Tuesday, December 24, 2002

A Christmas Message

A friend of mine recently sent me (and one of the listservs on which I participate) an article about a Christianity vs. Atheism debate, which sparked some of the natural gas that tends to make up my thinking. While the resulting conflagration wasn't exactly the Hindenburg, I thought I'd share it. I also decided not to use any more stupid metaphors until at least midnight.

I'll start by declaring my stance. I believe that the Bible is infallible, properly understood. There are times where idiom is used, places where small details are missing (by this I mean the name of a village, for example), times where I would've phrased the translation from Hebrew or Greek better in order to convey what is meant, and places where we too often read specifics into generalities and vice-versa. That said, I fully believe that God created Eve from Adam's rib, that Daniel's friends were thrown into a fire and were unharmed, and that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. God is present, and may intervene at His discretion if we ask Him (praying). I believe in that we have free will, though defining this is difficult, since I don't necessarily know enough to say what kind this is.

One of my favorite quotes is by Benjamin Jowett, and is "My dear child, you must believe in God in spite of what the clergy tell you."
The problem with the clergy is that while they are usually very well-meaning, they're also human and subject to the same faults and problems of vision as the rest of us. Thus, we have silly situations where not only is Christianity divided into several major and minor schisms, but some of the adherents to different denominations refuse to even share Communion. There have been stupid wars fought over things as major as whether or not the Pope is God's prophet on earth and as minor as whether the Trinity should be symbolized by three fingers up or three fingers down while crossing oneself. Major or minor, an unclouded look at our Christian faith shows that neither of these matters. Too often, those not of our faith see only these exchanges, and thus can be excused for thinking that they represent Christianity and not just Christians as fallible humans.

The very core of Christianity is the "Great Commandment." Jesus says to one who asks which of the Commandments, which the questioner considers to be the Ten Commandments, is the greatest that the greatest is to know that there is one God, and to love Him with all our heart, mind, and body. He then says that the second-greatest is to love our neighbors in a like manner, and that all other commandments are based on these two. When Christians say that a certain practice is wrong, it ought to be because it violates one or both of these laws. Too often, we simply say that "the Bible says _____ is wrong," without explaining what we mean. A cookbook says not to add too much salt to your stew; the Bible says not to gamble. What's the difference? It's not just that we believe the Bible to be the literal Word of God, and thus worthy of our obedience based simply on that. It's that Christians believe that
gambling violates one or both parts of the Great Commandment.

There can, of course, be plenty of debate over whether or not things are in violation. Is taxation okay because it helps those less fortunate, or is it wrong because it takes from a person without their explicit consent? I don't mean to answer questions like that in this post, but merely to use it as an example. All sorts of issues are questionable, and while I believe that the status of them as either legitimate or in violation can be determined, reasonable people may disagree. If one does seek to honestly obey the Great Commandment, though, it's hard to go too wrong.

Many nonbelievers say that, as rational human beings, they need more proof before making a decision. Christians are typically aghast at this, and feel that if eyewitness accounts of miracles, the power of prayer, and the world around us isn't evidence enough, then no matter what evidence can be produced, it's not going to be considered enough. There were two things that convinced me. The first was looking at a diagram of the human body in my Anatomy class, and just deciding that the most reasonable explanation for something as complex and well-designed as the body must be conscious design, and that a Creator must therefore exist. Secondly, I noticed that when I tried following the part of the Great Commandment about loving my neighbor (also called the Golden Rule), things seemed to work better. I was happier and more productive, and it almost seemed as though I was luckier, though I eventually realized that this "luck" was simply my patience and faith paying off in the long run by not panicking.

This is Christianity. Whether or not to use alcohol during Communion, whether the Pope can speak infallibly, whether or not it's right to have priests are all important in their way, but they should never get in the way of the basics. Christianity reveals little, if anything, that we didn't already know, both as a culture and as individuals. Christians are called to serve others, even if it means their own death. To me, the main symbolism of the cross is recognizing that Christ died for this belief, and that we should be willing to do the same. Everything else is secondary, and can wait if it begins to get in the way of loving and serving others.

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