Choose Ye This Day

Posted by on 12.17.08 | 5 Comments
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Beth’s Advent blog stimulated a really good discussion that I could not resist joining, and it inspired me to expand on my thoughts. The question that arose was how can we know what is true or absolute, and how can we separate the truly sacred texts from those that aren’t. The answer I have come to over my life is that we can’t know what is true or absolute, and we can’t separate the “truly” sacred texts from those that aren’t. The best we can say is that my texts are sacred for me and your texts are sacred for you. The insight made possible by post-modern thought is also its biggest problem and challenge, and it is simply this: there is no point within the experience of being human that allows complete objectivity. All our perspectives and actions are culturally conditioned, which is why the fact that there are 900 million Hindus in India is not a big fat coincidence. For that matter the predominance of Christianity in North America is not the result of a couple hundred million people independently weighing the evidence and deciding to be Christian. It is the result of generations of teaching, of passing on a culturally conditioned and historically weighted tradition. Christians in general reject the divine birth stories of Augustus and accept the divine birth stories of Jesus not because they know the one is mythic and the other historical but because they are Christians and not worshippers of the Roman pantheon. It is, as a matter of fact, quite remarkable to read the critiques of the New Testament birth narratives by Roman critics. They rejected these stories not because it was impossible to imagine a virgin birth; those were rather common among the greatest people of the empire. It was rather that no god would deign to be born of a peasant woman living on the perimeter of the empire. How did they know that? Well, they knew it for the same reason Christians claim it is possible for an impoverished woman to give birth to a king; because they were taught it, because it was ingrained in their culture and part of their heritage. So it feels like we all end up saying that there is no absolute truth.

I will grant this is frustrating, but it has two important ramifications that have great potential for humanizing us over time. The first is it creates the potential for us to become honest about our beliefs. It creates the possibility for us to say that we believe because we believe, not because we know, and not because we have insights or truths that no one else has access to. Over time we just might begin to understand the true circularity of our arguments for one religion over against another, and so cause us to begin to be a little less certain about our position over against those of other religious persuasions. We all believe on faith, pure and simple, and it is faith all the way down and forever. Second, and at least as important, the postmodern insight frames the manner in which we must chose the spiritual perspective through which we view ourselves, our world and God. To be sure, the destruction of certainty about my religion over against yours does not free me of the need to choose in this life. I have to choose, and indeed can’t not. But the primary choice is not one religion over another, but one perspective about life and God over another. I didn’t choose to be Christian rather than Hindu. That decision was made centuries before my birth. I am a Christian because I was born in the USA in 1954 rather than Mumbai or Tokyo in the same year. I have the freedom to abandon the religion of my youth, but it is the power of my very post modern conviction about truth that leads me to realize there is no point in that for me. On the other hand, I do have to make a choice about the nature of the God I worship as a Christian. Over time I have come to believe in the God who reveals true divinity by dying rather than killing, and whose power is manifested not in guns and bombs, but in unconditional love for all. I worship the God whose initials in this world are not SPQR, but INRI. I can say truthfully to any Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Christian or whatever who understands God in the same terms that we together worship the same God. But those who believe that the power of God is manifested in marching armies and falling bombs, who proclaim a God who hates and kills those he hates, well whether they are Christian or not they worship a different God than the one I worship.

I didn’t get this spirituality from Jesus. I have no idea what Jesus would say about my understanding of him. I got my spirituality from the interpretation of Jesus that ultimately became the most compelling and life transforming for me. And this is the spirituality and religion by which I live my life, and through which I understand the world. My kind of Christianity declares that when I hate other people I am hating the image and likeness of God; when I make victims I am victimizing God. To live a spiritually congruent life forces me to respect the dignity of all people, even as I feel free to disagree with them, at times vehemently. And I believe this about God because I believe it, on pure unadulterated faith, not because God granted me a vision, or because my own sacred texts tell me this. It is my interpretation of my own sacred texts that tell me this, just as other people’s interpretations of these same sacred texts speak to them of a God of violence.

Well, enough of this. We don’t know “The Truth” and that is what makes us free. Not free to do whatever we want whenever we want to do it, but free to understand what real faith is about, and free to form a spiritual pattern that respects the dignity of other religious traditions, while remaining steeped in our own.

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