Guest Blogger: Eric Laine

Where are the Christians?

I was raised Catholic, and attended Catholic schools almost exclusively from grade school through college. One time when I was young, I was in church with my mother and sister and a wooden cross display sitting on a window sill above me suddenly fell off and hit me on the shoulder. My mom joked that this was a sign that I would become a priest. At least I think it was a joke.

I know my mom is disappointed that I am not a Catholic today. She may feel a bit like she failed in her duty as a Catholic mother to raise a good Catholic child. She’s baffled by my agnosticism. It makes no sense to her. I don’t believe in God. That’s not to say that I believe that there’s no God. I just don’t see how any human could know one way or the other

In Catholic school, I was taught that this is why God sent Jesus, so that we might know and understand God better. Jesus said as much: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” (John 14:9-11) Jesus clearly believed in God.

Over the past 5 years, we’ve been living under the leadership of an Evangelical Christian president. George W. Bush’s religious beliefs, and his demonstrated favor for those who share his beliefs, have helped bring the Evangelical Christian world view into the mainstream of American life. The election of an Evangelical Christian president is the result of a revelation within the Evangelical community: that one’s beliefs can and should affect each decision one makes. Particularly, one’s beliefs should influence one’s decisions about politics, parenting, education, marriage, opportunity, and beginning and end of life issues. That is to say, most of the pressing issues of American culture.

What good are your beliefs, your values, if you don’t put them into action?

As the fervor of faith swelled in American culture, a serious clash of values arose between my mother and me (civil liberties, the war, abortion, etc.) This totally shocked me. It baffled me that we didn’t share the same values. After all, it was she who took me to the church and sent me to the schools from which my values derive. She had raised me with Catholic values—her values—certified by actual Catholic educators (Jesuits, you understand—the real deal), and yet she seemed disappointed with the results, like I got it wrong. Did I learn the wrong lessons?

My Catholic education did not succeed in convincing me that God was real, or that Jesus was God. That makes me a heretic, I suppose. My grandmother would be horrified to hear me say something like that—which produces guilt. Welcome to Catholicism, where questioning authority is simply not tolerated! But Catholicism did teach me about ethics. Even if Jesus wasn’t God, he was one stand-up ethical guy. This is the notion of Jesus as a revolutionary, the social justice Jesus. I started to think about what Christianity looks like if you peel away the theology.

The problem with Catholicism is that it’s theology is largely invented by humans who lived centuries after Christianity’s founder died. It’s just ideas and rules made up mostly by men—regular humans who don’t know any more than any of us do about the nature of God. They even invented a concept to cover their theological asses—Papal Infallibility. Can’t argue with that! Most Catholics accept the Church’s rules and ideas about God simply because those ideas are ancient. They’ve been codified for so long, they create their own reverence. Catholics will not tolerate deviations from the Catechism. The Jesuits tortured and killed people en masse for such deviations. (So much for ethics.)

The Protestant reformation happened in part because the Catholic Church maintained a stranglehold on ideas about God—to the point of torture and murder. In a sense, Evangelical Christianity is a revolutionary movement, born out of the Protestant Reformation. One of the key ideas of this revolutionary movement was that you didn’t need a priest to mediate between you and God—to explain God’s message to you.

Evangelicals believe that a person can read the word of God, aka the Bible, and decide for him- or herself what God’s message is. Where the Evangelicals run off course is they take everything they read literally. This literalism absolves the reader from having to develop the critical and interpretive thinking that was once the sole provenance of the priest. If you state that the Bible must be taken literally, then there is no interpretation, no room for God to speak to ”me”. The fundamentalism itself becomes the mediator between me and God. This seems like replacing one priest with another.

It seems to me that true Christian fundamentalism would seek to strip away ALL mediation between human and God, especially with regard to the word of God. Since we know that the Bible was written centuries ago by other humans, each of whom had his own agenda and purpose for writing what he did, seeking the true “word of God” would naturally focus on what Jesus actually said. That would seem to me to be more fundamental to Christian faith than say, the letters of Paul. After all, who is Paul to interpret the meaning and significance of Jesus’ words and work? Just another priest.

Many early Christian writings were simply collections of sayings of Jesus (see the Gospel of Thomas). We know from non-Biblical historical references that Jesus was a real human, and he said things that people took to be important, and eventually many of the things he said were written down. I suppose the accuracy of these sayings is a matter of, um, faith. But I think you can set aside the question of whether the historical Jesus actually said all of these things and focus on the wisdom that these ancient texts display. If you want to get to the heart of Christianity, the truly fundamental essence of following Christ, I think you have to look at the actual words attributed to Jesus and disregard the theological designs created by humans who followed centuries later.

Jesus spoke mainly on two topics: social justice and ethics, and the nature of the divine. Now since I understand Jesus to be human, I generally take his statements about divinity as mysterious poetry, intended to reveal parts of a world beyond human understanding. This is why many of the sayings of Jesus are so inscrutable, and seem to align themselves with ideas found in other world religions. These theological sayings point toward some universal experience that is beyond human. We tend to refer to this experience as God.

But while this divinity talk is interesting, cosmic, and to some even life-affirming and emotionally satisfying, to me it seems ultimately of little use in our daily lives. Maybe something magical happens after we die, maybe something magical can happen while we’re still alive (mushrooms? voodoo? yoga?), but I am more interested in social justice and ethical issues that affect the way people live right now.

Evangelical Christians talk a lot about moral values, explaining that these values are derived from Jesus, who has personally saved each and every one of them. “What would Jesus do?” is the bumper-sticker distillation of this concept. Now that the Evangelicals have a strong voice in American culture, they relish in their opportunity to introduce Jesus’ values into the American mainstream. So why are we not seeing the results of their efforts in the form of a more just and ethical society? Is it because the atheists, homosexuals, and feminists are working so hard against the faithful?

Based on the text of the Gospels alone, the ethical and social justice values of Jesus (as opposed to the theological values), are radically inclusive. They work for faithful Christians as well as they do for non-believers. Love your neighbor, turn the other cheek, help the poor, forgive those who trespass against you. Most people will say that trying to adhere to principles like these is absurd and unrealistic. These values seem simplistic, and Jesus delivers the message with such grace and confidence, they almost seem easy.

The trouble is, these values are INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT TO LIVE BY, especially in the abundance of modern America. That is the true challenge of Christianity. Jesus himself said that if you follow his teachings, you will be persecuted, you will be poor, you will be tempted endlessly, and you will suffer at the hands of those in power. The reward is supposed to be the satisfaction of living ethically, even if it means you’ll be lynched like a Jew trying to help black Southerners vote.

Jesus never said that following him would be easy. In fact, it’s so difficult that in my observation, almost nobody does it. If every Christian in America took the words of Jesus seriously (as opposed to literally) and acted accordingly, this country would be transformed. That America might actually have a chance of becoming the beacon of freedom, the light in the darkness, that George W. Bush says it is. All it would require from Christians is sincerity.

For example, take the economy. American capitalism encourages and rewards greed. Greed is the engine that drives our nation. Anyone who participates in this greed engine cannot call himself or herself a Christian, can they? Greed is not a Christian value. Yet America depends upon it. Accumulation of wealth and social status is the prime incentive for people to create products and services for the American marketplace. But wealth accumulation is not a valid incentive for a Christian, is it? A Christian would be motivated by, say, working to ensure medical coverage for all American children. Jesus viewed wealth with distrust at best. He regarded greed as a sin. How can a Christian work to support an engine of greed that infects every aspect of American life with money?

Over the last five years or so, I have often loudly lamented the “invasion” of the public forum by self-righteous Evangelical Christians. For a while, it seemed to me that the Christians had taken over, or even that they had always been in control. Having re-examined my own Catholic roots by focusing on Jesus’ advice for an ethical life, I now understand that the Christians have not taken over America. In fact, I don’t think there are any Christians in America at all.

If there are, please help us.

Eric Laine


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