So, when someone asks you if you are religious or if you believe in God, what do you say? It turns out that we human beings think about this a lot–all over the planet–and have been thinking about it from the very early stages of our species. Given the size and nature of our brains, we Homo sapiens cannot help asking fundamental questions like why are we alive, what is the meaning of our lives, how do we find fulfillment, how should we live our lives, and what happens when we die.
In a previous series of blog posts (September/ August 2023) I wrote about how the concept of God evolved focusing on the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All three religions share belief in the God of Abraham as the true God and central to their faith. These three religions have been very successful and according to survey research conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2020 now account for more than 55 percent of the world’s population. (Christianity is the most popular with over 30 percent of the world’s population.) However, there are many other religions in the world today—The Pew Research Center identifies 21 major faiths—most of which have a different view of God. I find it interesting that only about 15 percent of those surveyed describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. What all major religions have in common, however, is a set of beliefs, religious and ethical practices, and rituals. Which one is right and which ones are wrong, and what does this all mean?
I am an Episcopalian, a lifer or “cradle Episcopalian,” as we are called. If truth be told, however, I am Episcopalian mainly because my parents were pillars of the Episcopal church in Nashville where I grew up. I suspect a major factor affecting the religious affiliation of anyone is the religion that they were exposed to at an early age. In 1968 I earned a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, which was at the time a nondenominational seminary and now an interfaith religious institution. Union exposed me to the beliefs, worship styles and values of other Protestant denominations. I was never ordained, however, because my bishop and I agreed that I was not called to be an Episcopal priest. If you know me, you can understand why.
What sets the Abrahamic religions apart from other faiths is that God is first and foremost a God of history, who has taken decisive action in the history of the world. The early Jews acknowledged the existence of many gods but believed their God, “YHWH,” was superior to all. Their God created the universe in six days, made humans in His own likeness, identified Israel as His chosen people, helped the Israelites destroy adversaries, gave Moses the Ten Commandments, parted the Red Sea, and caused the flood which would have wiped out all life on Earth were it not for Noah, whom God chose to save life on the planet. The history of Israel for most practicing Jews is the history of God’s actions on Earth. Abraham is thought to have lived in the early 1,800s BCE and the Ten Commandments given to Moses around 1,300 BCE. Monotheism did not become prevalent until around 700 BCE. Two or three hundred years later–between 450 and 350 BCE–the first five books of the Bible—the Torah– were written.
Then along came Christianity about half a millennium later. Jesus, of course, was a Jew. He is honored as a Jewish prophet by both Jews and Muslims. He preached a message of a loving and just God, and of helping the poor and the downtrodden. He performed miracles, healed the sick, and became a popular figure and a threat to the Jewish establishment and the Roman Empire, actions for which he was crucified in his early 30s. Had this been the end of the story, no one would have paid much attention to Jesus of Nazareth, and there would be no Christianity. But two things happened. The first is what I call the “resurrection experience.” Something happened that made Jesus’s disciples believe that Jesus had not died but had “risen from the dead.” This was followed some forty days later by the Ascension when Jesus is said to have ascended into heaven and then in ten more days the Pentecost when Jesus appeared again to a large following, speaking in different languages. Had this been the end of the story, it is not clear if a new religion would have been sustained. The stories about the resurrection and what followed were not written down until a over a generation after his death. (Mark, the first gospel was written in the mid 60s CE. The Gospel of John did not happen until near the turn of the first century.)
But something else happened, and that was the conversion of an erudite, Greek speaking rabbi whose name was Saul of Tarsus and who experienced the risen Christ on the road to Damascus four or five years after the resurrection. Saul changed his name to Paul and began a journey to spread the word of the resurrection, which in Paul’s thinking proved that Jesus was the son of God. Paul became a tireless missionary making five journeys to countries at the eastern end of the Roman empire converting people—mainly gentiles who had been worshipers of Constantine and the sun god—to a new religion 50 years later called Christianity. (Jewish Christians referred to themselves as “The Way” probably coming from Isaiah 40:3, “prepare the way of the LORD”. Other Jews also called them “the Nazarenes.”) Paul was a great communicator, dictated numerous letters to early converts to the faith and developed a Christian theology which is spelled out in the most detail in his last letter, the letter to the Romans. Salvation and “justification by faith” are major themes in Paul’s writings. The rest is history. In 2024 there are estimated to be more than 2.4 billion people who call themselves Christians.
About 600 years later, another new religion emerged called Islam, which acknowledged Jesus as a great prophet but did not buy into the notion of his being God. This religion embraces a radical monotheism and a strict prayer life and strong dietary rules. There are about two billion Muslims in the world.
Then there are the non-Abrahamic religions. What about Hinduism, Buddhism, and the many ethnic and tribal religions? These religions for the most part see God not as a person but as a mystical being or force. Some like Hinduism see God as being itself. Followers of Buddhism don’t acknowledge a supreme god or deity. They instead focus on achieving enlightenment—a state of inner peace and wisdom. When followers reach this spiritual echelon, they are said to have experienced nirvana. The religion’s founder, Buddha, is considered an extraordinary being, but not a god.
So, I will repeat my question. What do you believe? If you are a Christian, the fundamentals of the faith that are often cited are these:
- That humans are made in the image of God, which would seem to imply that God in some way is like us humans.
- That God had a son whom he sacrificed for our sake to forgive humans for our sins and create a pathway to heaven.
- That to believe that Jesus was God’s only son is your ticket to eternal life in heaven. (“Justification by faith,” not good works.)
- That failing to believe the Gospel–the “good news” –has dire consequences, like being doomed to an eternal life in hell.
Now I call myself a Christian because I believe in the message of God’s love and the commandment to love your neighbor, not because of a literal interpretation of scripture or the wording of the early creeds that some insist you are supposed to believe to be a Christian. Here are some of my questions:
- Heaven and eternal life. Given what we know now about the universe, what does eternal life mean? Where might heaven be anyway? The Christian creeds and the theology of Paul speak of resurrection of the body. Really? How does cremation fit into this picture, and can we choose which body we want—maybe a 25 year-old body rather than an 85 year-old body? Mark Twain once said he would take heaven for the climate, but hell for the company. If going to heaven means your only companions will be fundamentalists and evangelicals, does this sound appealing? If there is no heaven or eternal life, does this make a difference about how we live our lives or the meaning of life on the planet Earth? What about all the other good people who are not Christians on the planet? Having 30 percent “market penetration” is pretty good, but what about the other 70 percent? Many are profoundly spiritual people and many live lives of goodness. Will they all end up in hell just because they do not “believe”?
- The nature of God. Some Christians believe that God is all powerful and all good. Given the sorry state of the planet, the human condition, and the suffering many experience, why hasn’t God intervened more often? How do you explain hurricanes, droughts, and all other natural disasters? The National Council of Churches was located next to Union Seminary when I was a student, where several friends worked part time, who spoke of all the lawsuits filed every year against the organization by people who had been turned down by insurance companies which had exclusions for “acts of God.” Why do bad things happen to good people? Is God really a he? It seems to me that the religions that describe God as Spirit–and a Divine Mystery which we humans are not able to fully understand–are closer to the truth.
- The universe. Most religions see God as the creator of the universe. The founding fathers were mostly deists who visioned God as the great clockmaker, who got everything started but has taken mostly a hands off position ever since. Only in the last couple of decades have we learned that the universe is much, much larger than what we thought and could be part of a multiverse. What is that all about?
- The information we have about God. The scriptures and creeds we rely on for information about God are very old and were written centuries before science had provided information about the nature of our world. On many issues where there are scientific explanations, science often trumps religion.
So now you know why I was not ordained and why becoming an Episcopal priest would not have been a good fit. Some have accused me of not being a Christian, to which I respond that that is God’s business, not yours. In one instance after proclaiming what I thought to be a profound understanding of the Christian faith, one person in a church discussion group angrily responded, “Well, if that is what you believe, why not just join the Democratic Party?” I still hang in there, if by a thread, and do believe in goodness, mercy and the Christian message of love and redemption even if I can’t buy into the whole program. At the same time, I acknowledge that Christianity has had profound benefits for millions and millions of people over the years, that a relationship with the Divine is possible, that spirituality is real, that prayer is important and beneficial, and that truly holy people exist on Earth. For many, many people of all faiths, God is not an idea. God is real. I agree though my answer is more nuanced. I suspect that there are a whole bunch of people not all that different from me, many of whom are hanging on by a thread or leaving the church because they don’t find the message relevant to their faith journey. As I mentioned in my last blog, this is an issue and a challenge for Christian churches today.
|Chinese traditional religion[c]
|African traditional religions
From the Pew Research Center