Two nights ago, I had a disturbing dream. In it, I told Jesus (I think I was praying in my dream) that I no longer believed in Him. In the dream, I immediately felt guilty and worried that I had rejected my salvation, putting me squarely on the path to hell. When I woke up, I was relieved to find it to only be a dream. However, I couldn't rest too easy, knowing that my dreams were betraying inner thoughts that I had been unwilling to give voice. For me, though, it's really not as simple as saying whether or not I believe in Him.
Though I am having difficulty accepting the Jesus I have been taught at church, I am still reading, thinking, searching. I recently finished Jesus A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan. I referenced this in an earlier post. I will keep my thoughts on it limited as Beck, in his blog, thoroughly and eloquently summarizes and provides commentary on the book here, here, here, and here. Crossan paints a portrait of Jesus that takes in consideration cross-cultural anthropology, Greco-Roman and Jewish History, and the development of the earliest writings about Jesus, both biblical and extra-biblical. The result is a rich and creative reconstruction of Jesus, the person, which provides a deeper understanding of his message and behavior, in light of the times into which he was born. Though the book will likely trouble many Christians in that it does not portray Jesus as deity, but instead, a Jewish Cynic, I found that the portrayal drew me again to the message of Jesus. Crossan described him as a social revolutionary, seeking a balance of power in a culture of oppression and hierarchy. Crossan describes Jesus advocating "open commensality," which literally means "eating together without using table as a miniature map of society's vertical discriminations and lateral separations". What's more, Jesus not only preached this, but lived it out as well, communing with and healing anyone, whether rich or poor, male or female, adult or child, well or diseased. He broke through the hierarchy which disenfranchized others. Jesus' teachings have a significant impact on how we live our day to day life and how we treat others, if we really take them to heart. There are very, very, few who follow them all literally. Too many of us have mortgages and car payments to do that. To follow Jesus is to stand out in a world of hierarchy, materialism, and oppression.
I am less and less inclined to care a great deal over believing correct doctrine or practicing worship rituals correctly and more inclined to care about matters of the heart and how I and others treat each other. Now, that's not to say that there is no overlap or that you can't care about both. I have for years as have many other beautiful, caring Christian friends of mine. It's just that the energy I personally have invested in the former has left me with less room for the latter. It can be easy to regard church attendance as living out Christianity in a way that diminishes our motivation to go out in the community and make a difference in this world.
And sometimes our doctrine gets in the way of living out open commensality. This has frustrated me often and left me jealous of those who aren't inhibited by their doctrine. They just love and help others whenever and however they can. This theme is often depicted in movies, where the Christian character is self righteous and refuses to care for others on the basis of some Christian principle, while the non-Christian goes about their business, merrily helping those who need it and building relationships, thus upstaging and chastening the Christian. A good, but dated example is the movie, Sister Act. In the end, some nuns learn a lesson from a worldly woman (Whoopi Goldberg) who's not afraid to go into the sinful community and care for them where they are, using unorthodox means. When I saw this back in college, I couldn't help but root for the Whoopi Goldberg character (which we are meant to do), though I also couldn't help but sympathize with the nuns who were struggling with this rule breaker. I was jealous because I knew I couldn't help others with abandon the way Whoopi's character could. I knew part of being a Christian meant struggling with how to show love, within the confines of the doctrines of the church. This limitation didn't feel right to my heart, but I knew I couldn't be ruled by my emotions, which would be a selfish, shallow, unprincipled, ooey-gooey way to live my life. Following Christ was not easy or for the faint-hearted. It required disciplined living, and a willingness to follow all the immutable teachings of our God who knew best.
I am coming to believe now that the reason I have had this inner battle is not so much that my emotions were out of alignment with what is right, but that my doctrine was. Why should my feelings of empathy, concern, and caring, as well as a disdain for injustice be ignored if these are God-given attributes that He is suppose to possess as well? Why do we distrust our emotions and intuitions while trusting our intellectual capacity to interpret the Bible accurately, rightly discerning the mind of God? For that matter, why do we go on as if the Bible is the best way to know God? Maybe it is, but to find God we are forced to wade through the inconsistencies, the conflicting themes and values, the conflicting depictions of God, the influence of culture, and the pseudopigrapha included in the sacred text.
It may be that Jesus as depicted in Sunday school may never have existed; however, if we consider his teachings within the context of the 21st century, his life and teachings have relevance for our culture today. We continue to struggle, individually and collectively with loving others, sharing power, empowering the marginalized, and self-sacrifice. It's interesting to ponder what Jesus would actually say to us in America today if he came and preached in a manner that was as radical to our culture as he dared to do 2000 years ago.