal worship, being prompted to continuously help those in need, and integrating spirituality and prayer into daily life. Where religion really makes a difference in people’s lives is in their heart, not their heads. As Karen Armstrong puts it in The Case for God:
Religion is a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle.
Jonathan Haidt also covers the various psychological studies that show the ways that people experience positive psychological benefits from religious worship and participation (integrating into a social network, experiencing self-transcendence, etc). Haidt’s review of this evidence leads him to state:
If..perceptions of sacredness are an important part of human nature, then the scientific community should accept religiosity as a normal and healthy aspect of human nature – an aspect that is as deep, important, and interesting as sexuality or language….If religious people are right in believing that religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not be believe in God.
This seems to me like the best news of all. Because I see all around me folks who could really benefit from religious participation – if they could find religious communities and institutions that were truly open to questioning and seeking new answers to these age-old questions. I feel lucky to have found such a community. I have to honestly say that I am not sure if my beliefs really qualify me as a Christian, or a Jew. My beliefs are too Christ-centric to still be considered Judaism. But it may cut out a bit too much of traditional Christian theology to be completely Christian. And the more I learn about other faith traditions, the more I find pieces I like in each of them. I have a sneaking suspicion that by the end of my journey I may be a JistianIslamaHinDudist.
Regardless, I feel lucky to have found a church that is open to people like me. This church is a place where I go to ask questions, not just mindlessly receive answers. And I know I still share one common belief with the rest of my church friends: I can say that Jesus is my Lord and Savior. He is my Lord because he guides my life, and he’s my savior because he helps me never give up on myself.
Thanks for another articulate example of my definition of a truly faithful person – a person with curiosity, doubt, lack of rigidity, a non literalist who understands life is a metaphor, full of compassion and who is humble enough to know that NONE of us – we human beings – has “the answer” to the beautiful, terrifying thing we call life! For further reading I would suggest the following – Bishop John Shelby Spong’s books and weekly column (available online) and REIMAGINING CHRISTIANITY; RECONNECT YOUR SPIRIT WITHOUT DISCONNECTING YOUR MIND by Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral. And Pema Chodron with great Buddhist insights. I am hoping we might like to read the Jones one in our group this year, so you could get a head start! In the meantime keep enjoying the glories of summer with your wonderful family. I am off upstate again – to the Adirondacks with two old women friends.
I might even try to kayak!, before I have to go to school meetings! :^)
Joan, thanks so much for the kind words and the book recommendations. I’ve read two of Spong’s books (which of course is only the tip of the iceberg – he’s so prolific!) Will check out both your recommendations. Enjoy your time upstate – we’ve been doing a lot of camping on weekends and it’s been glorious…
Thank you for taking the time to write! I am so impressed with your mind and ability to express your understanding of faith & its meaning for our lives. I do agree with you.
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