Saturday, 19 April 2014

Questions from a friend who is not a Christian

Questions from a friend who is not a Christian

I found an old letter I wrote to a friend and I thought I would share it. I took out anything that would specifically identify this person, but I thought a few of you might be interested is reading it. I wrote the letter in response to a number of questions that arose for my friend after having a discussion with a few Christians. This was a few years ago, so I think I would have a bit of a discussion with myself around a few of the answers. 

First off, I want to say that we are all on a journey. Don’t think that just because I have found my path that I am not continuing to be challenged and not asking questions.
In terms of religions, while they can teach some good and wonderful things, they can teach horrible things too. In Denmark there was a discovery of (what was believed to be) remnants of a Druid ritual. This discovery was of a body in a bog, he became known as “Tollund man”. This man was believed to have died as the result of a “Pagan” religious rite that involved feeding him poison, hanging him, and drowning him. The druids were described by the Romans as being very wise, but also “bathed up to their elbows in blood”. I admire their connection to nature, but can’t admire their sacrifices.  But, this wasn’t all that uncommon is many earlier religions. In the Middle East, There were religions that asked you to kill your baby.  Some religions had temple prostitutes who were boys and girls that would be forced to perform sexual acts as part of fertility rituals. Most religions demanded animal sacrifices. There were also violent extremist forms of religion like the ancient Jewish sect known as the “Zealots”, who were very much like the modern violent terrorists. But, surely we can’t consider these as acceptable ways to commune with God. (This is where everyone brings up the crusades, etc., but can you really imagine Jesus on a horse swinging a sword and killing people?)  Obviously, this isn’t to say that there aren’t good and beautiful things in religions as well.  (The above might make me sound a bit harsh, but religions in the past had a real violent side and were not fluffy as some romanticize them.)
Honestly, all modern religions have problems within them (including Christianity, for me that’s actually part of the fun, I grow more spiritually as I try to understand these things). For example, within Buddhism it is hard to understand the ideas of “no self/soul” and reincarnation or ancestor veneration existing together.  Religion is sometimes about growing into it rather than finding one that matches what we already believe. If what we already believe is already correct, then why follow a religion? If we are to learn from it, then it can’t match our beliefs 100%. We should also look seriously at where our beliefs and assumptions about spirituality have come from. 
Personally, I believe that Jesus is the path to God, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus can’t also exist in other religions. If truth is true then it all has the same source. Anything good comes from that one source.  I think that the truth and goodness of Jesus lives in Buddhist compassion as well. As the 1st letter of John says,
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
So truly “knowing” love is knowing God. I believe in the possibility that Gandhi and the Dalai Lama know this love.  God is universal.  I think that everyone has some sort of relationship with God.  It might be a neglected relationship, or a flourishing relationship, or anywhere in between. But, a relationship exists between people and their maker and sustainer.  
(Of course a Buddhist might say that the seed of Buddha nature exists in the teachings of Christ, so it depends which lens you look through)  
C.S. Lewis (children’s author and theologian), in “The Last Battle” (I think), describes a soldier who worships a false God named “Tash”.  The soldier dies and finds out that Aslan is the true king and thinks he is lost because he followed a false god.  Aslan says to him that he and Tash are not one and the same- they are actually opposites.  Aslan says, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to him, for I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know not, and it is I who reward him.”
All this is to say that everyone is born in different places, with different surroundings, with a different upbringing, and with different abilities.  God is merciful and loving and takes all of this into account. (If you want to have a discussion around heaven and hell, and the afterlife I’m up for that too) I believe that religions are human attempts to reach towards God. I really do think that God honors the reaching.  I have a personal bias here, but I think that Christianity is God reaching back.  
                The reason I became a Christian was because of certain things that Jesus said that rang true in the deepest part of my being- I’ll keep it short-
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy”. But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
"Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.
These are the verses that rang true to me and made me start taking Jesus seriously.  He emphasized love so much- love for everyone, even those nailing him to the cross. I just thought that if his message is Love and it feels that true to me, then I think I can trust him with the other things he taught. This isn’t to say “BING” all of a sudden I’m a Christian.  I grew into it, slowly.  At first I didn’t accept a lot of what was written (I still have a hard time with some things), but my belief in the emphasis on Love was enough for me to override what I didn’t believe in Christianity.  Slowly more of it made sense, but in a deeper way than the way I first understood it.
                The comment was made that feelings are unreliable. I don’t think we should push that too far.  Feelings are part of who we are, but they have to be given their place.  Emotions are good servants, but bad masters.  My feelings are part of what brought me to Christianity, but when confronted with whether the battle of waterloo was fought on June 18th, 1885, and was Napoleon’s last battle, I can’t rely on my emotions. I can’t say I feel like it was 1887. There are certain things emotions can’t be used for.    
As for joining a church- originally there wasn’t really a “church” as we understand it now. (A building people go to in order to do “Christian stuff”). It was a group of people that believed in what Jesus taught and that he was raised from the dead.  These first Christians gathered to pray, worship, give thanks, organize to help the poor, learn to be more like Jesus, and basically hang out and support each other. This is really what “Church” was originally.
As far as God being male- I don’t think God has a penis, so I’m not all that tied to God being male. So if someone wanted to call God “Mother”, I wouldn’t have a big problem with it. (God is even described in the scriptures as a mother hen gathering Her chicks under her wing.) I am against calling God “It”, mostly because it is very impersonal and God is a very personal God.  So I usually resort to the historical “Him/Father”, just because there is no personal neuter pronoun in English.
I know this is all over the place, and I probably didn’t answer some of the questions you have (maybe you have more now), but I hope this can turn into a dialogue. Just so I don’t write a book and bore you to death I’ll stop here, but please write me back concerning what you’re thinking.

Second Letter
I’ve been thinking a lot about the discussion you sent me, and I realized that there were quite a few questions I didn’t reply to.  I hope you don’t mind, but I edited your posts so I can reply to them a bit at a time.  I know I’m literally taking your questions out of contexts, but I’ll try to keep the broader context of the discussion board in mind.

I liked what was said about children/people who had not had a chance to learn about Christianity on the other thread. But that still leaves people like "us" going to Hell or purgatory or I don't know, wherever. Here's the thing. I have given Christianity a chance. I don't think it is bad. It just did not feel true to me. Why do you think that was (I'm asking more the Christians here)? I mean, if any religion (not just Christianity) is true, shouldn't anyone who learns of it feel the truth? Why do some, and not others? I have studied a LOT on many different religions and found pieces that felt true in all different places. But would it be better to choose to follow Christianity even though it doesn't feel true to me, based on the claim that it will "save" me? What about alllllll the other religions which claim to be the one true religion? I think it is wonderful when a person finds a religion that feels true to them (or are raised in one), but what about those of us to whom none of them feel true?

I’m a little interested to hear what was said that left you thinking that you were going to “hell, purgatory, or whatever”. There are a few ways to understand how one gets “saved”.  (C.S. Lewis has a good book on this called “the Great Divorce”). Some views are exclusive (only those chosen, or who choose a particular path willfully, get into to heaven). Some are inclusive (those who embrace the truth, as far as they are able, get into heaven). Some are universalistic (Everyone eventually gets into heaven).  Origen (an ancient Christian 185-254 AD) even believed that the devil would eventually be saved and brought into oneness with God. Of course, there are debates regarding which of these makes the most sense regarding rationality, scripture, experience, and tradition.
Regarding not “feeling it”- I really think it depends on who you are, what your circumstances are, what message is being displayed, etc.  For example, say you have never been to a church and didn’t know anything about Christianity, then a relative died and you go to that person’s funeral, which is held in a Christian church (also depending on which style of church).  That person, in that state of mind is going to have a very different perception of what “Christian” is, as opposed to someone who walks into a cathedral for a candle-lit Christmas Eve service. 
Also, people have different personalities.  This comes out in the different churches as well.  Some people are very emotional and like to physically express their belief.  So, for this person, a Pentecostal church, where some people wave their arms in the air and run up and down the aisles, might be perfect.  Or, they might like a Catholic, high-Anglican, or Eastern Orthodox, church which involves kneeling, bowing, crossing yourself, standing, incense, and traveling to the altar to receive the bread and wine. Some people might be more inwardly driven, so they might like a Quaker church, which is filled with silence and meditation, and “waiting” for God.  Some might like to sing, so a Christian Reformed Church or other evangelical church might be what they are looking for. All these churches (there are also many more) represent a different emphasis, style, and personality which is also present in the Bible. Jesus’ disciples had different personalities too. Thomas was an “I need to see it to believe it” kind of guy, while Peter was headstrong and tended to leap before he looked sometimes. Mary liked to sit and learn, while Martha liked to serve. 
Besides church styles there are also devotional styles.  There are many kinds of prayer ranging from walking labyrinths, to imagining yourself in the biblical stories, to asking for things, to sitting quietly waiting for God to speak, to repetitive prayer (like the rosary or the “Jesus prayer”) to other forms of creative prayer (some people paint, write poetry, journal, etc). Some people like history, so they get right into the archeology of the first century. Others are more inclined to like mysticism, so they read Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, or Thomas Merton.  Some like philosophy so they read C.S. Lewis, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, or William Lane Craig. Many focus on social Christianity (all should to some degree) so they work in homeless shelters, soup kitchens, raise money to help with the aids crisis, protest wars, etc.  
An encounter with any of these flavors of Christianity can be positive or negative depending on who you are.  Because of my personality, there are churches that I have gone to and not really “felt it” either.  I still respect what they do, and I think they are doing something that some people need, but I’m not one of those people.  Like TV evangelists- I just can’t watch them (I actually don’t understand how anyone can).  So given the variety of churches and flavors of Christianity I’m not surprised that a particular church, or “flavor” didn’t work for them.      
Regarding other religions- I have a great respect for other religions, but I do have a bias. If God is love, then the degree to which those religions teach, express, embody, love is the degree to which they are true. The degree to which they don’t embody love is the degree to which they are false.   I have been all over the religious map myself (I even got a degree in religious studies), but I found the purest form of that love expressed in Christ. Of course this doesn’t mean Christians are perfect, or that some Christians aren’t assholes, but Christianity at its best (I’m thinking of Mother Theresa and St. Francis of Assisi) expresses a very pure love.        
So, as someone who has basically NO religious background (while my parents took me to a church for about 6 months when I was very young, we did not have any strong, set religious background in our house but rather a looser set of moral rules), how would I find the TRUE religion?
                That’s a really good question. My first reaction is that you have to feel some sort of draw to it. That draw should then be backed up by history, and some sort of consistent philosophy. 
                Initially the draw can be either positive or negative.  It can be like a calling, or it can be the feeling that something isn’t right or something is missing.
So, if I use myself as an example. After much searching (through Neo-paganism, Wicca, and Buddhism, mostly) I began to feel a draw towards Christianity (this is the Coles notes version). After I felt that draw/curiosity, I began to read the New Testament (back half of the Bible). It began to show me ideas that strengthened that draw.  After a while I began looking at history and asking questions- Was there actually a person named “Jesus” living in the first century?  How can I trust the writings that have been handed down to us?  Is there a place called Israel? Who were other Christians and how did they live (dessert fathers, Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, the crusaders, Thomas Merton, Theresa of Avila, and William Wilberforce)?  I also started asking philosophical questions- Can you prove that God exists? Can you prove that God doesn’t exist? Can you prove that there is an afterlife? Is Christian belief consistent, does it make sense? Where did the universe come from? I asked these questions to God in prayer, too. I answered these questions the best I could (it doesn’t mean I answered them all, but I spent time seriously looking) and in this search the draw kept getting stronger and stronger, eventually I just said, “I think this stuff is real”.
There was other weirdness along the way too, strange dreams and experiences, which helped strengthen the draw as well.
So my short answer is- I don’t know how you find “True Religion”, but chances are that if the history supports it, then there is a better chance that it wasn’t made up 50 years ago by someone down the street who was high on PCP.  I know that probably doesn’t help all that much, sorry.

I guess one thing that I'm wondering is, since I believe that I already have a relationship with God; I seek guidance from different religious sources to become a better person; and I am very cogniscent of how my actions affect others and the world around me - what reason is there to join a church? I have never understood how accepting God into my life through the form of a ritual, when I have had had "him" in my life always, and that is well-understood between he and I, would "save" me. Doesn't God know that I accept him? Even if I don't specifically pray to Jesus?
I think there are a lot of reasons to join a church, but there are a lot of reasons to stay away.  When one really gets involved in a church it is an amazing sense of community (if it’s a good church, and once you’ve been there for a while). So they will come together to support you if you need them.  For example, after I decided I was moving out to Toronto on the last Sunday we were at church, they gave me cake and people were crying and they ended up giving me funds to help us get settled out here. They were giving me numbers of their friends and family that live out this way.  It really became a family to me. 
                Another reason to join is to grow spiritually (if it’s a good church) there are spiritual mentors who can help you learn to pray, to meditate, to think about God and the world, and to wrestle with hard questions. They recommend good books to read, and we would discuss them (it’s hard to wade through the horrible religious books out there; for every good one that’s published there are 50 awful ones). And, if I was having a bad day, they always knew how to pick me up if I was down.  It’s amazingly supportive (if it’s a good church), and I also had a lot of fun with them.  The church would have Christmas dinners and harvest dinners and we would laugh, dance, and I would get teased by old guys.    
                But, this doesn’t mean that my church was perfect. This might sound strange, but I found that I’ve had to learn to be more open minded to exist in a church.  There are a lot of different personalities, styles, and philosophies held by the people in any particular church.  So I’ve had to learn to be tolerant of people who believe differently than me (some just have a personality that clashes with mine). But, I’ve not only had to learn to tolerate them, I’ve learned to love them.  I’ve learned to widen my idea of family and community to include those I’d rather hide from. So just having to be there every Sunday with some people that I don’t get along with has helped me grow spiritually into a more tolerant and loving person (I hope).
                You’ve also probably noticed that I said, “If it’s a good church” many many times.  That’s because there are bad ones out there that try to close your mind, control you, make you feel guilty all the time, etc.  Churches like this aren’t living in the love that Jesus taught, and it’s not worth “toughing it out” in these churches. Where there are humans there is error, so don’t expect to find a “perfect” church either. A famous quote is “if you find a perfect church don’t join it because you’ll wreck it”. None of us are perfect so if you get a bunch of imperfect people in one place you will have an imperfect group of people.
                Ritual is something that I have come to love.  It really is a way to bring creation into our religious life.  Burning sweet-grass is a ritual, so is communion and baptism.  It keeps us from over-spiritualizing to the point that we start to think that the world is evil.  So God enters the bread and wine, and this reminds us that God is here, real, as real as this bread and wine. The rituals are signs of a deeper (spiritual-physical) reality.  The ritual breaks down the dichotomy between spiritual and physical.  The bread becomes both spiritual and physical. The ritual also gets our whole selves involved. Rather than only practicing our religion in our heads it reminds us that our taste-buds have to get involved too. There are even seasons in the church so the seasons of fall, winter, spring and summer, are related to church seasons.  This helps us see our world as part of our religion.  So, the season when we specifically remember that Jesus rose from the dead (Easter) is in spring, which is when we watch new plants growing out of the soil after a long winter.   
                Church also gets us to practice our religion even when we might not feel like it.  God isn’t any less real because we don’t feel him.  Church lets us come back to ourselves and remember to be aware of God’s presence.                 
I think it’s awesome that you have a relationship with God. I guess you’re referring to the formal act of “Accepting Jesus into my life as my personal savior”.  Sometimes this is used as a magic spell that saves one from the fires of hell, but I think salvation is a bit deeper than saying a few words. It has to do with your whole being, your actions and your beliefs- who you are.  Christ is said to be God incarnate.  God came to earth in Jesus.  Through his teachings and following his love (and accepting his love), a love that continues to love those who are killing you (nailing you to a cross), we become closer connected to God.  We are made in the image of God, but that image is smudged. As we follow the love Jesus taught, that smudge gets cleaned up so that we can better reflect God. This brings us closer to God.  I don’t think it is a matter of knowing God or not knowing God. I think it’s a matter of degree of closeness.  We are to continue to move closer and closer until we find our union with Him (I described my pronoun use in the other email I sent, I believe).

 why, if I have made a commitment to my God (let's say this could be any God of any religion), and my God represents the same morals as another God, what is the difference? Do you see what I'm getting at? I guess my issue is that because I believe all religions are right, and there is only one God that has been given different names by different peoples, then it shouldn't actually matter which one you follow as long as you're moving toward the truth.
So your question is why chose one religion over another one?  That’s a hard one to answer.  I guess I can only really describe what the difference is for me. When I was searching I would practice a little from this and a little from that, but once I got bored with it I would move on.  It was a big field and I had a lot of stuff I wanted to try out.  So I imagine it like a big desert with shovels scattered everywhere.  Some shovels might be better than others and some shovels might be in better places than others.  When I was searching I was trying out shovels, digging holes here and there.  But, because I was all over the place digging little holes, I didn’t get very deep, even though I was doing a lot of digging.  Eventually, I picked a shovel I liked and kept digging and digging and digging, eventually I found water.  That is how it felt for me.  I don’t know if there is water where the other shovels are, and I don’t know how good the shovels are, but this one works for me and I found the water I was looking for.  
                Now, I’m not saying that this is the experience of everyone, and I’m not saying that other religions are wrong, I really don’t know.  I think they all have elements of love in them.  I have a great respect for Zen, which in practice is similar to centering prayer that I practice, so I don’t want you to think I’m coming down on other religions.  I’m just saying that this was my experience. 

 But it kind of seems like people would be enticed to become Christian because it seems like an easy ride. You know, accept Jesus, and that's it, you're saved. You never have to be a good person (don't worry, I realize that Christianity isn't about encouraging people to be lazy, I totally get that), because you're already set. The way I am living now, I do feel a power within me that drives me to be a better person, and empowers me to be such. I am NOT saying that Christianity is wrong, I absolutely promise you. I really don't want this to come out the wrong way. But isn't there something good about self effort?
The bible actually refers to the Christian path as taking up your cross and following Christ.  So yes, the Christian life is supposed to be filled with effort, but a joyful effort.  The letter of James says that “faith without works is dead”.  Basically, if you say you love but don’t show it in real genuine ways, then you’re pretty much a liar. If you really believe it then it would just come out of you.  Like if someone says they love playing basketball but never play (even though they have the opportunity), do they really love playing basketball? So the effort to do good because of love is drastically important.  Jesus said that there are two commandments you have to follow- Love God, and love everyone else.  Both of these are two sides of the same coin.  You can’t love God unless you love your neighbor, and you can’t really love you neighbor unless you act in loving ways towards them (as long as you’re able). I have come to understand Christianity as an eternal growth. I believe we will eternally be drawn closer and closer to God. That involves practices and discipline. For 2000 years of Christianity there were very specific practices and disciplines that were a part of Christian training. These were supposed to train the soul to become more holy- to look and act more like Jesus would act. Ideally, we are to become saints.  When people experience us we hope and pray to be the kind of people that Christ’s life is experienced through us. It is a bold goal, but I think that is what the Christian life is supposed to be. Eternal growth of our soul.  
So do you think that what happens to you after death is based on your own personal beliefs? I've been wondering if that could be. Maybe Christians go to what they perceive to be a Christian Heaven, other religions accordingly, and I'll merge with the collective consciousness?
I believe that there is God and distance from God. So, it’s like it’s a spectrum CS Lewis said that hell is not full of people who want to get out.  Hell is locked from the inside.  They have made themselves into hellish people, who even if they were in the physical place of heaven would be experiencing hell. So hell is really a distancing from God and from other people because they choose to be that way.  Heaven is closeness to God.  A continual closeness that gets closer and closer into eternity. It is where we become more whole and real, and because God is infinite, there is always something new.  It is a place of growth and eternal newness.  Or, so I believe.

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