A Response to Zhubin, Part 2
[I]f you can reduce the unfathomable diversity of spiritual thought throughout human history to a set of enumerated beliefs that must be literally accepted, and you honestly believe that anything less will be punished with eternal suffering, then our conversation is over, and you can shut the fuck up about the beauty of your faith. It's ugly, through and through.How did this happen? When did "God loves you so much he sent his Son to die for you and freely offers you grace if you will accept it" become "join us or die"?
Certainly much of the blame falls on Christians. From the fire-and-brimstone preachers to the smug bumper stickers, Christians have often portrayed hell as eternal, horrific torture meted out on people for not being Christians. I can't read Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God" without getting pissed off. The God who "holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire [and] abhors you" is not the God I recognize.
But let's start over. Let me explain precisely what I think is beautiful about the faith I follow and the Christian God I believe in. This may not interest you, but if any of my readers believe, like Zhubin, that Christianity is "ugly, through and through" I'd appreciate if you'd at least listen to my reasons for disagreeing.
It starts with the ugly - but hard to dispute - idea that we humans screw up. A lot. Just look around you. There's war, addiction, emotional cruelty, injustice, broken friendships, failed marriages, ruined ecosystems, lies, manipulation, poverty, selfishness. Who among us has perfectly lived up to even his or her own standards of right and wrong, much less any external system of morality (whether that system comes from religion or otherwise)? If we're not guilty of murder, then I bet we're still guilty of indifference or even the occasional cruelty toward our fellow human beings. The religious term for this state is "sin", but you can call it what you like.
The other opening idea of my faith is a perfect God who (a) desires a personal relationship with each of us and (b) knows what's best for us. (Hey, he made us. Just like the manufacturer of an I-Pod knows best how to operate it and how not to.) But here's the key - by acting out our moral failings....by choosing our own way instead of his, we are personally rejecting him. We are severing that relationship. If we keep it up for a lifetime, we have freely chosen to be apart from God and He finally lets us stay away from him.
And that's what Hell is. It's an eternal separation from God. It's not, as is sometimes popularly portrayed, an eternal torture chamber to punish people for not being Christian. Don't get me wrong, eternal separation from God is horrible....we were designed for a relationship with him. But it is something freely chosen, not something imposed upon people for being in the "outsider" group.
Here's where the beauty part comes in. Despite our freely chosen rejection of him, God reached out to us anyway. He chose to come down in human form to be among us. While here, he healed the sick, hung out with society's rejects, and taught about radical, self-sacrificing love. And then, while we were still mired in our failings and self-absorption, he backed his words up with actions. By willingly suffering a horrific death and rising back to life, he took the guilt for our wrongdoing and re-opened the path to re-establishing our relationship with him. It's still our choice whether we want to take that path and establish that relationship; he hasn't robbed us of our free will. But he's given us a way.
A God who doesn't just look down from on high at our plight as screwed-up, broken souls....but who actively joins us and suffers with us......who makes the ultimate sacrifice so that we have the choice of a relationship with him. There's a word to describe that: Love.
In addition to the ultimate example of love in the form of Jesus, Christianity gives me teachings like "love your neighbor as yourself" and even "love your enemy", teachings so radical and earth-shattering that they would transform the world if only they were lived up to....and have transformed the world in part whenever people have lived up to them. (I once discussed the radical nature of these teachings here. Zhubin commented extensively on that post, though for some reason his comments are now attributed to "anonymous.") Beautiful? Damn straight it is.
The great failing of the church is how rarely we Christians have lived up to those teachings, and how often we have failed to convey the beauty of the teachings and of the actions of Jesus. But that's an indictment of Christians, not Christianity. (And that's not really what Zhubin was complaining about in the quote above, anyway.)
So, if you want to criticize the James Dobsons and Ralph Reeds of the world, I'm right there with you and will join you. (Heck, it's how I began this blog just over 2 years ago.) If you want to criticize the Jim Wallises and Tony Campolos of the world, I'm willing to listen and maybe agree. If you want to criticize the Mother Teresas and Martin Luther Kings of the world....well, I'll have to respectfully, but vehemently disagree with you. But still, let's talk. If you want to criticize me.....well, I may well deserve it and I hope I'll be grown-up enough to listen.
Christians are often - but not always - an ugly bunch, which is a damn shame given the beliefs we supposedly espouse. But Christianity is beautiful and no, I will not shut the fuck up about it.