“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not, shall be damned.”
– Mark 16:16, King James Bible, supposedly quoting Jesus of Nazareth
The fact that Jesus of Nazareth lived was easy to believe. The fact that Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the Golden Rule was also easy to believe.
The problem I had was in believing Jesus to be a religious artifact, a holy symbol of blood sacrifice that was necessary and sufficient for God’s Grace, whatever that was and however that happened.
I couldn’t believe in a black-and-white world of salvation and damnation based on credulity.
I couldn’t believe Jesus was God, either – unless, of course, we’re all God. I believed he was good and wise. I believed his life was something spectacular. His death, however, was ordinary for the times and the various versions of his death and physical afterlife didn’t agree and didn’t make sense.
There is the Last Supper, where Jesus isn’t comforting his friends as they endure this trauma with him. He performs a pagan ritual rather than a Jewish ritual right in the middle of celebrating Passover, which must have further traumatized and confused his followers. He required them to symbolically drink his blood and eat his flesh. Had I been there among the disciples, I would be wanting desperately to save this wonderful, thoughtful, kind, and compassionate man and would be estranged and confused by his new and bizarre behavior. I might even have refused this strange ritual which accepted and acceded to his death ahead of time. I would have no trouble remembering Jesus, the person who had radically altered the direction of my life. I didn’t need a new and bizarre ritual. I needed comfort.
Three days later, this person who has always been kind, helpful, and loving is telling his best friends, his companions who have loyally followed him and supported him, that he is now a symbol of salvation, something to be looked at with awe and fear, someone who, if one doubts, will send the person to Hell without blinking an eye. He is, at that moment, damning almost everyone outside the room including the families of those present … unless they can be convinced of this new, bizarre and rather arbitrary rule. Never before had he done anything even remotely like this and, if I were an apostle in the same room with him, I would doubt that this was the same being even if I could place my fingers in the original stigmata. I would know in my heart that fame and death had radically changed him even if the body still worked. This behavior didn’t fit – even a little bit – with the kind and humble healer preaching poverty, empathy and universal love, exhorting us to look at even enemies with compassion. If one looks at all the other believers in all the other religions, how can one insist that they are wrong and there is only one path to Grace? Who but a non-empathic, uncaring despot would require us to abuse our logical minds and ignore our empathetic hearts and cling to a belief that makes us special only if we believe something improbable and logically inconsequential and do so at the expense of everyone else being spiritual dross? What kind and empathetic being could concoct such an irrational and spiritually-abusive rule?
For similar reasons, I couldn’t believe certain people got preferential treatment because of who their ancestors were, what stories they could be persuaded to believe or how often they prayed. I saw Jehovah’s insistence on ceremony, blind loyalty and irrational credulity as something devised by man rather than by a wise and loving Creator.
I had a more international upbringing than most people in my culture. I knew a lot of people with a lot of other religious beliefs. Many of these people were as good as most of the Christians I met. My father’s mother, retired from Christian missionary work in Africa, was among my favorite people but so were a number of kind and wise Muslims I’d met and gotten to know personally.
This rule that you had to believe some small but improbable and unusual historical fact with no proof or logic whatsoever confused me. That there was such an inordinately harsh penalty for my incredulity, rather than breaking my resolve, stiffened it because I believed in a loving and rational God and this rule was neither loving nor rational. I later discovered that it wasn’t spiritual either.
As I learned about science, I was reassured that the Universe was logical and predictable. I learned the principles of science, of testing and questioning; of withholding belief until things made sense. If the Creation is rational, then I reasoned that the Creator was also rational. I came to believe that a creative being would also be kind and compassionate and at least somewhat fair. Jehovah hated the best parts of mankind: their curiosity and their compassion. Had I indisputable proof Jehovah was God, I wouldn’t worship or adore Him. Conditional love isn’t love so I couldn’t pretend He was loving. I couldn’t pretend that bullying and racism were kindness or care. I couldn’t ignore the divisiveness and conflict that erupted in the wake of His Covenants with His “chosen people.” I surely couldn’t ignore the current situation in the Middle East which, according to The Holy Bible is God’s will – for people to be dispossessed and then vilified for their reaction to it; for people to close their hearts and minds to the suffering of an entire region so that Jehovah could be glorified and Christians vindicated.
Why would God make or permit all this diversity and then pick one race and/or one religion to sponsor? Why would God base salvation solely on credulity rather than kindness? It seemed irrational and mean for Native Americans to have been unaware of this rule for thousands of years, for many Chinese to be living good and honest lives while being damned by their ignorance of this rule.
Why can’t Muslims and Buddhists, agnostics and atheists be allowed into Heaven? What was so important about believing or (as I watched Christians closely) pretending to believe something they had no experience with or actual knowledge about? The truth is that we don’t know!
I was in elementary school when I read this poem by Leigh Hunt:
Abou Ben Adhem
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
“What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.
I made this poem my life vest, my support in a sea of damnation and divine rejection. I knew that to say I believed without believing wouldn’t fool God. And I just couldn’t believe the stuff I was supposed to believe. It didn’t make sense and it didn’t fit the world I knew. Maybe it had been right in a world of constant peril and early death, but I lived in a secure and well-ordered world. Nobody was sacrificing sheep on altars any more and even drinking Christ’s pretend blood and eating Christ’s pretend flesh seemed to belong to a different age; a different set of sensibilities; a more naïve civilization.
I struggled with this divine rejection most of my life. In a way, I’m still struggling with it. When I studied spirituality, I finally made some breakthroughs.
I learned that Twelve Step groups, for the most part, were organized with all members being equal, accepted, and important. There was no exclusion and no formal leadership!! We decided what was best for the group as a whole. This worked!
Later, I was introduced to the work of Bert Hellinger and family constellations. I started attending workshops and I took training as a spiritual therapist. I even studied under Hellinger himself and received a certification, though I have never practiced professionally.
In this work, we look into interpersonal relationships through empathy with the human spirit. I cannot explain this work rationally. It has to be experienced and the experience itself teaches us. What I can tell you is that exclusion is probably the biggest cause of suffering in the world and inclusion and acceptance the greatest source of joy.
I also learned that, first and foremost, we are spiritual beings, all linked together in a web of very strong connections which exist outside the bounds of reason, of life, and of time itself. I learned that Heaven is here and now and that love and acceptance, not credulity or obedience, are the keys to peace and happiness.
At last, I had some support rather than just a hope my mother and grandmother were wrong!
Finally, I knew why religions didn’t work well when interacting with other cultures; why they didn’t help us to be better people except within our own artificially homogeneous group. Of course! They shut down our empathy at the borders of our country and our religion! By definition, Christians are preferred by God. All others (except maybe Jews) are to be consigned to Hell.
The benefits of being a Christian are obvious: you are fully accepted by others in your community; you can run for political office or be “equally yoked;” you hold the stamp of approval.
The deficits are hidden: you have a biased perspective which elevates you and your fellows into false and self-serving grandiosity. You have the illusion of immunity while the harm you do lives on and haunts you, your children, your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren.
We may have done many unkind and unfair things even without our faith, but we DID use religion to justify stealing from and enslaving others, just like our hero Joshua in taking Jericho; like the Pope when he divvied up the New World among Europeans without a minute’s thought to the rights and needs of the local population; like the slave trade or killing the vast buffalo herds and the people they fed as we pushed West and just like the founders and supporters of Israel as they carved a Jewish state out of the heart of the Arab world.
I can’t help but feel anger at having been treated as a second-class citizen. It may be OK to have a religious view, but to assume negative beliefs about the rest of the world that doesn’t share those views seems unkind and, in some perverse way, un-Christian. It isn’t consonant with the Golden Rule and it impedes following the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
What would the human half of Jesus say were he among us today?
Would he insist, like the writers of the Gospels, on us being ignorant but credulous? Would he actually damn nonbelievers to Hell and assume the position of Dictator of the World? This sounds more like Hitler than Jesus of Nazareth.
I believe in a Creator who is more rational and more inclusive than the character, Jehovah.
I believe in a Creation which is bigger and older and more logical than depicted in The Old Testament.
I believe our Creator does NOT make Covenants or assign ownership of land and that, if He (or She or It) did, He would not base such agreements on race, religion or nationality. He is the God of everyone and everything and so He must be impartial, just as any parent must be impartial.
I believe that God would not know or want to know the future. I believe that God would not want mankind to know the future, either. Firstly, an inevitable future requires everything to be known ahead of time. There are no surprises, no hope for a better outcome, no excitement to see which species survives its existential crisis and which species becomes extinct. The Universe becomes dull and boring, less interesting and less engaging to both men and their God.
I believe dogma does more harm than good. By restricting belonging, religions control beliefs to accepted ideas from the past, stunting spiritual growth and limiting spiritual awareness. Outside the religious circle, religions make their members spiritually blind and willingly compliant with false claims where others are called “evil” or “ignorant” or “savage.” We pretend to favoritism as a group rather than as unique individuals each with something to offer. This makes us a “gang” of sorts and it is clear throughout history up to and including the present, that this gang mentality has allowed us to demean and abuse those outside our group with unfettered consciences.
This inherent prejudice is within all dogmatic religions.
It allowed Jews to conquer other people in both biblical times and the present, take their land, and enslave or otherwise control the previous owners as second-class citizens.
It allowed Christians to outlaw other beliefs as soon they were legalized, conquer the known world, steal almost the entire Western Hemisphere from its previous owners and turn them into serfs, to rob and steal from Native Americans and then go to church and still feel blessed and forgiven by God.
It was used as an excuse for newly-minted Islamic leaders to spread their control of the beliefs of others through warfare throughout most of the African continent, along the entire African and Asian coastline of the Indian Ocean and even into parts of the eastern Pacific Rim.
Christianity has compassion for other Christians, but their compassion for non-Christians seems to be concentrated in competing with their culture and beliefs. I know my grandfather, in his missionary work, built churches. The next generation of Americans came in with machine guns and Claymore mines. Neither was particularly helpful. What they needed was a way to separate drinking water from sewage, medical science, and cooperative partnership rather than conversion or coercion.
©David N. Dodson, November, 2015, Phoenix, AZ