Thursday, December 01, 2005

Membership hath its privileges

There's an interesting facet of Christianity that I find sometimes hard to swallow on an intellectual level, despite the fact that I take it on faith. People that are not Christians, mostly agnostics and atheists, complain that it's unfair for Christianity to make the claim that it has exclusive access to Truth-with-a-capital-T. If Jesus is going to say "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6) then isn't he being rather intolerant? Well aside from the fact that I don't think that this technically fits the actual definition of intolerant, and that Jesus, being God, pretty much has the right to set the rules however He wants, the thing I think this objection misses very often is the fact that Christianity is not the only religion by far that makes claims of exclusivity. Lots and lots of religions claim to be the only "true" religion, and really, it's a whole topic in itself as to why I think that's not only acceptable, but desirable in a religious practice. But this topic of exclusivity is not the "facet" that I really wanted to talk about, although it's somewhat related, I suppose.

The thing about Christianity that I was pondering yesterday evening was part of the whole, "Don't say you'll believe it when you see it, but believe and then you'll see!" phenomenon. While I believe that there is a great deal of Christianity and its doctrines that can be intellectually understood without having to be a Christian, I think all (well, perhaps most) Christians realize that there is an element of faith that only true believers have a grasp on. We evangelicals have what we like to call "a personal relationship with God." What is that, exactly? I don't think I can describe it to someone who hasn't experienced it for themself, which is too bad, since it's what's really at the heart of Christianity when you strip everything else away.

Interestingly enough, and one of the reasons it's related to the topic in the first paragraph, I found myself pondering this in the midst of reading about Zen Buddhism. I realized that exclusivity is not the only thing by far about Christianity that's hard for an outsider to accept, yet is common to many religions. What is at the center of Zen Buddhism? The experience of zen. What is zen? Well, although philosophers of various religious beliefs can talk about it at length and discuss things about zen, zen itself is not something that can be put into words, even by those who have experienced it. In fact, the inability to describe zen is an inherent property of it, the word "zen" meaning essentially "wordlessness".

Such a concept is found in the Bible in a number of ways. Paul wrote about a vision in which "He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell." (2Cor. 12:4) But aside from that special incident, he writes more generally and practically that "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned." (1Cor. 2:14) There is a concept in many religions that there is just a certain level of spiritual enlightenment that only the true believers will ever experience.

Interestingly enough, I'd say that it's a belief that even some atheists harbor in an odd way. I've been told by atheists that if only I would cease to believe in God for a moment, I'd see how ridiculous the Bible and Christianity as a whole are. Perhaps they're right, but if so, aren't they essentially suggesting that there is such a thing as special atheistic enlightenment that only true atheists can experience? What a concept! (It's hardly a common view among atheists in general, though. If atheists were a religious classification as Christianity is, there would probably be as many "sects" of atheism as there are atheists.)

I'm wondering if the only point of this blog is to toss out thoughts on unanswerable questions that I'm not really asking, nor looking for feedback on. I'm not sure what my point is here in general, and it sounds like yesterday's post, with a lot of "well maybe, or maybe not". Are these facets of Christianity logically unacceptable? Yet they're used by so many. I remember the irony of once having a discussion on the value of various "ex-gay" ministries. There was a lesbian who claimed that if any of these sorts of ministries ever had any successes, it wasn't that they were turning homosexuals into non-homosexuals, but that they were turning bisexuals into operative heterosexuals. How could she be so sure? Because if they were able to be attracted to women ever, then they were simply not homosexuals, nor had they ever been. I thought this was a very familiar concept, and realized it was from 1John 2:19: "They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us." See, there's no such thing as an ex-Christian; if a person leaves Christianity, it means they were never really a part of it in the first place.

Christianity has its particulars that are strange and hard to understand, but they don't set it apart as particularly wrong so much as just one among many belief systems. Sure, Christianity is special, but not for any of the above reasons.

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