The other day I had breakfast with Paul. Paul and I went to Westmont College, an evangelical Christian school in Santa Barbara. I hadn’t seen Paul in years, and we had a fair amount of catching up to do.
As we discussed alternate understandings of Christianity—ideas we had encountered and wrestled with in books and conversations—I explained that leaving the Church and leaving Christianity had been, for me, the only logical step, as I had finally “run out of metaphors.” Here’s an example.
I’d grown up with the teaching that Jesus’ death on the cross was salvific; that it saved believers from an eternity of suffering in hell.
As a child, I felt the unfairness of this teaching. What kind of “loving” God was this? People born before Jesus were condemned to hell? People who hadn’t heard the story of Jesus? Adults explained that that was how it was, and that was why it was so important to spread the “good news” of Jesus to everyone in the world. I was unsatisfied.
The next step for me was what is known as “Universal Salvation,” the teaching that Jesus saves all people in all places at all times regardless of their belief system. It is a kinder and gentler view of salvation. Universal Salvation was probably the first step I took in trying to change one of the religious metaphors I’d grown up with.
However, even Universal Salvation has this fatal flaw. It describes a Loving God who loves the world so much that this God would send his only child to die.
If you read an article about a father who had killed their own child, your first reaction would be that this father was mentally ill. You wouldn’t think that this father must have had a good reason to kill their own child, that this father must have been full of love. I kept thinking about a passage in the book of Luke, where Jesus taught that God was so much better to his children than human fathers were to their children. How could Christianity have as one of the central events it celebrates the death of a child as planned by their own father?
Eventually, I got around to contemplating this question. Who says that God is remote and unapproachable anyway? This felt like a belief held over from ancient times, when God was thought to reside in a volcano, or on the top of a mountain, or in the Holy of Holies, or in The Emerald City. What if approaching God was easy? What if God was always very close? What if the central problem of the Christian tradition was with the metaphor of God as distant and unapproachable?
Next comes this interesting notion. To paraphrase The Princess Bride, the word Salvation doesn’t mean what you think it means. Salvation means healing. You can hear the word used in salves—ointments that are claimed to have healing properties. The word Salvation—and the word Savior, for that matter—were words used to describe the Roman Emperor. The emperor would travel through Rome, and people would call out to him for salvation. The emperor would respond by tossing coins, a kind of salvation, to the people.
Much of the beginning of Christianity seems to have been a pitting of Jesus against the Roman Emperor. “Our emperor (Jesus) is better than your emperor,” the early Christians seemed to be claiming. And so the crucified Jesus found himself cast as a king, as an emperor, as a ruler who could bestow salvation on those who called out to him.
Where do you go after that? That’s what this blog is about. How do you live a happier, more peaceful, more fulfilling life? How do you live a more honest life? How do you learn to listen to the world around you, and how do you learn to listen to yourself? How do you figure out what of everything you’ve been taught can be brought with you into your future, and what needs to be set aside?