Called Upon to Explain Religious Convictions and Beliefs

Called Upon to Explain
Religious Convictions and Beliefs

By Ron Chaplin rchaplin@NETROVER.COM

As a gay man, I am often called upon by friends and associates to "explain" my religious convictions and beliefs. I think this is something we all face as GLBT Christians, for we are a minority within a minority.

I will for the moment focus only on what seems to be central to the argument that Christianity is "absurd", namely. One correspondent wrote recently:

An example of the absurdity of Christianity would be this: Jesus was supposedly sacrificed for the good of mankind by his heavenly Father who was one with Jesus, so, in effect, God sacrifices himself for the good of mankind. Yet, if we can swallow that, the sacrifice, namely Jesus, was precious supposedly because Jesus is the "only begotten son" of God, I have searched the texts and doctrines of Buddhism and have not found anything like the sheer exponential multiplication of absurdities and absurdities within absurdities that one encounters so plentifully in Christianity. Any words of explanation or enlightenment on these matters would be greatly appreciated.

I would agree that this all seems absurd. A wonderful key to understanding these elements of our faith was shared with me earlier this year by the American theologian Marcus Borg.

First of all, our English word "believe" does not necessarily mean that we hold something to be factually true (which is even more true for the ancient cognates of the word "believe"). There are some phrases where this is still apparent. I could quite readily say, for example, that "I do not believe in lawyers." No one would understand this to mean that I do not believe that lawyers exist; such would truly be absurd. What it means is that I do not believe the legal profession holds a key to solving social evil.

When I (or other Christians) say, "I believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of the Father, the ultimate sacrifice to save humanity from sin" I am not stating that I hold such to be factually true. What I am saying is that there is a profound meaning to this statement which holds a key to addressing the problem of evil in the world.

Let me, for the sake of emphasis, make this perfectly clear. I do NOT, when I make such credal statements, take them to be statements of fact. To do so is, I believe, to trivialize them and to obscure the richness of their meaning. These are metaphorical statements, and are imbued with layers upon layers of meaning.

In our modernist society, we have lost much of our sense of metaphor, and have the tendency to literalize metaphor. As a result, our faith becomes trivialized and disoriented.

Marcus Borg refers to this problem as the "Buddha's finger" syndrome. The Buddha apparently compared the way of Truth to the light reflected from the Moon. With time, some came to venerate, not Truth, but the Moon. More time passed, and others came to venerate Buddha's finger, as it pointed to the Moon.

And so it is with our rich heritage of theological and metaphorical language about the nature of Jesus of Nazareth, and the meaning of his life, his death and his resurrection. These metaphorical statements are built on a base of fact; but transcend fact to point to some higher Truth.

While we Christians hold Jesus of Nazareth to be "the Christ", any serious student of the Bible knows that he was not the only historical figure to bear such a title. "Messiah" or "anointed" was a honorific title bestowed on many.

We also know from the Gospel accounts that Jesus seemed to willingly accept his fate to die upon the cross. He did in fact sacrifice his life to save others; if only, in a factual sense, his followers ("disciples") who were themselves in mortal danger.

We also know that Jesus believed his mission was to "fulfill" the Jewish Law. The Gospels are full of his rhetorical debates with the Pharisaic party, with whom he disagreed vehemently. While they stressed holiness and separateness, Jesus' mission was deeply inclusive. He was particularly concerned about the plight of the poor, the crippled, and the sick who were, effectively, shut out of the then-dominant Jewish rituals.

The true meaning of the imagery of Jesus as "our Paschal lamb" or "ultimate sacrifice" cannot be understood without understanding his own Jewish identity, and the rituals of Second Temple Judaism. These rituals, and the metaphorical language surrounding them, are immensely important to the early witnesses to Christ -- the four Evangelists and Saint Paul. Too many of us have lost the meaning of the metaphors by, for centuries, forgetting the Jewishness of Jesus, and his early followers.

Saint Paul faced the problem first, in his ministry to the Gentiles. The Gentiles were, by definition, excluded from the Jewish rituals of atonement and purification -- by offering sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. Later, the Evangelists had to come to terms with the great Jewish catastrophe -- the destruction of the Temple itself, and the permanent end to the rituals of sacrifice.

And so Jesus, who did indeed "die to save others" becomes the "ultimate sacrifice". No further atonement through sacrifice was necessary; indeed, none was even possible, for there was no longer a sacred mountain upon which to offer sacrifice!

Jesus and his followers created an alternative to the sacrificial system. It was based, first of all, on fellowship, and particularly fellowship of the table, which very soon became ritualized. Such fellowship was by definition inclusive rather than exclusive, and communal rather than separate.

The second, and to my opinion the greatest of Jesus' legacies is the concept of what I call "mutuality". Because God loves us, we are called to love one another; and because God forgives us, we are called to forgive one another. The corollary is also true: how can we expect God to forgive us unless we forgive one another?

This was Jesus' great legacy to us; and the mission and the message for which he was willing to sacrifice his life. And I have found, over my almost 50 years of life, that I believe this message to be profoundly true. Those who are able to follow this message are truly blessed, full of grace and the inimitable sense of divine Truth. Not all, I might add, are "Christians".

This is not God cast in the image of man, but mankind cast in the image of the Divine.

And so I am able, with confidence, to repeat the phrase of St. John the Evangelist that "I [Jesus] am the way the truth and the life; no one comes to God except by me" (or, in other words, except through the way the truth and the life.)

And so, as a follower of Jesus, I can heartily proclaim, with confidence, that "the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as a father's only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace."

Not factual, perhaps. But Truth. And certainly not "absurd".

Ron Chaplin
Ottawa, Canada


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