Faith has always been a difficult endeavor for me. It would be simple and oddly comforting to simply accept the fundamental teachings of a particular sect of Christianity and look at things as either being entirely good or entirely evil. It would be much easier to simply abide by The Rules and have a template for behavior in every situation. When I was younger, I tried exactly that- to find a church with a set of rules that would define faith and cover every possible life situation. There are some out there who try to do exactly that, but as with any man-made endeavor, they fall painfully short.
The problem with the above is that The Rules, by nature cannot be 100% comprehensive, and holding the correct dogma never saved anyone anyway. (That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for dogma-there is- but dogma alone only turns people into legalists, i.e. Dana Carvey as the Church Lady.)
God gave out 10 Rules that no one, no matter how hard they tried, could truly abide by. The One Man Who could, was also God Himself- and we all know what happened to Jesus. We- collective humanity- crucified Him.
I know that many people disagree with the notion put forth in the Bible that humanity is essentially and organically evil, but there is a way to test that theory. Observe a group of toddlers interacting, or a group of teenage boys. For those who are into the theory that humanity is inherently good, spend a day in a daycare- or at the skate park.
As much as I don’t like the concept of shades of grey- I tend to be rather polarized in my thought processes- I have to acknowledge that there are times for cold rationality as well as for being subjective. As much as I like to take the rational no-nonsense approach to life in general, there are instances where rational thought gives no clear answers.
In matters of faith I tend to be very orthodox and by nature, conservative. The only problem with being particularly sticky on dogma is that some aspects of faith require a bit of radicalism and the courage to move beyond what’s comfortable. It’s not lost on me that Jesus hung out with the sorts of people who were shunned by polite society- tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, and other obnoxious types who weren’t considered to be particularly “good” or “spiritual.”
In a way that’s encouraging to me, as I know full well I’m not particularly “good,” and I struggle with things spiritual. It would be dangerous for me to assume that my perspective is the correct one. I’m not God and I wasn’t the one who devised the system. If anything, the way I’m wired is evidence of just how much is missing in my own processes, and how much I am not capable of understanding.
On the one hand, there are the non-negotiables of Christian faith- the most concise and comprehensive summary of which is the Apostle’s Creed:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic* Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
*”catholic”- (small “c”) means “universal” and is not a reference specifically to the Roman Catholic church, though the RCC is a part of the universal Church. Had to throw that out there.
If the Apostle’s Creed is “Christian faith in a nutshell,” then there is naturally a good bit of room for interpretation. Today there are numerous Christian sects and denominations that range from the ultra-conservative to the ultra-liberal in their interpretations of Scripture, and to the definition and scope of the church, but can still be considered to be within the realm of orthodox Christianity. Even within orthodox, confessional Lutheranism there is a good deal of dispute as to “what does this Scripture mean?” and “how does this teaching apply to me?”
Within Scripture you get some pretty clear black and whites. It’s generally considered Not Okay to go out and randomly kill people. It’s not cool to run out and steal stuff. Doing the wild thing with people other than one’s spouse- also not cool. Wanting other people’s stuff can also get you in trouble. The Ten Commandments- (see Exodus 20:2-17) those original Rules God put forth presumably to keep humanity in line- are precisely the rules that show us how evil we really are.
Be honest. Take the first Commandment. It’s easy to blow off at face value because most of us aren’t making little golden calves and bowing down to them, but deeper down, the one you serve is your god. How many people are actively and freely worshiping at the altar of the ego? The second is similar- that God needs to be acknowledged as being God alone, not as one of a pantheon of lesser gods, and not “God when it’s convenient for Him to be God.”
I am toast right there at that point. Even before we get to the third- not taking the Name of God in vain. Misusing the Name of God is not quite the same as using the garden variety cuss words, but suffice to say God’s last name is not Dammit, no matter how pissed off I am.
The fourth- about observing a Sabbath rest, I am truly not very observant of that. I don’t take one day a week and reserve that day for rest and prayer and meditation. I should, as it would be good for my sanity, but I don’t.
So now that I know I’m highly inconsistent at best in how I relate to and regard God, as we go through the fifth through tenth Commandments, I get to see how abysmally I relate to my fellow humans.
Honoring one’s mother and father goes beyond just being chummy with one’s parents. I have a relatively good rapport with my parents and I do respect them, but this Commandment is deeper than that. Like most parents (and definitely including myself) my parents aren’t always admirable. They fight. Not physical fighting, but verbal sparring. Constantly. When we were kids they made a lot of mistakes. Duh, but in their defense, they probably didn’t make nearly as many mistakes as I made attempting to raise my own son. The idea here is not just respecting your parents, as flawed and fallible as they are, but also respecting civil authority and the rule of law. I am no paragon of morality in this regard either. I struggle intensely with trying to be respectful of my country’s government when I believe that the current crop of leaders have few if any redeeming virtues.
I can say with certainty that I’m not a serial killer, or even a one-time killer as far as that goes. But I am guilty of speaking evil. I have done things that have been damaging to others, believe that.
The seventh Commandment is self explanatory and yes, I’ve screwed that one up too.
As far as stealing goes it doesn’t suffice to say that everyone cuts corners here and there. Yes I am guilty of stealing- even in very small ways, all the time. And while we’re at it, I also lie.
I find myself lusting after that Porsche Boxster I see passing me on I-270 every once in awhile. Believe that too.
You gotta admit, this is a tasty car.
Obviously I can’t live up to the Rules. Not hardly. But the invitation Jesus gives is radical. He says, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6) It’s no longer about whether or not I can live up to the Rules (because I can’t) but whether I trust Jesus when He says He is God.
Now we can get stuck on the peripherals. Who is “in” and who is “out”? It’s easy for me to say, “the Rules say you’re out,” especially when there are clear cut examples in Scripture that forbid certain behaviors or lifestyles. It gets a little stickier when I remember that I’m just as much of a Rule-Breaker, albeit in different ways. If all sins are evil and offend God, what makes one sin worse than another other than the sin’s impact upon others? All churches have gossips, but not all churches welcome queers. Is it worse to be a gossip or to be a queer?
The wrestling comes in when it’s correct dogma versus loving people and treating one’s neighbor as one’s self. On one hand, one can successfully argue that the dogma is in place as a protective boundary. The religious prohibitions against everything from murder and adultery to certain foods were originally put in place to protect people from the consequences of their behavior. Killing people doesn’t do much for increasing a society’s population or for maintaining order. Indiscriminate sex with multiple partners leads to unplanned pregnancy, disease, and jealous confrontations. Eating certain foods (i.e. pork) could lead to disease because people were unaware of the proper cooking techniques. Rules are protective boundaries, and are not necessarily meant to be punitive, though I like a good ham as much as anyone.
Today what were once clear lines have become grey areas. Some people believe (and manage to rationalize) that murder is acceptable if it occurs very early in life (abortion) and/or very late in life (euthanasia.) I know there are people who use what I call the Logan’s Run rationalization for selective killing- that society is overcrowded and that it’s not only acceptable but desirable to “cull the herd.” The problem with this mentality is that it very quickly morphs into eugenics- and comes down to two cruel questions. Who deserves to live? Who needs to die?
Genetics is a rather inexact science. There are no guarantees that two parents with flawless physiques and high IQs will have brilliant, beautiful children. There is no guarantee that two parents of rather dismal physical and/or mental health will bring forth equally flawed children.
I would also pose another question: whose right is it to decide who lives and who dies? Can one successfully argue that society is better served by eliminating “inconvenient” lives?
I have to admit that I find it difficult to find common ground with those who go on about “abortion rights” as if somehow fetuses magically appeared in uteri without any input at all from either parental unit. We all know how the science works. There is infinite time for “choice” before the act that leads up to conception. Given that 98% + of all pregnancies begin with a consensual sex act, (and I am not referring to the less than 2% of pregnancies that do not) there is a valid argument for making the choice before consummating the act. This all goes back to personal responsibility and rules as boundaries surrounding behavior. What is so draconian or unreasonable to expect people to take responsibility for their actions? What is so cruel or unfeeling in asserting that life has value from the very beginning and should be protected?
If that sounds cruel or harsh of me to insist that individuals are responsible for the consequences of their sexual behavior, I’m not the one who came up with the biological process. I think the deeper question goes back to the age old prohibitions- why did God in His wisdom insist that murder is not OK, and why did God insist that there is a proper context for sex?
I struggle with the reality that other Christians see these issues differently than I do. I am challenged by the notion that there are people who claim to be Christian, yet hold the “abortion rights” position because they believe there’s something positive about it. When I think about that I understand that there are the special circumstances- the less than 2% of pregnancies aborted because of profound birth defects or rape or incest- that call for a different perspective. But as hard as I try to see some sort of rationalization for the typical “convenience” abortion I fail to see it. I keep going back to Psalm 139:13-16. There are some things we humans are not necessarily meant to have dominion over.