Tuesday, December 25, 2012

What happened to the Christianity of Jesus?

What attracted me to Christianity as a teenager were the liberal and pacifist words of Jesus in the New Testament. I, like many Christians today, largely ignored the Old Testament, even though I read the Bible cover to cover. The Old Testament was the Bible of Judaism. I believed then, and still do, that one can be a complete and devout Christian by basing your belief solely on the New Testament.  

It's impossible to ignore these days how far mainstream Christianity has diverged from the words of Jesus and example of his life. And by mainstream Christianity I mean the televangelists and representatives of the faith that appear on TV and in print espousing the standards of modern American Christianity.

When I listen to the words of Pat Robertson or Fred Phelps I can only conclude that the Jesus they follow is a vengeful and hate-filled deity. When I hear politicians proclaim their religious beliefs one minute then hear them recommend cutting social programs and taxing the working class the next, I can only conclude that they are either hypocrites or that they are reading a different version of the story of Jesus than the one I encountered in the New Testament.

If there is an attack being waged on American Christians, it's being conducted by the leaders of the faith.

Two of my literary heroes as a Christian were Thomas Merton and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Both men not only understood and wrote inspiringly about what being a Christian meant, but they lived a life in full accordance with their beliefs. Merton didn't just write about the value of contemplation and asceticism to the modern believer, he lived his entire adult life as a Trappist monk devoting himself to those values. Bonhoeffer didn't just write about what has labeled as "religionless Christianity" but acted on his pacifist religious beliefs by openly proclaiming his opposition to the Nazi regime, a stance which lead to his death by hanging at the hands of the Gestapo.

This is what the Jesus of my believing years would have endorsed, a faith that was concerned with the plight of all humanity, a truly humble and serving belief.

Modern Christian "heroes", men of wealth and fame like Robertson, Joel Osteen, James Dobson and Tony Perkins, preach a message of intolerance and eschew empathy in any form. They are more concerned with telling others, even those who don't share their beliefs, how they should live their lives than they are with feeding and clothing the poor or helping those in need. Theirs is a gospel of greed and exclusion as opposed to Jesus' example of selflessness and inclusion. Modern Christian leaders and those who claim to speak for the body of believers are in fact the antithesis of Jesus; anti-Christs, if you will.

And while the Pope still proclaims a message of peace and concern for the poor, American Catholics cannot ignore the glaring disparity between his words and the way he lives. Indeed, his lifestyle is exactly the sort that Jesus was well known to preach against. 

I'm not at all surprised by the many polls that indicate that those who don't identify with any religious belief is the fastest growing group in America. Many of us who were raised on the Biblical message of Jesus can't help but see that modern Christianity has abandoned the very essence of Jesus' life and words. The concepts of serving the poor, debasing yourself and your own desires, turning the other cheek, living a life of humility, have been discarded by Christianity. Modern Christianity is now a faith that can best be summed up with the attitude, "I've got mine, screw you". Screw you if you're poor, it's either your own fault or a result of God's displeasure with you. Screw you if you're hungry or homeless, don't expect me to bail you out.

Those who preach this sort of gospel are the true enemies of Christianity and the reason that American Christianity is becoming both irrelevant and unpopular. This hypocrisy is what finally lead me to conclude that Christianity, living a life in accordance with the teachings of Jesus and living a life that emulated his, is a farce. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Existence versus belief

The debate over the existence of a god is a question about the factual existence in reality of a specific entity. Since no objective, verifiable evidence has been presented by religious believers that establishes beyond a shadow of doubt that their particular god, or gods in generic form, exists in reality, we are left with inferences from and interpretations of natural events that suggest to some that their god exists. That no conclusive evidence can be presented assures us that the debate over those interpretations and inferences will continue forever, or until such evidence can be produced. The standards for evidence that would establish the existence of a god are quite high, for as Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. 

The debate over the belief that gods exist addresses a reality we can all accept, whether through personal experience or the testimonies of others. The standard for evidence that people believe gods exist is much lower than the standard for the actual existence of a god. We can easily determine that people genuinely and sincerely believe their particular version of god exists. We shouldn't even question that people do in fact believe their god exists. 

The debate over religious beliefs challenges the particulars and specifics of those beliefs. The belief that god exists is a philosophical argument, not a scientific claim, and we know that philosophy is not a scientific field. Science asks, "Can you show that..." while philosophy asks, "Do you think that...". Even believers in a particular god question and challenge the beliefs of those who have faith in another god. That's the basis for the observation that we are all atheists, we all disbelieve in some gods even if we believe that our particular god is real. At least I have never heard of anyone who believes that all the gods ever worshiped by humans throughout history all exist in reality, a sort of ultimate pantheism. 

It's worthwhile to challenge and debate the belief in gods. That process is what led me beyond my own belief in god. If someone's beliefs cannot withstand scrutiny and skepticism then they are shallow beliefs that may not be the most firm types with which to guide a person's life. 

On the other hand it's generally pointless to debate the actual existence of gods. Not only does the hypothesis lack quantifiable evidence but no framework has been suggested by which the question could be objectively confirmed or discounted.