There is a God. There is a person at the back of the universe, fiddling with things for the benefit of people who are listening to him, even in the midst of horrific things. And this person, who apparently doesn’t attach as much importance to life and death as we do, is nevertheless intensely interested in us as people. And if we doubt him, he stands back and lets us doubt, until we are ready to try again.
But why should anyone believe this person to be the Christian God?
That was the question that faced me last fall, when the bottom dropped out of my world yet again.
It’s frustrating how often that happens, but it’s all interconnected. My college turned its back on me and my roommates, leaving us to protect ourselves from a fellow student. My parents insisted that I didn’t know what was going on, and that I should assume the college knew more than I did. When I finally said, “no, the college was wrong and needs to be called into account,” my mom told me I needed to see a professional and my dad told me he couldn’t trust me. Then there was a whole series of people who felt that they knew what would be best for me, despite my protests, which culminated in some brutal words that I don’t think I deserved.
Things eventually got cleaned up, but in the meantime, I had had it. Anything sounded great as long as it would put more distance between me and all these judgmental, controlling people. So . . . I loaded up on research.
Over the next two months, I took two courses on meditation, one each on Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Classical Mythology, and plowed through The Fall of the Pagans (which traced the Jewish, Greek, and emperor-worship elements that shaped the rise of Christianity), The Dead Sea Scrolls (intense exploration of the teachings of first century Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the followers of John the Baptist), and Myth in Human History (which treated the Bible as the same kind of story as Zeus or Thor or Briar Rabbit).
At the end of this whirlwind tour of the world’s religions, several points stood out to me.
First, meditation is awesome. I highly recommend it. There’s a meditation for walking, where you focus on your feet and your stride, one for eating, where you focus so intensely on your food that you notice every flavor, and—the one I used most—a simple counting meditation that allowed me to beat insomnia.
Second, I understand why Buddhism is so attractive to people leaving the Christian faith, because it focuses on the non-judgment that is so lacking among the legalist churches.
Third, Islam is much more nuanced and flexible than fundamentalist rhetoric wants to admit. Sharia law developed over centuries of jurisprudence, it’s not part of the Koran, and it wasn’t given to the people by Allah through Muhammad. It’s jurisprudence, which means it’s more like guidelines than actual rules. The Islamist world is in much the same place that Christendom was at the dawn of the Reformation and there is no reason to believe that, given a mere two hundred more years, Islam won’t make the same adjustment that Christianity did.
Fourth, monotheists in general are highly judgmental, volatile, and polemic in comparison to polytheists, and that traces back as far as we can trace monotheism.
Fifth, religions develop. There were a lot of things deemed acceptable by the early church that got denounced under Constantine and Justinian. The core is still the same: Christ crucified, buried, and raised from death into life.
And that is, for me, the central point.
Why were his followers convinced that Jesus of Nazareth lived again? Why was Paul the Persecutor willing to switch sides? How did Simon the Denier become Peter the Preacher? How was their testimony so convincing that it has endured to this day? “Who dies for a lie?” is a good question, but, more importantly, why would anyone live for a lie, especially a lie like that one?
I can’t imagine going through half of what I endured if I had even the faintest glimmer of doubt that what the college did was wrong. I lost my home, my family, my health, most of my friendships, my anonymity, and my job. And, what’s more, I knew that was the risk of speaking out. I’d done my research and, just in case I hadn’t read or imagined enough, my mom helpfully provided me with a full litany of all the things I was throwing away with both hands.
John the Beloved, the only Apostle who wasn’t martyred, was at the cross, watching as his friend and teacher died. The others all fled in fear that they might be nailed up with Jesus, only to become unsilenceable after his death. One might almost say they were asking for it, but one could not say they didn’t know the risks. Banishment, torture, exile, early deaths . . . that first generation of believers faced it all.
And Paul went from killing Christians to preaching Christ. Have you ever stopped to think about how hard that must have been? Identities aren’t meant to be that elastic. It is hard to outlive your old self—grappling with the tenets that make you who you are, noticing the little things that flow out of those beliefs to become habits, challenging yourself to keep going, leaving old friends, building friendship and trust out of what had been enmity, and refusing to sink back to the old ways or to slide into mind-numbing apathy. It doesn’t happen on a whim. It cannot happen on a whim.
There’s something real there—something true, powerful, and inexplicable by any means that would have permitted these men to act with a sense of self-preservation.
But what does it mean? What does it mean that a human being claimed to be the I AM (as reported by his first generation witnesses from a culture that understood this to be a claim of sole divinity), that this I AM person died, and that I AM lives again?
All of Christian writings since then have been attempts to answer that question. Classical Mythology was absorbed into it. Islam sidesteps it. Judaism ignores it. Buddhism and Hinduism didn’t know it happened.
For me, there are two clear facts:
- There is a God who cares about me
- Jesus, who claimed to be God, rose from the dead.
Both these facts have to mean something.