Is That All There Is?

On a trip to San Francisco, my wife and I were driving down the highway next to the Pacific Ocean. The view was incredible. We stopped to take it all in. As we turned to walk back to the car, I noticed the locals driving by in utter indifference to the beauty around them.  They were going to work, the store or their kid’s games and the glory of the Pacific Ocean might well as not been there.

The locals in the bay area who see the ocean every day are no longer impressed by it. The question, “Is that all there is?” captures their view. No matter how beautiful or incredible something is, we can easily be bored by it.

Anything we experience repeatedly can become boring through repetition. Many of us have reached this point when we hear about Christianity. No matter how incredible the claims, we just know we’ve heard it all before so, what is there to get excited about?

Recently, I watched a science program about the orbits of the galaxies and the “black holes” in them. On my nice HD screen, I could see endless stars swirling as two galaxies danced around each other. Some people say they can see God in a tree or a sunset. Christianity says that God “created all things, visible and invisible.” That means the swirling galaxies and the dark matter in the Universe were created by God. Science tells us that our universe began with a “big bang”. The Bible says God said “Let there be light!” All the matter and energy in the universe came from that beginning.

When thinking about the size of the universe, some people feel themselves such a small speck they find it hard to believe God could care about them.

So then Christianity comes in with an even bolder claim. It says the God who created the Universe became a small baby on a small planet near the tip of a galaxy. The God who created it all humbled himself.

He didn’t do it as an intellectual exercise to see how it felt to be small. Instead He did it because – are you ready? – He loves us so much he came to end the grip of death and sin on us!

Who can believe that? The God who can twirl galaxies became a human baby “wrapped in swaddling clothes” because we needed something only He could do for us.  Only the death of a sinless human being could end death’s grip on us. God “trampled down death by death!”  Through His suffering and death, Jesus, a part of the trinity, shattered the grip of death and hell, not for Himself, but for us!

Then comes another incredible claim. He rose from the dead! How many times do we have to hear this before it gets boring! The resurrection of Christ is an essential claim of the Christian faith. If it didn’t happen, Christianity is pointless. We celebrate the resurrection on Easter (Pascha) but we have heard the claim so often that we give more thought to hiding eggs for the kids.

Then He ascended into heaven in front of the apostles and other witnesses.  Before He went, He said He was going to prepare a place for us. We are going to join Him in the next life! Yeah, but, don’t bother me, I’ve heard that before and I have to get the kids to a swim meet.

This whole Christian thing is so incredible we almost have to make it boring as a means of self-defense. Unfortunately, there are many members of the clergy who are willing to do that for us. They make Christianity about rules and punishment. God hates sinners and will punish them forever. They say God’s love is an abstract principle showing us how to live. Something, anything other than facing the overwhelming fact that the God who made all things made us to be loved my Him and to love Him.

The question for us is whether we can allow ourselves to live in the wonder of the message of Christianity. It is easy to get caught up in the daily minutia of life. Some people say we should stop and smell the roses. How about something even bigger than that?

The God who made the roses, the mountains, the Grand Canyon, the Solar system, the galaxy and the universe is trying to get our attention. With all the other things He made, He made us to love us and so we could love him.

We are asked to stop and consider that. Or, we can ride right past a beautiful ocean and just choose to find it all boring.


Religion Isn’t Ice Cream

For many people, religious preference is treated almost like an ice cream flavor. You don’t have to eat ice cream and, if you do, it doesn’t matter all that much what flavor you choose. No matter the flavor, it’s all ice cream.

There are reasons for this attitude.  Throughout history, the group, be it a clan or a kingdom, followed the same beliefs about how the world and people came to be and a moral code about how to treat one another. A classic case came when the ruler of Russia sent some advisors to help him choose between Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity or Islam as the religion for his domain. He chose Orthodox Christianity.

In the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation brought a series of clashes over religion. These had political overtones as local rulers were able to establish their freedom from Rome’s influence in their actions by choosing one of the Protestant faiths.

The desire for freedom of religious belief and practice was a major driver in the colonization of English-speaking America. The First Amendment to the US Constitution prevented the federal government’s establishment of religion. The major reason for this was that several states had their own state religion and didn’t want their choice overridden at the federal level.

With the development of religious freedom, there is a need to be courteous toward those whose beliefs differ from ours. In many ways, the “ice cream” model is reasonable. After all, we are taught that it is simply not a good idea to discuss religion or politics. They are a matter of personal belief.

But, it is important to understand the need for religious freedom. Religion isn’t too trivial for the government to decide, it is too important. We don’t let the government, or other people, control our religious quest, or lack of one, because it is a very important matter.  It is too important to be left to others.

If, in the interest of courtesy, we say that all religions are the same, we cheat both ourselves and the other person. I think the current lack of religious participation is a result of this confusion. It is pointless, to me, to treat all religions the same. If that is true, I’ll just sleep late on the “Sabbath” of all religions and get some rest.

Many “mainline” denominations are working to accept all views and are, as a consequence, seeing their numbers decline. Others just mutter something like “be nice to people.” They are also in decline.

Religions grow when they have something to say and something to offer. When we appreciate the value and importance of our own quest and extend to others the courtesy of their quest, or lack of one, we are fully practicing and granting freedom of religion.

You can reasonably ask, and I will willingly grant, that your religious quest is as valid as mine. That is the essence of religious tolerance. The limit is reached when you ask me to treat all religions as equal or, more specifically, ask me to say the religion I follow is of no unique value.

To be specific, Christianity is not a religion of ambivalence or indifference. A person’s understanding of Christianity is the answer to the question asked by Jesus in Matthew 16:15 (RSV), “But who do you say that I am?”

C. S. Lewis has written that Jesus is a liar, a fool, or the Son of God. Jesus was crucified largely because he made himself the equal of God.  If He believed himself to be the son of God and He wasn’t, He was a fool and His execution as a blasphemer was justified. If He didn’t believe it but said it anyhow, He lied Himself into an early death.

The most challenging possibility, for us, is that He really was the Son of God. If we are to believe that, we have to believe something even more incredible. Was He really resurrected from the dead?  The apostle Paul, in the fifteenth chapter of his first letter (epistle) to the Corinthians discusses this in some detail. Paul makes it clear: if Christ is not risen from the dead, our “faith is futile” (v. 17-RSV). Likewise, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (v. 19 – RSV).

In the older, liturgical, churches, there is a Creed, or statement of belief, repeated in every liturgy. The “Apostles” Creed, the Nicene Creed or something very similar is used. We get the word “creed” from the first Latin word of the creeds, “Credo” means “I believe” and, in saying the creed we are supposedly saying what we believe about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. If, after saying the creed in church I, out of courtesy, say to you that all religions are equal, I have made myself a hypocrite.

Your quest is yours. Your answer is yours. You are absolutely free to live your life and make your quest, or not. Even more, you are free to ignore my opinion. But, if you ask my opinion of various religions, do not expect me to utter some bland “religion is like ice cream” response.

I have come to a definite conclusion about religion. If you ask what I think, I will say, in the words of the liturgy of my church, that Jesus of Nazareth is “truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.”

Who Made This Up?

Those who disparage religion like to say that humanity creates God in their own image and then worship their own creation. With the Gods we find in many places of worship, it is easy to believe. We have monotheism and polytheism. We have vengeful gods who will kill or punish everyone who doesn’t believe in a single version of a creed. We have gods whose love is nonjudgmental and all accepting.

Then, of course, there are various versions of the afterlife. In some religions, people seem to delight in the idea that all the “evil-doers” will be punished. In other versions, the afterlife will be an undemanding time of “Peace in the Valley.” In all these cases, it is easy to see what kind of person could create the scenario and why they would find it comforting or satisfying.

In the fourth century, Christianity, by a declaration of the Emperor Constantine, moved overnight from a persecuted religion to the state religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine called for a council of the church leaders to define the religion in a way that could be commonly understood.

It is hard for those in the twenty-first century to understand the kind of people who participated in this council. We are used to seeing church leaders surrounded by pomp or evangelical preachers flying from one preaching assignment to another in private jets.

Many of the bishops who met at Constantine’s orders became a bishop when their predecessor was martyred for his faith. Others who came were missing arms, legs, eyes or tongues because of their refusal to deny their faith. To put it bluntly, these people were not about to politely compromise to come to agreement on a doctrinal statement. Their God was real to them and they had proven their willingness to sacrifice.

The God they described is “one God in three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).” This was the god they experienced and the one they proclaimed.  More than that, the nature of the relationship between the three persons was critical to their understanding of the nature of God and, surprisingly, the nature of man.  As my parish priest explains it, “the Church’s experience of God is one God in three persons who are united together (dwell within each other) in an unceasing movement of mutual love.”

Given this understanding of God’s nature, why was humanity created and how are we supposed to interact with God? Here comes the part I find it hard to believe humans just made up.

The Trinity, or three-in-one God, sharing perfect and continuing love among them, wanted to share that love with others. In order to have more persons to participate in this love, He/they said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…”

We are not here to be servants to a ruling monarch. We are made not only to love God but, believe it or not, to be loved by God. We are made to be the beloved children of God, not just servants. But there is more to it than that.

We are called to “Theosis” which literally means we are to become like God. Since we are always the created and God is always the Uncreated, we will never be God. Exactly what is being asked of us? We are being asked to love like God so we can enter into the Trinity’s “unceasing movement of mutual love.”

God’s love is shown in the parable of the woman caught in adultery.  It is not a soft, “That’s OK, dear” kind of love.  The command “Go and sin no more” shows that the sin is real and since it is real, the forgiveness is also real.

Science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card quoted San Angelo’s Letters to an Incipient Heretic. This balance of sin awareness and forgiveness “is noteworthy because is so startlingly rare in our experience…. [Jesus] dared to expect of us such a perfect balance that we could preserve the law and still forgive the deviation. So, of course, we killed him.”

This is the love and forgiveness we are called to in theosis.  It is not a glib acceptance. We will know that what we have done was harmful to ourselves and others and we will know that we are forgiven. Also, since we ask to be forgiven “as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we will be asked, or rather expected, to understand the reality of sins committed against us and grant forgiveness and love to other people.

So this is the kind of God these people “made up” so they could worship a god in their own image. It is a three-in-one God who created us to love us and wants us to join in an eternal circle of love.  That love is the pure love that truly recognizes real faults and yet loves and forgives. 

There is only one aspect of this “made up” God and afterlife that makes perfect sense to me. We have all of eternity to learn to love as God loves. That sounds real to me. Eternity might just be enough time for people like me to learn to love like that.