Sunday, November 16, 2008

Considering Christianity (John 3:16-17)

Welcome to Official Bible Verse of the National Football League, John 3:16. And its much more reclusive brother, John 3:17.

After studying a little about other religions of the world, we come to our own and see if what we learned affected what we understand about it. We learned the world’s major religions hold a couple of ideas in common, and I imagine several of the less-major ones do as well.

Two factors seem to feed into what people of faith believe. One is that there’s something more than this life on earth and what we see in front of us everyday. Different people take that further than others, of course. One person might believe that everything around us has some kind of supernatural dimension or impact. They believe that the divine being is intricately involved in every process that goes on in the world and has a direct impact on it, from an electron’s spin to a jetliner’s landing. Another person might see that divine being as caring about people and how they act and such, but not really in the business of tinkering with the working parts.

People all along this spectrum, though, accept the idea that there’s something more than just us.

Christians see that as well. We believe in a God who made the universe and everything it contains. We don’t all agree on what recipe book he got his plan out of, whether it was the How to Make a World From Scratch in Six Days or Less or the How to Start This Party With a Really, Really Big Bang version. But we agree that God made us and, either through active intervention or just through the natural physical processes he put in motion, he sustains us and the universe around us.

Another thing people of faith seem to agree on is that the life and the world around us that we do see may have some beauty and some amazing things in it, but it also has a dirty downside. Some people are poor, but others have more than they need, not to mention deserve. Gazelles are beautiful, graceful and have big soulful eyes, but according to the lions who eat them, they taste just like chicken, and Simba looooves him some chicken. Gravity keeps us from flying away into space along with our air, but it also means that if that jetliner malfunctions before it lands it will fall out of the sky.

Philosophers have several syllables they may use to describe these situations, many of which are unfair and all of which seem to go on without consulting us. Many of us just use two syllables, which I will depict as “Life stinks.” And most of us would go ahead and add “sometimes,” because we know that sometimes life doesn’t stink.

The problem is that this divine being that made everything or at least is somehow beyond this life ought to have the power to deal with the stinky parts of life and make them fragrant. Being divine and all, this being should be able to smooth the hills, straighten the paths and turn Simba vegan.

But none of those things happen. Life goes on, stinky parts included. Some of the faiths we have examined tell us that in order to handle the stinky parts we have to learn how to detach ourselves from our anxieties and concerns about them. Others suggest that we will just have to get used to the idea that the stinky parts are here in this life and we won’t get rid of them until we transfer somehow to the life beyond this one, where we can be with the divine being and life will smell great and we will learn how to help Simba and the gazelle make baskets together.

Maybe we get to be with the divine being by obeying all the rules he laid down for us. Maybe it’s some other way. But we don’t get to be in the divine beings direct presence this side of eternity.

Now, like I mentioned, Christianity shares some of these understandings. We do believe that God made the world. And we believe that the way the world seems to work when we look at it is not what God wanted to see when he started things out. We believe that God is not behind evil done by people to each other and that God does not will evil should be.

And we go one step more. We believe that the same God who made everything that is or ever will be decided to show us how serious he was about his claims that one day, in day beyond time and space, we would be able to be with him where he is.

He came to be with us. In his own mind, he can understand the problems of evil and oppression and tragedy and sadness that go beyond our reason and comprehension. So he knows that even when we see it as pointless, everything happens in its season, even if we’ll never fully grasp that idea. Because he knew we couldn’t take on his point of view, he decided to show us he could take on ours.

Because of the way the world works, God has limited himself. He will not end all suffering and evil yet, and it seems like he isn't going to tell us why. Then again, we wouldn’t understand the reason even if he explained it to us himself. And so he does what no other divine being in religious teaching does – he stands beside us in the midst of the stinky places of life and undergoes them just as we do. Because he is here, we aren’t condemned, like we might worry about when encountering God and knowing how far short of his will we have fallen. No, because he is here, we can be saved.

Which is plenty good enough news for me.

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