A reader of my blog has emailed me the following questions. They seem to involve the question of how to embrace the Christian mystery when one cannot be sure if it is the “true” path or not.
As a former neo-pagan, didn’t you find getting to grips with Christianity’s necessity to hold a set number of essential beliefs? Don’t you have any doubts and don’t you find them restricting? I was wondering if you knew much about Islamic mysticism – sufism – and if you had ever written something about it before? … I feel more at home with Christianity, although the problem is that I do not believe that Jesus is the son of God and think that the bible and Christian faith are products of man rather than the divine. On that note, I will leave you in peace and hope you keep up the good work and your lovely and inspirational blog!
Some great questions. Let me start with the easiest one first. Alas, my knowledge of Islam is impoverished. Although my friends Joe (a practicing Muslim) and Darrell (who has done extensive work with the Sufi Healing Order) have encouraged me to drink the splendid and refreshing waters of mystical Islam, I have yet to do so. I hope to remedy that deficiency someday — just as I hope to become more fully immersed in the wisdom traditions of Vedanta, or Vajrayana Buddhism, or the Kabbalah… so many mystics, so little time!
Now, on to “Christianity’s necessity to hold a set number of essential beliefs.” I guess I didn’t get the memo. I know that many Christians approach the faith propositionally — in other words, see being a Christian as all about believing the right things — which, to my mind, is a variation of moralism, which limits Christianity to those who behave the right way. It occurs to me that both propositional and moralistic religion are obsessed with purity: only those without blemishes are good enough for God. The problem is, this flies in the face of Jesus and his message. The gospel is all about breaking down old purity codes in the interest of building or strengthening real relationships between human beings. Thus, Jesus will heal a sick man on the sabbath, and when the religious authorities challenge him on it, he points out that any farmer will rescue a cow that has fallen into a pit, sabbath or no sabbath. Likewise, Jesus uses common sense to recognize that hungry folks gathering something to eat is not the same thing as a whole day’s work. But he gets criticized just the same. Meanwhile, Jesus talks to “unclean” people, like the Samaritan woman at the well or the Canaanite (pagan) woman who comes to him for healing — indeed, the Canaanite woman gets the better of him when Jesus initially tries to dismiss her. He allows a woman regarded by polite society as a sinner to anoint his feet and massage them with her hair — talk about sensuous! He publicly dines with those regarded as “sinners.” In other words, Jesus seems to consistently put people before rules.
I approach Christianity in pretty much the same way. To me, the point behind being a Christian is not that I have to limit my way of seeing things, but rather that I get to hang out with a number of truly wise and loving people (such as the contemplative monks for whom I work). Now, I personally love Christian teaching and I do not advocate the kind of “anything goes” religion that suggests you should just make up what you believe (hey, even the Unitarians have guidelines for their religious practice!). But I do struggle with it, and frankly I reconcile my own doubts with Christian teaching by simply acknowledging, in all humility, that I myself do not have all the answers and do not know the mind of God. So I live in the tension of “not knowing” and recognizing that, on a purely rational level, much of what Christianity proclaims doesn’t make a lot of sense. But I try to live my faith not on a rational level, but on a trans-rational level. In other words, for me Christianity is not a logic-puzzle to figure out (there’s that temptation to propositional purity again), but rather a mystery to be embraced and lived into. Jesus didn’t say that the two great commandments were “Understand all the correct things about God” and “Believe exactly the same way as everyone else.” Rather, the marching orders for being a Christian are “Love God with all your heart, mind, strength and spirit” and “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” So I work on loving as best I can, and I figure that the believing part will take care of itself over time.
Now, as to your specific concerns: “I do not believe that Jesus is the son of God.” There are two ways of approaching this. If you want to sign on to the Christian mission of loving God, loving your neighbors, and loving yourself, sooner or later you’ll notice that most Christians at least accept the theory that Jesus is God. So I’d ask you this: are you willing to at least suspend your disbelief, and say, “I don’t know”? One of the most important verses in the Bible is “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). In other words, there is no such thing as “pure” belief anyway. So I think learning to live in the not-knowing is crucial. Now, the other way of approaching it is, frankly, more mystical (and probably more controversial). Consider these Bible verses, both of which quote Jesus:
- “The Father and I are one.” — John 10:30
- “Abide in Me, and I in you … I am the vine, you are the branches” — John 15:4-5
Taken together, this is a powerful message: Jesus is one with God, and we are called to be “part” of Jesus, to abide in him as he abides in us. In other words, Christian spirituality is all about abiding in God. Christianity teaches that those who love Christ are the Body of Christ, which literally means we are the Body of God. So Christianity offers a much more powerful way of immersing ourselves into God than any other faith tradition that I know of. And the key to it all is not believing the right things, or meditating the right way, or any other kind of knowledge-based or behavior-based effort. It’s all about love.
Finally, the Bible: you say it is a “product of man” rather than of the Divine. My response: “why limit it to one or the other?” I think the Bible is a beautiful, messy, mysterious, enigmatic, at times inspirational, at other times infuriating, document of the human struggle to connect with God. I also believe it is the word of God. I see both dynamics at work within it simultaneously. The splendor of Christianity is that it does not see matter, or humanity, or the messy stuff of life as alien to God. Rather, God works in and through our messy imperfections to do the undercover work of grace and love and forgiveness. Is it “perfect”? Of course not. Is it “pure”? By no means. But it is real, and the hope it offers is likewise real. And that’s good enough for me, for it is by that hope and that down-to-earth reality that I find the strength to keep loving, even in a world where handicapped children suffer and so many other people are in unresolvable pain. I can’t fix the broken world, but maybe through my choices I can make it all just a little bit more bearable, both for myself and for those I come int contact with.
And that’s what drives me as a Christian. And the more I keep my eyes on the prize (love), the less I worry about such things as whether or not I have all the right doctrines lined up in a row or not. I figure my beliefs are as imperfect as anything else in my life. And so I beg God for God’s mercy and forgiveness and I keep trying to do the best I can — which means, I keep trying to love.
I hope this helps. God bless you, wherever your journey may take you!