Monday, September 30, 2013

What's Special about Christianity - parts 7, 8, 9

The practice of ancient religion, for the average person, was about fending off disease, helping crops to grow, insuring safe travel. Much of the ancient religion the Israelites and then the first Christians encountered was really magic and fortune-telling.

Religion was largely about money: the banks in ancient cities were the temples. Religion was highly s-xualized - and Dionysus, the god of wine, functioned as a divine sponsor of drinking and revelry. Any of these (prayers for health, safety, pondering the future, money, s-x and alcohol) sound familiar today?
Ancient religion was not about conversion, or salvation. The goal was not character change, or improvement; the Jews were the first and only religion (until Christianity) focused on morals.

What did ancient religions have in common? They were about buttressing the government, keeping citizens in line, establishing a divine aura around the power and politics of the emperor. To worship Marduk was to be subservient in the realm of King Hammurabi; to sacrifice to Osiris was to declare allegiance to the Pharaoh.

The Pharaohs came to vaunt themselves not as lieutenants of the gods, but actually as divine themselves! Daniel and his 3 friends refused to bow down to worship the golden image of King Nebuchadnezzar - and were thrown into the fiery furnace for their civil disobedience, for their lack of patriotism.

By New Testament times, the real competitor Christianity faced was the religion of the empire, the cult of the state. Caesar declared himself a god; citizens were expected to engage in city-wide worship services lauding Caesar. This the Christians would not do - and it cost them respect, business, and their very lives. When the Bible says "Christ is Lord," we need to hear how subversive and unpatriotic that was - for this implies "...and Caesar isn't!"

What's special about Christianity? From the beginning there has been a dogged refusal to cozy up to any government. It's in our DNA to be a bit revolutionary, to keep our distance and not bless any earthly power - for we know the fallen, broken nature of all humanity, and the perils of power that can only be wielded wisely by the one true God.

Americans seem to cherish the "separation" of church and state - and yet we see religious folk blessing governmental policies that are alien to what God is about; we see politicians pandering to evangelicals to win votes, and this nonsense that the church's job is to support our government. The Israelites, and then the Christians were wary, even critical of those in power, and would have been appalled by a bland civil religion that lamely wraps a spiritual blanket around the government or consumer society or the status quo.

"Lord, You are captive to no political party or single nation; remind us how to be revolutionary."

Ten days ago, we considered the way Christianity refused to settle for being just one more spirituality in an open-mindedly tolerant religious world. Christians claimed there was one truth, and that you had to choose to be a Christian and give up your old beliefs and way of living.

But this does not mean Christianity had ideas that were 100% unique, none of it ever heard of before, absolute truth cordoned off from all other thinking. Interestingly, for a faith claiming to be the truth, Christianity shared many truths with the non-Christian world; Christianity borrowed and adapted much from other religions.

Christians treated the Jewish Bible as Scripture; the heroes of faith, and patterns of living were shared so deeply that most of the first Christians never thought they weren't Jews. But all through the Bible: names for God, and ideas about a holy life, were snagged from neighboring faiths. Styles of worship, music, poetry, wise sayings we find in the Bible had ancestors in other religions, from which Israel simply adopted what was lovely and constructive. When Solomon built his temple, he secured the best architects and builders with experience from other religions.

When I was in college, I took a religion course where we learned that many other ancient cultures had sacred stories about a worldwide flood. Fundamentalist students got upset; the professor sneered, declaring he had debunked the validity of the Bible's flood story. But I mused to myself that, if there had been a widespread flood many centuries ago, you would expect all cultures to remember, and to cherish the tale of survival. All cultures had sagas of the creation of the world - and so not just Jews or Christians, but all people have harbored an unshakable belief that God made everything.

The world's religions are not identical. Not all beliefs are valid; we can believe we're onto something special in Christianity. But God wants us to notice, and to celebrate, the good we have in common with all of God's people all over the earth. God has bestowed wisdom in more places than just the churches.
Thomas Merton, who wrestled deeply with and learned much from Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism, yet remained as intimate with Christ as any saint, took a large view of God's revelation: "All that is true, by whomever it is said, is from the Holy Spirit." He also believed the other religions not only teach us things we need to know, but actually rekindle a recollection of much in Christianity that we have forgotten - as we will see come Monday.

"Lord, we celebrate Your activity in all places. Make us learners, not narrow isolationists."
I don't know too many people more passionately attached to Christianity than I am. And yet when I am around faithful folks of other religions, I feel in my soul a kind of interfaith envy. I see something beautiful, something "special," and I wish I had what friends who believe very differently have - or I realize what we Christians have forgotten about ourselves.

Every time I converse with my friend Rabbi Murray Ezring, as I will tonight, I find myself (1) incited to a secret wish that I were Jewish, and (2) strengthened in my sense of why I am a Christian follower of Jesus. How can it be both?

It's no surprise Judaism has much to teach us: Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, we share Scriptures with them, and the "Father" God Jesus prayed to was and is the God of the Old Testament. We've joined the Ezrings for Passover in their home - and we Christians just don't have anything nearly so cool as this evening-long celebrative reading (and eating!) of the stories of the Bible. But we could...

I think about the Sabbath. The Jews remind us how to mark time and discover its sanctity, and how a day of rest, a day for God, invigorates all of life and makes us holy. What the Jews do with their Sabbath reminds us of how we might cherish our holy day called Sunday.

We can learn much from Islam. When Will Willimon was Dean of the Chapel at Duke, a Muslim student asked him, "Why don't the Christians here ever pray?" He was in the habit of stopping at prescribed hours during the day, kneeling, and praying - and he never saw Christian students praying anywhere at all. When do we pray?

Eastern religions: once in a while someone will tell me they are abandoning Christianity for Buddhism - "because they have silence and meditation." Christians have silence and meditation! But we busy Christians have forgotten, and perhaps adherents of Asian religions might help us shake our amnesia and become quiet before God.

Zen Buddhism teaches us that at the very center of our being there is nothing, that poverty of the soul is God's glory in us. This is what Jesus was trying to tell us! The Tao master Chuang Tzu wrote, "All the fish needs is to get lost in water. All man needs is to get lost in Tao." We believe this: God isn't one more object in our world; God is everything.

"Lord, the other religions aren't our foes - or Yours. Show us what we might learn from others - and remind us what we've forgotten, or neglected then in our own faith."