What’s in Religion for Me?

Don: We might answer the question in the topic in one of at least three ways:

  1. My religion is holy and true. By believing and practicing it, I have my best chance for Heaven, since Heaven is reserved for people of my faith, God is what I am, and God expects me to follow this way.
  2. My religion is holy and true to me. By believing and practicing it, I feel fulfilled and satisfied. In addition, I believe that my religion has a special message from God and I want to be part of that message. I don’t know who will be in Heaven but I feel that what I do here on Earth matters to God and will give me my best chance for Heaven.
  3. My religion is that of my culture or of my conversion. By practicing it, I keep closer to my community. Indeed, much of my community is defined by my beliefs. I believe that God has many sheep of many different folds, but what I practice works for me. I want to be good because I think that God would be pleased with that, but ultimately I rely on God’s grace as the sure way to salvation.

Why do Moslems pray five times a day? Why do Catholics believe that the wine and wafer of communion become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ? Why do Seventh Day Adventists go to church on Saturday? Why do Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse blood transfusions? Why do the Amish shun automobiles? Why do Mormons baptize other members on behalf of the dead?

Such unique beliefs have major impacts on the lives and lifestyle of those who follow them. Why do we hold and follow such beliefs? What doctrinal beliefs and practices are essential for salvation? Are some essential and others optional? Do some matter more than others? Do they all matter? Do none matter? What is eternal and salvific? What is simply directional? Which are doctrines of God, and which are doctrines of Man?

Doctrines of different faith groups have resulted in wars and unspeakable violence. There may be less physical violence today but doctrinal wars within and between churches and religions persist verbally. Everyone—even those who recognize grace as the route to salvation—clings to doctrine as though salvation depends on it. Contradiction and inconsistency within doctrines are not uncommon. We preach grace through faith yet defend our practices as essential to salvation. We argue that our beliefs should influence behavior yet do not change our own behaviors accordingly.

A Pew survey asked Christians to rank the top behavioral essentials of their religion: only 35% thought that attending church was one of them, 32% that keeping one’s temper was one, only 28% were for helping out their congregation, 26% for dressing modestly, 22% for working to protect the environment, 18% for living a healthy lifestyle and for resting on the Sabbath, and a scant 14% for buying only from companies that pay a fair wage to employees.

The apostle Paul wrote:

Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth. But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, men who have gone astray from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place, and they upset the faith of some. Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.” Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:14-26) …[F]rom childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:15-17)

What influence do beliefs have on practice, on way of life? What influence should we expect them to have?

Robin: Perhaps some of us take each of the three approaches to doctrine that Don outlined at the beginning, as we mature in our faith. We begin by thinking we need to earn our way to Heaven, and end by accepting grace.

David: I would put in a word for the SBNRs (the Spiritual But Not Religious) and I would put Job, Jonah, and Jacob in this category. God sent Jonah—ostensibly His prophet—on a mission of salvation to the Ninevites, yet Jonah did everything he could to get out of the mission and was himself clearly unsalvageable by any means other than grace. In the Scriptural accounts of their lives I see nothing religious about the three Js but a great deal that is spiritual.

Donald: We tend to confuse the words religion, belief, and doctrine. I think we need to distinguish much more carefully among them. It seems to me dangerous to conflate the terms. A person without religion may be saved, but what about a person without belief in God? With faith in institutions in general decline, we seem more disposed to write religion off while allowing belief to prevail. But if we put religion and belief in the same basket, we put both at risk by suggesting that you cannot be SBNR—you cannot say you believe if you lack religion. I was born into the Seventh Day Adventist church, so I cannot put myself in the shoes of people who were not.

Mikiko: The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that…

…you can distinguish true religion from false by its fruits, or by these identifying features.
1. True religion teaches the truth that is based on the Bible, not on human philosophies. (John 4:24; 17:17) This includes religious truths about the soul and the hope of everlasting life on a paradise earth. (Psalm 37:29; Isaiah 35:5, 6; Ezekiel 18:4) It also does not hold back from exposing religious falsehood.—Matthew 15:9; 23:27, 28.
2. True religion helps people to know God, including teaching them his name, Jehovah. (Psalm 83:18; Isaiah 42:8; John 17:3, 6) It does not teach that he is incomprehensible or aloof; rather, it teaches that he wants us to have a relationship with him.—James 4:8.
3. True religion highlights Jesus Christ as the one through whom God grants salvation. (Acts 4:10, 12) Its members obey Jesus’ commands and strive to follow his example.—John 13:15; 15:14.
4. True religion focuses on God’s Kingdom as mankind’s only hope. Its members actively tell others about that Kingdom.—Matthew 10:7; 24:14.
5. True religion promotes unselfish love. (John 13:35) It teaches respect for all ethnic groups and welcomes people from all races, cultures, languages, and backgrounds. (Acts 10:34, 35) Moved by love, its members do not go to war.—Micah 4:3; 1 John 3:11, 12.
6. True religion has no paid clergy, and it does not give high-sounding religious titles to any of its members.—Matthew 23:8-12; 1 Peter 5:2, 3.
7. True religion is completely neutral in political affairs. (John 17:16; 18:36) However, its members respect and obey the government where they live, in harmony with the Bible’s command: “Pay back Caesar’s things to Caesar [representing the civil authority], but God’s things to God.”—Mark 12:17; Romans 13:1, 2.
8. True religion is a way of life, not just a ritual or a formality. Its members adhere to the Bible’s high moral standards in all aspects of life. (Ephesians 5:3-5; 1 John 3:18) Rather than being grim, though, they find joy in worshipping “the happy God.”—1 Timothy 1:11.
9. Those who practice true religion will be in the minority. (Matthew 7:13, 14) Members of the true religion are often looked down on, ridiculed, and persecuted for doing God’s will.—Matthew 5:10-12.

David: This says that “True religion teaches the truth that is based on the Bible, not on human philosophies.” But, for me, religion breaks down precisely because the Bible (and other Scriptures) are so full of inconsistencies—they do not hold a coherent intellectual philosophy. But at least one thing religion can do, that philosophy cannot do, is to build cathedrals, temples, and mosques that inspire a “sense” of divine presence.

But a “sense” in this context is not a physical nor (I would argue) a psychological state; but, rather, a spiritual state. So religion does something for me in motivating people to build seemingly divine edifices, but what that “something” is spiritual and therefore inexplicable in principle.

Robin: Is there not intellectual philosophy in the parables?

David: To me, the parable of the Good Samaritan does not make an intellectual argument for being good to one’s fellow Wo/Man. It is irrational to interrupt your important trip to Jerusalem because of someone else’s misfortune. But for me (and I suspect for most—though not all—people) the parable destroys the rational, intellectual case for doing nothing in the same way that the cathedral destroys the rational, intellectual case for atheism. The parable and the temple both give a sense of a divine presence (I think they awaken it in the visitor) and it is that “sense” that throws intellect out of the window. The intellect doesn’t apply here.

Robin: I see intellectual cleverness in the way Jesus presents the moral argument through parable. It doesn’t take much thought to understand them.

David: It takes no thought at all. In fact, thought could kill the moral argument for some. How many of us can stand to think too long about turning the other cheek and then actually turn it when the time comes? We grasp the moral argument in the parables and teachings of Jesus through something other than the intellect, and to me that something is the (inner) spirit.

Robin: Does Jesus shut down the intellect, or does He redirect it to where it has always been intended for it to be?

David: Perhaps it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it works!

Donald: A civil discussion about spirituality involving multiple perspectives seems to me much more stimulating and rewarding than the more common gathering of like minds. Maintaining civility is the problem in the former. The latter is more comfortable, and comfort seems highly desirable to us.

Don: Why do we cling so tightly to our views even at the risk of incivility and far worse? Why are our passions and hostility inflamed when our views are challenged? What drives us to extreme levels of involvement and commitment to an idea?

Kiran: Is it community, born of proximity in place and mind, that drives us? This class can be difficult to join because it makes people uncomfortable. Even in a large like-minded group such as a church (or indeed even in a different denomination) one may find subgroups with which one identifies particularly strongly. I don’t know what drives that identity, but it is not doctrine. Perhaps we have the same inner light.

Dewan: When Jesus Christ lived on Earth there was no Christian religion. I come to church on the Sabbath because the Sabbath is a sign of the Creation and I wish therefore to celebrate it. Salvation is not a matter of denomination. Jesus came to save everyone, not just Christians. He told the disciples to go and preach to the world. His message is for everyone.

Don: I’m hearing a lot of accommodation with other points of view today. What happened to a good old war to establish ours as the dominant viewpoint?

Michael: The world does seem to be progressing morally; that is, people generally are more open-minded and accepting even of things they don’t agree with. The new immorality is to not accept others with their different viewpoints. It serves a good purpose if it prevents war.

Robin: So people have to learn not to be judgmental.

David: I agree very much with Michael and with Dewan. In essence, they seem to me to suggest that a world that believes in Christ, yet is not Christian, is not just possible but is actually developing. The willingness to accept others is as Christ-like as it gets, but it doesn’t matter whether we recognize the name “Jesus” or “Christ” because all humans inherently recognize the truths He spoke and the life He led as the moral Way forward—including His inclusion of Samaritans and other “outsiders” as fellow human beings sharing a oneness with God that transcends doctrine and religion. As we begin to transcend religion, the key (it seems to me) is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater—not to throw out the universal moral principles.

Donald: Civil discourse is stimulating, but on the other hand, it forces us to re-examine our truths. Americans may be coming to accept that more or less “anything goes”, but others around the world are uncomfortable with what they may see as the new “American way”. What are our truths—where are the edges?

Don: The boundaries are blurring, the lanes are starting to merge. It is exhilarating to the progressive, who sees moral advance; but may be deeply distressing to the conservative, who see moral decline.

David: The conservative may see the disappearance of lane markers and consequent moral decline as the prelude to a massive accident on the multilane freeway. In other words, to imminent Armageddon. The end result will be a new Heaven and a new Earth. A progressive like me also sees a new Earth, but one that will arise from accommodation to each other’s driving on a freeway without lanes, rather than a world-ending crash. After all, this happens on a daily basis on the highways of New Delhi!

Kiran: Doctrine has benefits when we are feeling chaotic and life makes no sense, but perhaps it gets in the way after we have emerged from spiritual chaos. The unchanging doctrine that God is gracious is comforting to everyone everywhere.

Michael: But because of the new accommodation of different views, white supremacists can wave the swastika with relative impunity now. Is this a religious issue or a psychological one?

Robin: It serves the human carnal nature to own God, so that we can then have the power to know what is true, what is good, and what is evil, thus making us fit to judge, fit to decide who should live or die—as Christians did in the Crusades. But we stumble over issues such as whether euthanasia is murder. Jesus taught that true power comes from humility, from peace-seeking.

Michael: The need for power and the exercise of violence stem from fear.

Kiran: Is it fear or is it the lust for power that ignites strife? The early Christians died for their beliefs; the later Christians killed for their beliefs.

Don: Why are we afraid? What are we afraid of? Is it losing our salvation? Is it fear of being wrong?

Kiran: Perhaps it is because we just don’t understand the concept of grace.

Robin: We don’t link power with humility. Our carnal nature does not want to submit. It wants to control.

Dewan: Fear of a cruel God is misplaced. He provides, each and every day, food and life for us. He deserves our respect, not our fear, as the Creator and provider of all.

Donald: Churches have been known to split down the middle, with those on one side walking away from those on the other. They disagree on what each considers to be an absolute line. If I am right and I disagree with you, does that mean that you are wrong, end of story? Chaos reigns where there is no absolute certainty. We look to the Bible for that certainty, for the lane boundaries.

Don: How irresponsible of God not to give us clear directions! What kind of God responds to a simple enough question from Job with 77 questions of His own? Is there an answer there?

David: Science too constantly seeks to find absolutes and ultimate truths, and it advances through much competition between scientists and their theories. Yet they seldom come to blows, and never (to my knowledge) go to real war over a scientific disagreement. Why can’t religion be like that?

Don: It seems that in religion, we would rather be wrong than uncertain. We would rather make up an absolute, however manifestly incorrect, than not have an absolute at all.

David: Yet, in science, we would rather be uncertain than wrong. We speak out of both sides of our mouth!

Kiran: We have confidence that science will get to the absolute truth eventually, because we control science. In religion, we lack that confidence because we are not in control.

Donald: I prefer my doctors to be arrogant—to know what is wrong with me and tell me what to do.

Don: If I were to say to a patient: “I haven’t a clue what’s wrong with you,” he or she would not remain my patient very long! Similarly, though, we want our clergy to be quite sure they know who God is and what God wants of us.

Dewan:

“Because they hated knowledge
And did not choose the fear of the Lord.
“They would not accept my counsel,
They spurned all my reproof.
“So they shall eat of the fruit of their own way
And be satiated with their own devices.” (Proverbs 1:29-31)

Don: I am beginning to see doctrine as playing an important role in some but not all stages of faith. In some it is an elective, in others it has a defining value. But it seems to me that too much emphasis on doctrine diminishes the idea of salvation through grace, and that religions generally and antithetically emphasize doctrine over grace, despite their recognition of its salvific power.

It leads us to the question: What is the role of obedience in the life of the spiritual person?

Michael: Doctrine is partly community-building.

Don: Absolutely. The Amish built and preserve their community through doctrine and culture. If that is the value of doctrine, should not all our religions reflect that value, rather than try to value doctrine above grace?


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