Modern Myths about Christianity, Pt. 3
I Can't Even Save Myself : So Save Yourself
This post, the final in my three-part series on myths about the Christian faith and where they may be off-base, will be different in format from the previous two. For the simple reason that, as we have progressed through these topics, we have tread increasingly closer to the detailed and in-depth theological debates taking place within Christianity itself. It has become increasingly difficult to cite obvious and conclusive examples of where certain myths falter and fail; indeed, the final topic regarding hell, salvation and the role of Jesus Christ is a subject on which almost every Christian has a different opinion, even within a given denomination. This diversity itself, I hope, is enough to debunk common claims that "ALL Christians believe this" or "If you do not believe this, you simply are not be a Christian." What follows, then, is my personal view on these topics, which I share with other Catholics and Christians, and which fall within the reasonable bounds of theological doctrine as understood by most people within the Christian tradition. It is important to note that I came to this particular understanding long before I came to the Craft, and that it developed out of a great deal of study and reading of scripture itself as well as other Christian texts (the writings of saints, modern theologians, etc.). Therefore, it is legitimate to state that it is essentially Christian in nature, even if it is not identical to all other Christian beliefs. To kick-start this discussion, let's better define the myth that, though true for some Christians, are not prerequisites of the Catholic faith.
Myth # 5: Christianity insists that only Christians can be saved and all other non-Christians are condemned to hell; this means that Christianity is fundamentally an intolerant religion eager to claim the privileges given to them by their Savior, Jesus Christ, who is the one and only legitimate savior of humankind (all others being false gods and demons).
In order to address this very broad myth (which is only a myth when the universal "ALL Christians" is used, as many Christians do indeed believe the above statement in all its literalness), we must first ask several clarifying questions: What is the nature of salvation (i.e. from what are we being "saved" and why)? What is the nature of hell? What is the role of Jesus as Christ and Savior? Indeed, these are the very questions that Christians themselves often disagree about, and thus where we may find the theological explanations more or less intolerant, just, loving or ridiculous, depending on the given answers. Below, I will take each of these questions in turn and talk a little about how I answer them as a practitioner of the Catholic faith. Other Christians may respond differently, while other Neopagans and Wiccans may find that, beneath the superficial difficulty presented by different language and terminology, they share a great deal in common. The important thing to keep in mind is that this is a rich debate, not a dead and deadly dogma already written in stone.
The Nature of Hell
Is "hell" an objective "place" of punishment, imposed by an external and all-powerful Being?
It is quite easy to take broad statements about hell and interpret them according to one's personal predisposition. Often when I think of the various statements regarding hell and destruction that Jesus is reported to have made (as well as those of other religious leaders/saints), I tend to think of these as referring to a kind of present condition in which we struggle as human beings. This is due to my own predisposition to believe that an all-loving and just God would not punish someone eternally for a finite life. Warnings about hell could be thought of as warnings about a future punishment imposed from the outside by an all-powerful Being--but for me, this contradicts both what my reason tells me about the nature of justice, and what my heart tells me about the immanence of the Divine. Instead, I see these warnings as statements about our own inherent flaws and struggles, living as human beings ("amphibious"--half-spirit, half-physical, as C.S. Lewis has said) and facing our own doubts and feelings of isolation and alienation. In this sense, it is a "wide gate to destruction," in that so many people deal with doubt and hardship in unhealthy ways: either repressing them and focusing instead on temporary material pleasures, or dwelling on them so fully that they succumb to fear and despair ("despair" being a kind of blasphemy in assuming one knows decisively what the future holds and that the future is hopeless). I think we all know that it is hard to strike a balance of happiness and loving peace in life, as difficult as walking a razor-thin edge or entering a narrow way. One does not have to believe in hell, or even an afterlife, to acknowledge this truth about the human condition.
Though Jesus spoke of hell, he also emphasized a kind of freeing love for and acceptance of one another, as well as a deep commitment to the Divine. Indeed, this could be considered the core of the resurrection itself--the overcoming of the seemingly inevitable "death" of (self-)destruction, even in the face of all impossibility, to rise to a joyous communion with God (which is nothing other than heaven, the Kingdom of God, whether realized after death, or in this present life). None of this suggests to me that "hell" is a punishment--rather, hell is the unwanted alternative (the Hebrew translation used in scripture is "sheol"," which is a dwelling place of the dead which, much like the underworld of many pagan mythologies, is morally neutral). In the end, it is an alternative that we all overcome, with the help of the Divine. "Hell," as a perceived isolation and separation from God, may exist during life or after death. It may seem deeply, soul-crushingly painful--perhaps even infinitely so--but it is fundamentally a finite state. Even in terms of the feudal conception of Christ's death as "payment" for sins in terms of honor/obligation, this must be so--for Christ must have fully experienced the suffering of hell in all its depths in order for the "price" for humanity's sins to be paid--and yet, clearly Christ's suffering was not infinite and eternal (or rather, it was infinite without being eternal, whereas his restoration to love and joy was both eternal and infinite). In that sense, "hell" may feel infinite to a person, but it is not eternal, and its infinite "feel" is subjective rather than objective. No matter how isolated one may feel from the Divine, one's being is rooted in Divine Being and cannot be separated from it without merely ceasing to exist. Fundamentalist Christians who warn that hell is a state of tormented memory unwittingly acknowledge this fact, for the sweetness of remembered union in love is not possible in a state of complete annihilation, yet turns to pain and regret when it is believed to have been lost. However, in acknowledging that hell is subjective and one is never cut-off from the Divine for even a moment, let alone eternally--we find that this is a far cry from the infinitely objective and eternal "hell" that most fundamentalists evoke (and most of the rest of us think of thanks to popularized versions of it in books, television, movies, etc.).
The Nature of Salvation
If hell is subjective and no one is condemned to it for eternity, then what does it mean to be "saved"?
If hell is not a punishment but a kind of self-destruction or self-deception of perceived alienation from the Divine, then salvation is not an unnatural pick-me-up by some external force, but the realization of the already inherent and natural state in which creation exists in relationship with its Creator. This is why salvation and revelation are so closely connected, especially in the Christian tradition. This kind of realization of unity and Divine Being/Becoming is understood in some religions (such as Buddhism) as a personal attainment to enlightenment, something which is worked for individually and cannot simply be given by a deity figure. The absence of a God-the-Father in such systems of belief is not necessarily indicative that such systems are inherently flawed. As even hard-nosed atheists may still seek love, truth and evolution (and just as one does not need to believe in an afterlife in order to understand the concept of hell), everyone may attain to this realization, each by a different path.
In Christianity, the focus is not on personal enlightenment, but on the role of a self-revealing Divine Presence which works in harmony with human will to restore the full realization of loving unity. This self-revelation occurs (according the Catholic doctrine) through many various manifestations: through the natural world ("consider the lilies"), through human intellect and reason (the Logos/Sophia), through social and emotional interactions with other human beings ("what you do to the least of these"), through the sacred scripture and evolving tradition of the Church, and finally through Jesus as Christ, the third person of the Trinity. Most of these forms of a revealing Divinity are self-explanatory, and many are heartily embraced by Wiccans and Neopagans, as well, who look to nature, reason and the human experience as full-to-bursting with the Divine (not to mention personal revelations of particular deities). Just as a self-revealing Divine is a unique aspect of salvation for deity-focused spiritual paths, the belief that scripture and church tradition are revelatory are unique to the Christian faith. Their inclusion does not mean that anyone who does not include them is excluded from true revelation. Really, very few Christians find all forms of revelation speaking to them equally. Each person has unique and distinct tastes and finds the realization of love and truth in sometimes vastly different ways; while one person may find scripture as inspiring as the greatest love poetry, someone else may find his greatest sense of God in elaborate Easter ceremony in an old cathedral, while yet another person may see God in the faces of the homeless while working in a soup kitchen.
The two stumbling blocks that most non-Christians find about the Christian affinity for revelation are the important given to scripture and, moreso, to the person of Jesus Christ as savior.
Jesus Christ as Savior & Reconciler
If "hell" is a kind of self-destruction that follows causally from how a person lives her life, and "salvation" is the realization of our natural and on-going state of loving unity with the Divine, then what does it mean to "accept Jesus as your Savior"?
To claim that Jesus Christ is a savior to mankind, and to furthermore say that he is the savior of mankind, is to say in other words that he is the full revelation of God--a revelation that combines and transcends all of the previously discussed forms of manifestation (but does not necessarily replace or invalidate them). It is important to note, at this point, that Jesus the Christ and Jesus the historical person are both the same, and yet not to be mistaken for one another (more on this later). Thus, if Jesus the Christ is the ultimate and full revelation of the Divine, then "accepting Jesus as Savior" means accepting one's personal constitution that allows her access to the Divine most directly through Jesus as Christ. As already discussed, this is not the case for every individual. For someone else, Islam may be the most natural and direct root, and for another person Buddhism or Judaism or some other religion. If the idea of Jesus Christ serves only to confuse, rather than reveal, than it is not acting as a revelation, and other methods of revelation are equally valid and fruitful. Thus, each religion remains distinct, unique and integral while still all retaining validity (and, just as we can learn from each other without having to give up our own uniqueness and individuality, we can learn from other faiths without it destroying the integrity of our own). If I had a friend who was suffering and struggling in life and I thought that the Christian faith might provide him with what he so desperately sought on the spiritual plane, I would probably try to talk with him about it and encourage him to explore it more on his own. On the other hand, I have also known people whose relationship to the Christian faith created a great deal more suffering and self-destruction (usually due to constant fear and bullying within the religious community), and in those cases I have not hesitated to gently point this out, even though I myself have found (and still do find) Christianity personally fulfilling and a path to my own "salvation."
When Jesus says (in the most mystical/esoteric of the four gospels) that he is the Way, the Truth and the Light, I understand this as meaning that his example and his path is a legitimate path to union with the Divine and that, perhaps especially in his time and within that given cultural, it was the most natural and direct for those to whom he spoke. Notice that he rarely tried to convert others overtly, but merely warned them about their own lurking self-destruction (as if to say, "You don't have to believe [in] me, but it would do you good to get your act together in any case") and the blessings and peace that were the fruits of a good life (he obviously wasn't preaching Christianity as the one and only religion--he was Jewish!). This is where it becomes important to distinguish Jesus as a historical person from Jesus as Christ, while remembering that they are one and the same. The term "Christ" is not a personal name, but a title-of-sorts, such that the historical person of Jesus may be The Christ and thus the savior to humanity, while not denying that other historical persons may also have been (or will be) The Christ. This is also not to say that these other people are merely reincarnations; each may be uniquely distinct, but all embody the full revelation of the Divine as both transcendent and immanent. [Side note: personally, it strikes me as interesting that very few other religious traditions claim to have such Christ figures; for example, the Buddha, and similar prophets, may attain to enlightenment rather than embodying it in their essential natures from the beginning (though this is a poorly stated idea, you know what I mean), while many deities in polytheistic traditions manifest in human form but are not fully human--this is why the concept of the Christ as both fully human and fully divine, as a rather uniquely Christian concept, leads me to continue to call myself Christian even when I disagree with other doctrines).]
To understand this concept better, we can discuss the idea of the Mystery of the Trinity. Indeed, my personal spiritual life has focused largely on this Mystery. Within the "three persons" of the single Divine we find God-the-Father, the Son-of-God (or the Christ), and the Holy-Spirit. We may conceive of God-the-Father as the wholly Transcendent and Unknown Godhead; the Holy Spirit as intimately personal, immanent and manifest in nature and in humanity (the "Divine Spark" and sustaining lifeforce); and Jesus the Christ as the Son-of-God as a reconciler and bridge between these two other paradoxical, contradictory faces of the Divine. Jesus, to me, is the Reconciler of the contradictory aspects of a Divinity that is both wholly Other (i.e. transcendent) and intimately Personal (i.e. immanent/manifest); he is the living historical example of "Christ-consciousness," which is the perfection of humanity. Unlike enlightened beings and prophets in other religious traditions, Jesus did not attain to Christ-consciousness, but was "born into it," so to speak, and is in a sense synonymous with it as the Word/Logos from the dawn of Creation. I think I agree with Dion Fortune (a devoted Christian who also happened to be an occultist) that most souls cease to reincarnate in material bodies before reaching this level of evolution (continuing their growth on other planes), so Jesus is unique in being both physically present in the world and yet fully evolved as a human soul, and thus also fully united with God-the-Father (i.e. transcendent Divinity).
These are my personal beliefs regarding the nature of Jesus Christ and his role within my faith. I have a feeling that, for most people, they seem both uncomfortably Christian and yet oddly unlike what most Christians think of when they think of Jesus. Again, I hope that by now it is obvious that not all Christians agree and that, as with any complex theological system, these ideas can be debated, explored and poked at for thousands of pages over centuries of thinkers and believers. To make simple claims about the nature of Christian belief is to continue a myth of mindless simplicity which, at heart, is simply not true.
Modern Myths about Christianity Series