Saturday, May 31, 2014

Prophetic Progress

"There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger."  -- the shahada, or witness, of Islam

Studying other religions is integral to understanding God, and one's own faith, better.  I also find it a fascinating endeavor.  Where there is agreement between  many religions, I often think, "There is a universal truth."   For example, most faiths have a similar moral or ethical outlook, of caring for those less fortunate and oppressed, and of treating people the way you would like to be treated.  Most faiths encourage such personal attributes as integrity, humility, and generosity.  Most faiths promote a message of living simply, of being content with the food, clothing, and shelter that one needs, not accumulating more than you need, or hording the excess.  Most faiths share an understanding that we all have an internal source of enlightenment -- our heart, soul, or mind -- as well as an external source of enlightenment -- God, the World Soul, or the Universe; and that these sources can be tapped in moments of quiet openness.  However, where these various religions differ, I wonder...  If there is only one God, as I believe there is, why is there a difference in understanding?  Is the difference a mistake?  Is it a necessary piece of the whole puzzle?  Or is something else going on?

Lately, I've been studying Islam.  It's not the first time I have studied this faith.  Each time, I gain a little more insight, see more similarities between Islam and Christianity, and gain more appreciation for Muhammad and the message he preached.  Yet, also each time, the more I struggle with the differences.  Perhaps it is The Law of Diminishing Differences rearing its ugly head:  the greater the overall similarity, the more important appear the remaining differences.  Yet I can't help but wonder why Islam seems to be more like Judaism than Christianity.

I know that Islam purports to be a middle way between Judaism and Christianity, and that Muhammad believed he was following in a long line of prophets, beginning with Adam and continuing with Abraham, Noah, Moses, and so on, down to Jesus.  Yet I find the words in the Qur'an which emphasize God's fearsomeness, judgment, and eternal punishment for wrong-doers (as the Hebrew prophets did), to be much more prevalent, and weigh much more heavily as a result, than the words which speak of God's mercy and compassion (as Jesus did).  Why, I wonder, does Muhammad emphasize law, as Moses did in the Torah, as opposed to emphasizing love, as Jesus did?  Why is fighting ones enemies given God's approval, as it is in the Hebrew Scriptures, and not loving ones enemies, as Jesus preached?  And why are women not given completely equal status; as opposed to being treated the same, as Jesus did?  In essence, why does Muhammad seem to go backward from Jesus, instead of forward?   

It makes me wonder how religions develop, and how faith progresses.

Last week in church, I listened to a passage from the gospel of John in which Jesus tells his disciples that he will send an "Advocate" or "Counselor" who will "guide you in all truth."  Christians think of this as God's Holy Spirit, and over the week, I have thought about how God's Holy Spirit has impacted my life.  I have learned many lessons about faith since I began questioning what I had been taught as a child.  As I thought of the things I have learned, I remembered also the struggles that preceded them.  Insight only came about as the result of intensive mental struggle.  In fact, the greater the insight, the greater the struggle beforehand.

And that, I think, is a clue to my question about religion as a whole.  Our insights are particular to our own concerns, to the culture and world in which we live, and to the needs around us.  Revelation comes only as required, to particular people, as the need arises.

It seems to me that this is how progress happens, in general.  We go along with the way things are until they begin to bother us.  The more we are bothered, the more likely we are to find a solution.  We may not always like what we learn, but change only begins when we question the status quo.    However, not everyone has the same questions.  Not everyone has a problem with the way the world works.  Many people are content with the status quo.  They don't want anything to change.  For them, change in the way things are done, or they way people think, is not progress, but regress.  When such a dichotomy arises between the old and the new ways, separation occurs.  When a change occurs in the way people think about God, or their faith, depending on how significant the change is viewed to be, a new sect or new religion is born. 

Huston Smith, the great religious scholar, had a theory that some religions develop from others because the time had come for the truths gleaned in the original tradition to spread to a wider audience.  He said, for example, that he could never be a Hindu because he was not born into a caste.  But he could be a Buddhist, the religion that grew from Hinduism, because the Buddha's insights did away with caste.  His teachings were open to anyone, equally.  And yet some people were content with the original Hindu faith.  The same could be said for Christianity and Judaism. 

Jesus primarily questioned the laws and traditions which served to exclude people from God's kingdom.  Jesus was most concerned about the sinner, the sick, and any one else who was judged to be outside of God's favor.  To these, he spoke of God's forgiveness and love.  But because his ministry challenged the exclusivity of male Jewish leadership, he also addressed those who did the excluding.   He tried to bring down the expectations of those who thought too highly of their place in God's kingdom, and he tried to raise the expectations of those who despaired of their place in God's kingdom.  While Jesus probably did not intend to found a new religion, Paul took Jesus' example of inclusion and ran with it, sharing Jesus' message with Gentiles in a way they would understand.  And thus a more universal religion grew from a more insulated one.  So, clearly, progress can happen in small increments, or in great leaps, depending on the questions of the individual seeker. 

This progress from an insulated, or tribal religion, to a more universal one also provides a clue to my questions about Islam.  For Islam grew from a tribal culture.  Muhammad was a goodhearted and trustworthy man who lived in the midst of great brutality, where individual tribes promoted their own individual concerns above those of anyone else, all while praying to their own individual gods.  Included in this mix were various segregated Jewish tribes, Christian sects, and a handful of monotheistic Arabs.  In effect, he was surrounded by warring factionalism.  His culture was a lot like the culture in which the Jews found themselves when they crossed the wilderness and lived in Canaan, which is probably why his message is so similar to that of the Hebrew prophets of old.  Muhammad lived in a different culture than Jesus.  He struggled with different questions.  And he shared the insight he received which addressed those specific questions.

Confucius, Lao Tsu, Buddha, Socrates, Moses, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Muhammad all questioned the accepted practices and religious beliefs of their time and place.  Each received enlightenment and were compelled to share their new understanding with the people around them.  These prophets are remembered, and revered, because their message resonated with a significant number of people.  But progress is an ongoing endeavor.  As people's consciousness evolves, new questions arise, and new answers are found.  Which makes me wonder if there will ever be a final prophet.  Perhaps there will be, but only in God's good time.

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you


Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Finger Pointing

The Buddha says, "My teaching is not a dogma or a doctrine, but no doubt some people will take it as such."  The Buddha goes on to say, "I must state clearly that my teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself.  A thinking person makes use of the finger to see the moon.  A person who only looks at the finger and mistakes it for the moon will never see the real moon."  *

I have been wrestling with Christianity.  Sometimes, I feel like a rather odd Christian.  Although it's a feeling that comes and goes, lately I've questioned whether I even belong in a church.  You see, I don't believe that Jesus is God.  I believe that Jesus is God's beloved son and that Jesus is God's Messiah, and that Jesus perfectly conveyed God's Way and Will.  I love Jesus.  I greatly appreciate everything Jesus did and said.  I thank God for Jesus.  I just don't believe Jesus was, or is, God.  I believe God is bigger than Jesus.  When I pray, I pray to God, not to Jesus.

My understanding mostly comes from reading the Bible, especially the Gospels.  In the New Testament, Jesus is titled variously as "God's Son," "Messiah," "Lord," and "a prophet mighty in word and deed."  Even for John, the only writer in the canon who came close to equating Jesus with God through a series of metaphors, Jesus is still called "God's Son."  But even more significantly, Jesus himself speaks of God as his Father, he prays to God, and submits his will to God.  Jesus is continually telling people about God's forgiveness and mercy, pointing people to seek God and His Kingdom.  Jesus seemed to see God as a separate entity, as separate from himself.

However, anyone familiar with church history will know that somewhere along the way this separation between Jesus and God began to blur for some followers, culminating in the compromise denoted in the Nicene Creed, in 325 C.E., in which Jesus is both God's Son and "True God from True God."  And then this creed became a universal statement of belief for all Christians.  Thus, to put it in the context of the Buddha's words above:  the finger became the moon.  The one who pointed to God, became God. 

It's problematic for me, for many reasons.  For one, it's confusing:  Jesus now fully divine, must also be fully human in order for his life and death to make sense; the Son is God, the Father is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but there is only one God; one plus one plus one equals one.  Does that mean that Jesus was praying to himself?  Or that God died?  Or that Jesus sits at the right hand of himself?  Although I can accept a great deal of mystery when it comes to God, and I understand paradox, such statements are just plain illogical.

Now, you may wonder... What's the big deal?  After all, it's just a belief.  And, personally, I don't believe God approves or disapproves of us based on our beliefs.  But I'm learning that how you think about God matters.  It matters because very often it translates into how you treat your neighbor.  And that, I believe, does matter to God.  Which is another reason this particular belief is problematic.  If you believe that Jesus is God, then you just might think that only Christians follow God, or that God only accepts Christians.  And that's when the finger pointing really begins!

Recently I watched the movie, "God is Not Dead," with my two older boys, a friend of theirs, and two youth from the church.  Though I liked parts of it, it brought many of my concerns to the forefront.  I liked the young protagonist sticking up for his faith in the face of great opposition.  I liked the different intersecting stories, showing the various struggles many people go through:  the pastor's desire to make a difference; the believer in relationship with an unbeliever; being loved for who we are, not for what we do; the devastation of losing a parent; the fear of one's own death.  Granted, some parts of the movie were a bit predictable:  the conversion from disbelief to belief in God for several of the characters.  However, near the end of the movie, it suddenly dawned on me that God was equated with Jesus, and only by confessing Jesus as one's Lord and Savior would you be with God in Heaven.  Unless you do this, verbally, you will be eternally separated from God.  What started out as a movie about God, became a "movement" for Jesus.  Now, even though I consider myself a Christian, this is not the message I want my kids to learn.  I was also very sorry that my son's Jewish friend had to hear this "Christian" message.

Coincidentally, just after watching this movie, I came across the following passage in the book I've been reading:  "A Church of Her Own:  What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit," by Sarah Sentilles -- which is about the sexism that is found in many churches.  I read, "My theological mentor at Harvard, Gordon Kaufman, once told me that asking whether or not there is a God is not the right question.  What interests Gordon is not whether God exists but rather what difference human words about God might make."  (pg. 244)  And I wondered... What difference did, and does, Jesus' words about God make?  What did Jesus have to say about God that is different from what others had to say?

That God Loves.  Patiently.  Mercifully.  Freely.  Unreservedly.  Eternally.  Perfectly.

That makes a huge difference to me.  I hope it does for you.

May the Peace 
which passes understanding
be with you


* from "Old Path, White Clouds," by Thich Nhat Hanh