Sunday, October 12, 2008



Christian churches frighten me for many reasons because they are human institutions. As a cynic, I have deep suspicions about most human motives, and because churches are human organizations, I am suspicious of them. Human institutions--like human beings themselves--are imperfect. They are subject to all the vice and selfishness that worldly life engenders. Many religious principles, on the other hand, are pure abstractions. They exist wholly apart from everyday human weakness. They are ideas. Human beings embrace ideas, but they are beholden to so many other pressures that ideas typically fade into insignificance. "Great men" hold to their ideas and principles more than the average man. The average man simply answers his circumstances so as best to avoid bodily or mental discomfort. While that may lead to an easy life, there is nothing exciting about it. It is forgettable. To cope in this world, you have to be "flexible." That means you have to be willing to abandon aspirations, ideas and principles when it is necessary to maintain your comfort level. "Great men" refuse to do this, and they suffer for it. They may not lead comfortable lives, but they are not forgotten.

Jesus Christ was a "great man" from a historical perspective. Whether we believe he is the Son of God is irrelevant on this point. His ideas and principles have shaped Western civilization for millennia. And--textually speaking--his ideas and principles are remarkably attractive. Jesus believed in universal love, tolerance and respect for every individual. He preached in the value of human dignity in all circumstances. He believed that mankind was inherently good and could achieve salvation through faith. He believed that God loved every individual equally and that worldly society was unjust (ie, "My Kingdom is not of this world."). He taught his followers to eschew violence by "loving their enemies" and "turning the other cheek." Thematically, these are beautiful abstractions. They are pure principles, and according to the New Testament, Jesus died for them. He refused to be "flexible." He did not "sell" his beliefs in order to avoid bodily discomfort.

More to the point, Jesus assumed bodily suffering in order to save humanity, including people who killed him. He was willing to give his own blood to guarantee a better life for everyone else. Again, these are noble, beautiful sentiments. Unadulterated selflessness rarely appears in our modern world, and that is why Jesus' sacrifice seems so incredible to us. After all, who among us today would yield his bodily comfort to save a stranger? Indeed, who among us would even be willing to lose money to save another? As a cynic, I am tempted to say that no one would do this. People may give their lives to save loved ones (soldiers regularly die to save their comrades in battle; parents may die to save their children), but I wonder whether a person today would yield his life to save a stranger.

As a general matter, I am a secularist. I believe that reason and human sense can answer many practical questions about human existence. But I am fully aware that there are innumerable questions that human sense cannot verify. I cannot verify with my senses, for example, whether God exists. By the same token, I cannot verify with my senses whether God does not exist. That is not a subject for my knowledge or my reason. So I recognize the limits of my intellectual capacity. I trust science no more than religion in that regard. Science, like religion, aims to construct "truth." The difference lies in the means by which they arrive at truth. For science, sense and observation provide the answers. For religion, faith and belief attempt to answer the question. For both, there are questions that cannot be answered.

I have great respect for Christ's core principles. I sincerely wish that all men would love their neighbors as they love themselves. I sincerely wish that men would practice charity and compassion toward one another. I wish that men would consider others rather than themselves in their ruthless quest for gain. These are beautiful sentiments. But this world does not observe them. Even so-called Christians do not observe them because churches warp Christ's original principles with human-created doctrine. If Christians truly followed Christ, there would have been no crusades, nor would there have been slavery or war. There would be no persecution or racism, because all men are equal in God's eyes, and God loves all equally. Yet crusades, war, slavery, racism, imperialism, intolerance, genocide and persecution have routinely occurred since Western civilization "embraced Christ." In fact, many of these atrocities happened in the name of Christ! I blame the church for imposing human weakness on pure Christian ideals. Churches are human institutions, and the average human cannot hold to pure principles. Churches mix Christian ideals with human "flexibility." And that mixture has led to the religiously-flavored barbarism we have witnessed over the past 2000 years.

Who really follows Christ today? Ironically, many Americans consider themselves devout Christians, yet patently contradict Christ's core teachings. They profess Christian love, yet embrace inequality. They profess respect for all life, yet willingly put criminals to death. I think they simply like hearing about Christian love, without ever really intending to practice it. It just gives them a nice, fuzzy feeling before they go back into the marketplace to ruthlessly advance their own interests over all others. Americans do not love their enemies or turn the other cheek; they crush their competitors, make a profit and relish the fact that they are better than their neighbors. Put another way, Christian ideals are all well and good, but "you can't do that stuff in the real world." That is not faith. That is surrender.

Americans zealously uphold practical inequality. The quest to outdo their neighbors motivates their behavior, and that means winning at all costs. They want to win at school, win at work, win in marriage, and even win in sports. By winning, they distinguish themselves from their neighbors. But if God loves every man equally, what does that distinction really mean? Why invest so much energy into the quest for inequality if it means nothing in the end? Obviously Christian principles have no place in this "life competition." They are fundamentally inconsistent with each other.

Would an American today be willing to sacrifice himself to save a stranger's life? Perhaps that is asking too much. Let us rather hypothesize: Would an American today be willing to sacrifice his standard of living, money, property and job for the guarantee that 5 strangers would escape poverty forever? In other words, could an American be a FINANCIAL CHRIST? Would an American have the selfless dedication to give up his life savings and property for the certain knowledge that he rescued 5 strangers from ruin? What if we assured the Financial Christ that he could recover his property after sacrificing it? Would that make the sacrifice more attractive? Or would a true Financial Christ sacrifice his property without any hope of future benefit or security? After all, Jesus Christ died willingly to save a world of strangers without any hope or expectation of earthly reward. Would anyone today be willing to make an even smaller sacrifice, even with assurances?

If we answer "no," what does it say about our values? What does it say about our priorities in life? Perhaps there are those in our society who may be willing to sacrifice their money and property to save 5 strangers from poverty, but only if they were contractually assured they would get their money back AND that there was no fraud afoot. Perhaps that response would better indicate our values: A suspicious, guilty, halting desire to help others, so long as we can be assured that we will not suffer in the long-term. Is that truly Christian? Is that even a sacrifice?

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