March 01, 2006

Modern Myths about Christianity, Pt. 2

No Faith, No Sin, No Giving In

I have had two amusing (and amusingly relevant) dreams as of late which motivate me to return to the (rather daunting) task of my continuing discussion of negative myths about the Christian faith and where they have misunderstood or misread the religion. I admit, with so much to say, any attempt to address some of these issues feels doomed to incompletion, even after hours of organizing my thoughts and notes. But I will try my best, and I ask you to be patient and kind.

  • Myth # 3: No Faith. The Christian idea of faith is defined by absence--the absence of proof, the absence of thoughtful analysis, and the absence of any doubt or questioning. Neopagans do not need faith because they experience directly the Presence of the Divine.

  • Myth # 4: No Sin. The concept of "sin" is unhealthy and is just a way of threatening and controlling others. Nature teaches us that there is no such thing as "sin" or "evil."

  • But before I begin a detailed discussion, I'd like to share my dreams. Last night I dreamt of being a new student in an unfamiliar Catholic high school (though its atmosphere was also vaguely Jewish, possibly suggestive of my recent studies regarding Qabalah). I was led from classroom to classroom by a friend and fellow student, instructed in the odd timing of the class periods and the particular rules guiding social behavior in the cafeteria during lunch. Though the dream began with feelings of foolishness, confusion, and even resentment at the sometimes ridiculous, sometimes archaic practices, by the end of the "day," I felt as though I had begun to appreciate the rhythm of the place, and to sense a spiritual value in activities which I had not been able to grasp with my rational, literal mind.

    The night before last, I dreamt of attending a week-long Bible-study camp with other young adult Christians. We were handed pamphlets and books featuring the daily lessons, with farm images and nature scenes as a way of suggesting the camp's theme of "returning to the roots" of the faith, as well as being "nature-friendly" and hiply politically-correct and up-to-date, in tune with the needs of modern young people. The images and the messages taught belied this facade, however, and I soon found myself challenging those around me to more fully own their faith, not simply to be led like cows. Indeed, I pointed out to them that the cover of one leaflet pictured a pig rolling in mud, and written on the pig was the label "Human"--the leaflet itself was about the fallen and helpless nature of humanity (we are just animals rolling about in muck, so to speak) and promoted a mindless, animal-like faith as the only way to be saved. My objections to this version of Christianity soon earned me the label "lapsed," except that every time someone tried to refer to me as "lapsed" they would say, by a slip of the tongue, that I was "escaped." I woke up from the dream still laughing and debating.

    What do these two dreams tell me? Well, first is the clear contrast in the two between ideas of "faith"--in the latter as a form of mindlessness and lack, and in the former as an intuition and willingness to learn through experience when the rational mind is confounded. Furthermore, both address ideas of "sin" and its punishment, albeit indirectly--"sin" as degradation, versus "sin" as misguided or inappropriate behavior. Using these two dreams as contrasting scenarios and starting points, we turn now to a discussion of two more common myths among Wiccans and Neopagans about Christianity.

    No Faith
    The Christian idea of faith is defined by absence--the absence of proof, the absence of thoughtful analysis, and the absence of any doubt or questioning. Neopagans do not need faith because they experience directly the Presence of the Divine.

    As so clearly illustrated in my own dream of the Bible-study camp, it is a very common notion among Christians as well as Neopagans that "faith" is merely a short-hand term for "unfounded belief; holding ideas without proof or cause." When using the word in this way, people often refer to themselves as having "faith" if they willingly believe whatever their priest or pastor tells them, whether this is interpretations of scripture or mundane advice about how to live their lives according to the will of God-as-expressed-through-said-religious-leader. By this definition, it is almost impossible for someone to "have faith" if they do not attend church regularly, since otherwise who will dictate to them the necessary beliefs which they must hold? Adults who do not attend church on a regular basis are understood as "having faith" if they adhere to the beliefs they were taught in childhood, especially if they supplement this "faith" with a good dose of Bible-study (which often, and sadly, involves taking parables, poetry and metaphors literally, or misapplying spiritual advice to modern, mundane situations).

    Neopagans criticize this idea of "faith," and so they should! It is an affront to human nature to sacrifice reason to the unreasoning will of another, to diminish one's own role in one's faith to that of a farm animal being led mindlessly by a rope back and forth from the barn. Indeed, we are human beings, not animals, and as such the role of human intellect and reason is vital to understanding what it means to "have faith," something which the previous (and painfully common) definition above ignores. But before we whole-heartedly applaud Neopagans for seeing through this Christian hogwash, let us first examine how the Catholic Church itself defines faith:

    "Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace. We do not believe in formulae, but in those realities they express, which faith allows us to touch. The believer's act [of faith] does not terminate in the propositions, but in the realities [which they express]." [CCC 155, 170]

    Here we see an alternative Christian definition of faith. Faith is "an act" on the part of the believer. It is an act of will (a will that is inspired and "moved by God"), not a relinquishing of one's will to another. Furthermore, it is an act "of the intellect" in which the intellect assents but is not ignored or denied. Here we have two uniquely human keys which our first definition of faith ignored--will and reason. This definition is not defined by absence, but by presence--the full presence of our own humanity by taking our will and our intellect into account, and the presence and influence of God who stirs our will and stimulates our intellect to higher realms, an "ascent" beyond itself, so to speak. With this definition of faith, we might understand it as more akin to trust, or even loyalty (as in, "faithfulness")--acts which harmonize emotion, intellect and will towards a single aim.

    How does this translate into practical terms? We have already seen an example portrayed in the dream I recounted earlier--that of attending a new school with strange and unfamiliar customs. Throughout the dream, I felt constant stirrings of doubt and confusion, and I constantly questioned both my friend and the "teachers" and other faculty members and leaders. At no point did I relinquish my will or intellect; indeed, it was my continued inquiry and attentiveness that eventually led me to deeper insights into the spiritual significance of the activities. Participating in such activities and "following the rules" without fully understanding them (though never against my own better judgment) were acts of will which gave my intellect riddles and experiences to puzzle through. They were acts of trust and faith, and this faith is what allowed me to touch the realities to which the rules and propositions pointed, to underlying patterns of behavior and relationship which can only be experienced, not explained. In this way, the Zen Buddhist has "faith" that the act of contemplating the koan will lead to an experience of Divine enlightenment and revelation; and the Neopagan has "faith" that a proper relationship with nature and certain ritual activities will open them to the experience of the Divine Presence in the world. Faith, in this way, is the process by which we experience Presence, and it is fueled by questions and doubts which arise from the challenge of paradox, complexity and mystery. Faith is not defined by absence or undermined by doubt. Faith is not equivalent certainty, but is much more closely related to courage (not to be confused with bold carelessness). Faith is only possible because of doubt and questioning. A shallow kind of certainty kills it quickly. Such is the Christian understanding of faith, though so often and easily forgotten.

    No Sin.
    The concept of "sin" is unhealthy and is just a way of threatening and controlling others. Nature teaches us that there is no such thing as "sin" or "evil."

    In my first dream (that of the Bible-camp), "sin" was clearly illustrated as a form of degradation, reducing human beings to little more than helpless animals incapable of raising themselves from out of their own muck and filth. In fact, sin was not really any given act in itself, but a quality of fallen human nature which rendered "sinful acts" not only possible, but inevitable. The cartoon pig with the word "human" scrawled across its back was as incapable of understanding its own beastly out-of-control mess as a human being is capable of understanding the causes of his sinning--and the most either can hope for is some wiser Being to come along, wash them clean and set them straight. It is easy to see how this concept of sin lends itself to abuses of power, allowing those in charge to label all undesired behavior as "sinful" (even insisting that it is sin itself that prevents a person from seeing the sinfulness of their actions) and threatening punishment or doling out rewards in accordance to people's conformity. Many Neopagans focus on this definition of sin and claim that nature herself shows us differently--that there are no black-and-white rules, and that the laws of cause-and-effect and natural consequence are much more relevant than punishments and rewards.

    Again, however, we must realize that this definition of sin is only one of many and is not the sole Christian definition. Catholicism provides another which states: "Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity." [CCC 1849]

    With a few minor adjustments, this concept of sin sounds very close to the "law of nature" described by Neopagans and Wiccans, who often refer to the need for acting in harmony with the forces of the world (and the suffering which may result if such natural forces are ignored or fought against). Even so, this definition of sin may sound a little harsh. That is, until we see that the word "sin" is a translation of the Hebrew word "khate," the root of which ("khaw-taw") means to miss, to err from the mark (as in archery), or to stumble. In short, a sin is a mistake, perhaps one due to lack of reason, knowledge or consideration on the part of the person making the mistake, or perhaps due to his willful ignorance.

    In my dream of the strange school, I made many mistakes because I lacked understanding--my punishment was not externally imposed upon me, but stemmed merely from the frustration and embarrassment I felt at having stumbled. Rather than being reprimanded or punished by teachers, I was corrected, instructed and directed (sometimes sternly, if I stubbornly clung to my mistake) how I might improve. Far from a process of degradation and helplessness, the concept of "sin" as a mistake or failed attempt reaffirms the potential that all human beings have to succeed, to hit the mark, to act appropriately according to reason, truth and love. Acknowledging "sin" as the natural imperfections each of us must overcome, we deny that we are merely unthinking, unchanging animals in need of external salvation or damnation. We are capable of "sin" (that is, of making mistakes) because we are human beings, because we have a reason and self-awareness which other creatures in nature do not have. This understanding of sin is not a degradation of the human, but an affirmation. Many Neopagans may continue to object that they have no need for the concept of "sin," but I challenge them, then, to explain what the goal of the spiritual journey is, if not to progress and evolve, to continue to grow in perfection as human beings.

    This brings us to our final two topics: Christian Salvation, and the Role of Christ as Savior. Stay tuned.

    Modern Myths about Christianity Series


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