Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand

uber-ChristiansWhenever I go past the StaplesCenter in LA and there is some kind of event going on, I inevitably see signs that tell me to repent. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Maybe just “Sinners, repent.”

I’m not really sure what the uber-Christians have against the Lakers, but it must be something severe, because their signs never fail to seem threatening. The intent seems to be to make the rest of us feel guilty and more than a little scared—as we either quietly going about our lives running errands and carrying heavy groceries or else off for a well-earned night of fun on the town.

God will come soon. And he isn’t going to like what he sees. Be afraid.

That’s the message. I have to admit I am not a fan.

However, I think they’ve gotten things a little mixed up. Or at the very least that there is another way of looking at this.

I seriously don't know what they have against the Lakers. Or maybe it's the fans they hate so much.
I seriously don’t know what they have against the Lakers. Or maybe it’s the fans they hate so much.

I have to admit, in writing this, that I am not a Christian. I do not actually believe that there was a Christ who died for our sins. So, this is not a post written by one of the faithful. It is a post written by someone who thinks that, like other religions, Christianity has something to offer. If this offends you, I suggest you stop reading here and find something else to read that it is more to your taste.

Since you are still here, I assume it’s because you aren’t offended and you are all ears.

Specifically, what Christianity has to offer comes through the story of this Christ that I don’t believe in. You may find that odd. Here I am saying, “I don’t believe it’s true,” and at the same time, “I think there’s something to be learned here. Let’s look at this story. It’s a good one, and it has some important and helpful things to tell us.”

solving equationsBut if you’re finding it odd, that’s probably because you don’t see the human mind in the same way I do. Stories are a part of the way we come to understand things. They are a part of the way we, both as individuals and as entire societies, remember and communicate important ideas and events.

For example, I have a wonderful teacher friend who explains how to solve an equation to her struggling math students through a long complex description of a bad breakup. The breakup never really happened—it’s a made-up story—but it is, in fact, how to solve an equation. The story, although it is made-up, helps. Her students can solve equations.

The same thing is true in my mind about Christ. I don’t believe that the Son of God ever came down to this earth and died for our sins—although it doesn’t disturb me if you do—but I do think what is revealed in that story of his coming might very well be true. At the very least, it’s worth considering.

But first we need to break down this idea of repentance, because while the uber-Christians at the Lakers games scare the pants off me, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” is not a phrase they made up all on their own. Christ isn’t credited with this little instruction, but John the Baptist is, and he seemed to know what was what.

So, what is repentance? You can tell me in the comments what you think about that. I’d like to know.

paint by numberIn the meantime, I’ll tell you what I think. Repentance has three parts to it: 1) an understanding in your own mind that you have done something wrong, 2) an earnest desire not to do it again, and 3) an attempt to make things right again.

If you’ve gone through a 12-step program, then you know all about repentance. You’ve done a lot of repenting. You’ve taken an inventory of your shortcomings and personal failings, you’ve thought about the people you harmed, and you’ve done your best to make amends.

There’s a reason for this. It’s not arbitrary. Repentance frees us.

And that’s what Christianity has to offer—among some other things. It says, “Christ will set you free.” This is one way that Christ can. Because, while I don’t think religion is intended to be done like a paint-by-number, I am a math teacher and I do tend to understand things as processes.

I can see a method here.

All of us do and say things that are insensitive, hurtful, selfish, rash, unwise, unkind, ungenerous. If you want to call it “sin” when you do those things, then we’re definitely all sinners by nature.

So this is the method: acknowledge in your own mind what you have done wrong, attempt not to do it again (usually easier said than done, but give it a go anyway), and do what you can to make things right again.

That’s repentance. It’s not really very hard, is it? Most of us do that.

Horus and Thoth weighing a heart.
Horus and Thoth weighing a heart.

It’s the second part that’s harder. “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” What does that mean? Well, it could mean that God has shown up and intends to judge everyone right here and now. But that’s not very interesting. People have been thinking that God will judge you at the end of your life for quite a long time—a lot longer than people have believed in Jesus. The Egyptians thought your heart would be weighed on a scale. The only innovation here with Christianity is that judgment might come while you’re still alive. Which actually is pretty scary. And not very inspiring.

I'm just not seeing the appeal. You might as well stick with Horus and get our heart weighed.
I’m just not seeing the appeal. You might as well stick with Horus and get our heart weighed.

And the story of Christ was innovative. It captured the imagination of a great part of the world remarkably quickly. I have my doubts that that happened solely because people were so excited that they could find themselves sentenced to a lake of fire to burn for eternity at any moment instead of only after death. I think there’s got to be something more to it.

That “something else” was forgiveness. Like understanding that the world is indeed round and that light behaves both as energy and as matter, the idea of forgiveness changed the foundations of Western civilization. It made possible a different kind of justice: instead of punishment for wrong-doing—hanging, stoning, flogging, execution—it suggested restorative justice. We still don’t seem to have gotten our heads around this, but let’s keep trying, shall we? It might turn out to be worth doing.

Christ came not to judge us, but to forgive us. And the door to forgiveness is repentance. “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” The Kingdom of Heaven is forgiveness. It has to be. None of our heart are lighter than feathers.

Without forgiveness, there isn’t much of a reason to repent, is there? I mean, if God is keeping track of these things, it’s not like he’s going to forget. Whatever you’ve done will still be on your record. Just as they say in school. “This will go on your permanent record.” And when the time comes, you’ll still have to pay for it.

But Christ said, “It can go away. I can wipe this out for you. You just need to do one thing.”

He wasn’t asking for a kick-back. He wanted us to start trying to make things right again when we screw things up and, you know, try not to keep doing it.

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Goats in Hell

You see what I mean?
You see what I mean?

I’m afraid my head is full of little thoughts today–so much so, that there isn’t much room for any big thoughts.

I’ve been thinking about how to get the puppy I’m watching to stop pulling on the leash while we walk and, well, not much else.

So, I thought I’d write about goats. Feel free to sit this one out. I’ll enjoy writing this post even if you don’t read it, and we can pick things back up again when I’ve got something more profound to say.

You see, I’m particularly fond of goats.

Many years ago, when I did one of those study abroad semesters in India, I spent about six weeks in Udaipur. Which I hated. Every non-Indian I have ever spoken to who has any interest in that region raves about Rajasthan, and especially the city of the Lake Palace. If they don’t realize I’ve already been there, they tell me to go.

But I think you’d have to pay me to go there again. I’m not sure how much you’d have to pay me, but it would need to be a fair amount. A thousand dollars US might do it. And if you’d like me to go to Jaipur, you’d need to pay me even more.

That, however, is not the point. The point is still about goats.

Yest, it's lovely. Lake Palace Hotel. Photograph. Britannica Online for Kids. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.  .
Yest, it’s lovely. Lake Palace Hotel. Photograph. Britannica Online for Kids. Web. 22 Aug. 2013. <http://kids.britannica.com/elementary/art-14949&gt;.

Udaipur is a confusing place in the way that old cities are: lots of small lanes, houses that are jumbled up tightly together and look more or less the same (at least to someone like me). But there are lots of goats. Which helps.

Because the goats are different. There are gray goats and black goats and brown goats, spotted goats and goats with solid coats, nannies and kids. And people keep goats tied up to the sides of their houses, sort of like dogs, only goats are friendlier. And they don’t have canine teeth, which is a definite plus if they start getting all territorial and bite you.

As one of our assignments, we had to draw a map of our route from class to our homestay. Mine had all the goats labeled. Without the goats, I never would have found my way anywhere.

We have been living with goats for a long time. They were domesticated between 10,000 and 11,000 years ago–most likely in the Middle East. So, they became our companions much more recently than dogs but not so recently as cattle.

It is just really not fair. Photo credit: Superstock.
It is just really not fair. Photo credit: Superstock.

They have been blamed for creating deserts and spreading really nasty diseases like Q fever (which can lead to pneumonia) and leptospirosis (which sometimes results in meningitis). So I should count myself lucky.

But we hate them. After millennia of life with goats, we detest them, and not because they destroyed the ecsystem of the Channel Islands. We hate them for no good reason.

But Jesus is intending to send all the goats to hell. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and read Matthew 25 again. God, evidently hates goats. It is truly a strange thing.

And I realize this is all metaphorical, but it says something, doesn’t it?

It’s just that I’m not sure what.

What God Wants*

godI have some issues with some fairly mainline Christian ideas about God and what God wants. I mean, at least I think they’re mainline. I didn’t grow up in that environment, so I could be getting muddled here. If I am, I hope someone will set me straight on this.

Specifically, it’s the idea that we’re here to serve God.

I mean, what exactly does God need? Waffles? Do they not have waffles in heaven? Do the angels not give good service? Is that it?

I can’t get my head around it. God needing to be served. Doesn’t add up.

Or is the idea that he just needs his ego stroked? He needs some narcissistic supply. Oh, God, you’re so great, you’re so all-powerful. You’re the bomb. Does God really need to be told that? Is He that insecure?

I’m not buying that one either.

Now, serving each other. I can see that. We’re a mess. We’re ruining the planet. We keep killing each other off in a variety of ways. We get sick, we die and leave heartbroken loved ones behind. Us. We need all the help we can get.

And I can see a compassionate God saying, “Serve each other. Help each other. For my sake, get out there and do something. The gorillas ain’t gonna do it for you.”

I’m not a Christian. I haven’t been one in more than twenty years. But that bit in John still seems like a good idea to me.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35.

That’s a good commandment. That’s better than all of the other ten.

* I do hope this post doesn’t offend my Christian friends and readers. It is written in rather a light tone, but I am quite serious about the point. And I do respect the beliefs of others even if they are different from mine.

God and Cognitive Dissonance

The Creation of Adam.  Michelangelo.
The Creation of Adam. Michelangelo.

I wonder about this matter of faith, specifically about faith in God.  Not because I lack faith, but because I don’t understand the anxiety so many people seem to have about it.  Is there something about God I fundamentally don’t understand?  What about faith seems to put so many people on the precipice of apostasy?  Why is it so hard?

Faith seems easy to me, but then I’m not a Christian.  I’m not sure what the demands of faith according to a Christian God might be, although I am familiar with Christianity, the Bible, and most aspects of common Christian beliefs.

To make an analogy, I have yet to worry about whether the sun will rise tomorrow or not.  I take it for granted, even if I fail to appreciate the wonder of it from time to time.  My relationship with God is much the same.  I get caught up in my own small concerns, my worries, my daily life.  I forget to think too much about God.  But I haven’t lost faith.  I’ve just gotten thoughtless.  It’s hard for me to understand how anyone could lose faith in God when God is so evidently there–or not there, if you aren’t of the mind to see things that way.

I have some theories on why some Christians seem to have so many concerns about losing their faith.  I’m not convinced any of them are right.  Perhaps someone out there can set me straight.

Crucifixion by Simon Toporovsky.  Photograph by Julius Schulman and David Glomb.
Crucifixion by Simon Toporovsky. Photograph by Julius Schulman and David Glomb.

The first is that they must believe in a God that doesn’t entirely make sense to them.  In their minds, God knows best, does what is right, is all-knowing, and all-powerful.  And yet we humans persist in making a mess of things–of our own lives and of each other’s lives.  Oh, and God loves us.

Doesn’t make sense, does it?  If God knows everything, then he knows we are making a mess of our lives.  He is all–powerful, so he could stop it if he wanted to.  If he loved us, he would.  But he doesn’t.  So, either God doesn’t care as much as we think, he knows less than we imagine, or he isn’t as powerful as we assume.  But something, for sure, is wrong with this picture.

That was possibility A.

B) is a variant and involves a moral conundrum.  God, is all-good–as mentioned above.  And he has a plan for our lives–for everyone’s lives.  And everything happens for a reason.  And yet horrifically awful things keep happening–some of them the work of human beings, and some of them “acts of God.”  Like cancer.  Single parents with small children and few resources develop terminal forms of cancer.  Tsunamis and earthquakes destroy whole series of villages, leaving children without parents, and parents without children.  I wouldn’t do that to someone, would you?

I thought not.  We, as kind and sympathetic people, would not go around letting single parents with small children die of cancer. We wouldn’t take out half a village, leaving the other half to grieve, if we could help it.  So is God really good?

Am I getting warm?

Is there a possibility C?

God, Church, and the Unknown

“I’m spiritual, but not religious.”

If you want a mystical experience, get a telescope.  Don't go to church.
If you want a mystical experience, get a telescope. Don’t go to church.

No one I know has ever said that to me–most people I know are religious without being especially spiritual–and I would never say it myself.  I’m not even sure exactly what it means.  But other people seem to hear it a lot.  At least often enough to post about it and get Freshly Pressed.

I am, of course, talking about Eric Hyde’s post on the topic which is worth checking out: “I’m Spiritual, but not Religious.”  I didn’t really get what he was trying to say, but that’s okay.  I don’t get a lot of things.  It’s still an interesting read, and you would probably get it.  You’re a lot smarter than me.

What it makes me wonder is if modern, Western organized religion fails to meet our need for the mystical.  By mystical I mean, in part, the idea that some elements of life and universe are simply unknowable, and that the unknown is grand, awe-inspiring, and beautiful.

Christianity, at least, seems to have everything worked out.  The more devout and firm in their faith, the more certain about nearly everything contemporary Christians seem to be.

Hydrothermal worm.  Maybe just gross.  I'm in awe.  Image Credit: FEI and Philippe Crassous.
Hydrothermal worm. Maybe just gross. I’m in awe. Image Credit: FEI and Philippe Crassous.

Science, and not religion, is the only  remaining appropriate realm for the unknown.  If you want a mystical experience, get a telescope or a microscope.  Don’t go to church. Church will tell you exactly how great God is, what God thinks about nearly every modern topic, and how you need to live your life to please God.  There will be no mysteries left, and therefore no sense of the mystical or the divine.

If you aren’t sure what I mean, make an appointment with a really excellent doctor and ask her how much she doesn’t know.  Mine told me a lot.  Now, ask a Jehovah’s Witness how speaking in tongues work.  He’ll be able to tell you exactly.

Many people seem to be quite happy with that arrangement.  Certainty is comforting.  It’s nice to know exactly what you need to do to be saved, even if you aren’t sure what mechanic to take your car to so that you don’t get ripped off or what treatment is most appropriate for your mother’s Alzheimer’s.

Life is uncertain.  Certainty can be a nice break.

But I also think many other people sense falseness in religion because of that degree of certainty.  Nothing else in life is quite so neat and tidy–why should this business of belief be?  If I don’t know whether I will live through anesthesia or not if I have to undergo surgery, why should I know with absolute certainty exactly who and what God is?

And I think others are left spiritually starving.  Our need to connect to the unknown is as strong as our need to believe we know.  And I wonder if those who say “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” mean that contemporary, organized religion is not meeting their needs.

They believe in the divine.  They can tell that it is there.  All you have to do to notice it is look outside.  But the sanctioned ways of going about interacting with and understanding that divine are inadequate:  In all the certainty of churches, where is the unknown?  Where is the quality that defines divine in the first place?  Where is the mystical?

We’ve lost it, not individually, but as a culture.  We have lost the mystical, and with it the divine.  I think we need to find it again.

Some people turn to other cultures to find the mystical again, but I think we need to find it within our own.

We need to have the courage to admit we don’t everything.  We don’t know when life begins, we don’t know whether it’s right or wrong to execute serial murderers, we don’t know why there is evil in the world.  Not everything can be broken down and explained. And the beauty and grandeur of the world and universe we live in, along with the God that made it, is one of them.  And it’s okay not to know.  In fact, not knowing can be wonderful.

You should try it.

On Being a Gay Christian

“Trampled by Supriya Balasunderam (2011). Beetroot extract on paper.

I have to confess, first of all, that I am not a Christian.  I was raised as one, so I have some idea of what being a Christian is all about, but I am not one.  This is really not my issue.

In truth, I am writing this for a friend of mine who recently confessed to me her ongoing struggle with this sometimes seeming contradiction.  And I was once a Christian and I am gay, so I remember what that’s like.  It isn’t easy.

Religious beliefs and practices are some of the most important parts of our identities, and the idea of losing them over a different identity that you don’t seem to have a choice over can be almost unbearably painful.  So this post is for her.  Maybe it will help.

I say “seeming contradiction,” because being gay and a Christian can feel like something that isn’t even possible.  I know it once felt that way to me, and I know it feels that way to my friend sometimes.  It doesn’t have to be, but it is.

Why?  Is it because in Leviticus somewhere it says very strongly that “a man who lieth with another man shall be stoned to death….” or something like that?  Or that elsewhere the Bible mentions unnatural acts which are equally punishable by stoning?  But then Leviticus also says we should be careful how we die our clothes blue and that we shouldn’t be eating shellfish.  Clearly, some things have changed.  Why not others?  How do we know what to toss out and what to keep?

As a child, I was raised to take the Bible completely literally.  If it said it in the Bible, it was true and had to be followed.  However, we also wore clothes made out of mixed fibers without a twinge of guilt and never once asked our dinner guests–just to make sure–whether they worked for the IRS.  According to our ministry, all of those rules had changed with the “new covenant” that Jesus had brought.  At least that was the idea.

Still, Jesus never specifically says wearing polyester and cotton blends is off the table, or that it is now okay to eat pork.  So what happened?

If you look closely, the Bible is full of contradictions, both in specifics and in the general character of God.  The ten commandments will always remain, but a number of specific proscriptions are mentioned in the Old Testament that Jesus never mentions at all—either because they were settled and needed no further discussion or because they were just not important.  It’s no longer really possible to say.

As another example, the God of the Old Testament generally possess a significantly different character than his son Jesus presents him as having in the New Testament.  The Old Testament God is often described as a jealous god, even an angry god, who wipes out his enemies utterly.  He turns people into pillars of salt for not following instructions in situations when it seems like a mild case of the plague could have gotten the message across.

God is a guy you don’t want to mess with–although He is also the shepherd that will keep you safe if you follow Him.  In contrast, the New Testament God is more often portrayed as kind, forgiving, and gentle.  The Old Testament God may be your Father, but the New Testament God is your Dad.

Moveover. Jesus is presented as being the embodiment of kindness—enjoining us to have more compassion, to forgive, to turn the other cheek.  After all, he’s the one sent to provide the sacrifice that allows God to forgive us.  And, yet, according to the doctrine of the trinity, God and Jesus are the same.

In fact, Jesus himself is not portrayed throughout the Gospels in a way that is entirely consistent.  In general, different people have different recollections of events and different interpretations: Matthew’s version of Jesus is significantly harsher and more concerned with the rule of law than John.  It is in John that we are most most emphatically exhorted to love one another.

So what’s it all about?

As much as we’d like for our religious texts to be utterly reliable and unchanging, clearly there were changes in how God the father and Jesus his only begotten son were and are understood, as well as in the relative importance of laws related to purity.  Enter historicity.

According to a number of Biblical scholars, Christianity began as a Messianic sect of Judaism.  Jesus—like other men promising deliverance and the coming of a the Kingdom of God—held out hope of a quite literal overthrow of the Roman Empire in Palestine and the start of a divinely established Jewish theocracy.

“The core of Jesus’ preaching is the kingdom of God. And the difficulty is for us to hear that term as 100 percent political and 100 percent religious. ” (Crossan, J.D.)

Most of other messianic movements in that period fell apart when the “messiah” was killed and the new kingdom the Jews so badly wanted failed to materialize.  When Jesus was crucified, the early Christians fell quickly into disarray and scattered.  The resurrection allowed for hope, but it was still assumed that the new kingdom would materialize–and then the First Jewish Revolt failed.  Nonetheless, Mark wrote assuming that the transformation would occur during his lifetime, even if there seemed to have been a bit of a hiccup.  By the time John was written a few centuries later, this clearly wasn’t going to happen.  The kingdom could only be understood as metaphorical.  That’s one of the reasons for a change in tone over the course of the Gospels.  Christianity needed to be about something else aside from a change in government.

Getting back to mixed fibers, pork, and blue dye, during the early missions of the first disciples, the raging issue was whether new “gentile” converts needed to follow Jewish law.  Paul, who took it upon himself to preach in non-Jewish communities, thought not, and he was able to get the other early disciples to agree to this.

So that’s why we’ve dropped the dietary restrictions or the requirement that male Christians have their foreskins ritually removed.  What I think this says is that Christianity is a religion—like most religions—that has evolved over time.  Either times changed, and what human beings needed to do in order to have a well-functioning, observant, and respectful society has changed, or we have come to have a different (and hopefully better) understanding of what God requires of us.

The problem is that gay issues weren’t really a priority in the first century CE, at least not from what I can make out, and no one asked Jesus what the deal was with gay people and if they had to try to be straight, or just be settled and monogamous like straight people, or what.  So he never said anything about it as far as we know.  And there’s no way to double-check that.  There is no longer anyone around alive who can say, “I asked Jesus about that once and he said….”

If you’re Catholic or Orthodox, you have a pope to ask, because he’s got a direct line to God and should be able to tell you.  For anyone else, you’ll have to ask God yourself.  And maybe that’s at the core of Christianity, or at least a Protestant view of Christianity.  It’s all about your personal relationship with God, isn’t it?  That you don’t need to access your faith through a rabbi or a priest.  You can ask him yourself.  So, go ahead.  Ask Him.  And make sure you listen.

Works consulted:

Bible.  New International Version.

Crossan, J.D. (1998).  PBS.  Frontline.  From Jesus to Christ.  Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/