Commenter Jason, who seems to be related to ee cummings <g>, asks some good questions this morning about a posting I did a few years ago:
... as a non-believer (some call me atheist), this has been an intriguing article to stumble upon. frankly, i am at a loss as to understand how you can display such sound logic and skepticism, yet at the same time maintain a claim to be christian, or even religious at all. ...
... you say you are christian, which is to say that you do in fact have faith about certain metaphysical matters. how can you believe in a heaven or hell if the very source and support for that idea is something that you admit is not reliable?
... please contact me. your position is very interesting and new to me, as such i believe i can learn quite a bit from you.
Jason, I'm very glad you wrote. I'll try to respond succinctly, and I'm grateful to you for providing the impetus to do so.
Christian is as Christian does
I don't agree that, to call yourself a Christian, you have to "have faith about certain metaphysical matters." That puts me at odds with a large number of people who think that, to be a Christian, you have to believe in, for example, original sin and salvation through Jesus' atoning death. Personally, I'm not persuaded about these things (except to the extent that original sin is a metaphor for our inherent imperfection). I reject the idea that this disqualifies me from being a Christian, or from being 'saved,' whatever that means.
I think the Jesus described in the New Testament had a very different view than do these latter-day Christians. Jesus the Jewish reformer seemed to want people simply to serve God and one another. He stressed, correctly in my judgment (more about which below), the importance of the Great Commandment and Summary of the Law, which I would paraphrase along the following lines:
Acknowledge the Creator and commit your whole being to serving 'his' purposes. In particular, seek the best for your neighbor just as you do for yourself; and keep in mind that 'your neighbor' is not just your kinsman or countryman, but anyone who crosses your path, even your people's hereditary enemy.
In response to a question from an expert in Torah, Jesus is reported to have said, "do this and you will live [eternally]." (Luke 10.25-37.)
If we're to believe Jesus, it would seem that anyone who does these things may claim the title of "Christian," no matter what particular theological doctrines they happen to believe to be true.
FOOTNOTE: Some of my Christian friends will scoff that the preceding paragraph smacks of salvation by good works, which is anathema to many Protestants, instead of by faith. They argue that you cannot be 'saved' unless your faith is such that you truly "love the Lord." My response is that people usually can't control whether they "love" someone as we understand the term, so Jesus must have meant that we should <em>serve</em> God and our neighbor. Moreover, serving God and others by doing good works can cause a change of mind and heart — Greek: metanoia, usually translated as "repentance" — which can lead to precisely the faith that some Christians insist is a prerequisite to salvation.
FOOTNOTE: It's hard to believe (and we have no evidence) that God would punish someone for failing to believe the "right" things: so far as I can tell, what we happen to believe is something over which we have little or no volitional control. Of course, we can indeed sometimes talk ourselves into believing that which we really want to believe, regardless whether it's true.
Motivation: Reasons for doing what Jesus said to do
Of course we have to ask why we should seek to follow the Great Commandment and Summary of the Law. After all, as many have pointed out, these injunctions are by no means unique to Christianity; they come from Torah and are manifested in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
For many if not most Christians, the principal motivation is the claim that Jesus was God Incarnate, and therefore we should do what he said. I'm afraid that doesn't do it for me, nor has it ever for the majority of the world's population. Indeed, those of Jesus' followers who actually knew him in life didn't seem to think he was God. So Jesus' alleged divinity would not appear to require that we follow his teachings.
My own motivation is largely pragmatic. I've come to believe that, on the whole, following the Great Commandment and Summary of the Law is humanity's best bet for evolutionary success, and also for cosmic significance. In particular:
1. To me the evidence makes it quite likely that there is a Creator; undoubtedly not precisely like the God described in the Bible (who really knows?), but probably not entirely unlike that.
2. At least locally, the universe hasn't devolved into chaos, but has evolved into the relatively highly organized form we have today. And there's not much doubt that this constitutes "progress" as we define it, because few if any people, at any time in history, would permanently trade places with a random person who lived, say, 1,000 years previously.
3. The Great Commandment and Summary of the Law "just works." People who stay real, who don't worship their own wishful thinking, but who instead
live in the reality that the Creator wrought, are more likely to
survive and reproduce. And over the long term, altruistic cultures have proved more likely to survive and grow than narcissistic ones.
All this suggests that the Great Commandment and Summary of the Law summarize one of the fundamental mechanisms by which the Creator's universe is being caused to evolve. They appear to be like laws of nature. Doing the math, it seems entirely plausible that they were ordained by the Creator so that we would function as created co-creators in his continuing creation of the universe.
This possibility is supremely exciting to me. It might be just a matter of egotism, of my personal liking to be "where the action is," perhaps like Jesus' disciples James and John (and their mother!) importuning him to name them his chief lieutenants . If that's the case, it is what it is.
I can't be sure I'm right about this, of course. But every day we make bets, choosing particular ways to conduct our lives on the basis of uncertain information. This particular bet seems like an eminently worthwhile one.
FOOTNOTE: For an account of how I arrived at the above beliefs, see this posting about Why I Still Call Myself a Christian, and an Episcopalian.
FOOTNOTE: Some of my Christian friends criticize me for relying on "private judgment" in reaching the conclusions above. Ultimately, I believe, it's I who am responsible for use of whatever gifts of discernment and judgment have been entrusted to me. (Cf. the Parable of the Talents.) Prudent stewardship of those gifts will often entail choosing to rely on the judgment of others smarter or more knowledgeable than I. But in the end, "the buck stops here"; I'm the one who is accountable for my stewardship.
I also admire Jesus because he was faithful to his people and to God's calling as he understood it.
True, some of his early followers believed he was the long-awaited Anointed One, a man designated by God to become the warrior-king who would soon return to rescue Israel from oppression and usher in the Kingdom of God. The New Testament claims that Jesus himself believed this (although personally I'm skeptical about that). None of this happened, of course.
But that error is pretty inconsequential, as long as we're willing to face the facts, and not insist on living in a fantasy world. Jesus was human; being wrong on that point takes away nothing from his faithful pursuit of his duty as he saw it, even unto death.
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Thanks again for writing, Jason, and please do so again. You might read some of the postings listed in the right-hand column, if you haven't done so already.