Friday, October 25, 2013

What's Special about Christianity - parts 10 and 11

(10) The Worst of other religions - and ours

This evening will mark the feast day of St Francis: he died on this night in the year 1226. Seven years earlier, he had found himself in the Middle East with bloodthirsty Crusaders battling the savage Arab army of Malik al-Kamil. St. Francis saw the worst of Islam, and found himself in the camp with the worst of Christianity - and then he boldly crossed no man's land toward the Muslims with the best of Christianity. Unarmed, speaking gently of God's love, vulnerable and risking life and limb, he befriended the sultan, and bought peace.

So much of the time, we size up a religion based on its worst representatives - that is, when we are sizing up somebody else's religion. We would resent it if we Christians were dismissed as mean and violent because of Christians who've behaved badly. But think of the Holocaust: most of the Gestapo were churchgoing Lutherans and Catholics, and the vast majority of church leaders heiled Hitler with everybody else. In America, we've had cross-bearing Klansmen who've prayed and sung hymns before terrorizing African-Americans. Crusaders slaughtered Jews and Muslims, thinking their victories assured them a place in heaven. Loads of Christians in every town have been just plain smug and petty in their faith.
When we study other religions, we cannot avoid noticing evil perversions - largely because this is what the press will cover, and due to the political and security implications. This is true nowadays of Islam - but also Christianity. We read about priests abusing children, or clergy misconduct; we feel the menace of the violent edge of militant Islam.

But we can also look to the noble heart of other faiths, and our own. Recently I finished a book about the biblical Israelites and the other nations (and religions). The writer concluded that the biblical prophets claimed that the people of Israel could not and need not sit in judgment on, or try to fix what was wrong with others; but they could repent and become better and truer to their own faith - and that this was what God asked of them.

"Lord, we see the dark side in other religions - and we shudder; and sometimes we see their holy side, and we rejoice. Shine Your light onto our own faith, expose what is dull, vapid or even a problem to other people. Help us go deeper, to be truer, better, and holier, so when others look at us, they will see not the worst of Christianity, but the very best, the most faithful witness to what Christ offers not just to us but to the whole world - like St. Francis did."

(11) True Faith does not equal Sincerity

Back in the 1950's, President Eisenhower once declared, "I don't care what a man believes, as long as he is sincere." That pretty much captures how we Americans have felt for the past generation: any kind of spirituality must be good because it's.... spiritual - right?

But not all spiritualities are good. There are plenty of religious thoughts that are just plain false - or harmful. Very sincere people have hurt others, and their own people. Even the truest possible heart of Christian belief can be misused, and twisted into a blunt weapon or a tool of manipulation.

How would we assess the validity of a given religion, or even something believed within a religion? What makes truth true? And how would we distinguish what is in sync with the real, living God versus what is a made up fantasy? How can we discern what is beneficial to people versus what corrosively erodes the human spirit in the name of piety?

There are ways to test the worth of religious thinking, and to ask if a set of beliefs are sufficient; that is, Can they explain the beautiful and yet also the most sorrowful aspects of life in the world? Simplistic thinking, like "Do good and God will bless you, do bad and you'll get the opposite," doesn't actually pan out. We need beliefs that are as complex as life itself, beliefs that can deal with brokenness and then bring hope, beliefs that work not just for people like me but for everybody, rich and poor, healthy and sick, local and far away.

I'm firmly convinced that there are four peculiar, "special" things about Christianity that pass these tests, help us understand happy and horrible circumstances, enable us to be better people, and provide hope during the darkness and even beyond death itself - and not just for me but for all of humanity.

Let me add this: sometimes when we see religion gone bad we think the problem is too much religion. Moderation, a bit less religious zeal: that's what the world needs. But religion gone bad is bad religion, whether it's intense or casual. We are called to have much faith, to get deeply serious about what is life-giving and sustaining, the radical following of Jesus that ushers in goodness and beauty for us and for others. A tepid faith, a bland religiosity, is too trivial to matter. God, the good and living God, is everything.
So what are these four "special" aspects of Christianity? #1 is coming Thursday.

"Lord, heighten our sincerity - regarding what is good, true, and special about the faith You've given us."