Introduction. The title of this post needs explaining. From its beginnings, Christianity has been fraught with differences and conflict. So have all the other world’s religions. And conflict within is matched by conflict between religions – Christians v. Muslims, Jews v. Muslims, Hindus v. Buddhists, etc. And there’s conflict at the individual level. A Muslim friend often quoted the saying, ‘I against my brother; my brother and I against our tribe; our tribe against their tribe.’
I studied and taught world religions (and other subjects), for many years, in a large Chicago suburban community college. That study and experience lead me to believe Christians world-wide, in all their sects, and as individuals, have more variation, polarization, and extremes of attitude toward others than any other religion. I find too much hateful exclusion, and too little loving openness. Of course I have no numbers to prove my opinion. But I’m not surprised that White Christian America is losing influence and numbers, as shown in Robert P. Jones 2016 book, The End of White Christian America, and the trend continues today.
What prompted this blog topic was a recent interaction over lunch with a friend, to discuss the Zoom class –Who IS Jesus? – that we had viewed 2 days earlier, conducted by her teacher friend whom she’s been following for several years. I paid the tuition and attended at her invitation. I can’t call our visit a conversation. It left me angry, frustrated and sad. We have very different religious views, which is fine. But each time I tried to question a point of doctrine or express my own take on it, she would respond something like ‘That’s because you don’t understand!’. She seemed to be taking the perspective of her friend who I think holds to a liberalized ‘orthodox’ Catholicism established by Vatican II (ended in 1965 – well before he was born). Her personal views are anything but orthodox. (She doesn’t believe in hell, which is strange for an ex-nun). The teacher’s manner was melodramatic; closing his eyes and pinching his brow for a long pause. At the same time he was overflowing with praise for any comment made. He often told students to wear “Love Goggles”. These mannerisms made me cringe, and seemed completely rehearsed; in fact he produces films too. But my friend ‘just loves him’. Obviously this added to the stress. Doctrinally, his mantra – “Everything I say about Jesus applies completely to you” – seemed problematic as well. John says in four different places, “He never sinned”. Yes, Jesus was human, but uniquely so.
As we were eating, I suggested that ‘The Trinity’ doctrine doesn’t make sense to me. Her response was ‘We’re only human – of course you don’t understand God’. That’s quite true, but I’m not trying to understand God in himself – in his Divine reality. That would be impossible. (See below under Key Concepts.) But I do try to understand the theological claims about God from various doctrinal viewpoints – which seldom come from God’s Word.
Alas, I ended up so frustrated and angry that I made an insulting gesture with a middle finger – something that’s really against my usual polite habits. Despite apologizing, I left our lunch date feeling estranged; and realized too late that the conversation was worse than useless.
Using Scripture, then, is an effort to provide common ground for all Christians, whether or not they are familiar with it, let alone have studied it. Often dogma takes the place of helpful discussion. Individual church members (whatever their religion – not only Christians), are often raised with ideas that are given without explanation or even room for question. No one – child or adult – likes being told what to think or do; that’s human nature. Dogmatic religious statements get the same kind of natural negative response. While I dislike his atheism, British geneticist Richard Dawkins has a point when he claims that telling children what they must believe is “child abuse”. And if these beliefs are memorized – as is the case with members of many churches – they probably have a weak foundation anyway, and can easily become muddled.
The few religious ideas included in this post then are based on the Scriptures – primarily the books of Moses and the prophets, and the four new testament Gospels. I want to emphasize that none of it comes from church councils – e.g. the one in Nicea (325 C.E.) – long after the Apostles died. The Nicene council was commanded by Emperor Constantine, in effect, to ‘get their act together’, in order to fight the Arian heresy. Arius was an Egyptian cleric who denied Jesus’ divinity. The council’s ‘solution’ was that Jesus was divine from eternity, as were the Father, and the Holy Spirit. These were called The Holy Trinity, described as ‘Three persons in one God’. In effect, however, the practical historical result from then until now has been to speak and think about God as 3 separate, distinct divine beings – that are somehow united in one God. Is that union a ‘mystery’ or rhetorical trickery? I suggest it was brought to the common folk mainly through persuasive oratory by priests, bishops, popes, presbyters, evangelists, megachurchmen, salespeople, bible thumping TV icons, and more. Here is the text of the Apostles Creed (3rd C), Nicene Creed (3rd C), and Athanasian Creed (5th C), used in Catholic services today. A key line from the latter reads: “19. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; 20. So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.” Does that make sense?
I was fortunate to be raised in a Christian community that is centered on the teachings of an 18th C. Swedish theologian named Emanuel Swedenborg described in this 8 min. video. His writings are voluminous and complex, but the main idea relevant to my blog post is this: Whatever the Biblical scriptures say literally – which can be found in more than 100 translations in English – there is always an “inner sense” as well. It’s in the inner sense that the real, spiritual messages lie.
Key concepts There is one God who is the origin of everything – called (YHWH) Jehovah יהוה by Hebrews, and Allah (אלהא) by Muslims. He cannot be experienced or even approached directly, any more than we can experience or directly approach our sun. We would be fried long before we got close. Even Moses was not allowed to see God directly. Exodus 33: 22-23 reads, “There is a place near Me where you are to stand upon a rock, 22 and when My glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take My hand away, and you will see my back; but My face must not be seen.”
The sun’s light and heat come to us through various media, atmospheres and force fields. Similarly, Jehovah can make himself approachable indirectly, through our willingness to turn toward him, and through the medium of his teachings, especially as given in his Word. But the Word is often misunderstood, perverted or even rejected, to suit our selfish purposes, because our tendency is to deny higher realities, and favor the world and our private desires it gratifies.
Life is eternal, but we have choices which determine the quality of life – here and hereafter. In brief, accept God and try to do his will, or reject God, and do what we will, which amounts to evil. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock’. It’s our choice! The existence of freedom is an irrevocable divine gift. Without freedom, choice is a meaningless term. No one – not even God – can compel another to want what she doesn’t want; but her actions can be compelled. In such a case, she would still be doing what she wants – e.g. avoiding punishment, getting rewards, etc. God is not a puppeteer. Some Christians – e.g. the predestinarians – think we are puppets (See “sinners in the hands of an angry God”) by Johnathan Edwards, 1741, in Boston – part of the Great Awakening. This horrible doctrine started with a French-Swiss theologian John Calvin (1509-1564), who preached that God arbitrarily chooses some for salvation and condemns others to hell. What a hideous – I would say blasphemous – perverson of the spirit of Christianity and the nature of God whose essence is Love Itself!
The Apostles who experienced Jesus’ teachings directly or in miraculous visions, included simple fishers (Peter) and educated professionals (Luke). Their ideas were from direct experience, or hearsay, or by visions (as with Paul). They all accepted Jesus as the Lord God incarnate. E.g. Paul, in Colossians 2:9 says, “In him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily”. Jesus is the Incarnation of the high God (Yahweh), which occurred in time – not from eternity.
The Apostle John (who is not John the Baptist) is one of the favored followers of Jesus, calling himself the ‘beloved’. He, James and Peter were at the Transfiguration. His gospel is very different from the Synoptic Gospels. The New King James bible (published by Nelson, 1985) explains John’s approach, in this nice analysis:
“A prominent feature of this gospel is its emphasis on the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is twice called “God” (1:1; 20:28). He is called the “[only begotten] Son of “God” 10 times (1:14, 18, 34, 49; 3:16, 18; 6: 69; 9:35; 10:36; 11:27. He is equated with the Father four times (5:18; 10:30; 14:9; 16:27). John refers to God as “Father” 116 times, more than all the other gospels combined. Jesus always says “your Father,” “the Father,” or “My Father,” but never “Our Father.” This is because his relationship to the Father is unique. It is stated four times that He never sinned (8:46; 18:38; 19:4, 6). The classical attributes of deity are used to refer to Jesus’ omnipresence (1:18; 3:13), His omnipotence (5:21; 6:19; 10:18), and His omniscience (2:25; 11: 11-14). He uses the expression “I am” (ego eimi) many times. He says “I am” the Messiah (4:25, 26); the Bread of Life (6:36, 41, 48, 51); the Light of the World (8:12; 9:5: 12:46); the Door (10:7, 9); the Good Shepherd (10:11, 14); the Resurrection and the Life (11:25); the Way, the Truth, and the Life (14:6); and the True Vine (15:1, 5). His two most remarkable statements are “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58), and simply – “I am” (18:5, 8; cf Ex. 3:14.”
There is only one God and one true person – the Divine Human who is the ultimate person. We are human persons insofar as we each come from that one divine person – God. The quality of human persons parallels what exists in God, because we are in the ‘likeness of God’. We have a soul (not the brain), a body controlled by the mind (through the brain), and an influence or effect on others (our ‘spirit’, which isn’t limited by time or space). In a similar way God has a soul (the infinite Jehovah), a body which is not material, but was glorified and taken to heaven, and the spirit of truth, which is his way of ordering creation, and guiding humans.
Salvation for every human is, was and always will be, the constant goal and intention of all creation – spiritual and natural – by God, whose very being is Love. But we need to become ‘worthy’ of that salvation. That is, as said above, we need to choose to accept his offer of happiness and not reject it. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (Rev 3:20) He knocks, but we must open the door.
Ignorance excuses. Those who live by what they believe, and try to be charitable and concerned for others, are given enlightenment from above, or from within. This means that everyone in the world can be saved. It seems, however, that Christians, who ‘should know better’, are less likely to accept God’s will than non-Christians. The latter will be saved, so long as they try to live a good life because (their) god wills it. Knowing what is God’s will, and rejecting it, is the blasphemy that cannot be forgiven, ‘neither in this world, nor in the world to come’. God wills to save these blasphemers as well, but they won’t accept it, or even truly believe He exists.