Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christianity and my take on it

I’m quite confused by all the interpretations of Christianity I hear these days. I recently heard it asserted that I could not name a character in a Christmas play ‘Great Sky Ruler’ because apparently that made him/her the ruler of the evil spirits of the air and thereby the devil.
To my contention that it meant what the writer (me) had intended it to mean, was put the indisputable fact that words could not be played around with. I was floored by this argument, because the speaker is a student of English Literature.
She continued her line of argument, asking me, “Who created language?”
Mildly nonplussed, I replied, “We… I mean, it evolved over the ages… different people at different times…”
“No,” she said kindly, with the air of a patient teacher who has found the root of the confusion in the mind of a favourite student, and is setting about correcting the misconception that has made a basic concept difficult to grasp, “God created language… and that is why we cannot use language as we please because it has a deeper meaning…”
At this point I stopped arguing. It was clearly pointless.
My understanding of religion is ridiculously simple, and therefore, to my way of thinking, infinitely beautiful. Having been brought up as a Christian, I can only explain Christianity with any degree of assurance; though I have tried to understand other religions, I only have an outsider’s perspective of them… many may even say I only have an outsider’s perspective of Christianity! Be that as it may, I am now about to explain my understanding of Christianity… I cannot claim that this is the essence of Christianity, because I am not a biblical scholar; what I put down is the result of a little reading and a lot of thinking about things and discussing them.
That established, here we go:
To begin with, I don’t consider the Bible absolute. It is, to me, a biased history of the Jews. Why? I find it hard to relate the God I chat with everyday, the one who cares when a sparrow falls, who I can discuss my trivial woes with, with the jealous God of the Old Testament. I simply cannot believe that God chose one group of people over all the others, of the world. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Bible is a valuable book… but not when it is read without thinking. God gave human beings the power of thought for a reason!
Besides, we all know the history of the good book… How some things were included and some discarded at a convention during the time of Constantine, the writings being chosen due to very political manouevers. So, though I accord the Gospels due respect, I also treat their accounts with caution, because I know there were several other sides to the story that I have not heard.
I also find the repeated assertion of most Christians that Christ is the only way to heaven, quite ridiculous. Personally, I believe God to be perfect. No negative attributes (There goes the jealous God of the Old Testament, again!) If God is perfect, s/he clearly cannot be narrow minded. S/He clearly understands each and every-one of the people s/he created. Then, obviously, God knows that the same thing can be seen from different perspectives. Different people understand the same concept using different examples based on their school of thought, social and cultural background and so on. Some see idols as meaningless and man-made and cannot conceive of God except in the abstract, while others can perceive in a roughly hewn figurine, the attributes of the divine. Essentially all religions lay down a similar set of social rules, and the core principles are the same. Then, isn’t it easy to see, that all religions lead us to the same ultimate conclusion? Whether we believe in eternal life or reincarnation, none of us really knows what happens after death… and those who do, are in no position to tell us! Can God really be so narrow minded as to dismiss being worshipped in a different way?
Besides, when Christ says, “I am the way, the truth and the life”, I don’t think he meant it literally. That just sounds pompous. Leaving aside warping of meaning in translation, I am quite sure, from my understanding of Christ, that all he was saying was that we should follow his example. Which is very different from the prevalent belief that salvation is yours if and only if you acknowledge Christ as God’s son, your way of life be damned!
So, coming down to it: What do I believe? I believe in living the way Christ taught us to. “Love your neighbor as yourself”; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Essentially Christianity, I think boils down to these two deceptively simple statements. And shockingly, Christ does not prescribe any absolute ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. It depends on the situation. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you! Makes perfect sense, but is surprisingly hard to do. Empathise. If I was the beggar on the street, what would I have the man driving past in the car do unto me?
On other occasions, Christ enlarges on this statement: “If you have two coats, give away one.” And “Go sell everything you have and give to the poor…” Christianity, I think, is socialism with God in it.
The message is, live as Christ did. Among the poor. Among the outcasts in society. Don’t be self-righteous. Your ‘sin’ is no less than anyone else’s. (The story of the woman caught committing adultery, who was going to be stoned to death according to Jewish law, and was saved by Christ’s “Let he who has never done any wrong cast the first stone.”).
Who was Christ, then? The traditional ‘Christian’ answer is ‘The son of God, born of the virgin Mary’. And I don’t really disagree. He was God’s son. Yes. We’re all told that we are Children of God… Jesus Christ was one too.
Blasphemy, you say? Not really, no. I think we do Christ a great disservice in idolizing him. In making him God, we forget that he was a man. A very human, man. An exceptional man who lived (and therefore died) by his convictions. The point is what he said, not who he was. (Though he was, as we are often told, the son of God. Just that, we’re all children of God) And if we truly understand and practice what he said, the world will definitely be a much better place. But that is too hard… how many of us actually want to live his life? First off, we’d have to give up our material comforts… then we’d have to give up our families… because while you can live according to those principles, it’s not fair to expect your spouse to…. And no one wants their kids to have such a tough life. So… it’s far easier to put him on a pedestal and ‘worship’ him every Sunday, in a beautiful building, which shuts the beggars out at the gate.
I am in no way belittling the people who are actually inspired, by the church… all I’m saying is, that worshipping Christ is not necessary for you to be a Christian. Listen to what the man said… it’s quite radical. And if he did indeed come again, the church would take the place of the Pharisees… in denouncing Jesus Christ.
Was he born of a virgin? I am in no place to venture an opinion. Perhaps he was, perhaps he wasn’t. It’s far too late for us to ascertain that truth. But, to me, it does not matter. If you can prove to me, today, that Christ was not born of a virgin, that does not change anything. I still believe in living life the way he did. It also helps to keep in mind, that the original Hebrew bible, uses ‘young woman’ and not ‘virgin’.
What about the miracles? Again, I am no authority. And it’s far too late to ascertain the truth… however, I think it much more likely that miracles are the spin-off of a hype surrounding a fascinating and charismatic man with a great truth to share, than actual fact. Perhaps the five thousand were so entranced by his sermon, that they did not feel hungry (besides, they knew that food had to be shared among so many), and hence did not eat much. Perhaps the wine was diluted with water, and the drunken guests thought it much more wonderful than the undiluted wine… or perhaps they were being sarcastic!
There are a million explanations for each miracle… but I’m not going to go into that. The simple logic I follow, is this:
God made the universe, right? S/He made the rules (what we call Physics), and everything happened as it should. The rules of the natural world, are God’s laws. Miracles, involve breaking God’s laws. Is it likely that God would break his/her own laws? Or is it likely, that in the telling and re-telling of stories, some examples of Christ’s wisdom and greatness, turned into magical, mystical miracles? I don’t think miracles were performed to prove to us that Christ was God. I don’t think he really needed to prove anything. As CK recently said, when speaking to a chap who could not fathom such an argument, “Let’s keep it this way, you need the miracles, to believe. I don’t.”
           In claiming that Christ is no more divine than you or I, I do not belittle him. In fact, I think, I make what he did, that much more wonderful… because he was human, and he managed to live the life he did. That, I think is far more awe inspiring than if he were God. (Which he is, by the way. As are we all. We all carry the spark of the divine.)
           The symbolism of the Christ’s life as a whole is breathtaking. He was born in a manger, accessible to the last among the least (Shepherds) and the first among the great (Wise men) alike. He lived his life with the outcasts of society, he taught his simple truths by example, he healed the sick (I believe it was psychological “By your faith…”), forgave sinners and tried to fight the corruption of institutionalized religion. Naturally, he was killed, as such men always are. And yes, he died for our sins, for he had done nothing wrong.
           Then along came Paul and the others, who institutionalized the whole thing, thereby warping it’s very nature. I understand that without this, Christianity would not have survived or spread, as it did; but at the risk of sounding elitist, I shall say I would have preferred it that way. However, Christ did not come for people like me, who claim to understand him and yet continue to live as we please… it is for the one who does not, to my way of thinking, ‘understand’, but lifts her heat in trust and joy to God, and who derives hope and a reason for life from him, that Christ died.
            I see, that the purpose of religion is to give comfort and hope and peace… and that purpose it fulfills. It is also to enforce social rules; which, if recognized as social rules would not be as effective as they are now, cloaked in the garb of sin. So, I see that institutionalized religion is necessary. But I find it ridiculous, that the different institutionalized religions fight each other on principle… when in fact they all serve the same purpose and teach the same things!
            As to the devil, I do not believe in one. The devil is a convenient malevolent personification created to blame all negative luck on. It is, I think, childish to believe in the devil. It bespeaks an inability to see that there may be other sides to a story. What is bad luck for you, may be good luck for another. What to you may be the devil’s curse, may be God’s blessing to another. God’s omniscient perspective on things is naturally different from our minute, self-centered ones. Clearly, one person cannot always be fortunate. At times, things may happen that cause us pain, and we blame the devil… but, I think, it is in fact God’s work. Think of Blake’s ‘Tyger’. “Did he who made the lamb make thee?”. Yes, he did. God, is the ‘alpha and the omega’. He is both gentle and terrible.
To the conflict between predestiny and free-will, I say both are true. How? It’s simple. At any given point, you do, indeed, have a choice. But that choice you make is governed by who you are- your genetic make-up and personality; how you’ve been brought up; the friends you’ve made; the choices you’ve made before; the situations you’ve faced in life; the people watching while you make this choice and so on and so forth. Clearly the factors are innumerable…. But given all those factors, though you have a million choices before you, there is only one road you will in fact take. A person who knows you well enough, knows what you will choose in a given situation. God, who is omniscient, obviously knows what you will choose. It was decided in your childhood; no, by your genes; no, at your conception; no, when your parents met; no, at their conception…. And all the way back to the angle at which the first proton struck the first neutron to form the first nucleus, that in such a situation, you would do this, and only this. Of course you have a choice. But it’s you. There’s nothing else you could possibly choose. Even if you choose differently to prove a point, that too is of course, what you’d do after reading this.
  Is God really so insecure as to need us to worship him/her? Perhaps we need to consider the wonder of his/her creation and marvel at it… but that is for us to develop a sense of humility and appreciate the world we live in. I don’t think God needs us to. And I certainly don’t think that that was why s/he created us. That makes the idea of God small and petty, to my mind. Why were we created, then? I don’t know… but I think we have to look further than ‘To worship God.’
               And we come, finally to the existence of God. Logically, there are two possibilities. Either God exists, or s/he doesn’t. If s/he does exist, s/he is either perfect and unfathomable to our human minds, or s/he has his/her faults and is jealous and petty and vindictive. If s/he is jealous, petty and vindictive, there’s no point worshipping him/her. I mean, I have nothing against him/her, but if s/he’s no better than us, s/he’s not worth worshipping. If s/he is, in fact, perfect, then s/he is not so insecure as to care whether we believe in his/her existence or not. So, on the whole, it does not matter what you believe!
                 How then, does prayer work? Heard of self-hypnosis? Telling yourself what you want to become, etc; is a good way to set goals in your mind to work towards… such focus helps you get what you prayed for. That said, if prayer is approached as self-hypnosis, it may not work. Naturally! Because then you don’t believe in it!
                To conclude, I believe Christ was an exceptional man, with an exceptional understanding of how life must be lived. I wish I could live like him, but I am too selfish and hypocritical. However, this view merely satisfies the elitist theologian… the comfort and hope religion gives those who need it, is not something I intend to refute or in any way belittle.

P.S I would like to issue a disclaimer to the effect that the use of the masculine pronoun in describing God is due purely to the constraints of language and does not in any way reflect my views on the gender of the supreme being. Personally, I believe that God is genderless.

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