Monday, September 23, 2013

What's Special about Christianity? Parts 5 & 6


   Tolerance is a virtue - sort of. Intolerance is a sinful mood. But tolerance is a low-level virtue, nothing more than a baseline to keep us from harming one another. If you merely "tolerate" me, or my behavior, you may still dislike me. I don't want to be "tolerated." I want to be understood, maybe even loved.

Tolerance can also mean nothing matters, everything is relative. Live and let live, think and let think: if there's no absolute truth to cling to or worth standing up for, we might as well all get along.

This is interesting: over time, the early Christians were not tolerated - in a world that was astonishingly tolerant! But one of the reasons was that they themselves weren't tolerant at all.

They were extremely open to people who were different, or hurting. But when it came to belief, to ideas about God? The Christians insisted there was such a thing as truth, and only one truth. This is what was shocking in the ancient world. Read about Paul's visit to Athens in Acts 17, and we see a world that was quite religious. There were many gods, and many were worshipped. Ancient spirituality was infinitely "roomy"; there was always room for one more religion.

So Christianity's debut on the scene was hardly a novelty. What was curious, and then downright offensive, was that Christianity said You must choose just one! There is only one God, not dozens. And that one God has revealed what is truly true. If you believe differently, what you believe may be fascinating - but it doesn't happen to be true to ultimate reality. It was this insistence on truth that rankled, and made the Christians the target of ridicule, and then violence.

We have learned - rightly! - to be open, and to avoid arrogance in thought, or feelings of superiority in belief. Is there a way to believe in such a thing as absolute truth without veering into intolerance? Can we find a way to believe in the heart of Christianity (and with deep passion) without being smug? Can we treasure Christianity as truth without being judgmental, and - precisely because we treasure Jesus and the Bible - be more than tolerant but also understanding and even loving?

I think so. And so we pray, "Lord, you told us the truth will set us free. Help us to believe in you, and love you, and know the truth, and still love (and not just tolerate) others."

   Psalm 82:1 imagines God (Israel's God, that is) "presiding in the great assembly, and giving judgment among the 'gods." Logically (to us) there can be only one God (by definition). But in Bible times, people thought there were many gods. The question was Which ones will you be involved with? Which ones will you serve? Which ones might deliver for you?

Israel's God (named Yahweh) was downright weird when it came to the gods in the ancient world. The gods of Babylon, Egypt, and Canaan (1) were capricious, (2) argued among themselves, and (3) had to be accessed through idols.

Capricious: these gods were moody, lashing out in anger over not much of anything, bestowing blessing on the wicked, or on the righteous, pouting for months on end. They could not be "trusted," they were unreliable; you tried to placate them, but there was no personal relationship.

Arguing: the gods Judaism and Christianity encountered bickered among themselves. Peering down on hapless mortals, Ea would wish to be merciful, but Enlil would want to hurl down thunderbolts, Marduk would push for famine instead.

Idols: Israel's God was the only divinity in history to insist "No graven images" (Exodus 20:3). Ancient people were not foolish enough to believe the statue or golden image was really divine. But the way the sculptors depicted the gods tells us what their religion was about. The gods were never imaged as daffodils or field mice, kittens or puffy clouds. Instead we see muscular bulls, mighty lions, and the blazing, unviewable sun. These gods were all about power, victory, fertility, riches and plunder, the crushing of foes. Idols inspired awe, and frightened everybody.

Israel's God could not be captured in stone or golden images, because God's heart was not about riches or power. Israel's God could not be seen, but only known by words, commandments given in love, promises made that God would not be capricious but trustworthy. This God didn't want to crush anybody, but was zealous to lift up the poor - a shocking, revolutionary notion back then (...and today...).

The gods of Babylon, Egypt and Canaan were impressive. But perhaps we can understand why Israel's religion was appealing: an invisible God who could be trusted, who was profoundly personal. True religion isn't about favors for the elite, or placating or manipulating some impersonal god to do our bidding... which is why the one true God says "You shall have no other gods."

Prayer: "We praise You for being a trustworthy God, a God who loves personally, who doesn't echo society's pandering to the rich and powerful, for being beyond all the fakes. We will place no other pretender gods before You."