As the next part of this series on religion, I plan on on taking a look at each some the religions which I have been exposed to, and listing the elements which strike a chord with me, along with those aspects which leave me cold. This is emphatically not an attempt to judge religions. It is not intended to be an objective overview of their various belief systems. Nor is it a list of the practices and beliefs which I find appealing on a surface level. Note too that the emphasis will be more on the emotional, spiritual, and relational aspects of the religions. It is assumed that all religions also encourage good works; that isn’t an aspect of any single religion. These are the facets of religion which have struck a chord deep within me, resonating with what I have called my “personal religion” in a previous post. The goal is to begin to triangulate on that inner spring by noting it’s intersections with external religions.
It seems appropriate that I begin with Christianity, the religion that has had by far the most impact on my life. It is important to note that growing up I considered myself a Messianic Jew, which is more than merely a semantic distinction. But since I was raised in a church, and my beliefs, practices, and worldview as they pertain to this discussion largely coincided with the popular definition of Christianity, I’ll stick to that term in this post.
Here are the aspects of Christianity, as I believed in it, which struck a chord with me
- Above all, the romance of it. If I were asked to sum up the essence of what Christianity meant to me, I could do much worse than to quote a verse from a song by The Violet Burning:
Mary, she moves
In a world that’s dark,
Torn apart at the seams
She lifts up her eyes
Up to the sky
“I am my Beloved’s
And He loves me
As I am.”
The mythology of Christianity is one of an eternal, cosmic romance between a lost Bride, and the Groom who will literally go through hell to retrieve her. This has a great appeal to me. The idea of universe-as-story, rather than as a pointless place where things happen for no particular reason is a compelling one.
- It is a personal religion. As a Christian, I was encouraged to see God as a very definite person, with feelings, even moods. God was someone who took a personally interest in my daily life. He was not a vast impersonal force. He was someone I could potentially hold conversations with, laugh with, cry with. “He walks with me and He talks with me, and he tells me I am His own” – a dumb hymn, but very indicative of the Christian perception of a personal God.
- The acknowledgment of darkness. All modern appearences to the contrary, Christianity at it’s core is a profoundly gloomy religion, at least in regards to “this present darkness”. Jesus was a pretty mopey guy. He’s recorded as crying more often than laughing. In Christianity I found a worldview that acknowledged that yes, the world is a broken, darkened place. The tragedy is real, you aren’t imagining it. We are all broken and disconnected from God, and no, it’s not supposed to be this way. To me there was never any contradiction in being a “gothic Christian”. It seemed perfectly natural, an outward reflection of my worldview.
- Acknowledgment of guilt. “Sin” is an unpopular concept in this day and age. And I think the Church has gone way overboard in taking on the role of judge. But sin is, at least for some, a useful concept. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James quotes an earlier author in positing two kinds of people: the once-born, and the twice-born. The twice-born find themselves by their very nature weighed down by their guilt and shame for wrongdoings and failings of character. They are acutely aware of their own depravity, and their powerlessness in the face ot it. For such people, it is not enough to say “put down your burden and walk away”. They require an experience of death-and-rebirth, of absolution and redemption. Christianity offers a framework in which this redemptive process is possible, and prescribes steps by which it is to be carried out. For some who are unable to simply say “well, that was a mistake” and move on, Christianity holds a key to facing and finally defeating their shame.
- Confession. Really a part of the previous point, this deserves to be singled out because I’ve found in my own life that public confession is powerful medicine.
- The perception of God-in-humankind. Although never as pronounced as I would have liked, Christianity does include the concept of serving men and women as service to God, and of seeing the divine in other people. This really clicked with me; an early indicator of my innate humanism.
- The emphasis on the church-as-family. Sadly, this never really seemed to pan out in real life.
Aspects of Christianity which haven’t appealed to me: (note, I am including only essential aspects of the religion which failed to strike a chord with me. The perversions of the faith which I don’t care for could fill books, but that is true of any large religion.)
- Worship. The worship service is a central part of modern Christian practice, but it’s never done much for me. I understand that many people get a tremendous boost from spending time telling God how powerful He is. I know that for many, it isn’t at all forced, either; they can barely contain themselves in their adoration. For me it was never that way. As a catharsis and a way of crying out to heaven, music and prayer have been important to me. But I never really “got” the emphasis on praise & worship, as it’s called. Celebration I understood, just not the focus of it.