I’m not sure to what or to whom I can attribute the version of Christianity I came to understand and embrace. Somehow, I was able to escape the message of intolerance that some people learned. I grew up seeing an unified message of love, humility, and acceptance of others. Religion has been no opiate for me, but rather a challenge to be virtuous. In spite of all of Christianity’s absurdity, I still love it and see it as the source of my moral compass. And perhaps more importantly, it is part of my identity.
I miss the familiarity of my Roman Catholic rituals. I recognize them and understand the mannerisms of the faithful. I can relate to these people. My religion serves as a sort of archive of positive directives. I love the stories of Jesus – of his remarkable beatitudes and parables. I love the ritual and symbolism, the cult of it – the music, the architecture and coloured glass. I love it all, and I want it in my life, and yet, my devotion goes cold when it comes to faith, to the point where I can’t sustain it.
If a person is going to be a Christian, he’s going to have to face the ugly reality that much backward thinking and cruelty have been carried out, not just “in the name of God”, but as Christopher Hitchens pointed out: “by God’s mandate”. If a person accepts that all of the scripture that he subscribes to is divinely inspired, he must accept a god who has not only allowed, but has mandated acts of war, of sexual abuse, of mutilation.
Contextualizing the antisocial behaviour of the faithful as a product of the understandings and realities of their time, does not excuse God, who is eternal. If God’s will is that man behaves in a civil, peaceful, other-centred manner, would he not have made that will more obvious before the 4th millennium BCE? How can we take the characterization of a benevolent God seriously if we believe literally the stories of the Old Testament? This paradox is a problem for Christianity. Often God orders his faithful to participate in acts of cruelty – sometimes reprehensible cruelty.
The claim that such a god is “all good” seems, at best erroneous, bordering on farcical. Really, the behaviour and attitude of the god of Judeo-Christian scripture is very man-like: good hearted for the most part, but petty at times, and capable of cruelty to the point of asking a man to slaughter his only son as an offering, and vindictiveness to the point of being willing to flood the whole earth.
The only way these stories can be thought to represent a loving, compassionate god is if we understnd them to be the creation of man. The story of Abraham’s sacrifice can only be understood to represent a compassionate god in the context of the whole story. The reader understands the compassionate nature of god and the faith mandate when he discovers by the end of the story that God has never intended that Abraham should actually carry out the slaughter of his son. But if the story were literally true, one would have to imagine a god who is capable of orchestrating such a cruel stunt in the first place. Surely no compassionate being would be able to behave in such a way. For this reason, it must be assumed that this story is a mythical creation of the author, and reflects man’s understanding of who God is, and not an actual historic event.
This literal interpretation of something mythical is the biggest problem with Christianity. It allows people to justify their antisocial behaviour and to level judgment on others.Christians are deluded when they point out that the overall message of Christianity is a message of peace and tolerance. In reality the messages are myriad and often paradoxical. Without a predilection for peace and tolerance, Christians can, and often do, participate in all kinds of terrible endeavour.
If we could only embrace the mythology symbolically and try to understand it in a unifying context, then we could better understand and embrace morality, and we could participate in ritual unapologetically in a more aesthetic (and less dogmatic) way. We could try to connect to mysticism without having to learn intolerance.
It is literal interpretation that corrupts religion. For example, if we must believe the most central premise of Christian faith: that Christ is the incarnation of God born of a virgin, then we have to accept the embedded misogynistic corollary that female purity is connected to virginity. On the other hand, knowing that the incarnation story is a mythology forged in the (mis)understandings of its time (and one that has been repeated in many different mythologies), one can examine the story holistically in terms of its philosophical implications about redemption. Ironically, without the faith imperative, one can examine spirituality in a purer way.