About Christianity

In discussing history, I said that there was something odd about Christianity and its affect on history.  This isn't only my conclusion, but a common conclusion among those studying history and the development of civilization, both among those who love Christianity and hate it. 

One of the greatest modern historians, Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) assembled a grand 12 volume history of the world called the Study of History.  As he grew older, living to see the rise of the Third Reich, he grew to see religion as the driving force shaping civilization.   Specifically, he felt that “worship of the state” was the oldest and most primitive form of religion, and that when people lacked devotion to a “higher religion” such as Christianity, they regressed to state-worship to fill the void.  He felt that over time, these “higher religions” displaced states as the units that gave meaning to history.  In the case of Christianity, with its emphasis on in individual relationship with God, we also see the rise of the individual and individual liberty. 

The Teachings of Christ

The “eulogy” for Jesus Christ is a strange one.  He never wrote a book.  He never led an army.  He never made any money.  He never traveled further from his birthplace than a day’s walk.  He died young, having achieved nothing like success. Yet, over time, he has had more impact on history than any the emperor, conquer, inventor, and scientist that ever lived.  

Christ’s teachings were simple: love God and love other people, but most importantly, the kingdom of God is coming.   This last message was really heart of his teaching.   He saw himself as the point in history from which everything changed.  Historically, people have paid much more attention to his prophecy of death and resurrection, but, from our vantage point in history, we should start recognizing that Christ’s primary message about the nature of life changing was his more important prophesy. 

The apostles, the people who knew Christ best, all believed in Christ’s resurrection to the degree that they were all willing to die as testimony to it.  Believers today may be jealous the apostle’s witnessing Jesus’ life and resurrection first hand, but I suspect that they would have been jealous of our ability to witness the historical accuracy of Jesus’ primary prediction that the kingdom of God is coming.  

A Philosophy as Leavening for Society

We might find it difficult to believe, but individuals and societies almost world over have become kinder, gentler, and more loving in the last 2,000 years since Christ. 

Since Rousseau, civilized people have imagined some “noble savage” that never existed.  Human in their most primitive state are the most savage, not noble.  We also imagine societies kinder than those today, but all earlier societies were much more brutal and less forgiving.  In any earlier society abolishing slavery or the death penalty would have been not only unthinkable but laughable.  Christianity has even changed other religions.  One of the greatest religious men of the last generation, Gandhi, described himself as a Hindu, but his teachings were pure Christian.  Christ described the kingdom of God as the yeast in dough: mix in a little and everything rises. 

Of course, from our perspective, here and now, it is difficult to see how the world has changed for the better in the two thousand years since Christ.  God’s hand is always ambiguous.  We are always given a choice about whether to believe or not.  Even the apostles’ had a choice about whether or not to believe in Christ.   Every time they met Christ after the resurrection, they didn’t initially recognize him.  They had to believe in order to see. They always had their free will. 

It is easy to attack Christianity for all the terrible acts committed by Christians in the name of Christ over the centuries.  The problem with any and all religion is that the people who follow them are all too human.  When I was young, I wondered why Christ would be so horrified by his impending death.  He had already predicted his resurrection.  He would suffer, but many have crueler, more painful deaths.  Today, I personally believe that his suffering was caused by his foreknowledge of the horrors that other would perpetrate in his name.  He couldn’t stop people from being human and having choices. 

Disputes within Christianity over dogma or theology have been especially foolish.   The purpose of Christianity was not to change people’s minds, but to change their hearts.  The “details” of belief have always been unimportant in this process.   Flawed, misguided people are easily caught up in these issues of belief.   Because they were human, even the authors of the Gospels had issues and ideas that they wanted to promote.  None of this has mattered to the historical success of Christianity or the changes that it has brought to the world.     We may not know exactly what Christ said, but we obviously know enough.  Any religion that teaches love of God, love of neighbor and the eventual triumph of good over evil is preaching Christianity.   The simplest beliefs are the most powerful.

The Lord's Prayer

As far as a relationship with God, Christ offered only one prayer, but a single prayer tells us a lot about the relationship that we as humans have with God.   

The Lord’s Prayer begins, “Our Father, Who art in Heaven.”  This single line makes three points.  First, we pray to God as our Creator, as the cause of our existence.  Second, God as Creator is “our Father,” not a distant, indifferent force, but a personal, loving force with whom we share some basic characteristics.  Finally, God is in Heaven, that is, has a timeless perspective outside of creation.  Forget all the childish pictures of fluffy clouds and angelic choirs.  The important issue here is that the eternal realm of Heaven is well beyond human understanding. 

The prayer continues, “Hallowed be Thy Name.”  The sacred fact of God is captured in His Name.  What is the name of God?  Yahweh, or “I am Who am.”   For me, the Jewish name has always captured the nature of self-awareness.  In the case of the Divinity, self-awareness is reality.  As children of God, our self-awareness is just a reflection of this central reality. 

The prayer goes on, “Thy Kingdom come.”  There is no additional praise of God or exaltation of God.  God doesn’t need our approval or praise.  Instead, we have the central message of Christ.  Over time, we believe that the love of God and neighbor will reshape the world. 

The prayer then says, “Thy Will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”   In other words, we in the here and now on Earth will act and accept God’s plans in the same way that all the universe and history conforms to the divine plan.   We accept that there is a bigger plan and that we have a part in it. 

The prayer continues, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  In this prayer, we don’t praise God or even thank Him for what he has given us.  We are, however, quick to ask for what we need.  In other words, we recognize that we need and get God’s support every day of our lives.  We recognize our dependence on a power greater than our own.

The prayer then asks, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.”  Here we recognize that we are all human and that we all have to live together.  We hurt others and others hurt us.  We recognize that we make mistakes that must be forgiven.  We also recognize that others make mistakes and that forgiving them is a part of our absolution.

The prayer then ends, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.”  Here, we recognize the weaknesses of our nature.  Not only have we done things wrong in the past, but we are very likely to be temped in stupid, self-destructive acts in the future if we are not protected from ourselves.   We need to be protected from the evil of others as well as the potential evil within ourselves.

For those who have tried to frame Christianity as an institution with the Church as intermediary, this prayer has always posed a serious problem.  In it, we address God as our intimate, our personal creator, our Father, Whom we rely upon directly for our daily survival.  This personal relationship may allow a church as a community, but certainly doesn’t require one as an intermediary.    This was why, even during the Dark Ages, when there was only one Church, Christianity was a hot-bed of religious invention, creating new religions orders and movements in every generation. 

Though many have tried to frame Christianity as a refuge of certitude in an uncertain world, this prayer makes the limitations of our knowledge about God very clear.  God experiences reality from the timeless dimension of Heaven which is unknowable to us.  Heaven follows his Will completely, but on Earth, reality is a combination of Divine Will and our personal choices and therefore uncertain.   We must not only accept that others will trespass against us, but learn to forgive it. 

A Choice of Belief

Historically, Christianity has been tortured by numerous debates about dogma.  How critical do those debates about Christ’s dual nature or the nature of the Trinity seem today?  Our “issues” about God may seem important at any given moment, worth dying for or killing over, but from the distance of time we wonder what all the fuss was about. If these issues seem meaningless to us today, how much more meaningless do they seem from the timeless perspective of Heaven?  Jesus once said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  In other words, the traditions and totems of belief are there to make our faith easier, not to pose obstacles to faith.  We can use them if they are useful or simply accept that we cannot fully comprehend the deeper nature of reality. 

For example, the concept of the Trinity can seem an unnecessary complication to God.  What does it mean to have “three persons in one God?”  How do we even apply the term “person” to the ultimate reality?  However, as I have grown older, I have discovered that I seem to naturally think about God in three different ways.  I think and write mostly about God the Father, the creator who views my life as a whole from timeless eternity.  When I listen to the internal voice of God within me, I don’t think about the great, eternal Father.   This is God the intimate, the Holy Ghost, the Sacred Spirit within.  They are the same, but one is great, distant, overarching, incomprehensible aspect of the divine in the universe around me while the other is the infinitesimal, subtle, and sublime sense of the divine within me.  There is no division in God, but there is a division of my perception. 

As for Christ, the third part of the Trinity, I see Him as the role of God in human history.  I have no idea about the nature of Jesus the man who lived 2,000 years ago, but the Christ who has infected the world with the Kingdom of God is still active as the divine in the human world. 

This is God as a great wave moving through human history and the human popular, the shared sense of God in our minds and hearts.  Though the wave was started by Christ, I don’t see it as exclusively “Christian” as a form of religion.  People of any religion can be and  are increasingly dedicated to the spirit of God among us.  

People’s prejudices about religion have little to do with force of religion on history.  As Jesus said, “By their fruits you will judge them.”  Religions of any type can produce good, Godlike lives.  The spirit of Christ is such a part of the social fabric today that people without any specific religion can also lead such lives.   Organizations such as AA promote Christian values not out of ideology, but from simply pragmatism.  Over time, these value work for us all.

Though this is an historical movement, its purpose isn't to create history.   The meaning of this revolution is written one heart at a time, in individual freedom and choice.