So What's the Point?

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In the comments of my previous posting, the following question arose: if Jesus was not literally and physically resurrected from the dead, "what is the point of it all?" Ruth, in particular, went on to say,

My gateway to God is through Jesus (I recently concluded that Jesus' life, death and resurrection (and very little else) provide me with the evidence I need to believe in God - without that, I struggle to believe).

You believe in God though - so I'd be interested to know what makes you believe?
I think this is an important and interesting question. I don't wish to take from anyone else their gateway to God. Each of us comes to believe in God for different reasons. I can offer my reasons, with the understanding that mine aren't necessarily the same as everyone else's.

Sometimes we come to rely on those initial reasons that draw us to God. There is then an implication: if the reason is taken away, then will faith in God then have no point to it? Or can faith in God survive a shock to its system?

What makes me believe in God? Here's an honest answer: I don't entirely know. I just do. As a partial answer, I can give a few reasons, some of them dry and philosophical, and some of the spiritual. To me, the existence of God just makes sense--intellectually, philosophically, and spiritually. I believe that our finite universe requires an infinite Creator to sustain it. I believe in a presence, a comforter, a guide who serves as an infinite, loving, deeper Reality. This belief is not dependent on any historical events that may or may not have taken place--not on anyone having been resurrected, for example; and it is not dependent on my having an afterlife. For me, belief in God is about my relationship with God in this life, and how it defines and guides my relationship with the world.

One of the most important things that draws me to God is the sense of something Transcendent that I feel calling out to me. This transcendent reality is not something that I, as a finite human, can define, but I feel it nonetheless; so I choose to call this reality God and to relate it in some way to the human religious experience. I know that this pull towards the Transcendent is there because I find myself uplifted in curious and yet recognizable ways when I point myself in that direction. It is a pull I cannot deny. Cynics and atheists might dismiss this as pure fantasy or the workings of my brain chemistry or something meaningless and lacking in objectivity. So be it. I don't really care how others might choose to characterize it. I just recognize the phenomenon and try to act on it accordingly.

Sometimes, some Christian preachers and theologians will argue that if Jesus was not the Son of God who was raised from the dead for our sins, then there is no reason to be a follower of Jesus--that one might as well just follow anyone else: Gandhi, Marx, whomever. I never understood the logic of this argument. Followers of Buddha, for example don't have to believe that the Buddha was raised from the dead in order to follow him--to see the value of his message and his life. The value of great religious figures is often simply in what they disclose and in how they show the way for others to follow.

Jesus was, I believe, a unique teacher with a unique message, in his case within the Jewish monotheistic religious tradition; but it is a message which has broken free of its cultural origins--because of what I believe to be its universal resonance. His message, if you strip away the accumulated layers of Christology that developed around him in the decades and centuries after his death, was startling. He preached and lived a life of universal inclusion and radical love; he showed how one can live in an intimate relationship with God; he challenged the traditional social order, favoring those in the lowest rungs of society; he disclosed the in-breaking Kingdom of God that he saw as being all around us and within us; he led a life of nonviolent resistance to an Empire and those religious leaders who accommodated themselves to it--and lived true to that message so completely that he gave his life for it.

What's the point of believing in God if Jesus was not literally, physically, resurrected from the dead? For me, that turns the question around. The question seems to start with Jesus and then work its way to God. I start with the existence of God, and then work backwards to Jesus.

I think furthermore that even without a physical resurrection, there was something about Jesus and his message that led his followers to believe, after he died, that he was still with them, in spirit if not in body. The visions that they had of his continuing presence pointed to the hope that he left behind. He was someone who disclosed incredibly well in his life the Divine spirit that is available to us, and gave his life to it so fully that he ultimately sacrificed his life. The message of hope is that all of us can also catch a glimpse of that divine reality. All of us can work to build the Kingdom of God.

What's the point of believing in God? How have millions of non-Christian monotheists in the history of the world answered that question? How did Jews answer that question in the Old Testament era? Long before Jesus was born, his Jewish ancestors believed in God without worshiping a yet-to-be-born and yet-to-be-resurrected man from Galilee. The afterlife itself was a late development in Jewish thought that emerged in a period of persecution and martyrdom. Even in Jesus's time, not all Jews believed, as the Pharisees did, in an afterlife. As you read the long trajectory of writings that make up the Hebrew Bible, you can see how theologies evolved and competed with one another within the Jewish tradition. Was God the tribal deity of the Jewish people, or was he a universal God of all people? Did God reward the just and punish the unjust in this life? Or was it the case, as the author of Ecclesiastes put it, that "all is vanity"? Or, as many Jews (like the Pharisees) in the centuries immediately preceding the birth of Jesus came to believe, did God reward us in the next life?

The theologies changed; people came to view God and their religion in different ways. And yet the Transcendent reality that the Bible pointed to still remained a reality for many different people, for different reasons.

I can't tell anyone else what the point is, if you don't believe that Jesus was literally and physically resurrected from the dead, in believing in God, or in identifying with the Jesus tradition within a broader spectrum of monotheism. All I can do is speak for myself. I identify with the Christian tradition in the broadest sense--not with the orthodoxy, to be sure, but with the overall traditions of a universal monotheistic conception of God as pointed to by Jesus. My reasons for attaching myself to Christianity may not be entirely logical--I admit that I am a product of Western tradition and my own personal upbringing. But I say, "so what"? I think that we as finite beings can only relate to the Transcendent through filters that are available to us in our limited human ways. As a religious pluralist, I accept that others can relate to this Ultimate reality in other ways, and that's okay. I take what I can work with, what makes sense to me, and I go from there.

And that's why I believe in God, and that's why I stay within the Christian tradition--even if I hover on the edge of it.

8 comments:

JP Manzi said...

Good stuff.

I appreciate you sharing this. It really resonated with me.

Randuwa said...

You have articulated the simple and mystical truth that is Christian faith. It's a choice. Evidence leans toward it's logic, but in the end it's simple a choice that cannot be defended by facts alone...i.e. It's about faith.

As such, how much more generously should others be engaged?

quakerboy said...

Awesome blog! And thanks for your words on "the other blog" :-).

You live in our favorite city I see! Are you active in the UU Church there? Beautiful building. My other half and I have attended services there while on vacation. Last year we attended San Francisco Friends Meeting as we knew some of the members there and needed to visit with them.

By the way, my partner speaks at some of the older historic Universalist Churches here in the Carolinas. I jokingly refer to him as my favorite heirling.

Would love to hear from you...shoot me an email some time...nclotus at triad.rr.com.

God's peace,
Craig

Mystical Seeker said...

Hi Craig,

I've tried out the UU church and the SF Friends meeting here in SF, but I am not active in either. I am sort of a nomad at this point. :)

Ruth said...

That is a brilliant explanation. (You are a very talented writer and thinker).

I sometimes feel that maybe I'm looking too hard for God and that I should just sit still and allow him to find me, or something.

And randuwa hits the nail on the head when he says that it's ultimately "a choice". I have read a lot in order to try to convince myself that there is a God, but at the end of the day no-one can actually convince you of it - you have to choose what you believe.

I suppose I'm an agnostic. I have days when I believe in God and days when I question it. And here's a thing. When I do believe in God, I find it hard not to blame him when things go wrong. Isn't that awful? It's easier, in a sense, when I don't believe in God because then I have no-one to blame for the sudden rain, the tree branch that falls on the shed, the sudden death of a loved one....

And when I don't believe in God, I trace everything to nature. So we are born (and we understand the biological processes that cause that to happen and that make us how we are) and we die - whereupon we go into the earth to feed the next generation. Whatever happens between birth and death is down to 'nature'. It rains because meteological conditions are such that it rains. Heart disease happens because of what we eat, and how we exercise. Tsunamis and earthquakes occur because of plate tectonics. And there are processes that we can't explain. But just because we can't explain something doesn't mean that the explanation lies with God.

I don't know - maybe God's right in front of my very eyes, and I can't see him for looking!

I do love your post though and I will reflect upon it.

Mystical Seeker said...

Ruth, I don't think it is a crime to be an agnostic. Having doubts about the existence or nature of God is, in my view, perfectly natural. I don't know how anyone can go through life insisting with full confidence that that God exists without ever having any doubts about that. I suppose some do have that kind of supreme and unshakable confidence, but that is no reason for to kick yourself because you don't go through life that way yourself. I think that perhaps our fears of a judgmental God lead us to impose these unnecessarily high standards on what our faith should be like.

But I do think that looking to God as the direct cause of every event and natural phenomenon that happens in our lives is not necessarily the most productive way to finding God. Again, in my view, faith isn't about explaining nature or believing in a figure in the sky who intervenes in the world. I just see that as a dead end. To me, faith is strongest when it is about seeking out the depths of being, about infinite purpose, about there being something greater that our finite lives.

Anyway, that's the way I look at it. But hopefully you can find a way of making sense of what you believe in and don't believe that works for you.

Sarah said...

Wow, that was amazing. It is almost exactly what I would say if I were trying to explain my faith in God. Thank you for writing that all out.

Cliff said...

Words full of truth that touches the heart and mind of honest seekers. You really are a gifted writer. I will be back.