Monday, August 06, 2007

Softly killing the faith: Christian conduct and communication

Every Sunday, I wake up conflicted.

Part of me wants to go to church to listen to a sermon, which, with any luck, will enhance my faith and edify my understanding of antiquity, God, the ancient Hebrews and Egyptians, Jesus Christ and his apostles.

Another part of me just wants to stay home, eat breakfast, drink too much coffee and read the newspapers.

More often than not, my wife and I pack up the kids and go to church. We do so because we believe in God and think church is the best place for our children to learn morals and ethics. We also go because sometimes we’re scheduled to teach Sunday school and, often, because we enjoy the sermons.

I find tranquility at church. I’m not sure how it comes about. Maybe it’s God’s way of touching me. I don’t know. All I know is that serenity is a result of my attending church. It doesn’t last long – nothing does with two young boys in tow – but I feel better having attended church.

But there are some very strong reasons I don’t want to go. Most of them have to do with the constant bickering that’s been one of Christianity’s hallmarks over the last 500 years and continues to this very day.

Our congregation fought over and lost members because of Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. The fight’s over. The local parish survived, and it found a new rector, a good man, to replace the one who resigned in protest. But after having experienced that fight, and seeing how vicious people will battle one another in the name of God, my faith has emerged challenged, maybe even dampened, and I cannot help but wonder about the church’s congregation. Will it battle one another again?

Protestants battle Protestants and Catholics battle Catholics. And then there all those fights between the faiths. It makes me wonder, is this what God intended? I have my doubts.

Christianity is a wonderful religion, but its faithful continually show their propensity to enter into vicious, internecine, theological battles. There’s enough drama in my life. The last place I need to experience it is at church.

And, sometimes, that’s what keeps me home on Sunday. I’m more willing to subject myself to catatonic shock from reading The New York Times editorial page than I’m prepared to listen to the tacit politics of the church. It’s not God I distrust. It’s the people who tell me I’m suppose to believe in God. They never measure up.

I’ve met all kinds of Christians. Some give every appearance of being peaceful, reverent and pure. Some of them easily become judgmental, sanctimonious, spiteful and malicious when looking upon other Christians who don’t see God and Jesus the way they do.

I’ve had Christians tell me Jews will not be allowed into Heaven because they fail to accept Jesus Christ as God’s son.

Another man told me, “If you’re going to have religion, you might as well go Catholic.” I always told him he missed his calling. He’d have been perfectly suited for the Spanish Inquisition.

And, most bothersome of all, a member of the local clergy told me that the local clergy don’t talk to one another. “They’re very competitive.”

If the clerics refuse to talk to one another, you have to wonder what kind of example they’re setting for their congregations. For the record, I’m happy to report, our new rector is attempting to reach out and speak with the other local clerics. I wish him the best of success.

This tendency by Christians to battle one another appeared yet again, a few weeks ago, when the Vatican issued a statement saying that other Christian faiths, i.e. those that aren’t in the Roman Catholic fold, have a tenuous connection to God, and therefore to eternal salvation, because, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, they cannot trace the roots of their faith to Jesus Christ.

The Roman Catholic Church, the world’s largest church, with more than a billion faithful, believes it is the one, true Christian church because its founders, the apostles Peter and Paul, walked with Christ.

That line of thinking worked for about 1500 years until Martin Luther came along, posting his 95 grievances against the Roman Church. Among other things, he challenged the Pope’s supremacy over all Christian theological thinking. It’s bound to scripture – not the Pope’s interpretation, he said.

Had cooler heads prevailed in 1541, this divide between the Roman Church and the Protestant faith might have been healed. Protestants and Catholics met in Regensburg, Germany and came close to resolving their differences.

Had the Roman Church conceded four points to the Protestants during this conference, writes the Rev. Thomas Bokenkotter in his book The Concise History of the Catholic Church, there’s a chance, maybe a slim one, that Christianity would be united today.

Protestants insisted that the clergy be allowed to marry; that communion be allowed to be given in both forms, meaning with and without the wine; that there be freedom to “teach the Real Presence (of Jesus Christ) without defining its manners as transubstantiation;” and freedom from papal authority “as distinct from papal primacy.”

Of course, none of these points on face value could be accepted by the Roman Church. They consider their clergy to be alter Christus, another Christ, which prohibits them from marrying. They believe that communion can be fulfilled with just bread; and, as result, during communion, one physically connects with Jesus and, therefore, God, i.e., transubstantiation.

As for papal primacy, part of the rejection by the Roman Church on this point was political. They didn’t want to give up the power.

Consider, for a moment, the many things the two sides agreed upon that outnumbered their disagreements. They agreed in one God, the Holy Trinity, Jesus’ divinity, the virgin birth, the importance of communion and baptism, and the 10 Commandments.

But because the Roman Church refused to yield on those four points, or the two sides failed to find middle ground on those points, the Lutheran faith, which would become the Protestant faith, gained legitimacy; it was legally recognized in Germany in 1555.

Christianity has never been the same since. And it will battle itself for time eternal.

god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is the title of Christopher Hitchens latest book. Yes, the title spells God with a small g – heresy in most religious circles. It’s Hitchens’ attempt to shock us into buying his book.

In his book, Hitchens says he’s an atheist and pans religion. As he sees it, religion is the foundation for dangerous thinking. Indeed, he says, people are intellectually arrested because of religion.

I think Hitchens is wrong. But that’s because I prefer to live in a world with God and attend a church that I know is highly fallible. God and religion give me hope and strength that I’ll meet my challenges and that there are better tomorrows ahead. (Please do not ask me what theology this comes from. I haven’t the slightest idea.)

But grant Hitchens this: He didn’t come to these conclusions entirely through his own intellectual study and experiences. Contributing greatly to his thoughts is the behavior of the faithful. He’s been to Belfast, Beirut and Sarajevo, cities where the religious have killed others – in the name of God. If you’re devout and believe your faith has a lock on God, then you’re contributing to books like his, and you’ve worked against God and your faith.

The Christian Bible says that everyone falls short of God, meaning that none of us, no matter who we are or how hard we try, ever measure up to God’s exacting standards. We’re all sinners. Whether we know it or not.

I’m grateful He’s a forgiving God. I just might make it into Heaven. But, then again, maybe not.

Christianity needs a dose of humility. In other words, all Christians, regardless of the branch of the faith they’ve taken up, would better serve the faith if they considered the possible results of their actions and their words not only to one another but also to others who are Jewish, Muslim or simply believe in God differently than they do.

No church, regardless of its affiliation, has a monopoly on God’s grace and eternal salvation. God is not a Christian, not a Jew, not a Muslim nor does He follow any faith I’ve failed to mention here. God is great. Because He’s great, He can be found in any faith.

I’m not about to condemn anyone for their beliefs. The few Jews I’ve met are more devout than the many Christians I’ve met. I’m not about to condemn the Muslims for their beliefs either. I’m not about to become a Mormon, but I’ll say this on their behalf: The ones I’ve met have been most gracious.

I’m a Protestant. Had it not been for my maternal great grandfather, an Irish immigrant, getting into a knock-down drag-out fight with his priest, I might be Catholic. The two fought tooth and nail, my grandmother reports, and finally, my great-grandfather told the priest he could read the Bible, too, and the rest is history. He joined the Baptist church.

My mother and my father, a Methodist, decided that Presbyterianism was the way to bring up their children. Whether or not this was a true theological middle ground, I have no idea.

I don’t see eye to eye with Catholicism, but I’m in more agreement with the Catholics than some of their more devout members might believe. In fact, truth be told, I enjoy the Catholic Mass, and I’m grateful that my wife and I can experience some of the same Mass in the Episcopal church we joined.

When I think about all these theological debates, I keep coming back to this thought: The answers to these many debates won’t be known until we’re dead. And, then again, maybe not. God’s plans for us once we arrive in the after life might not include sharing all His secrets.

So what to do between now and the time we meet our Maker? I suggest all Christians consider our common humanity, even of those with whom we disagree. All of us want to be accepted, admired, appreciated, loved, liked and respected not only by our friends and family but also by those we’ve never met or with whom we disagree. Christianity will be better served if we keep that in mind. We also need to remember to be diplomatic and understanding when we’re communicating about our faith to others. If we conduct ourselves in this manner, the pews stand a stronger chance of filling up and we just might live in a better world.

Regardless of your faith, may God bless you and hold you, now and forever.


1. My experiences with religion
2. Catholicism Answer Book: The 300 Most Frequently Asked Questions, Rev. John Trigilio, Jr., Ph.D., and Rev. Kenneth Brighenti, Ph.D., Sourcebooks Inc., 2007
3. The Oxford History of Christian Worship, edited by Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, Oxford University Press, 2006
4. A Concise History of the Catholic Church, Rev. Thomas Bokenkotter, Doubleday & Company, 1977
5. Protestantism in America, Randall Balmer and Lauren F. Winner, Columbia University Press, 2002
6. Protestantism: Its churches, cultures, rituals and doctrines, yesterday and today, Martin E. Marty, Holt Reinhart and Winston, 1972
7. The Reformation: A History, Diarmaid MacCulloch, Viking, 2003
8. god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens, Twelve, Hachette Book Group USA, 2007