Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Christian Religion: All or Nothing

“There is a sense in which spiritual truth is independent of real truth in the Bible for me personally. I can benefit from the spiritual truths of the Bible even if I don’t believe the stories are true. Take Jonah for instance. I admit that I have a difficult time believing that Jonah was swallowed down the gullet of a large fish. But that doesn’t prevent me from valuing the spiritual lessons of the story.”

A friend said these words at a small private gathering one evening a year or so ago. He is a really great guy. Wonderful husband and father, best I can tell. A professor. Very gifted. Intelligent, and keenly aware and respectful of his history in the Reformed Christian tradition. He was baptized into a Presbyterian church as a child, and his father is a well-respected elder at a church and a professor at a local university.

He has said similar things before, revealing a rather loose allegiance to biblical authority for his religion. On another occasion he said, “When we took our vows to join the Presbyterian church, we affirmed that we believe in Jesus for salvation. I don’t think we mean that we necessarily believe everything about the literal Jesus in the Bible, but rather, we believe in ‘spiritual Jesus.’ You know, his teachings about love.”

On both occasions, it was not appropriate for me to challenge him. Religion is a touchy subject among that group of people, and long ago, we agreed to put the subject off limits. But what would I have said to him if it had been appropriate?

I imagine I would have said something like this: “So, that is an interesting perspective. May I ask a question? I have heard you say similar things about the life of Christ. I wonder, are there any miracles that Christ ever did that you might find remotely credible?”

I don’t know for certain, but I think he respects the Christian tradition enough to at least affirm that Christ might have done something miraculous during his lifetime. Perhaps something small. Small and loving. He might, for instance, say something like, “I think Christ must have done something amazing at some point or another. I like the idea of his healing people. He obviously cared for people. I mean, that is the whole point of his life.”

For some reason, people have an easier time accepting that Christ did a few altruistic miracles, or even that he rose from the dead, than some of the more extravagant stories of the Bible. I mean, from the average person’s perspective, Christians would have to admit that there are some pretty unbelievable things in the Bible. Things like a massive flood, the sun moving backward or stopping in the sky, giant fish, Moses and the Red Sea, talking snakes. But a Christianity without an amazing Christ is not a Christianity at all, so I guess that my friend might affirm that Christ did some amazing things, though he probably would question whether the biblical record is entirely accurate in the details. If he would not, “Then at least,” I might think to myself, “he is consistent.”

But if he was willing to affirm anything miraculous about the life of Christ, even the smallest miracle, he would open himself up to a few more questions. Suppose there was a healing. A supernatural fix for someone’s problem by the hand of Christ. Maybe a healed leg or some restored vision. It wouldn’t have to be too amazing. Just a little bit miraculous.

The question that immediately comes to mind is, “what is the difference, to God at least, between a big miracle, and a little one?” If there is a God who some way or another was involved in the making of the universe, he would have to be pretty powerful. The whole “bringing the world into existence” thing is amazing, regardless of whether you accept the details of the biblical account. Why would we believe in a God who could author reality, and if he wanted to, could do a small miracle or two through Jesus Christ, but who could not do something in the mid-range? What is the difference to God in degrees of the miraculous?

What exactly is the nature of the miraculous in the work of Christ? To a powerful Creator, is it any more or less difficult to do a small thing than a big thing? Isn’t the miracle that God reached through the fibers of our reality, into time and space, and meddled in any way, great or small, with the physics of our world? If that is where the miracle truly lies, who is to say that a small miracle is any more believable than a big one? Tinker with a little thing, or slap the globe sideways. What is the difference to God? Why are we more likely to believe the one, but, “No, that whole man-in-a-fish thing, that’s just silly.”

I guess my point is that, if any one thing in the Bible is incredible in the sense of “not believable,” then it all is. Why do some people play the game then? The Bible really is an all-or-nothing book. We have no ground to believe any of it, if we don’t believe all of it. If we believe in God, then why do we doubt anything in the Word of God? And if we doubt anything in the Word of God, why do we even believe in God? If Jonah was not swallowed by a whale, then Christ was just a simple man who lived and died and never did anything worthy of a world religion, least of all, rise from the dead.

I suppose today’s relativists would answer that they like his teaching and his example. A simple “love one another” religion is very attractive. But why do we need Jesus for that? Isn’t it a lot of hassle to work up a whole way of life (or at least go to a weekly church service) around a man that you can’t really trust? You can’t even know that he taught what people say he taught. I think it would just be simpler to let the whole religion thing slide, and just be nice to people. Nevertheless, people will continue with their religion anyway. It may be based upon a work of fiction, something that was made up. But that doesn’t matter . . . does it?

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