“I’ve Got My Own Religion” read a small pamphlet left on the bus I boarded. According to my best guess, it has a rabbi (or a Greek Orthodox priest?), a woman in a burqa, a Buddhist monk, and a woman with some kind of cross wrapped in twine (is she Wiccan or something? Forgive my ignorance). Anyway, they all have the friendliest expressions (except the Muslim lady, it’s hard to tell what her face looks like). Somehow, their innocent smiles – especially in the case of the beatific expression of the elderly Buddhist – make the part about the lake of fire, featured inside the pamphlet, all that much more painful.
“It is not true that all religious beliefs are of equal value,” the tract explains. “Jesus Christ claims to be the truth. He did not say ‘I am a way,’ but rather, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me’ (John 14:6).”
To me, tracts like this have a glaring rhetorical flaw. Expecting them to convert devout non-Christians seems a bit like believing that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would clamor for American citizenship if we could just get him a booklet declaring that the US Constitution is the source of all truth.
“Dear Soul,” says a pamphlet ominously titled “Where Are You Going To Spend Eternity?”
“If you have chosen not to admit your guilt and to trust Jesus Christ as your Saviour, please read what the Bible says ‘…he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.’ (John 3:18)”. The bizarre underlying assumption here is that even if you don’t believe in Jesus, you do believe in the authority of the Bible.
I think it’s safe to say that devout non-Christians and atheists are comfortable with their beliefs (or lack thereof) at least in part because, for them, the Bible has a bit of a credibility problem. People who don’t believe in Jesus Christ probably don’t put great stock in the Bible, so it stands to reason that biblically-based threats may not be effective.
I know, pointing out the intellectual fallacies of the faithful, or faith itself, isn’t that productive (or original). I admit, since my own upbringing in an insular Christian denomination (briefly explained here), I have long failed to focus exclusively on the sermon. Instead, the child of Sunday school lessons featuring Jesus as a young shepherd with soft brown hair, I used to sit in the pews and wonder how we knew what Jesus looked like. For example, how did we know that Jesus was white?
For years, I secretly wondered what it was like for non-white Christians to have Jesus resolutely represented as a member of another race. But I recently realized that I know exactly what it feels like to have your own image conspicuously separated from your image of God.
My parents’ church refuses to ordain women. Perhaps because of an awareness of how this appears to the modern world, the webpage for its theological school is couched in carefully gender-neutral terms, but any woman who attempted to apply to the program would quickly discover the males-only policy.
Many strident opponents of female clergy declare that over all other doctrinal or cultural factors, priests should be men because maleness is essential to our understanding of God. As some ministers of my home church insist, the Bible does not have a single mention of God as a mother or a woman, and references to God’s power are couched in exclusively male terms. Therefore, a woman could never represent Him on the chancel.
After about twenty-five years of parroting what I’d learned about God, I began to consider the effects of systematically separating the image of my own body from my image of God. I began to wish I had a spiritual role model whom I could better relate to. I began to think that there’s no good reason women should be barred from spiritual leadership.
It may be the echoing drumbeat of my male-centric childhood faith that sometimes makes me fear that my seeking a female spiritual inspiration is like saying, “tell me when God looks like me, and I’ll tune in,” as if what I really want to worship is an image of myself. Am I setting my own self up as some kind of false idol in opposition to the Ten Commandments?
I have to admit, I have a soft spot for the Commandments – or the lesson in any religion that promotes love to the neighbor by avoiding things like lying, coveting, infidelity and murder. I’ve clung to my faith in the value of moral behavior as I’ve grappled with my image of God.
As a pragmatic person, I like consistent principles even if the deeper reasons for some things are unknown. For example, my body is affected by a chronic illness. Nobody knows what caused the illness, but I take daily steps to combat the symptoms and continue working. Speaking of work, nobody knows what’s going to happen to journalists in the digital world. But I take things a week at a time and do the work that exists.
I don’t know what I believe about God – I have no desire to deny God, but I also don’t see proof that God exists. Just as I manage my illness without knowing its cause, and pursue my career without knowing its future, I decided that I’m not going to wait until I’m sure of God and God’s image to live life as charitably as I can. Some people have a glowing surety of God’s role in their lives. I take crude comfort in knowing that if the faithful are right and my soul is un-evolved, at least I’m being kind to others.
I always thought that my home faith, sometimes known as the New Church or Swedenborgianism for the 18th-century philosopher whose writings inform its Bible-based doctrine, took a lenient view of my agnostic state: Swedenborgians usually don’t spout the lake-of-fire stuff. Rather, they believe that anyone who lives a charitable life according to the precepts he or she knows can go to heaven, regardless of denomination.
But wait. Not so fast. Apparently I’m on the wrong track here.
My long-time friend and high-school classmate, Coleman, grew more certain of his faith as fast as I got confused. I published a book criticizing the teaching methods of Swedenborgian clergy. Coleman enrolled in their theological school. Now he’s a pastor, while I seldom go to church but continue to agitate the community with pro-woman articles.
We rarely agree on anything, but it doesn’t really matter. We met for breakfast yesterday.
He’s a young, social media-savvy pastor. “I want this blog post to be a challenge,” he began a recent online offering about the importance of acknowledging God as Jesus Christ, despite Swedenborgians’ penchant for tolerance. He posits that this tolerance should extend to people who have had no contact with Christianity, but for those who have had access to the Bible and therefore had the chance to know Christ, it’s a different story.
He presented a series of biblical and Swedenborgian passages that demonstrate the importance of envisioning and acknowledging Jesus Christ to make it into heaven.
When I needled him in the comments, he responded at length.
“I don’t think a person can ever really be transformed unless they allow the Lord in,” he says. “Although other religions do present some concept of God, I believe the picture of God as the Lord Jesus Christ is the fullest one. So, if a person rejects Jesus as God, he’s rejecting something in God.”
Coleman deals kindly with me. “Agnostic people can repent too,” he says. He calls my agnosticism “a good starting point” since it’s not an outright rejection of Jesus Christ, and I can still journey to acceptance by praying to God to “help my unbelief”. He advises me to love the idea of Jesus and the idea of Jesus’s reality, and to “want Him to be real.” But I sense the same flaw that rankled me in the bus pamphlets. Just as those Christian propagandists assume that excerpted passages of the Bible will be meaningful to non-Christians, my friend seems to expect that my doubts can be excavated by prayer to reveal a native, underlying certainty in the Lord Jesus Christ.
I’m still troubled. The guilty truth, now made public online, is that in the broader context of my life, my agnosticism isn’t a starting point. Rather, the solid faith in God’s form that Coleman enjoys now was actually my own starting point. But through a lot of study and thought and living, my perspective began to change.
Coleman seems to be saying that even if people like me are acting in a moral way, our spiritual insides are still fatally unmoored as long as we don’t consciously pin our faith on Jesus Christ.
No-one but Jesus Christ allows us to fully uproot the sin in our lives: “I think that only happens when we shun evil as a sin against the Lord.” Unless we view repentance this way, “we can and WILL justify living selfishly.” People like me might “MOSTLY not embrace evil”, but since they don’t have a bedrock (i.e., the Lord Jesus Christ) for their moral convictions, they’ll always end up with “wiggle room” to excuse sin, thinking, for example, that “it’s OK to hate THIS person” if somebody wrongs them.
Perhaps if I could do a better job of accepting the Lord Jesus Christ, it would temper my hatred for Rush Limbaugh.
In the gentlest terms possible, Coleman is advising me on my shot of getting into heaven. Ostensibly, Swedenborgians object to what they call “the doctrine of faith alone”, which is ably demonstrated by these words of the “Eternity” pamphlet: “Realize that you cannot do anything to earn or help earn your way into heaven. Jesus already completely paid for it when He died on the cross.” (And you thought going to the amusement park was expensive.)
Swedenborgians claim to believe that, for salvation, good works are just as important as faith. But it seems the take-home point of my friend’s blog is that ultimately, it matters little that I’ve lived a good life if I haven’t based everything on the correct image of the biblical God Coleman emphasizes as a “Man”.
Which, frankly, reminds me of this passage of the “Eternity” pamphlet: “The question is not if you are a member of a church, but are you saved? It is not if you are leading a good life, but are you saved?” In my own case, my salvation lies in accepting the proper image of God.
Even the most literalistic of Bible-based faiths give a certain leeway when it comes to images of God. The back of the Jehovah’s Witness Watchtower magazine provides three images and asks, “How Do You View Jesus?” The choices are “newborn baby”, “dying man”, or “exalted King”.
The same publication carries another perspective on accepting Jesus that stopped me in my tracks. Some of Jesus’s contemporaries were “humble enough” to accept that he was God: “included among these were several of Jesus’ family members, who at first had not taken seriously the possibility that one of their relatives could be the Messiah.”
It’s hard enough to accept that a man (Man?) born 2,000 years ago was God or God’s son. But imagine the difficulties of believing that your own brother, cousin or uncle – he of the sly childhood pinches, promising singer/songwriter career or vaguely inappropriate wedding toasts – was the Messiah.
So God can come in at least a few different forms. My home church emphasized Jesus as a grown-up shepherd or a shining bearded man in a white-and-gold robe, but come to think of it, sometimes God was a lamb. I also remember something about a burning bush, a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. At Christmas, of course, we all took a time-out to worship Jesus as an infant. Someone’s newborn baby was always cast to lie in a manger on the cathedral chancel during our annual Christmas pageant.
(Last year my cousin married a Ghanaian woman and their baby was cast as Jesus. It was definitely the first time Jesus was ever portrayed by a black girl at my church.)
But acceptable images of God in the Christian tradition are a drop in the bucket compared to the altars of a Buddhist temple.
I recently made a new friend who’s been a Buddhist nun for almost thirty years. We discussed life and death and faith over bowls of Pho, and then she took me to visit her temple. There, surrounded by a kaleidoscope of stunning images – people, animals and trees, demigods, bodhisattvas and the Buddha – I got a lesson from Geshe Sonam, a Buddhist teacher who studied in Tibet for 20 years.
(He seemed so nice that I didn’t feel it would be appropriate to bring up the lake of fire.)
I lingered in front of one image in particular. Tara, a bright-blue female Bodhisattva, perched in the lotus position on a cushion, but with one foot touching the ground. My friend explained that this goddess was portrayed this way because just soon as you call for her, she’s there, like a mother who hears her child cry in the night.
Comparing Tara to Mary in the Christian tradition, my friend explained that whether or not Tara is visible to you, she protects against evil and danger, and is always there whenever you need her. Tara has many images and colors – up to twenty-one, depending on what branch of Buddhism you’re in – all representing different aspects of her nature.
If God does exist and does love the human race, somehow that goddess’s poised foot tells me everything I need to know.
I realize that, contrary to my pastor friend’s blog post or the Christian magazines and pamphlets I’ve collected, my essay is long on personal conjecture and short on doctrinal references. Coleman definitely has the advantage here – though, since because of my sex I’m officially barred from earning the degree that he did, my lesser knowledge may not be entirely my own fault.
I’m prepared to admit that the religious scholars may be right. Perhaps, if I can’t force myself to accept the Lord Jesus Christ (shepherd/king/baby/lamb/flaming bush/crucified Man), there really is a lake burning merrily in hell for me, Geshe Sonam, and everyone else who didn’t repent in time. Even without violent images of damnation, I am prepared to admit that the world may in fact have an objective spiritual foundation of right and wrong.
But I still ask why people insist on pressing certain images of God upon others. I think that in the case of my home church, lessons on God’s image have become bound up, whether consciously or not, with the maintenance of patriarchal leadership. There are probably as many reasons to promote a certain image of God as there are congregations in the world. Somehow, after twenty-odd years of lessons on the “true” image of God, I’m completely content to say to anyone who asks that it’s not for me to declare who God is inside of you, simply because no human being is ever fully qualified to define God for another human being.
“Man’s confused religions stand in opposition to God’s simple way of life,” the lake of fire pamphlet insists, explaining that man’s views are “wide” and “tolerant”, while God’s view is narrow. Does the idea that God takes a constricted view while humans take a larger view seem backward to anyone else? Insisting on one image of God for everyone probably has more do with the smallness of the human mind than with absolute truth. At the risk of lingering forever outside heaven’s gates, I will say that such a homogeneous world would bore me to death.
If concepts of God are so innate and widely varied, and yet are as crucial to our souls as every denomination keeps insisting, it seems to me that promoting the same image of God for everyone – whether with threats of eternal torture or with gentle scriptural analysis – is like expecting that everyone should be able to adopt the same internal landscape. In that case, you aren’t really saying “it is not true that all religious beliefs are of equal value.” It seems to me you’re saying, “it is not true that all people are of equal value.”
And nothing about that idea reminds me of God.