Saturday, May 31, 2008

Who Owns Jesus?

I’m not sure where this entry is headed. It comes as a result of two events: (1) a nice conversation I had with the pastor of my church about what happens when you have a faith community based on relationships instead of rules; and (2) various things I’ve been reading about Christianity.

As for the first item, there was one insight in particular that has been gnawing at my consciousness: If you have a faith community (i.e., a church or a religion or a group of like-minded believers) based on relationships instead of rules, then the bottom line is that there is no single path to forgiveness or redemption or salvation or eternal life or any of that stuff. The upshot of it is that nobody “owns” Jesus or the keys to heaven.

Remember that wonderful passage in the New Testament letter to the Romans in which Paul (or whoever really wrote it) says something to the effect of, “Yes, I know there are dietary restrictions that many Jews find it important to follow, but I don’t have to follow them because my faith isn’t about what I eat or drink or any of that. On the other hand, if it causes a problem for my brother-in-faith, I’ll observe those restrictions out of my love and respect for him and his beliefs.” (Yes, that’s very much a modern interpretation. For complete reading, check out Romans 14 (whole chapter), and 1 Corinthians 8:13.)

Basically, if your spirituality isn’t bound by laws, then you are free to seek it according to your own way, presuming you are not bringing harm to others. Therefore, I can’t say, “You’re not Catholic, so you’re not going to heaven.” Nor can I say, “You’re not Christian, so you’re not saved.”

As for the second item, I started reading two books by John Shelby Spong, a retired Anglican/Episcopal bishop. One of the books is Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture; the other is Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile.

I admit from the outset that I am at times gratified and at other times very much challenged by what this author writes about Christianity. As a woman, I have often experienced the second-class citizen status traditionally accorded by men of many faiths based on their traditional reading of the Bible. As a Christian, I am appalled by some of the stories in the Bible (particularly the story in Leviticus wherein Lot sacrifices his two young daughters to a marauding crowd in order to protect two angels – one preacher I’d listened to on that text turned my stomach). As a human being, I am furious with the Christian Imperialism I encounter on a daily basis (i.e., the idea that only Christians are beloved of God, and then only those Christians who fit a certain model).

On the other hand, I rather like believing in the corporeal resurrection of Jesus. I even sort of like believing in a magical virgin birth. I rather like the idea of miracles, to own the truth, because I rather like the idea that as human beings we have to admit that we can’t prove everything (and therefore we need faith). According to Spong, these magical things aren’t possible because science doesn’t support it. *sigh*

Spong has some excellent credentials and academic supporters. His critics can say the same. When I read some of the remarks of Spong’s critics, they show some weaknesses in Spong’s reasoning and interpretations.

The bottom line, however, is that I’m tired of the bickering.

While I appreciate Spong’s insight into various aspects of the original texts of the Bible, and while I recognize that the Bible is only the way it is because of the people who decided what made it into the book and what was rejected, I just don’t think that anybody really knows what the whole truth of it is.

But it can’t ever just stay that way, i.e., with everyone agreeing that no one really knows everything and therefore we shouldn’t be so easy to condemn one another when our beliefs don’t coincide. The Christian traditionalists and the Christian modernists seem to be engaged in a recruitment battle, each claiming he/she knows what the “real” truth is about Jesus, the Creator, Christianity, etc. (None of this takes into account the Jews and Muslims and everyone else from this tradition who are adamant that theirs is the only way to know God.)

On a flight from Dallas to Omaha this past Wednesday evening I was seated next to a man who works at the Open Door Mission in Omaha. As we were talking, he would insert some of the usual catch-phrases into the conversation. One I recall in particular was his remark about the problems of the homeless are rooted in the breakdown of the family, and he went on to describe the breakdown of the family as being caused in part by both parents working outside the home. He also said that getting a divorce was too easy.

I told him that I don’t believe that homosexuality is responsible for breaking down families. (This common cry among those who condemn homosexuality always brings to my mind images of homosexual gangs roaming neighborhoods in search of heterosexual families who don’t have their homes properly barricaded against these gun-toting intruders.) The breakdown of families comes as a result of people (1) having babies when they really aren’t economically or psychologically prepared for the responsibility, (2) parents who place their children at the emotional epicenter of their homes, and (3) marriage being too easy to obtain.

In the end, he certainly agreed with me that not all children of stay-at-home moms are the most mature kids in the world (and he gave an example of one of this own grandchildren) and that not all families with both parents working outside the home are falling apart. He also agreed that men and women were making babies before they were prepared to take on the whole responsibility that a family entails. And he laughingly agreed that marriage is possibly too easy to obtain. He didn’t take on the comment about homosexuality.

There: we found common ground without having to argue. He’ll probably go on believing the homosexuals are condemned just as I’ll certainly go on believing they are loved as they are in God’s eyes. Each of us thinks we’re right. Each of us remains a Christian.

OK, to tell the truth, I hope that this other guy’s faith experience opens up so that he doesn’t feel the need to cling to some ideas I think are unkind. But I’m not going to condemn him to hellfire and damnation just because he doesn’t see things my way.


Paul said...

Thanks Judith. That was a good post to read. I like your approach to look for the similarities rather than the differences, and not discounting other ideas merely because they're not Christian. (c: I wonder what the world would be like if we all thought that way...

Anyways, I'm quite a fan of Jack Spong. I may have a useful comment on something you said. Maybe not! I'll let you decide. You said "According to Spong, these magical things aren’t possible because science doesn’t support it." For me, when considering did the miracles happen, I don't ask "Is it possible the miracles really happened?" - because I don't know. Instead I ask "Is there a more reasonable explanation to the miracles than Jesus being a kind of super-magician?"

And, I think there is. There was an excellent interview done with Jack on Australian TV in 2001. It changed my life. You can read all about it here:

I'll post the relevant bit here, he's referring to the story of Jesus walking on water, apologies for length. (c:

Now if you're Jewish and you know that in the Jewish tradition there's the story of God's power over water and the Red Sea and God's power over water in a number of other episodes, so that God's power over water becomes something that you talk about liturgically. And if you read the psalms and the prophets you will find where they say, "our god is so great that our god can make a pathway for gods self in the deep, in the sea. And god's footprints can be seen upon the water." That's stated in the liturgy of the Jewish synagogue, that's part of the way they praised God, the God who has power over water. Now in the 1st century Jewish men and women believed that they met in the life of the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth the very presence of God. They couldn't describe it, they simply experienced it. And so when they wanted to write about them they took the god language out of their tradition. The god who can walk who can make a pathway in the deep, the god whose footprints can be seen upon the water, that's the god we believe we have experienced in Jesus of Nazareth. And so they create the story where anything God can do, Jesus can do.

Judith said...

Thanks for the kind words, Paul. I'll look up that broadcast. I expect that there are often more reasonable explanations for some miracles. I like the way Spong describes the use of language that makes it sound like they're describing a miracle when in fact they are using poetic license to describe something that really defies words at times. But I still believe in miracles. Like I said, I need to be because I need to believe that there is something/someone greater than myself. If human beings are the greatest (i.e., most powerful) beings around, I'd lose hope in an instant!