Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Mystery of Christ (or Happy Easter!)

This is going to be my first go on this blog talking about Christianity. I think it's going to turn out a little weird, but a lot of media and thoughts are converging for me today and I felt compelled to write them down. Since this blog is mainly fueled by compulsion, here I am!

Today is Easter. I am not a traditiony person...holidays and traditions hold very little emotional sway over me. That being said, there is a strong case for some of the things that traditions can do:

- Remind one of worldviews or values
- Create unity and community
- Evoke positive memories

For me the first one comes closest to true and effective. As I've discovered practices like yoga and meditation, as I've sought a more objective view of religion, I've seen "practice" as an effective conditioning action to help the brain toward something good. This is supported in the research, I've been pointed to the work of Andrew Newberg by my favorite blogger, Mike McHargue. So regardless of where you came from religiously, taking part in religious practices (like any training) works to condition your brain to something, in the case of religion some sort of higher truth. Interestingly when I did introduce yoga into my life, I was not impressed by it's hippy dippy language, and convinced myself in advance that the only purpose for that was to get one to stretch better and that would be good for my tight joints. It turns out I found more indefinable truth there...but more on that later. The point is that doing things helps your brain think things. That being established, let's circle back to Christianity.

I have been a Christian all my life. I grew up with a pretty standard WASP lifestyle. White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. My family attended the United Methodist Church regularly. My parents sat on committees, I went to Sunday School. I participated in all manner of music, including, of course, handbells. What was the benefit of all of this at that time? I'm not really sure...I was far, far less self analytical at that time, I just kind of meandered through life (I do, after all, have ADHD). There is a lot to be said for tribal psychology. There is so much research on this recently that I don't even know what to point to, just google it and enjoy sifting through the mountain of results. We want to do what the group does, it's how we evolved, it feels good and right most of the time. If anything good came from my participation in the WASP lifestyle, it was doing what we do, thinking what we think. That's not to say that I gained nothing from Christian Ideology. Throughout college and the years following it my religious involvement changed around a lot, but mainly stayed in an evengelical/protestant tradition, that story deserves it's own post so I won't spend time on it here. In any case here is the elevator pitch of how I view Christianity right now, and why I have maintained throughout my life (especially recently) that it is, at it's core, a good thing:

The Nation of Israel formed it's tumultuous history around a Deity that was held as creating and sustaining the universe*, though vast and complex, his character and command centered around a love that can justify one's self and be extended to others. The practices of that religious tradition were imperfect at representing this love. Out of this tradition a Teacher came who was so influential and powerful that he was said to be an incarnation of the Creator*. In his pursuit of a massive paradigm shift of that central love theme, he sacrificed himself to the entrenched religious authority. His character and teaching became the new core of a new religious tradition that split off from the old one.

I will come back to my own religious life, and eventually Easter, but first a few pieces of media that are rolling around in my head this weekend.

One is the TV movie that was broadcast by Fox News and other networks called "Killing Jesus", a historical drama about Jesus' life and death. It's not a great movie, it's a drama, it's not really a work of history academically speaking. It does, however, take a "here's what happened" approach, not a "Jesus is best because Christianity" approach. This kind of interested me as seeing my particular religious tradition more objectively has been part of my recent thoughts on it. My parents moved from the protestantism of the UMC to more evangelical traditions over the past decade or so, and while their worship style is the more modern guitars and bible studies version...they have still dived headfirst into the biblical fundamentalism and fox news that is considered "in-group" for this tradition. My dad was annoyed that the film didn't really represent the darkness, earthquake and ripping of the veil that are part of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion...these events point to the supernatural nature of Jesus. Objectively, the day of darkness and earthquake have been poked around at by historians and geologists and have found some evidence in the records, the veil thing isn't really reported outside the scriptures. It prompted me to wonder if the proof of these things happening is the important thing to take away from the crucifixion, or if radical self-sacrifice being at the core of Christ's character is the most important (spoiler alert, it's the second one)

The second piece of media I checked out this weekend is an article by Guardian science contributor Alex Rutherford called "Why Scientific Truth May Hurt". It points to something that has been a major theme in EVERYTHING I have been exploring lately. Namely that our perception and common sense, while evolutionarily beneficial, can't point us to objective truth. The classic example is the structure of our solar system. The truth of this is incomprehensible based on our observations, and seems almost absurd. Nevertheless, measurements and rigorous unbiased testing lead us to the truth, which was eventually observed when we finally escaped our gravity and atmosphere. Climate change, vaccination, evolution, the benefits of meditation (as opposed to a hokey foreign inviter of evil spirits) are all things that can be defined objectively by research, and are frequently misunderstood by our individual experiences.

Politics are not really my game...actually I BARELY understand them. But as I've explored climate change, the political representations of it are unavoidable, and one thing I've noticed, and then seen in other topics, is that conservative thought and communication relies on "common sense" to validate its claims...which really appeals to someone with less education in critical thinking, someone who's life revolves around the community and the family. Please, please don't take that as any criticism of those values, of a non-intellectual lifestyle or career. Those are not bad things. But...the conservative political base is made up of people who form their values on what's right for them and theirs...and common sense works well for that kind of approach. Here is my favorite comment from the Rutherford article.

"It's common sense" is just another way to say "I haven't really thought this through".

Maybe that feels harsh? But I think there's a lot of truth there. Our technology/economy/industry driven world requires a comprehensive understanding of everything we interact with. That comes from critical thinking. None of our tough issues can truly be boiled down into the buzzwordy headline, from either side of the political aisle. Weren't we talking about Easter and religion? I'll come back around.

Following Jesus, to me, means embodying the character of Jesus of Nazareth. Rejection of self, love of others.

That seems to kind of ignore the notion that God is actually a real supernatural being, in fact it ignores any supernaturalness at all. I don't think those aren't real...but defining my religious belief and practice only by it's observable truths is a starting point of finding my way to the supernatural truths. Scientific inquiry and critical thinking can lead us to an accurate construct of reality, but that doesn't automatically disprove the existence of "something more". Some call this the "God of the Gaps" idea...Mike McHargue rightly pointed out in a recent podcast episode that the literal reading of this concept means that God will eventually disappear as more knowledge is gained. So I'm not really trying to espouse specifically that idea. I think (and it's been shown) that good can come from religion, good for me, good for the people I interact with. Jesus is the main lens through which I seek that good.

The idea that He is the only way, truth and life is central to most Christian traditions, and I guess I would say objectively there's no way to prove that. If a Christian takes it as common sense or experience with the good of Christianity...that really comes from their own (limited) perspective. I don't think that either confirms nor denies the overall good of Christianity. I do think that centering all of your energy on the idea that Christianity is the best/only way when you interact with others can only result in either ambivalence or negativity. Which means you've helped that person on the path to missing out on any good that Christianity might bring. I'm ready to talk about Easter (sorry).

Today we celebrate a part of the story of Christ that leaves the historically verifiable territory. Another tentpole of Evangelicalism that my dad loves is the Ken Ham quote that we should insist on calling the narratives from scripture "Bible Accounts", not bible stories. I can't even, and I'll more on that later in a big way.

But the objective truth is that our information about Jesus' existence and interactions after he was executed come solely from eye-witness accounts. There is more historical research than I could quickly pursue on this. In terms of history, we have good account of this happening. In terms of empirical proof, we do not have that. But that is not at all the point...the resurrection is an essential part of talking about Jesus' sacrifice. It sets it apart from Him just being a martyr, but someone who not only made an incredible example of selflessness and love, but embodied it in some higher, metaphysical way.

I think that there are truths to our existence that an empirical understanding won't point to. I think it's possible that the real existence of a God could come from the collective positive effect of the individuals that believe in him and act accordingly. But I'm still that person who doesn't really get revved up about traditions. Today is another day for me. Another day where I continue to think about bettering myself, about seeking knowledge, about being a force for good.

The community I will engage with today will celebrate the possibility of supernatural wonder that comes from the idea of the resurrection of Jesus. The inspiration they take from that will push them to love and serve those around them**.

Wherever empiricism lands...this is ultimately a Good Thing for those who practice, and for those they encounter. Happy Easter!

These two statements come from Mike McHargues own axioms for faith. I'll probably blog about these in the future
** I know this is true for my church group specifically, but even the most judgmental and closed-minded of christians still takes messages of inspiration and love from the resurrection specifically. 

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