Sermon for the Unconvertable

I live in a community where church is a way of life.    I wish I could say that Christianity is a way of life here, but there are too many calling themselves “Christian”, who I’m afraid really don’t walk their talk.  So, instead I say that attending church is a way of life.  🙂  I find that very stressful though, as I always feel the need to hide the fact that I am not and that I don’t.

My husband is a self-proclaimed Christian, but I’ve never seen what one would call evidence of it.  I know he was baptized, but I have no idea in what church. His ex-wife was not Christian (I don’t think; my first was Sikh, the second Buddhist), so I’m thinking maybe United!?  He’s never been a church-goer, he doesn’t talk about his faith, he’s never called out to God in his darkest moments or even prayed as far as I can recall.  But, by his words, he is a Christian and I have to assume he holds his faith close to his heart and doesn’t feel the need to witness.  Strange, really, that as religion is one of my favourite discussion topics, we never really talk about it!

I have two children.  Neither of my children have been immersed in water and had a prayer said over them to save their soul.  I do not intend to belittle the ritual of baptism with that statement, so don’t get your knickers in a twist!  I simply intend to identify the ritual in its component parts:  immersion in water and prayer.

I view it this way because I do not believe in the devil, or that my children were born sinners, or that they require ‘saving’.  I do believe there is both good and evil in this world; I just don’t believe children are perpetrators of either until they start making their own choices.

The idea that children are born sinners is, to me, preposterous.  I don’t accept (or believe) that the authors of the various applicable passages in the bible intended to suggest we are born full of sin as I’ve heard so many say.  The way I read these passages, is that the mother and father are sinners, thus the baby is “born OF sin”.  ‘Of’ sin, not ‘with’ sin or ‘full of’ sin, but ‘of’, meaning ‘FROM’ sin.  While I do accept my natural human imperfections, I know the commandments and I do not accept that I am a “sinner”.   Thus, baptism becomes moot in my world.

I grew up in a very strange spiritual environment…well, compared to my friends it was strange!  I was like a mutt and they were purebreds.  They had singular beliefs, which were what their parents and grandparents believed and taught them.  They were indoctrinated into their respective holy houses and rituals and never really questioned what they were brought up to believe.  At least not while we were children.

I, on the other hand, have never had a lone voice influencing my belief system; in this, I am a mutt.  I like to say that spiritually, I am like a chihuahua/great dane cross!  I have a strong Catholic influence from birth with my father’s family, a completely atheist perspective from my step-dad (who has been just my dad since I was 5) and an semi-pagan influence from my mother (though she was raised either United or Presbyterian).

I started to explore my personal faith/beliefs when I was about eight with the blessing of my mother and the ignorance of my dad.  (nowadays he’s a ‘whatever’ about God guy, but back then he was a ‘not in my house’ kind of guy so he was never told where I was going!).  I would hop on the bus Sunday mornings and head to that week’s choice of houses of worship.  It was the 70’s… eight year olds took the bus alone, what can I say?  While I went to the Baptist church, they had a school bus that came around.  I loved Sunday School there. 🙂

In 36 years, I have experienced, explored and investigated more religious belief than anyone I know.  I don’t mean that to sound egotistical!  My natural curiosity combined with a deep-rooted yearning to believe in something pushed me through the front doors of at least 28 churches, synagogues, mosques and gurdwaras by the time I was 12.  Name a religion and I bet I have considered myself ‘that’ for some period of time.

During all of this, my mother was also exploring her own spiritual side and introduced me to a great number of “unconventional” beliefs, such as reincarnation, spirit guides, astrology, psychism, ecology (yes, as a belief system), and so on.  I recently commented to my mom that she had raised us as pagans and I was quite surprised by her defensive reaction!  I always appreciated her open approach to religion and spirituality.  I always felt she had a very strong line drawn between the two and I was comforted by that.  I found it strange that she would be upset by that word now; perhaps she has re-examined her own beliefs again and I just wasn’t there to see it.

In any case, I grew up believing that ‘religion’ is man-made and that ‘spirituality’ is the real deal:  our inner connection to our higher power, which can only be viewed, modified or criticized by our inner self.

As a family, we were no different – our belief and deed that we treated one another with love and kindness;  that if you have nothing nice to say, you say nothing at all; that there is a definite right and there is a definite wrong (and you don’t want to do/be wrong!)  We believed in good and evil and viewed them as pillars by which to judge our behaviour.  We valued life and grieved death.  We believed in family bonds and respect.  We valued hard work, honesty, integrity and courtesy.  And we believed it was not our place to judge someone else; because how could we possibly know all that they had lived to bring them to that moment.  All things that my Christian friends valued and believed in.  In fact, what all my friends of any faith believed in.

Where I differed from my Christian friends were in ideas like the existence of Heaven and Hell, that you had to be in church to show your love of or belief in God.  And the most important:  Jesus himself.

My belief?  A man.  A real and human man and an incredible teacher and spirit guide. But not a god.  This got me in some hot water last night.

Last night, I had the privilege to attend an Alpha course meeting at one of our community churches.  I had been invited by my friend who is a good Christian woman.  And please know that when I say she is a “good” Christian, I simply mean that she understands her fallibility as a human and works to become more ‘godly’ in her intentions, deeds, thoughts and so on, as was taught by Christ.  She walks her talk!  She knows I’m not Christian but respects me and the way I live my life enough to ask me to be part of the village raising her children as, what she calls “their other mom”.  That is precious to me.

The topic of the meeting was: “Is Jesus Christ who he claimed to be?”.  The pastor made an impassioned sermon claiming in his opening that he had proof that Jesus was who He claimed to be:

“I AM the way, the truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  (John 14, 6-7)

I admit, I was excited when he said he had proof, I’ve always wanted empirical proof!  I soon realized his proof was quotes from the bible, and further quotes from scholars of the 17th to 20th centuries who had studied the translations of the bible hundreds of years after it was written, and who had ultimately concluded it was a document of historical fact.  Oh well.

But he was really good at making his case and supporting it!  He is clearly an intelligent and learned man.  I appreciated that he did go outside the bible to support his argument, which is where so many others have fallen short for me before.  I just didn’t think it was empirical and that is what I crave.

He suggests that there are only three options to answer the question of whether Jesus is who he claimed to be:

  • He was crazy! Today this guy would be locked up in the loony bin
  • He was a con-man/liar!
  • He is who He said He is

Personally, I found those options limited and that was the basis for a lively debate at our table.  Obviously, the pastor’s point was that He is who He said He is otherwise why would he have claimed to be God.  I suggest that in fact, there is at least one more option:

Christ was a healer, a teacher and a spiritual guide (as well as a carpenter, a son, a friend, etc).  He was a charismatic speaker, a genuinely gentle soul who clearly understood that all men and women are created equal, that children should be treasured – all despite this being an unnatural perspective of the time.  He was clearly eloquent and possibly more educated by the standard of the day.  At least that’s how he’s made to sound by his followers who wrote the New Testament.

My understanding of the time is that the majority of his followers and those to whom he ‘preached’ were not!  That does not mean that he had no educated followers (wasn’t John a doctor?), but I suggest even educated men have the capacity to become enraptured.  So is it not possible that as amazing a man as Jesus may have been, he was a highly regarded but misquoted man?  I’m not even suggesting it was malicious!  The New Testament was written after his crucifixion.  Couldn’t his disciples have embellished a little in their writing because in their grief it’s how they perceived their memory?  I think it was here that our conversation went from good to bad.

His [the pastor’s] three main assertions were based on the Bible itself and that Jesus’ claim to be God must be real because:

a) who would could statistically have fulfilled eight of the prophecies of the Messiah (how do we know the OT wasn’t modified to serve the needs of the outcomes in one of its translations?) and

b) who would withstand such persecution and allow themselves to be killed as a martyr otherwise. (maybe St. Stephen, John Wycliff, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King, to name a couple)

and c) these writings are based on personal and “eye witness” accounts of the events (but again, I offer: written years after the fact and relying on memory; how can one quote with impunity, years later and without having audio recorded it, and still say it is certainly accurate?).

What I want to know is:  Why is there an insistence that because

It is written

it must be true?  I find that as unreasonable as believing everything I read on the internet.

I’ve read the bible.  Many times!  I refuse to discuss the ‘miracles’ here because I think that is a topic unto its own.  But I have many reasons I do not accept that the book is gospel.

While historians largely agree the bible was written as a non-fiction text, they cannot agree in the support of its overall accuracy of events; and many agree there are a large number of historical inaccuracies and literary exaggerations.  (my own foremost example I think back to is the story of Moses parting the Red Sea which was little more than a small river or creek back then! Knowing that makes the description of the event less stunning and miraculous.)

So, to what do I suggest these discrepancies in our understanding can be chalked up to?

“translation”

Hmm.

Here are some of the reasons I believe this is likely, as discovered through my own research (thus, personal interpretation!), in my 36 year spiritual quest.  Decide for yourself if it makes you go “hmm!”:

  • there are no original complete texts; the closest we have are snippets of pages found and the Dead Sea Scrolls which are incomplete, nor do these provide any sense of the compilation of the bible product we study today
  • there are at least 40 authors largely acknowledged for writing the old Testament over the course of HUNDREDS of years.  These were recordings of the oral history of their tribal, generational stories as passed from father to son (but this makes me think telephone game!)  Language evolves – I ask:  how can we accurately translate the intent without understanding the context of the choice of words at the time it was written?  Something as simple as the word ‘witness’.  In the most original text we have, the actual meaning of the word used was closer to ‘martyr’ but ‘witness’ was used – to me they mean completely different things.    If I go read the NT now substituting martyr for witness, how, if at all, does it change the events and the people being described?
  • the current version of the bible was commissioned by Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 ad and later modified by King James somewhere between 1603 and 1611 – sorry to be sarcastic, but are you telling me these political leaders were truly pious and had no interest in influencing the message in order to better ‘civilize’ (ahem, control) their constituents??  There is a movement that would have you believe that King James was not the benevolent ruler he’s been painted to be
  • the OT was originally written in “Biblical” Hebrew; a language used by Hebrew scholars and holy men, and a bit of Aramaic, which was a more commonly spoken tribal language of the area and time – in other words, not common language which would leave it open to further possible misinterpretation.  Even by the time the New Testament was written, both languages were largely obsolete so how reliable can we expect the translation to be?  It was also around the time of the creation of the NT that the OT was translated to Greek.
  • the New Testament was originally written in Greek (possibly Koine Greek, if that matters) because both Hebrew and Aramaic became widely unused during the occupation of the Romans.  But the Romans didn’t last forever.  Thus, with the decline of the Roman influence, and as the most common language of the time, using Greek was a political move to ensure the text could be made available to influence the largest possible audience
  • the Greek language of the first century a.d. is not the same as the Greek of 1300 a.d. or today! In addition to those changes in nuance from 100 a.d. to 1382 or today (or heck, dialect or slang for that matter), direct translation is improbable given the number of words that do not exist from language to language!  Substitutions would be necessary and that would make it a really good interpretation, at best.  I don’t accept that we could have known/understood/captured the nuances of meaning in the language as it was used at the time of writing them without having been there, let alone accurately quote someone.  Just as the English of 1611 is not the English of today:  hello!  Shakespeare, anyone??
  • the bible has been translated from its original language into thousands (exaggeration?) of others; our modern versions are translations of translations which were translated from yet another previous translation (Hebrew/Aramaic to Greek to Latin to English – this would be the most direct chain, but I can’t say that was the actual translation chain with 100% certainty, there could have been more in between) – and please remember that this whole time, they were being recorded and copied by hand:  by fallible, impressionable, biased humans – I think you know where I’m going here, but see two points down if not
  • I understand the first English version was written approximately 1382 by John Wyclif…. wait…wasn’t he the Morning Star guy?  Yeah, he had no ulterior motive (uh, reformation, anyone!)
  • all copies of the first compilation text were hand written or copied from original scrolls (there was no printing press technology!) – all of which leaves it open to missed words, typos, enhancement of meaning (such as adding Mary was a virgin in Mathew to ensure her purity was understood; that was not in the original) and a whole host of other simple or tragic changes that would cause the text to be altered from its original form.  And when examined on an individual basis, those discrepancies amount to a goodly number.  Who is to say how close to the original we are without an original to compare it with?  No matter what, anything we try to compare to is a copy.  My favourite reference to a compilation of textual variants is this one if you care to see it!
  • lastly, and this is to be a shit: I’ve read there is evidence that supports a claim that the New Testament was actually written up to 300 years AFTER Jesus died – if true, I would find it hard to believe the writer’s ‘eye witness’ account when the eye witness was already dead

I could truly go on and on, but don’t want to bore you.  I don’t intend to have a theological debate here!  (too late??)  The truth is, no matter what you believe, you can find “proof” to support it.  Maybe that was my only point all along.  I want more!

I’m an empirical girl and I want empirical evidence….of which there is little to none on this topic.

The last thing I will say is: with all of the clear unrest about the origin of the book, it’s intent, it’s discrepancies; why must we accept the direct quotes as actual direct quotes?  Why can’t my hypothesis of simple misinterpretation or misquoting be considered one of the possibilities?

Hunh.  I guess this is another of those things that make you go:  hmm!

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