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thoughts on religion + diversity

Originally published at Faith Seeking Understanding. You can comment here or there.

I seem to be caught in a bit of a feedback loop lately. On the one hand, I recognize that my atheist friends are good people, and my non-Christian theist friends as well. But on the other hand, I’ve been growing less and less comfortable with the idea that all religions and philosophies are equally good that they’re just different facades on the same reality. I’m a Christian because something about the Christian tradition really works for me at a deep level – it helps me lead what I consider to be a better kind of life.

My faith isn’t only ethics, but if I thought I could live just as good a life as a Buddhist or Muslim or atheist. It’s not just because I grew up in that tradition; parts of it are deeply meaningful to me and I think help me be the best Marta I can be. It adds something to my life, and I want to share those good things – not as evangelicalism, not because I am afraid of hellfire for my friends necessarily. Just because those bits of Christian ethics and philosophy and spirituality that work for me, seem good and worth sharing.

Ironically, I do find things in other religions and philosophies that have been influential on me. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, his account of the human good and the way we balance emotions and the importance of good community has been hugely influential in my thought. So has the Tao Te Ching and Pirkei Avot and poetry by American transcendentalists like Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. So it’s not like I’m only influenced by Christian writings, or only writings in general. (Give me a Louis Armstrong song or the sun setting over the skyline, or my neighbor’s giggling as we do the jitterbug…) But on books, I guess few educated people today would make that claim – the world is just so broad and open.

Still, lately I seem to be teetering between wanting to respect my friends, honoring the goodness I see in those people who aren’t particularly religious (even anti-religious) or who have other spiritualities… and on the other hand, this certainty I have that my religion isn’t just one equally good path among many. Or if it is, it’s different, it offers me something special that I’m having a hard time laying out even to myself. Because really, if I thought Christianity only offered the comfortable morality like love everyone and act justly and with mercy toward others, if it was just a facade on a kind of universal human morality, I’d probably want to be an atheist. These days, when I miss find myself missing a dead friend very, very much and remembering how angry I’ve gotten at God grieving over that loss, I also remember my prayers that God would take away my faith (yeah, I get how ridiculous that sounds) so I wouldn’t have to live with the frustration of how this was allowed to happen – I’m keenly aware how much simpler life would be if I could give up my religion! And I keep going round and round, wanting to be open to other people but more and more wanting to remember those things about who I am that I think are unique and good in themselves.

No deep thoughts here. No resolution here. And maybe this is a uniquely Marta thing to be worried about. But it really does have me frustrated and sort of dizzy within myself. Maybe I’m foolish for thinking so hard about things like this; it just seems like who I am, at some level. In any case I can’t stop being the kind of person who worries over stuff like this, somehow.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 31st, 2013 12:43 pm (UTC)
Like you, I try to respect other faiths and traditions.

But respecting them doesn't mean believing them to be as valid as Christianity. Christianity is different, because it revolves around a revolutionary idea: that God would sacrifice himself, not just to make the seasons move along, but to free us as individuals.

C.S. Lewis said that the claims Jesus made show that if he was not to be considered a lunatic or a liar, that he had to be who he said he was: divinity incarnated, not simply a good man with wise teachings.

How God will deal with those who reject Him is not up to me; I obviously am not one of those people who think non-Christians are automatically damned. But I do think they are missing out on something that would do them good.
Aug. 2nd, 2013 01:01 am (UTC)
That is one of the things I love about Christianity, Barbara. It seems like such a statement of love - not just that we need saving, but that we're worth saving. But I've also seem elements of that commitment to liberate people as individuals in other traditions (Buddhism springs to mind) - not requiring as radical of a sacrifice, perhaps, but definitely there. I guess this is at the heart of what I struggle with: whether I need Christianity to be absolutely good, the kind of thing that everyone is missing something valuable they can't get anywhere else if they don't have, or whether it's enough that it creates a good effect in me. I definitely don't want to say that from my perspective it's equally good as any other philosophy, that there's nothing gained by me being a Christian that I'd lose if I wasn't a Christian.

But how to do that in a way that's actually recognizing the way it would be bad for other people to become a Christian? I honestly think that's the case in some situations - for some people, the label "Christian" has become poison because of the things we Christians have done with it, and other people have different needs that I'm not sure the way we emphasize certain parts of Christian would be good for. I don't know. As I said, I keep going back and forth.

Thanks for your thoughts, in any case. I appreciate you listening and the thoughts you mentioned - it's good for me to think about them.
Aug. 2nd, 2013 01:38 am (UTC)
for some people, the label "Christian" has become poison because of the things we Christians have done with it, and other people have different needs that I'm not sure the way we emphasize certain parts of Christian would be good for.

Most religions that have been around a while seem to have similar baggage. Think about substituting "Islam" for "Christian" in that statement, for example. And it is not the only other religion that has been warped or used by its followers. Perhaps not Buddhism--I don't know enough about its history. But you could certainly substitute "Mormonism" or "Scientology" for religions that have baggage! (I know some people categorize Mormon as Christian, but I feel the theology is too unorthodox.) Anyway, even if a religion begins with Divine intervention, it's subsequently organized and propagated by humans, some of whom have their own agendas that may be quite different than its founders had in mind.

People are human. We live in "Arda marred", and the marring warps even the best of things we try to do, or make, or believe. Yet the One who created us, like Eru, can turn even the worst of things to good in the end.

And I do think that's one of the unique things about Christianity. We admit that we are flawed, that flaws are inherent to living in this world, and we accept that we cannot fix our flaws alone. We need the help of the One who knows what we could be, what we are and what we will be. We can be "good" without God; I know atheists who are kind, and giving and compassionate and love mercy and justice. But we can be better than we are with Him.

I often come back to C.S. Lewis, because he was so integral to bringing me to my faith. He once mentioned how some people may point to a sour old Christian who is judgemental and unkind, and compare her to an atheist who is kind and gives to charity and in all ways is pleasant to be around. And then he asks: Imagine--how much worse the first person might be without God, and how much better the second one might be *with* Him?

Oh, I don't know if I'm explaining myself very well.

Jul. 31st, 2013 04:29 pm (UTC)
Am wondering if this comes as a response to that FB post? You do have my private addy, don't you?

Yes, Christianity is different. Each spiritual path is different. Each offers a unique approach, attitude, framework, foundation, and set of practices that have, historically, informed entire cultures. Now, with the "smaller world" that technology affords us, it's like we humans are being presented with a smorgasbord piled high with a feast's worth of spiritual ideas and avenues. Now, we each have a wealth of traditions to choose from in order to find something that speaks not only to our ideas about spirituality in general but resonates with our hearts and inner beings.

Be comfortable with your Christianity, by all means!! If it fits you, if it works for you, if it makes the events of your life meaningful, then it IS working. Yes, Christianity has things to offer everyone that the others don't - but then, all of those spiritual traditions and religions do. Jesus' message was one of hope and forgiveness - and that's admittedly a very important message that the world needs.

But the thing is, respecting other faiths doesn't mean buying into them, Marta. I can respect your faith, and the grand way in which you evidence it in all that you say here (and probably do in real life, but I don't know you other than as a name and text on a computer screen.) I can respect Dreamflower and LindaHoyland for much the same reason. There are even Christians I know in Real Life™ whose faith is most admirable and deserving of respect.

But... And this is an important but...

Christianity doesn't work for me. All of the traditional claims of primacy fall flat in my ears, if not worse. Even the very foundational premise of salvation, in my perspective, becomes something quite different than the benefit you and your co-religionists perceive – quite negative, in fact. For me, Buddhism is the better answer, and I do my best (failing often) to try to evidence the better parts of that system through my life and my words.

Unfortunately, when it comes to beliefs, validity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. It is all a matter of perspective. That which works for one person fails miserably for another. It's human nature - we are not a homogenous lot. If examined, however, many of the core emphases of the major spiritual paths are congruent - expressed with different words and taught via different means, but ultimately quite harmonious. This is best shown by the fact that nearly every human spiritual path has some variation of the Golden Rule at its heart.

Rejoice in your faith, Marta. It is obviously an integral part of who you are, and what you see as your task in this life. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Be a secular ambassador for Jesus - I can think of no higher calling. Rejoice that you have such a great ability to hold discourse with others of vastly disparate viewpoints. Rejoice that your faith is strong enough not to crack when challenged.

Spiritual growth - true spiritual growth – is never a comfortable process. Sounds like maybe you're getting ready to go through a growth spurt.

Hang in there.
Jul. 31st, 2013 06:45 pm (UTC)
I think both this and the FB thing are at some level part of the same struggle. It's not that I didn't get what I was looking for in the FB discussion (which was great IMO) and came here to whinge about it. At one level I'm interested intellectually in how people approach this topic. But it's also a personal, emotional thing more than I think I recognized when I made that topic.

This all started with an atheist friend making a very insulting comment (not to me specifically) that the line "You'll know they are Christians by their love" was complete bunk, that everyone loved and the fact someone loved didn't show they were Christians, and that the only behavior that was uniquely Christian were things like creationism, anti-choice politicking, and turning every relationship into an opportunity to evangelize. It turned my stomach, but it also really bothered me that I couldn't answer him. I couldn't think of anything specific that was good, that I wouldn't still do if I wasn't a Christian. Hence the feedback loop. Thanks for the encouragement - it feels like I'm struggling with something big and it's not comfortable at all, but then, that's no great surprise.

I do appreciate that other people are good even though they aren't Christian. And I do get that Christianity really doesn't work for everybody. Rob Bell has some great writing on this in his recent book Love Wins - he points out that in some areas, historically, Christianity has come to represent something that means God cannot work through it with certain people, so God must work through other things. Basically, he's saying that because of the church's mucked up history and also because human nature is so varied the same set of rituals and beliefs won't be helpful for everyone that Christianity just doesn't work for everyone - and that's okay. I guess I'm not entirely comfortable with that at some level, or I can't see how it doesn't devolve into some kind of relativism where there's no truth or objective good here. And hey, I'm a philosopher - you know how batty that would drive me. :-)
Jul. 31st, 2013 08:10 pm (UTC)
Atheists can be as narrow-minded and mean-spirited as anybody else. They are often quite convinced of the superiority of their lack of belief, to the point that they find it entertaining to insult, denigrate and dismiss any other spiritual path. They have a similar Fundamentalist approach to things that drives me up the wall with Fundamentalist Christians, Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Fundamentalist Muslims: the inability to appreciate that others might think differently for (in their eyes) valid reasons.

I can see why what he said turned your stomach. Then again, a lot of noise is being made of late about the moderate, left-wing Religious movement and recent attempts to reclaim "Christianity" from the Right-wing wing-nuts. This is a time of friction and competition for the right to define what being a Christian entails - what defines one as a Christian. This is a debate that is long-overdue and badly needed.

I think you're just kinda at the forefront of that kind of movement. Does "No pain, no gain" offer any comfort?

Aug. 2nd, 2013 01:05 am (UTC)
Does "No pain, no gain" offer any comfort?

It actually does. I try to endure growing pains with as much grace and courage as I can muster, but sometimes I need a place to be a little weaker and admit that this is a problem for me, too! I suspect you understand.

And actually, I'm not sure I have your email address. Would you mind dropping me a line at mlaytonATfordhamDOTedu in case I want to talk about stuff privately? I always love our conversations.
Jul. 31st, 2013 11:57 pm (UTC)
I think that there's a line to be recognized between "Christianity is the best path for me" and "Christianity is the best path for everyone." Because, as you observe, there is something special that you perceive in Christian theology and ethics, and that something special is the effect that it has on you. You've had enough tastes of other religions to know that, while they offer you something good, it isn't quite right, that Christianity is the best path for you.

The bit where you're so far succeeding, but where many, many thousands of others have failed, is recognizing that, while Christianity is the best of all possible paths for you, it isn't the best of all possible paths for everyone. As you've rightly observed, non-Christians and atheists can still be good and moral people; morality is observably not dependent on any one religious or philosophical system in particular, and there are rules for harmonious social living that are common to all systems. For some people getting to those rules through Christianity is the only option, and for others, getting to those rules through Judaism or Hinduism or Jainism or atheism or or or . . . is the only option.

The trap to be wary of is the trap of crossing that line and saying, "Because Christianity is the path for me, it must be the path for everyone else, and I will take forcible steps to make that so." You don't do that, but even in your post, it's clear that you can see how people come to that conclusion. Part of Christianity's PR problem is that too many people in the past have fallen into that trap, and too many people continue to do so. There are some branches of Christianity that can be very aggressive about proselytizing, and it's hard for non-Christians to know, when a Christian approaches and starts talking about how wonderful Christianity is, whether that particular Christian belongs to those particular branches of Christianity.

For reference, here's what it looks like from my perspective: There are many paths to morality and spiritual happiness in the world, but the path that fits my personality the best is Judaism. It's not that Judaism is always a comfortable path -- recall the old joke that God selected the Jews as the Chosen People, but why couldn't He have chosen someone else? -- but that none of the other paths are as comfortable as Judaism. In an ironic sort of way, it's almost Lutheran: "Here I stand. I can do no other."

Recognize what is good and right for you, and recognize also that what is good and right for you may not be good and right for other people, and rejoice when you see the ways in which other people are doing what's good and right for them. That's probably the best way to live life, honoring your own path for yourself and other people's paths for them.
Aug. 1st, 2013 01:15 pm (UTC)
Each person approaches Power in their own way and different theologies will ring for them in different pitches. I must admit that Christianity does nothing for me although I know it well, but most organized religions don't interest me. After most of a lifetime of searching I found my lodestone and it is my own, personal, foundation. I would never expect anyone else to walk my path.

What is important is that you live your life of faith as true to your beliefs and at the same time to not make the attempt to push others into your personal belief space. Each soul walks alone when push comes to shove. The doors of birth and death are breached by only one set of feet at a time. To expect otherwise is illogical.

- Erulisse (one L)
Aug. 1st, 2013 11:56 pm (UTC)
Discussions like this -- respectful, intelligent, and thoughtful -- make my heart sing and remind me what a supportive internet community can be. Your post is courageous and heartfelt, and these responses are wonderful to read and reflect on.
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